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April 29, 2007

Hello from Sicily – Isola Bella – Taormina’s Beautiful Seafront Playground

On a beautiful Sunday morning I had another lovely breakfast on the paradise that is the terrace of the Hotel Villa Nettuno. This Sunday I had planned to rent a little motor scooter to explore the countryside around Taormina. So after my morning meal I strolled just a few steps up the street on Via Pirandello and found a local car and scooter rental office. I had already completed and paid for the entire scooter rental, and the gentleman started showing me how to operate the machine, a 125 cc Vespa double-seater motor scooter, how to turn it on, how to brake, how to look the steering wheel, how to fill up the gas and how to lock my helmet in the cargo holding box at the back of the seat. Then, in a moment of fleeting brilliance, I told him “Let me put this machine up on the kickstand, just to see how it works.”

View of the Saracen Castle from the terrace of Hotel Villa Nettuno

Well, it didn’t work. I thought I was a pretty strong girl, but I was simply unable to heave this heavy machine onto its kickstand. That was a sure indication that this particular vehicle was simple too large and heavy for me to handle. Unfortunately the much lighter single-seat 50 cc version of the same scooter was not available, so I had to cancel my rental agreement. But I wasn’t about to give up, I checked out another three scooter rental places on the west side of Taormina, and guess what, they also only had 125 cc motorscooters. None of the places actually had the much lighter and smaller versions available. With a slight twinge of sadness I had to give up my idea of exploring the countryside around Taormina on two motorized wheels.

Taormina's Piazza IX Aprile

So I trekked all the way back to the east side of town and decided to try another mode of transportation: I decided to take the “Funivia”, the cable car, from Taormina up on the hill to the waterfront village of Mazzaro. Taormina’s hilltop location makes for great views, but it probably takes a solid half hour or more to get down to the waterfront on foot and much longer to get back up after a long day in the sun. My failed motor scooter experiment gave me a perfect excuse to try out another form of locomotion.

The four little cabins of the Funivia arrive

The ride is inexpensive, 3 Euros for a return ticket between Taormina and Mazzaro. I didn’t have to wait long until a group of 4 small suspended cabins arrived, each capable of holding maybe 10 to 12 people. Within a few minutes the cable car whisked me down to the Mazzaro, a town that could be considered Taormina’s beach. The town is a little elevated from the coastline, with various bed and breakfasts and hotels on the waterfront and a variety of retail and hospitality establishments on the inland side of the road.

Coastline of Mazzaro

I decided to walk south on the coastal road and after the first promontory that sticks out into the Ionian Sea, there is another bay which features Isola Bella, literally translated “Beautiful Island” and often referred to as “The Pearl of the Ionian Sea”. Isola Bella is a tiny island that is connected with the mainland via a thin sliver of sand. This island used to be privately owned until 1990, but since then it was bought by the Region of Sicily and today it is a nature reserve. Sightseeing boats were anchored just off the shore, ready to take visitors for a spin along the coastline.

Sightseeing boats are docked in front of Isola Bella

Two restaurants adorn the beach and a variety of umbrellas and lounges can be rented. Most of the sunbathers actually congregate on a tiny strip of sand on the edge of Isola Bella which turns into the sandbar that connects the island with the land. The island itself was blocked off by a locked gate, and a small sign indicated that free tours are available every Monday and Thursday at 10 am and 4 pm.

View of Isola Bella

I sat down, relaxed and enjoyed the scenery and the steady stream of people that were coming in to enjoy the water and the sun, most of whom were local visitors rather than tourists from other European countries. Part of me was wondering what this place might look like in July and August, during main travel season. I could see that popular places like these can easily get overcrowded. April or May are probably some of the best months to travel in Sicily since the main tourist rush hasn’t started yet, but the weather is generally nice already. In addition, everything is in bloom and the aroma of all the fragrant shrubs and flowers fills the air.

Looking inland from the coastal road towards Taormina

In the early afternoon I enjoyed a tasty lunch at the restaurant at the far end of the bay, and noticed that there is a dive centre right next to this restaurant. Apparently, Sicily features some great diving, and Isola Bella is a favourite destination for underwater exploration. After a filling lunch I decided to walk back up to the main coastal road which is elevated from the beach. Walking northwards past Mazzaro I turned the corner and caught an astounding view of the bay on the other side of Isola Bella towards a town called Letojanni. A five-star hotel complex was perched on a promontory overlooking the beach, and in the faint background I could make out the silhouette of the Italian mainland, the southern tip of Calabria to be exact, which in this area is located at a distance of just about 40 km from Taormina.

The beautiful bay surrounding Isola Bella

The sky was clouding over and I decided to head back up into town and took the Funivia back up the mountain. After a nice rest I headed out in the evening for dinner and decided to explore the restaurant “Panoramica” right next to the Funivia. This restaurant has very active promoters that hand out flyers in different parts of town and one of the employees always stands outside to wave customers in. Unfortunately they did not have a seat available by the window, and I had just dreamed of sitting next to the window to enjoy the phenomenal view over the coastline.

Looking northwards from Mazzaro towards Letojanni

So the restaurant promoter said no problem, took me by the hand across the street to another restaurant called “Trattoria da Nino”, where he handed me over to the owner of the neighbourhing restaurant. I was very surprised to see such an unselfish gesture, particularly considering how heavily the first restaurant was promoting itself. But I guess in a town like Taormina, where everyone knows everyone else, where there are enough tourist dollars to go around, it’s maybe not so surprising after all to see such a gesture of generosity. Either way I had a great mushroom risotto for dinner and a good rest for my first day of Italian lessons at the Babilonia language school.

Finally, dinner has arrived...


Interesting and useful books about Sicily:


Useful links:
Sicily Tourist Information
Taormina Tourist Information
Babilonia Italian Language School
Hotel Villa Nettuno in Taormina

Related articles:

My Italian language learning adventure in Sicily in 2007
Hello from Sicily: Arrival in Taormina
Hello from Sicily: An interview with the Sciglio family from Hotel Villa Nettuno
Hello from Sicily: A hike to Castelmola and a taste of Sicily
Hello from Sicily: An excursion to ancient Siracusa
Hello from Sicily: A leisurely Sunday at Isola Bella
Hello from Sicily: Language studies in Taormina and a walking tour
Hello from Sicily: A country driving tour around beautiful Mount Etna
Hello from Sicily: A private lecture about Sicily and the Mafia
Hello from Sicily: A Sicilian cooking class in Taormina
Hello from Sicily: A hike up Mount Etna a few days after an eruption
Hello from Sicily: Goodbye Taormina - Hello Milazzo
Hello from Sicily: Starting my sailing trip through the Eolian Islands
Hello from Sicily: Discoveries of Lipari and Salina
Hello from Sicily: A driving tour of Salina and Italian studies on a patio
Hello from Sicily: Explorations of Stromboli, featuring an active volcano
Hello from Sicily: Beautiful Panarea and a nice dinner in Lipari
Hello from Sicily: A driving tour of Lipari and arrival at Vulcano
Hello from Sicily: Conquering Vulcano and a final dinner in Milazzo
Hello from Sicily: Discovering Milazzo, its long history and architecture
Hello from Sicily: An excursion by train to the medieval treasure of Cefalu
Hello from Sicily: Discoveries in the Nebrodi Mountains
Hello from Sicily: My final day in Catania
Presenting: The Babilonia Italian Language School in Taormina
Presenting: The Laboratorio Linguistico Italian Langauge School in Milazzo




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