There is little doubt that Taormina is the star of Sicily.
It rises out of one of the island's most dramatic hilltops amongst an arid landscape of grape vines and olive trees in the backdrop of irritable Mt. Etna's occasional lava flows.
Taormina's midlevel town of pedestrian streets and alleyways seem perfectly cast by some Italian director, with soot-covered buildings and secret passageways leading to shady courtyard lounges and restaurants -- ideal in late spring and early summer.
One of Europe's more affordable island gateways, Sicily is best accessed from mainland Europe via Catania or Palermo. Arrive to a newly refurbished
Catania airport via
British Airways' nonstop service from London Stansted.
Getting to the rental car means a cumbersome walk in the rain with your luggage, all the while trying to navigate the trolley around closed walkways and dirt paths.
Driving is a challenge with few road signs, hard-to-navigate gas stations, and locals who seem oblivious to traffic lanes. Taormina is reached from the main roadway via a series of hairpin turns where buses usually have to stop, back up, and then re-navigate the tight turns while pint-size
Smart cars attempt harrowing passes. Jaw-dropping cliffs mean little enjoyment of the picturesque views of Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean.
There are two great hotels in Taormina -- the
Grand Hotel Timeo and the
San Domenico Palace.
Check into the latter for its fabled history as a former monastery offering frescoed chapels and once-in-a-lifetime service. Fussier travelers should book a room in the newer section with grand balconies and sweeping views of the Teatro Antico.
The hotel grounds are spectacular: terraced gardens of lavender and bougainvillea with tiled pool and cabana bar.
By day, Taormina is buzzing with commerce as locals make their way through the pedestrian district looking for groceries and designer labels. By late afternoon, the sun tucks behind the mountain and a dressier scene of locals descends on the town with close friends and family in hand.
Make your way to the
White Bar, located along a shaded courtyard off the main village. It's the most stylish bar in town (all white, of course), disguised behind a glassy storefront, vibrating in lounge music, serving cocktails and light bites.
You'll want to take in Taormina's exquisite landmarks before the tour buses make their hilltop pilgrimages around 11 a.m.
Put on your walking shoes and make your way into town and up the main path leading to the
Teatro Antico, built in 3rd Century B.C. by the Greeks and later turned into an amphitheater by the Romans. This incredibly well-preserved amphitheater is home to the
Taormina Film Festival (June 15-21) and summertime concerts by the likes of Sting, James Taylor and Andrea Bocelli.
In the central village, there are several ceramics shops like Giovanni di Blasi (Corso Umberto I, 103) offering traditional Sicilian pottery that includes eccentric head-shaded pots known as "
teste di Moro."
These Moorish-inspired heads are used as ornamental vases based on a local folklore between a Sicilian woman betrayed by her Moorish suitor who paid the ultimate price -- namely, his head used as a vase for growing herbs on her balcony. Now, the vases come in a variety of shapes, genders and styles.
Originally a 15th Century palace owned by the Grugno family,
Casa Grugno has been reconfigured from a series of apartments into a sensational one-star Michelin eatery.
Guests enter a humble passageway greeted by an owner/host that could easily pass as a Hemingway character. The main dining room is a cartoon-like scene of renaissance plastering emulating a medieval hall serving a local prix fixe menu of Sicilian specialties by chef Andreas Zangerl.
Just follow the bass of Beyonce remixes to find the dance floor of
Déjà Vu. Taormina's version of a VIP dance club comes complete with signature cocktail bar, outdoor patio and well-gelled bouncer presiding over the door front anytime after midnight in peak summer months.
Make your way via taxi to Giardini Naxos and local hotspot known as Marabu (Via Lanuzzo). This large-scale dance club located in a warehouse-size dance space attracts wild 18-year-olds and 40-year-olds unwilling to let their club days die.
Look for top-notch deejays and special promotions by designers like Diesel throughout high season. Big spenders should flaunt their spending power and secure entry to the club's VIP room while at the front door.
While located on the sea, it still takes a bit of planning to get to the beach. Grab your flip-flops and bring your beach bag to the gondola at the edge of town that links Taormina to the beach at Mazzaro Bay.
Lido La Pigna, with its blue-and-white boardwalk leading to a small beach hut and rooftop bar serving ¿3 wine and fried calamari feasts. Find the closest lounger to the beach to make the most of the people watching and occasional celebrity sighting.
Before the reality of heading home sets in, make a last stop at the Aci Castello located south of Mazzaro Bay. It's here you will find a biblical-size staircase leading to a pebble beach and rumored rock formations of Cyclops.
It's the perfect place to say good-bye to Taormina while perfecting the tan you're going to show off back at home.
Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.