Features

Sicilian splendour

31 Mar 2023 by Tom Otley
The Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte hotel

Stunning views, homegrown delicacies and a few rounds of golf at the Verdura Resort offer an idyllic weekend escape.

For a sunset, it would be hard to find anywhere to beat Verdura. Set on Sicily’s southwest coast, The Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte hotel has an uninterrupted view out to the Mediterranean, with the next stop being Tunisia some 500 miles away. The resort makes the most of its situation, the low slung villas set back a few hundred metres from the 1.8 km stretch of private beach, so that as the world turns and the sun moves across the resort, it heats those lying by the pools, scorches those playing golf, and then in the evening, the sun hangs just above the horizon while drinks are served.

It takes more than unrivalled sunsets to make a luxury resort, of course. Set between the fishing town of Sciacca and the famous Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Verdura was designed by Italian architect Flavio Albanese and has modern straight lines, flat roofs and grassy surrounds, planted both for insulation and to blend with the surrounding golf fairways. The walls are warmly coloured with terracotta and ochre, and a variety of textures have been used, including local stone, sand and wood, to create a stylish but unobtrusive ambience.

Heritage design

The interiors are the work of Olga Polizzi, sister of Rocco Forte. Hand-painted ceramics and 19th-century design are a recurring motif in the bedcovers, lampshades and cushions in the rooms, and you see the same pattern on the walls of the Bar Granita where a Sicilian mojito of rum, fresh citrus, and mint from the grounds makes a winning start to the evening. It’s a stylish place, with the boutiques in the main building displaying design and sculpture from Italian companies such as Paola Lenti, Bonacina, Driade, Flos, Porada, Flexform and Gabbianelli.

You have a choice of rooms in a variety of categories, and it’s tough to decide which is best. Would you prefer a balcony to enjoy that sunset view, or a terrace where you can walk over the grass towards the pools? All rooms have modern dark wood four-poster beds with muslin mosquito screens draped over them. Invariably I would forget about these when I got up in the middle of the night and would get entangled.

Our room didn’t have a coffee maker, but when I asked for one it arrived immediately without further charge along with plenty of Illy capsules. Furnishings are discreet but high end – we had a Sicilian bas-relief of the Ermes of Andros by the Italian company Recuperando on the wall. It’s never over the top, though. When we sat out to watch the sunset each evening our balcony was shaded with a bamboo roof, and some of the dark wood furniture was almost rustic.

The Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte hotel

The resort is best known for its golf: two 18-hole championship courses designed by Kyle Phillips plus a nine-hole short course, full teaching facilities and driving range. It also has a 4,000 sqm spa with full thalassotherapy options (four pools with varying degrees of salinity), 11 treatment rooms, hammams, saunas, a 170 sqm fitness centre, indoor heated pool and an exercise room where several classes take place daily (though these come with an extra charge).

A cottage, La Casetta nell’Orto, has recently been converted into the Verdura Organic Farm. It is set in the 2,400 sqm vegetable garden that grows some of the artichokes, aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, melons, chillies and broad beans served in the restaurants, as well as many of the herbs: rosemary, sage, mint and wild fennel. It is here, with your sweet tooth in full development, that you can learn to cook Sicilian confectionery in a ‘frutta di martorana della nonna’ (marzipan sweets) cooking class. It is just one of the dozens of packages available, including tennis masterclasses with famous practitioners such as Mikael Tillström and Olivier Rochus (on clay courts), football at the Juventus Academy with former Italian pro Gianluca Zambrotta, karate lessons, family acroyoga, padel, and for dance fans, salsa and bachata.

There are complimentary bicycles for exploring the grounds, running trails, a challenging trekking trail (golly, did we get lost) and full water sports centre where you can learn to dive or just get pulled along at speed by a motorboat while relaxing in a giant inflatable. There’s also an outstanding 450 sqm kid’s club, Verduland, with its own pool and kitchen where they can try their hand at making Sicilian cuisine, and exercise area, supervised by qualified child minders while you lie on a lounger, or get active yourself.

