I have to preface this post with the note that I accidentally deleted 2/3 of the pictures from this trip. The few that remain I am grateful for, and as for the rest, will try to paint a picture with words.
In July, Dan was sent to a week-long conference (NanoSea 2016) in Giardini Naxos, Sicily and I got to join! The university paid his way which meant that we simply had to buy my flights and enjoy the per diem.
This was our first, proper beach vacation of the year and we couldn’t wait; Toulouse was getting too hot and sticky. The conference was being held at a beach resort, a luxurious switch up from our usual hostel/airbnb digs, and I had been day-dreaming of lounge chairs and clear Mediterranean water for months.
Getting to Sicily was a long travel day. We flew to Paris, then to Rome, then to Catania. At the Catania airport, a shuttle was waiting to take conference attendees the hour’s drive to the resort. It was hot and we were tired, but our moods changed immediately as we opened the door to our hotel room and saw a balcony view and the ocean beyond that. The salt breeze filled the room and it was all worth it.
Dan’s conference wasn’t starting until the next morning, but there was a pre-conference cocktail hour that evening. We weren’t sure if I would be allowed to come, but we went for it just in case. As soon as I picked up a plate off the buffet, an employee asked, “Do you have a badge?”.
I said, “Oh…no, but I’m with…” And before I could finish, I was told to scoot on out. I assured Dan to go ahead and he promised to bring me back some hors d’oeuvres. I sat at the nearby bar sipping on a spritz and waiting on my pity snacks. Happily, Dan returned a bit later with a plate and a recon report. He had small talked enough and now we could explore our surroundings.
Two big pools, a couple of restaurants, a cafe, several bars, and private beach access – this resort was big and beautiful! We were exhausted that night, so just went to bed early, drifting off easily under the giant hotel comforter and the whurr of the A/C overhead.
We were eagerly awaiting breakfast the next morning because we had hung a room service tag on the door and they would be bringing us the food to the room! We are just not used to living like this. At 9am, we heard a knock and in came a huge tray of continental breakfast. I over-enthusiastically thanked the guy and took it onto the sun-filled balcony.
After that display of excess, Dan reported to the conference. I was left to my own devices, at least until lunch when he was going to try to slip away.
I walked to the beach and rented a chair and a towel. The girl working the desk walked me to my row and set up the lounge chair. She was from Milan, but working here for the summer. What a fun job, I thought. She gets to live on this dreamy island and work a pretty laid-back job. She asked where I was from, and I said, “originally, from Florida”. She stopped what she was doing and said, “Oh my god, my dreeeam…paradise”. Florida seems to have this effect on Europeans. I hear it a lot from Toulousians and it makes sense; but this girl is literally IN paradise and only wants to visit Florida. This was too funny to me because here in Sicily, I don’t have to worry about sharks or doing the stingray shuffle or even humidity! Just goes to show you how “paradise” is all relative.
A few hours later, Dan joined me and we did nothing but order drinks and lay in the sun.
For dinner, we decided to go to the buffet style restaurant because it looked over the water. The host asked us what kind of room keys we had and then asked if we wanted red or white wine. We asked if the bottle was included, but he didn’t give a straight forward answer and brought the white we asked for. Dinner was alright, but reminded me of the food you get on cruises – not the kind of epic “ooo…ahh”-inducing meals Italy is known for. We had already paid for dinner, but didn’t want to wait to find out if the bottle was extra, so we grabbed it and dipped. We finished it from our balcony and sat in the twilight – two scammers definitely not used to resort living.
The next day was more conference and beach time, but for dinner, we decided to leave the resort compound. Dan had spotted a bar down the beach earlier in the day and it tuned out to be the answer to our mealtime prayers.
We walked inside the “Pizzeria/American Bar” and noticed the only people present were a table of elderly Italians playing cards while they smoked. Every so often, they’d yell at the two toddlers playing under their feet. Dan asked the disinterested woman behind the bar if they were open for dinner.
She seated us with menus and then a man with skin leathered by the sun came over to spread a paper tablecloth over the plastic table. You know food’s gonna be good when there’s a paper tablecloth! We ordered long islands, a big pizza, and spaghetti with clams and man, were we happy. This was the “ooo…ahh”-inducing meal we had been looking for. Just 50 meters away, we had found real Italian for euros less.
All day, the resort staff had been publicizing their evening entertainment: “Miss Naxos”, a pageant for resort guests to compete in. It sounded too funny to miss, so from dinner, we walked back over to watch. It started with an impressive display from the MC, a young guy who explained everything in 5 languages (first in Italian, then English, Spanish, German, and Russian!). That’s when I realized the game I had been playing with myself on the beach earlier (people watching and trying to guess: Eastern European or 90’s/sport goth aesthetic?) had been most definitely Eastern Europeans. So many Russians…
The show was hilarious. The winner wound up being this sassy, older woman who told the audience her dream date would be with Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star. She stole the show…and won a champagne bottle!
Our week continued on in this fashion (beach, aperol spritzes, mild science, dinner at the American Bar) until several days in, when all the conference attendees boarded a shuttle for a tour of volcanic Mt. Etna and a wine tasting. We had seen Mt. Etna and it’s smoking orifice from the plane on the way in, but now we would have a chance to hike around the volcanic craters and visit a winery at the base of the volcano.
I was surprised to find out how much civilization was built up around an active volcano whose last eruption was as recent as May 2016. Apparently, the lava flows don’t quite reach villagers or are diverted in time. The reward for this high risk location is the ash-enriched soil, perfect for growing olives and grapes. The shuttle bus took us thousands of feet above the resort town below and dropped us off at two of the largest defunct craters. You can’t visit the main, active one because the gases and possible explosions are too risky.
The views were incredible – scorched black earth mixed with newly sprouted greenery.
While taking this all in, Dan and I had a good idea for a photo series called “Bored Teens”. Because even at the top of a prehistoric natural wonder, there was still some disgruntled girl sitting on a rock, absorbed by her cell phone screen.
After the hike, the buses drove down to the village at the base of the volcano where the Nicosia family winery lies. We were given a tour of the plant and then allowed to try their reds, whites, and sparkling whites. For five generations, their grapes have reaped the benefits of Sicilian sunshine and the unique terroir of the volcanic soil.
After the tasting, we were treated to a 4-course meal on the patio. It couldn’t have been a nicer evening, with a calm breeze and the sun dipping behind the volcano. And to finish the meal, we were served something I’ve never had before: wine ice cream!
The bus drove back to the resort around midnight and I tiredly watched the village lights disappear behind us.
Dan gave his presentation to the conference a day later and then we caught our flight right afterwards. This trip was special in many ways – as I mentioned, it was a true beach trip, which both of us former Florida residents loved, but it was also a good way to be forced to relaxed. There were no itineraries or must-do’s, because the whole point was to enjoy the resort while attending this conference. I found it to be a good exercise in letting go.
And I got a killer base tan!