Whistle-stop tour of Sicily and the Italian west coast

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Ola! Finally my darling is today cruising Spain’s Costa Brava. Without regular internet access in France the blog updates have slipped further behind – though I’m pleased to finally share some words and pictures from our time in Italy last month:

Departing Malta, we steamed 15 hours north to Syracuse’s deep harbour on Sicily’s south eastern quarter. Arriving after midnight required navigating a gauntlet of two-dozen anchored yachts – made more difficult when half displayed no mooring light and were camouflaged in the darkness.

Stepping ashore later that morning, the charming twist of laneways in Syracuse’s old town Ortygia radiated baroque style and welcomed our arrival to Italy. Wandering the atmospheric fresh produce markets tucked in the backstreets was a highlight. I thought nothing could outdo the expansive morning farmers’ market in Split, Croatia. Though what Syracuse’s markets lacked in size it compensated with colour, sound and smell. Italian godfather-like fish sellers’ spruiked their goods, bellowing baritone sales pitches as they carved steaks from massive tuna and swordfish. Packages bursting with local fruit and vegetables exchanged hands as residents filled their baskets. Mike and I quickly returned, loading our granny-style shopping trolley with ample produce to last the week. We next demolished a freshly made cannoli treat whilst Mum and Dad people-watched and bantered with the nearby stall staffers; sampling Sicilian wine accompanied with a platter heaped with cured meats, salty cheeses and mixed antipasto. Content with their Italian welcome, they retired to the boat with a mid-afternoon glow.

Syracuse, Sicily-10Syracuse, Sicily-5Syracuse, Sicily-2 Syracuse, Sicily-7Syracuse, Sicily-4 Syracuse, Sicily-11Syracuse, Sicily-3Syracuse, Sicily-9Syracuse, Sicily-6Syracuse markets

Choosing a route that would bring us through the Strait of Messina, densely forested mountains along Sicily’s east coast were alive and vibrant – a welcome respite from the parched landscapes of Malta and southern Greece. Apartment blocks perched above a blackened volcanic rock shoreline, 3300-metre high Mt Etna looming behind in a smoky haze. Rickety wooden platforms teetered along the craggy rock, packed with swimmers awkwardly clambering in and out, cooling off from the summer heat. Whilst seemingly unperturbed by the smoking volcano – which last erupted in 2008 – hundreds of terracotta-tile roofed homes crept up Mt Etna’s fertile wooded base.

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Considered Sicily’s equivalent of the Amalfi Coast, with the right conditions, the sweeping bay below Taormina was a fabulously fancy place to anchor for a few nights. Nondescript medium-level holiday apartments lined the beaches to the north and south, though the old mansions and ornate hotels clinging high on the hillside and covered in creepers and interspersed with flowering oleander trees created a postcard-perfect setting.

Navigating traffic on tight switchbacks that traversed the hillside, our bus lurched and honked to request a clear path. We passed elegant old hotels where citrus trees lined the courtyards and decorative balconies were heavy with fuchsia bougainvillea. Sweeping panoramic views included shimmering San Andrea marine reserve with tiny Isola Bella dividing the double horseshoe-shaped bays.

Today Taormina is a popular mass-market destination. Inside the town walls, its meandering boulevards were shoulder-to-shoulder with day-tripper tourists as effortlessly fashionable Italians scooted around on Vespas. Tell-tale black and white photos proudly displayed in restaurant windows – illustrious images of timeless icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren – confirm the famous and wealthy have frequented for decades. Mid June, just two weeks prior to our visit, Taormina hosted its 60th annual gala film festival – past guest lists including cinema legends such as Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise.

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Thinking it was impossible for the view to be any lovelier; we caught a second blue ‘Etna’ bus five kilometres further uphill to Castelmola. A quaint cluster of stone buildings and castle perched high on the hillside afforded an uninterrupted vista over Taormina’s orange terracotta-tiled rooftops, pine trees and a never-ending blue Ionian Sea. Sat under a vine-covered terrace in original mafia country, a classic Godfather soundtrack serenaded us over lunch. Served by a sweet redheaded French Canadian girl who, to improve her Italian, was working a live-in position at the family-run trattoria – we devoured our first crispy wood-fired pizzas in Italy. Bellissimo!

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The narrow stretch of water separating Sicily from the tip of Italy’s iconic boot is known as the Strait of Messina. Notorious for strong tidal streams and winds that funnel through the two landmasses, the day we transited was mostly calm with just a foresail out. Heeding warnings on Noonsite.com – that contradicted instructions in the pilot guide – Dad radioed our intentions to the VTS (Vessel Transit/Tracking System). The process was formal and they closely followed our route through until we’d exited the busy shipping channel.

In waters alive with swordfish we passed a dozen fishing boats practising the most peculiar fishing method. Precariously perched 15 metres atop a scaffold tower, two or three ‘spotters’ steered the boat sneaking up on swordfish sleeping on the surface. Unsuspecting fish were harpooned from a 20-metre sprit that was heavily tethered by rigging and protruded awkwardly from the bow. The crew of a boat that approached close enough for a decent snap were a photogenic bunch!

Each morning in surrounding towns, locals snapped up fresh swordfish steaks from fish markets positioned on every second corner – tender boneless flesh that we found was delicious BBQ’d and served simply with squeezed lemon and cracked pepper.

