Etna smoulders away like a Byronic hero from all aspects of Sicilian retreat Zash Country Boutique Hotel. But, don’t mind him – or the brief rumblings he makes – because this is a blissful, peaceful paradise. Orange-blossom scents breeze by, birdsong twinkles, and all around are the searing greens and blues of dense citrus groves and the distant Ionian Sea. You’ll get free private spells of spa simmering, dining with a vivid imagination that lingers till late, and chilled tastings of the fertile volcanic terroir. The dusky-rose villa of the Maugeri wine dynasty and architect Antonio Iraci’s modernist villas – some with bubbling private pools – show an intergenerational design nous contrasting rugged lavastone and a more burnished milieu, all conceived with a passion that runs hotter than the lava you might – if you’re lucky – see spilling after dark.
Get this when you book through us:
Early check-in (subject to availability) and a selection of sweet treats from the chef
11am, but flexible, subject to availability and a fee. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from AU$546.04 (€358), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €2.00 per person per night on check-out.
Rates include breakfast: a sweet-savoury tray of yoghurts, cereal, croissants, cakes, cannoli, pizzettes and the rare – but very welcome – breakfast arancini, plus your choice of eggs. For the juices, they’ve near-as stuck a tap into their many trees.
Public areas are generously spaced out across the resort and are well paved. Some rooms have roll-in entrances and showers tend to be oversized.
Italy is still taking precautions when it comes to Covid – an FFP2 mask should be worn in public indoor spaces and on transport, and social distancing is still being practised.
The hotel closes when the weather gets chilly (by Sicilian standards) in January.
At the hotel
Spa with a sauna and steam room, citrus groves, alfresco lounging areas, jogging track, charged laundry service, free WiFi. In rooms: 32-inch LCD TV (tucked away in a cupboard in most rooms), minibar, free bottled water, climate control, coffee- and tea-making kit, Culti bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms are assigned at the hotel’s discretion, but they do take requests. Old-school romantics, book a room in the main villa, which has enormous all-white suites that make the seas of blue and green framed in the arched windows sizzle and pop – some frame Etna too, so you can stay on lava-watch. One has a circular bath tub in the room, some have a fireplace and furnished terrace, but whichever you book you’ll be besotted. The villa-style suites hidden in citrus-scented glades across the estate are more modern (designed by Irachi Architetti) in sultry grey shades, but still work their wiles with pools that cheerily greet you with burbling jets, the odd sauna for two, and curtains that pull themselves back – giving you a great ‘ta-daa!’ moment – to reveal window-wall views so green and blue you’ll think God’s gone to town on the saturation slider.
If you float on your back in the sizable pool (open 10am to 7pm), you can just see Etna smouldering away. There’s a beach-edge entrance, floating fire pit, four-poster double day-beds arranged around the sides and a greenery-screened cubby with a water lily-topped trough where wine tastings are hosted. And there’s no need to schlep the 30-odd paces to the main bar – a smaller iteration dishes out chilled Etnian wines and effervescent cocktails.
If you think the neighbouring volcano is steamy, then wait till your 50-minute daily private spa session (free for guests)… Because there’s a Scandi-style sauna, fervent hammam – what else? The hydro-massage jets in the lava-stone pool are soothingly eruptive, the scent of orange blossom lingers in the air, and being set in the subterranean former wine cellar (with a window wall to let the light in), down some stone stairs, the space is thrillingly secluded. Plus, there are peaceful treatment rooms where you can get a massage with citrus, lavender or spice that leaves you smelling like the gardens, facials that work all sorts of glow-y magic, scrubs and wraps using the salts and algae of the sea, and final-touch waxes.
Bring more than one set of swimwear, hiking shoes that won’t get shredded on volcanic stone and leave a wine-shaped space in your suitcase. The rest – the pellucid skies, the lazy orange-blossom scent, Etna’s deep murmuring – will be tightly wrapped and packed into your brain to wistfully parse over at a later date.
Charmingly, the name ‘Zash’ was inspired by the noise of gentle breezes stirring the leaves in the groves.
Bambini can stay; some rooms fit extra beds, the pool has a beach-style entrance, and there’s some sweet and stylish mini furnishings (we spied a little Philippe Starck Ghost chair). But, it’s far more romantic if you leave them with a sitter.
Everything the light touches here is probably something you’ll eat in the restaurant later, and other ingredients are sourced very locally. And, on the roof is a raft of solar panels.
The private dining area in the restaurant is under the enormous wooden plate of the centuries-old wine press (don’t worry, it’s inactive) that dominates the lavastone room where winemakers used to ready the next crop of drinkables.
The black-lace veils and kill-you-with-a-glance demeanour of the ‘Sicilian widow’ look are far too severe for this setting; enrobe yourself in sunny citrus hues and floaty, food-accommodating dresses.