Secluded villas

In today’s luxury world, bespoke is everything – reason, perhaps, for the 20 new villas which have been built on the gentle hillside at the north end of the resort and four more that are planned. This is where you’ll find the rich and famous, although since they also buy in extra services (including private staff to serve dinners), you probably won’t see them, unless it’s on the golf course. In addition, the resort has ‘take-overs’ a few times each season where the entire resort is booked by a company. The Google Camp has been held here a few times in recent years, a famously closely-guarded event.

Any visitor to Italy is probably a fan of food, if not beforehand, then certainly by the time they leave. The several restaurants, including Zagara and Buongiorno in the main building, are all excellent. You don’t have to work up an appetite on the golf course to enjoy dishes such as linguine with shrimps from Sciacca on a bed of courgette leaves, or loin of lamb with pistachios and Verdura caponata, but it helps. You can always tell yourself you’ll head to the fitness centre the next day, as you finish your strawberry gratin with zabaione (a custard-like dessert) and passito di pantelleria (sweet white wine), with a grappa for good measure.

The Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte hotel

The changing nature of luxury is also evident. The resort opened in 2009 and has weathered some storms, both financial and literal. The project was only possible once myriad individual properties that made up the 230 hectares of olive and citrus groves were secured. The resort takes its name from the Verdura family, who once owned the land where the property lies today. The last Duke of Verdura was a cousin of the Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who wrote The Leopard. By coincidence, it’s a book I re-read last year, and the tale of the declining fortunes of the Sicilian aristocracy added pathos to the few remaining abandoned manor houses and farms beyond the outskirts of the present estate.

Of those that have been renovated, there’s the Verdura Tower overlooking the beach, which houses the golf shop, some boutiques, and the Liola trattoria and pizzeria, an informal restaurant with superb food. There’s also the old railway station for the Verdura stop, which closed in the 1970s and is now a sales office for the new villas being built.

A sustainable focus

It has been an expensive venture to put together, and then there are the increasing vagaries of the weather. In 2018 the area suffered floods when the Verdura river, which runs alongside the East Course, broke its banks. An extensive redesign of both the East and West courses was necessary and these reopened in 2022 with more robust flood defences as well as a new water feature running through the course. It now has low-lying areas that could absorb future floods and improved drainage. As part of this there has been a re-naturalisation programme to restore more than 70,000 different species of native Sicilian plants.

The resort also took the opportunity, in collaboration with the Department of Botany at the University of Palermo, to create some wetlands to provide a stopover site for migratory birds and a nesting place for waterfowl, as well as a handy place to store any excess water ready for the next flood.

So even while much of the luxury golfing competition in Sicily has closed (most recently the Donnafugata golf resort in the south east of the island), the Verdura Resort has continued to innovate, most notably through this increasing focus on sustainability and locally-grown produce. The resort uses solar thermal panels for its hot water, has a water recycling system, and replaced its entire exterior lighting system, consisting of 8,300 lightbulbs, with LED bulbs.

The Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte hotel

Stroll around the resort and you’ll see the thousands of orange, lemon, pomegranate, almond and olive trees, some more than 50 years old and either still in situ while the resort was built around them or transplanted and still producing an annual yield.

The resort will produce its own olive oil from local olive varieties (Cerasuola, Biancolilla and Nocellara), which are hand-picked and cold-pressed within a few hours of harvesting.

It’s the natural beauty of Sicily which will probably stay with you the longest – ironic, when you consider how much this landscaped has been altered over the centuries. The lemon, orange and olive groves, the long expanse of beach which, after the manicured section, turns rough along the cliff under the Verdura Tower, tree trunks bleached white from the time in the sea washed high up by last winter’s storms, and the birds in the new wetlands, ignoring anything beyond the wildest of slices from the golf course. Whatever your favourite pastime, from activity to relaxation to a peaceful cycle or walk, Verdura is a perfect base.

Take me there

Verdura Resort offers rates starting from €365 per night in a Deluxe room on a B&B basis. For additional information, visit roccofortehotels.com

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