Going Our Way: The best way to see Sicily

Michael Hancock, 66, and his wife, Mary Hancock, 67, of Fairfax,  are deciding whether to go on a tour or try to do it on their own.
Michael Hancock, 66, and his wife, Mary Hancock, 67, of Fairfax, are deciding whether to go on a tour or try to do it on their own. (Family Photo)
By Carol Sottili
Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who: Michael Hancock, 66, and his wife, Mary, 67, of Fairfax

Where: Sicily

Why: Sightseeing and getting to know the home of Mary's grandparents

When: Spring or fall for seven to 14 days

Budget: $5,000 to $7,000

"Our interest in Sicily stems in part from Mary's grandparents having come from there, but that is not the principal point of the trip. We just want to see the 'old country' of her ancestors. Our big decision is whether to go on a tour or try to do it on our own. I'm a great sightseer, and I like to take my time. But we've heard conflicting reports about how easy it is to drive in Sicily, and we have also heard that fewer people understand English. Our other big decision is whether to go in spring or fall."

Mike Hancock, a retired Foreign Service officer, and his wife, Mary, who describe themselves as "moderately experienced travelers," have lived and traveled throughout Europe. Though they're no strangers to going it alone, they bring up some understandable concerns about going solo in Sicily.

Sicily is a fascinating, sometimes exasperating island that is officially part of Italy but marches to its own drum. Residents, for example, speak a dialect that is barely reminiscent of the Italian language (few speak English). In some ways, it has a Caribbean feel, with its bright colors, inviting beaches, aggressive driving and lackadaisical attitude toward time. But Sicily's uniqueness is unveiled in its myriad ancient archaeological treasures, miles of interior rolling hills filled with olive orchards and grapevines, and the narrow winding streets of its old cities. The island has been invaded by the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, and all have left behind splendid archaeological and artistic evidence of their presence.

When I spent a week there several years ago, I went on an escorted group tour with my then 81-year-old mother and two of her friends. The price was right, and we saw just about all the key sights. I never felt endangered or stressed, and our guides were excellent. But I longed to linger over an espresso in Cefalu, to spend more time exploring the tiny shops in Taormina and to wander the fascinating Greek and Roman amphitheaters in Syracuse. The best day of the trip was when we peeled away from the group and hired a private driver to take us to the out-of-the-way towns where my long-gone relatives had been born and raised. When the town clerk in Santa Margherita di Belice pulled down a dusty ledger and opened it to the scrawled records of my grandfather's birth and marriage, the moment cemented my connection with all the ruins, temples and cathedrals we'd visited.

So be brave, rent a car and experience Sicily's nooks and crannies. Avoid driving at night. Minimize driving in traffic-crazy Palermo; take taxis or organized day tours while in the city. Splurge and get a rental car with a GPS device. (An aside: You will need to know how to drive a car equipped with manual transmission, as automatic cars are difficult to get and cost more than double). An economy car rented through Hertz or Avis will run about $520 for the week, including insurance and GPS system.

Enhance your experiences by hiring a local English-speaking guide to tour some of the top sites, such as Monreale near Palermo and the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Michele Gallo, who is very knowledgeable about Sicily's archaeology and history, specializes in the Agrigento region: He has also put together a team of tour guides and drivers covering the entire island (http://www.sicilytourguides.net). Another group, with a good selection of Mount Etna tours, is Sicily Life (http://www.sicilylife.com). These tours aren't cheap: Expect to pay at least $175 per couple for a half-day.

A typical itinerary for first-timers is to fly into Palermo and then travel east along the island's coast over the course of a week, stopping in such cities as Cefalu, Taormina, Mount Etna, Catania, Syracuse and Agrigento before heading across the interior back to Palermo.

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