In contrast to the rosy stone of the villa’s exterior, Palmento restaurant with its lava-stone vaults and a wooden wine press so huge you could mistake it for a load-bearing strut, looks like a magical grotto – and indeed feels like one after dark when the candles are lit. But the food casts an even stronger spell than the decor. Chef Giuseppe Raciti has been justly recognised by Michelin for his top-of-the-DOPs tasting menu, which starts strong with a heaving tray of breads, frittura, mortadella-and-pistachio-stuffed savoury cannoli and arancini in homage to the island’s street food, and gradually builds in excitement from there… red prawns come in a bundle of yuzu, wasabi and apple; fall-apart beef cheek is buried under a brush of artichoke crisps; caciocavallo-cheese-stuffed tortelli wallows in a treacle of black cherry and sherry before a mound of truffle is shaved on top; and the signature dish – a poached egg studded with breadcrumbs and floated onto provola cream with a red-fruit undercoating looks a little like a child’s drawing of Hellraiser’s Pinhead, but tastes curiously divine. You’ll be eagerly awaiting each next course or bulbous glass of paired wine, but while you do be sure to chat to the staff, all of whom are ready with an ancestral anecdote about what you’re about to eat – by the time you reach the petit fours, you may know Sicilian agricultural lore better than your own family – and seem genuinely proud of the work they do, they even excitedly tell you if Etna’s erupting so that you can pause your courses to go look for lava. As for lunch – it’s a touch less theatrical, with a delicious edit of simple yet delicious salads, toasties and light pastas, served overlooking the garden.
The main villa was the homebase of a wine-making dynasty, some bedrooms are in the old wine cellar, and there’s a can’t-miss-it behemoth of a wine press the dining room (formerly where the farmers made the must for their wine), so you’ll probably have…a beer? Admittedly, this is a winery that’s been put to – luridly green – pasture, and the growing happens offsite, but the family, who still live here, haven’t corked their vintner careers yet – you can try their beautifully crafted young biancos with dinner, on the terrace or in the small bar set in a peaceful annex of the restaurant. A lengthy list of cocktails mixes things up a bit – we loved the immensely refreshing Zash Fizz with Etnian gin, freshly squeezed lemon juice and soda and the Peachef, with local brut, peach purée and a dash of rosemary syrup.
Breakfast runs from 7.30am to 10am, lunch from 1pm to 2pm, and dinner from 7.30pm to 10pm.
Light salads and snacks available throughout the day, some dishes served in-room for lunch or dinner.
Zash Country Boutique Hotel is in Riposto, in the Catania region of Sicily’s eastern coast, in-between Mount Etna and the sea, a sweet spot for spectacular views of both.
Catania–Fontanarossa Airport is around a 40-to-50-minute drive from the hotel. It’s well connected with direct flights throughout Europe. On request the hotel can help with transfers in a sedan or minivan (when you book in advance), from €77 one-way.
There’s a train that chugs its way around the island; Giarre-Riposto, a 10-minute drive away, is the closest and has links with Catania, Taormina and Syracuse.
A car is essential – Sicily has the contouring of a rollercoaster and even the hotel’s driveway is a long winding road of riotous greenery that you might get a touch breathless walking down. Roads are maintained and driving is fairly straightforward, although Sicilians often feel the need for speed and everyone has their own spin on the highway code – cross yourself, hit ignition and follow the natives’ lead, and if you’re renting watch out for dings. There’s parking at the hotel.
If you have 13 hours to spare, you can sail from Salerno to Catania on a Grimaldi ferry – what the journey lacks in speed it makes up for in dazzling blue views. Or ride over from Valletta in Malta in about four hours. And, for those with the means – and a chopper to hand – there’s a heliport to land on.
