Wednesday, 9 May 2012 12:30 PM
If you shut your eyes and conjure up the perfect romantic hotel, chances are you will be thinking of something like Sicily's Grand Hotel Timeo.
This is a grand dame of a hotel, in the best possible sense. Preparing to celebrate its 140th anniversary, Grand Hotel Timeo is the oldest hotel in the stunning resort of Taormina on Sicily's east coast and rightly holds the reputation as Sicily's finest hotel.
If you are looking for a special romantic break and are prepared to spend some cash, it doesn't come better than this.
Taken over by the Orient-Express group in 2010, this is a hotel filled with beautiful Italian fabrics and baroque flourishes, with attentive staff at every turn and tinkling piano music every evening in the well-stocked bar.
Everything about this place speaks of grandeur and style. Yet, every winter the hotel closes and under the watchful eye of interior designer Michel Jouannet, different elements of the hotel are redesigned and refurbished to ensure it feels modern and has none of the fustiness of grand hotels of old.
Arriving at the hotel is in itself a pretty spectacular affair. Once you've managed to negotiate Taormina's complex system of roads and tunnels, and successfully mastered the hair-raising Sicilian driving style, you enter a sprawling subtropical garden which winds its way up the hillside in a riot of colour and scent.
With the car park at the bottom of this hill and the hotel itself at the top, a golf buggy is dispatched to collect you and your luggage as you pass almond trees, purple bougainvillea and a large herb garden used by the hotel’s restaurant.
Once you've checked in, you'll be taken to one of the hotel's 70 suites and bedrooms spread over the main building and the neighbouring Villa Flora.
The rooms do not disappoint. If you are really out to impress (and can afford the whopping price tag) go for the breathtaking Presidential suite – your own huge terrace, Jacuzzi and dining room will ensure you feel suitably regal (or should that be presidential?), but all the rooms are lavish and many have large marble bathrooms, private terraces and beds that are as wide as they are long.
This hotel has all the special touches that you would expect from a five-star hotel of this repute, but it also has one significant trick up its sleeve. The view.
We are not talking about a pretty coastal view from the lobby. No, this is one of the most spectacular and romantic views in the world. It can be seen from most of the bedrooms and the huge terrace where breakfast is served (and dinner during the summer) which can also be used by guests throughout the day.
In the foreground are the lush palms and flowers that meander down the hillside, then there are the tumbling Mediterranean villas and houses of Taormina and neighbouring villages, and beyond is the Sicilian coastline with its beaches and hillsides and an endless stretch of azure sea.
This would be impressive enough, but rising high above is Mount Etna – Europe's largest and most active volcano. Snow-capped and majestic, its blackened slopes dominate the landscape and whether puffing white clouds into the sky, or producing a firework display of lava and ash; it is a truly mesmerising sight.
Look in the other direction and the Greek Theatre (Taormina's main attraction) is right next door. It is not surprising that the literary terrace has provided inspiration for famous painters and writers for decades, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Apparently D.H.Lawrence stayed at the hotel with his wife whilst he wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover and didn't leave for four years. Sitting on a sun-lounger staring at the view with a Bellini in hand, you can easily see why he stayed for so long!
The hotel is cleverly designed to maximise their extraordinary location, with the heated swimming pool, loungers and bar seats all positioned to face the view. Even the running machines in the gym look straight out onto Mount Etna – surely one of the most best gym views anywhere in the world!
If you can extricate yourself from the spellbinding view, and venture out of the hotel, Taormina has plenty to offer.
The Greek theatre next door (pictured below) dates back to the third century BCE and is deeply evocative, including a large pit built by the Romans where gladiators and wild animals waited before meeting their match.
The 15th century cathedral and the tiny lanes of the Borgo Mediovale in the oldest part of the town are particularly worth a look. The botanical gardens at Villa Communale (with their own private entrance from the Hotel Timeo) are the perfect place to soak up the sun, whilst the walk up to nearby Castelmola for a drink at Café San Giorgio shouldn't be missed; follow Winston Churchill's example and bring along your paintbrush to sketch the view.
There are some great places to eat in Taormina, many just a short walk from the hotel. Tavernetta and Tiramasu are both good choices for fresh fish and pasta, and there are some good bars and cafes too – Bar Banda is famous for their legendary strawberry granita with cream and brioche.
Watch out though as Taormina, as in any touristy hotspot, has a fair few restaurants aimed squarely at tourists, serving up mediocre food at vastly inflated prices. It's certainly worth getting recommendations from the hotel to avoid getting stung.
Without a doubt, the best food in town for a perfect romantic meal is to be found at the hotel itself, and you'll need to book ahead to get a table during summer months.
Focusing on local, seasonal produce and Sicilian classics, you're likely to find wild fennel, Pachino cherry tomatoes, capers from nearby Salina and final regional wines grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.
Highlights include aubergine gnocchi, sea bream in a Sicilian sauce of capers, tomatoes and olives, and 'la dolce vita', a creamy and crunchy pistachio cake with spiced orange granita, made with local pistachios known as Sicily's 'green gold'.
The Grand Hotel Timeo is certainly not a cheap break but its reputation as one of the most luxurious and romantic hotels in the world is certainly deserved. It oozes Italian charm, the service is impeccable, the rooms and food show the very best of Sicilian style and taste – and if a volcano can be compared to a cherry, then Mount Etna is certainly the cherry on the top of the cake.
If you are looking for a long weekend or week away to relax and indulge, then pop this at the top of your list and you certainly won't be disappointed.
By Laura Caplin
A Deluxe Sea View Room at Grand Hotel Timeo starts from approximately £578 per room per night and includes daily American breakfast, a complimentary boat tour and access to the private beach at Villa Sant'Andrea. For further information or to make a booking please visit www.grandhoteltimeo.com or call Orient-Express reservations on 0845 077 2222.
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