Sorry for the delay in giving my view of the vacation you planned for us in Sicily. Overview:
Lodging – All were excellent choices.
Hotel Cavalieri was a very good choice of a 4-star hotel for the price. It would have been lovely to stay right in Ortygia, but I think for comparable lodging the prices are probably higher. Otherwise, I would have preferred being on the island, just to maintain the mood of being there. The Cavalieri staff (seemed to be mostly one family) was quite pleasant and helpful; the breakfasts were beyond imagining in quality, variety and quantity. Room was quiet and modern – very comfortable.
Agriturismo – There are travelers who only stay at this type of lodging, which is great if you have your own transportation. Cons: Without your own transportation they are out-of-the way if you want to do a lot of sightseeing. Pros: low-key, great food, much lower price point, and opportunity to meet other travelers. Baglio San Nicola was terrific. Really relaxing; this was just what we needed in the midst of traveling. The room was huge, food great, service perfect, pool-side experience charming. We were very happy to return there for the whole afternoon after touring the Valley of the Temples, and didn’t feel the need for a car because we were happy not to go anywhere.
B and B – Vintage B and B. A different experience from staying in a hotel. We didn’t meet anyone to chat with, but it was cozier and more neighborhood-like than a hotel. The owners were extraordinarily helpful, recommending their favorite restaurants and how to get around town. Room was huge and comfortable; enormous bathroom, lovely small private terrace. Very good location!!
Tour guide – We chose not to use guides except twice, and this was the perfect decision. We were able to organize our days as we chose, which gave us freedom to respond to whatever was happening at the moment as we explored on our own. Indeed we missed some things, but we experienced other things we wouldn’t have otherwise. The two guided tours (Mt. Etna and Valley of Temples) were excellent, and sufficient.
Hired Drivers – Different travelers we met had different points of view on whether a driver was required or not. It was the right decision for us: we were glad we didn’t have to deal with long hours of driving and negotiating some tricky areas. I don’t think we could have done as much touring if we had relied on our own driving. On the whole the drivers were professional, incredibly patient, generous with their time, very helpful.
Places – In Italy you can end up spending your entire time between visiting museums and walking around charming towns popping into an endless parade of churches. That gets tiring after a while since it is non-interactive; only looking and not doing results in everything seeming to be the same. Mixing it up with many different types of activities is the best approach. I think we saw one too many charming towns in Sicily. Unfortunately, most of the towns are tourist-oriented so there is a sense one is walking through Disneyworld. Spotlessly clean, lovely flowers, charming shop fronts, quaint cobblestoned streets, and lots of other tourists looking, walking, photographing, eating, and shopping. We needed one more different activity in the place of visiting one of those towns. Other travelers we met said they had visited the Aeolian Islands and it was a very satisfying experience, with sailing to get there and around the islands, nature walks and swimming. I know it’s tricky to fit it all in, but would have been worth it for me. BTW – Ragusa is considered the least interesting of the Baroque towns, with Noto considered everyone’s favorite (everyone being the locals). We went to Noto instead of Ragusa.
Things we liked the best – Tops in my view: (1) Villa Romana del Casale – incredible! The extent of the mosaics, their quality, their integration into the setting – wow. The villa itself is remarkably intact (unlike a place like Hadrian’s Villa) and we could really imagine life there. We got there too late to hire a guide so we wandered on our own. I think/hope we saw everything... On the other hand, we were mostly viewing the villa by ourselves without those annoying groups crowding us out, especially school groups, and that made it more magical. Definitely recommend visiting either early morning, or late afternoon at the end of the day. It’s a must see! (2) Palestrina Chapel. I was swept away. The mosaics at the Monreale Cathedral are definitely better quality, but the small size of the Chapel and visual availability of the Palestrina mosaics -- the feeling of being totally enclosed within a golden world of religious belief -- were transporting. (3) Segesta – again, we got there at the end of the day and were able to escape the crowds and hot weather. I recommend either early AM or late afternoon. The abandoned Greek theater on top of a mountain with a 360 view over the valleys was haunting, and the huge temple in the middle of nowhere – evocative! (4) Ortygia – it is large enough to be varied and interesting, and real people live there! We happened to have a great time doing a boat trip around the island and then spending time in the market (we were lucky to encounter a truly fun party), and enjoyed the main Piazza del Duomo on Saturday night when locals from the surrounding areas where there enjoying. There is a lot to see walking around the town. (5) I, personally, really liked Palermo off the beaten track. We happened to explore the area away from the harbor, walking to the left of the Via Vittorio Emanuele with our back to the harbor. It was a renaissance streetscape, again with real people. Since I taught art history I suppose I had a sense of what I was looking at that perhaps would escape others, but a relaxed architectural tour of that part of town might have been interesting, for me anyway. (6) Two interactions with “locals” (a) Mt Etna tour with the two men with whom we were booked was totally charming. The tour was professional, educational, and lots of fun. One person was the driver and organizer; the other was the tour leader. The tour leader was Alessio Gagliano – very well educated in both the geology of the area and also wines; he is an excellent teacher. We had a wine tasting event with Alessio (he has passed all the Master wine-tasting tests) who brought alive the wine experiences. I suggest booking them for a really good wine tour. The Mt. Etna part was OK. The main attraction for me was that it was something different and out-of-doors and the change-up of activity was quite valuable for providing relief from regular sightseeing. (b) Also, we arranged a cooking tour on our own in Palermowith Luciano Saladino; it is listed as Cooking with the Chef. These cooking courses are ridiculously expensive ( I don’t know why that would be) but we enjoyed visiting the market which was quite local, the meal was delicious, we learned some great techniques which we began to use right away when we got home, and the chef was a pleasure – not connected to the touristic world at all.
Take away - Best suggestion for traveling: mix it up! Different types of places to stay, different types of things to look at and do, indoor and outdoor experiences, mixing with the locals when possible, cities and small towns and countryside, unplanned blocks of time to see what would happen, opportunities to relax in between experiences --- in short, a bit of this and a bit of that. Second best suggestion: pacing is crucial. A visitor doesn’t have to do everything and see everything. We were just within the range of number of places we visited. One more squeezed in would have overwhelmed us. As it is, both of us were tired at the end. But, we had a great trip!! Thanks for your help in making the arrangements. Particularly the hotels you chose and the rooms we were booked in were fantastic.