Worth getting out of bed for
Just be-ing here is a joy. Wander the citrus groves, plucking fruit straight from the branch when in season, pausing under a pergola to listen to the birds sing and watch tiny lizards skitter about, marvelling at Etna’s furious heft. But, you also have a free 50-minute private spa session to make good use of each day, and having the bubbling jets, serene lap pool and steam-bellowing sauna and Turkish bath to yourself is really very special. The lawn makes a soft place to meditate or practice yoga poses on, and for the remainder of the day you can get a good buzz on, whether you’re tasting Zash’s own wines along local stars: Nerello Mascalese, Cappucio, Carricante… Or joining other guests for a sparkling apéritif by the pool; and staff can book you a ride on a little vintage wine train that tootles through the appellations like a good designated driver. If you’re not put off by the rivulets of lava that frequently dribble down from Etna’s caldera (it’s nearly always fuming and eruptions are so frequent Sicilians are reassuringly ambivalent about them), montebello makes for a fairly easy 90-minute climb. Do not – and we mean not – attempt to do this in flip-flops. Strap on some hardy walking shoes and helmets will be provided for the guided hike. Less incendiary are laps of the jogging track, scenic bike rides, and jaunts out over the Ionian in a sailboat for L’Avventura-esque tracking shots and to find hidden beaches or land in Taormina. This adored hillside town – and stop on the Grand Tour of old – has a tumble of sunset-hued villas and a spectacular Greco-Roman amphitheatre (popular for proposals FYI). Stroll along Corso Umberto’s ancient book-end arches, then hike out to Chiesa Madonna della Rocca, an island monastery with a chapel whose rugged lavastone ceiling overhangs frescoes and icons. Or swim, cable-car, or even walk if the tide is low, to Isola Bella – the nature sanctuary where pioneering English conservationist Florence Trevelyan built her extraordinary home (modelled on her childhood manor) and its elaborate follies. The Picciolo Golf Course lets you play through 18 holes in sight of the volcano, port town Riposto has Baroque churches and scenic viewpoints, and the Alcantra Gorges have otherworldly basaltic prisms reaching heights of 400 metres. And hop around the seven islands of the Aeolian archipelago, whose charms range from lively nightlife to prehistoric relics, to the cinematic (Stromboli was filmed on here).
Zash’s restaurant has become a destination diner for a reason, but perhaps a tasting menu each night is a touch indulgent. To sample the cuisine crafted by 13 foreign invasions (all of whom added something to the melting pot), head into Riposto. Get cosy among the wine-cladded walls of Vico Astemio for meatballs singing with fennel and tapped with tuna bottarga, caramelised octopus swimming in burrata with a drizzle of citrus honey, and sea bass in a traditional tomato sauce, with lemon- and mint-scented potato puree. And, La Cucina di Donna Carmela is another one with a star to its name, serving up sculptural edibles under the shade of the garden’s mature olive trees.
Glass – as you may surmise from the name – is an enoteca serving all colours of Etnian wine at very reasonable prices, plus champagnes, bio wines, liqueurs, and everything you need to build an authentic Italian larder.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this isn’t she lava-ly hotel overseen by Etna’s glowering eye and unpacked their heirloom wines and bottle of balsamic vinegar you could nearly drink neat, a full account of their no regr-Etna-s break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Zash Country Boutique Hotel in Sicily…
The citrus groves that spread out over acres from Zash Country Boutique Hotel’s central villa – the achingly romantic Italianate seat of the wine-making Maugeri family, built in late-summer-rose-hued stone – are the picture of Sicilian serenity. Unseen birds ‘tra-la-la’ contentedly, boughs hang heavy with fruit, gentle breezes rustle leaves, making the ‘zash’ sound the stay is named for, and in the distance, the Ionian drifts by unconcerned. And then…the earth starts grumbling, a brief yet disquieting mutter that for a second discolours the peace. It’s simply Etna saying hello, not that montebello needed to draw our attention – you can’t miss it. It pokes its smoky top into almost every vantage and rises majestically above Edenic greenery that seems to go where it chooses. Now, some might think that trying to relax as Sauron’s brattier brother complains loudly would be hard, but Zash makes it incredibly easy: there’s the lava-stone spa where the thermodynamics are more restorative and guests get to swim and steam privately in daily free sessions, there’s a placid pool where fresh-fruit cocktails are shared beside a floating fire pit after dark, and then there are the Sicilians, pococurantes who are clearly so over the histrionics and whose indifference would put any volcanophobes at ease – ‘We had to clean ash from the pool 15 times last year!’ a staff member bemoans, the most dangerous outcome they’ve encountered yet. After all, the painterly villa central to Zash has stood since the 1930s; the dining hall and bar still have the rugged stone vaults and enormous corkscrew press once used for squeezing out grape must, now an irresistible accentuation you can sit under for private dinners; some rooms sit in what was once the cellar, with striking dark-stone walls; and the spa has some aesthetically crumbly steps leading down into it. But Carla Maugeri – in collaboration with designer Antonio Iraci – has added to her family’s legacy by building sleek modernist suites, some with bubbling pools and private saunas – in the grounds, and smoothing out some of the manor’s rusticity with sleek white decor. The styles are disparate yet in convivial dialogue, and the Michelin-starred dining here also builds on tradition, ingredients and wines have more backstories than the Marvel universe and are surely nonna approved (see, frittura and cannoli accompanying a groaning bread tray, a knuckle of truffle under a cloche) but dishes are presented as abstract masterworks. Much like the brightly flavoured fresh-from-the-tree juices squeezed into sparkling cocktails by the pool, Sicily’s essence is deliciously concentrated here. Yes, it’s calma to its – unmolten – core, yet excitement, for the discovery of the island’s indulgences, hotly simmers within.