Strait of Messina, SicilySwordfish fishing boat

Lately we’ve read, and after 10 months in we tend to agree, that sailing the Mediterranean can be arduous. The winds either blow too strong, too light or ‘on the nose’ and motoring has far too often been the norm. Upon entering central Med waters, the prevailing west to north westerlies that frequently develop off the Pyrenees in the Golfe du Lion – all the way from the France-Spain border – were about to halt our plans to transit Sicily’s northern coast to Sardinia. Tucked in the lee of Milazzo’s headland, and the last safe anchorage on the coast for more than 100 nautical miles, we waited patiently for the westerlies to abate. With a weather window looking unlikely in the seven-day forecast, we decided to take an abrupt change of course if we were to meet our much-anticipated guests (sister Bree and hubby Brett) in less than a week time.

Somewhere between Taormina and Milazzo our Raymarine wind gauge went haywire and eventually died. After the Raymarine tech quickly diagnosed the problem – charging 160 euro for 20 minutes on board and a new data cable – Dad and Mike successfully undertook the intricate task of re-threading the cable through the 20-metre mast with a trace wire.

Prior to our departure we topped up the tanks (again!) and were stung with the most expensive diesel so far at 1.80 euro per litre (about $2.60 Aussie).

Setting off on a new northern route adjacent to Italy’s west coast – an area we’d initially planned to visit later – we sailed and then motored five hours in a rolly sea swell. Stromboli Island’s unmistakeable volcanic topography and lingering greyish cloud loomed on the horizon. An active volcano, its last major eruption in 2009, for millennia has acted as a natural lighthouse for ships and sea merchants approaching by night. With its black sandy beaches, intensely fertile green slopes and formidable smoking crown – it was undoubtedly one of the more dramatic settings we’ve anchored overnight.

As recommended, on dusk we slowly motored around to Stromboli’s north-facing crater to witness a captivating display of fireworks. The volcano crackled and hissed, regularly spewing chunks of lava and ash into the air. I had goose bumps and felt wildly insignificant – left wondering how the island’s few hundred permanent residents go about their daily lives oblivious of the sleeping giant beneath them.

Had time allowed, we’d love to have joined an evening hiking tour to the crater’s edge. Judging by the clusters of torch lights skirting the blackened lava rock fall line – the hikers were exhilaratingly close to the fiery action. Capturing a decent photo in the fading light from a rolling boat was near impossible. Though others have succeeded in calmer conditions – SEE HERE.

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Illuminated like a Christmas tree on the horizon, we made our usual snail’s pace approach to the famed isle of Capri – dropping anchor just after 1:00am amongst a swagger of swanky mega yachts. Densely forested, Capri’s plunging landscape was a superb setting to awake to. We motored through the much-photographed Faraglioni rock pillars, past the surprisingly tiny entrance to the Blue Grotto (closed at the time due to swell) and then anchored off Marina Grande for a morning of touristy gallivanting.

In the past, Capri authorities were forced to limit the number of ferries disgorging day-trippers from Naples. And on that busy summer’s day, admittedly it felt the gracious island’s narrow boulevards and café-lined squares were nearing breaking point. Exorbitant high-end restaurants sat empty except for a privileged few, whilst pizzerias (still charging 10 euro for a beer or house vino) were at capacity with singlet and thong-wearing sightseers (like us!). Though to ride the old funicular, wander Capri’s vibrant and perfectly manicured gardens, sip lemonade made from huge island-grown lemons and admire uninterrupted vistas of the elite’s Mediterranean playground would, understandably, be a holiday highlight for many. Every guidebook published will warn you to avoid Italy in July and August. Fortunately for us, after a few hours ashore beating the crowds, we’ve the luxury of returning to the solitude of our catamaran.

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With days dwindling before we were to collect guests in Sardinia, we bee-lined further north along the coast. Whilst the Imray pilot guide suggested a few options to drop the pick along the way (such at Gatea pictured below), anchorages along this part of the Italian Riviera were few and far between. And marinas were far too expensive for what we were prepared to pay – which typically included a 100% surplus for our double-berth cat. Sadly we missed a few major destinations, though promise to return one day – in the shoulder season!

Gatea, ItalyGatea, Italy-2

Given the allure of Sardinia’s turquoise anchorages and vistas like those below, we were not disappointed to be moving on – with a 24-hour overnight trip directly west from the mainland. We dropped anchor at 8:00am off Isola Tavolara amongst three-dozen sailing yachts. The most yachties seen together in one place all year, officially marked our welcome to one of the western Mediterranean’s premier cruising grounds, and time to again slow down to a leisurely pace.

Next post, including a visit from our dear family guests, to follow soon.

Adios amigos!

La Maddalena, Sardinia, Italy-27La Maddalena, Sardinia, Italy-26La Maddalena, Sardinia, Italy


  1. JOHN BRANCH says

    Hi all, sorry we haven’t been in touch for so long. We are both really enjoying your exploits again as you live your dream We often talk of our time with you and what a wonderful family you are and the way you welcomed us onboard. A time we will never forget. Brooke’s story telling is still in the MAGNIFICENT’ category and all the photos (which we know are a joint effort) are first class. Pam, it is good to see a permanent smile on your face and we hope your knee and everything else are all behind you now. Col, you are definitely looking younger and fitter and I am so happy to see you continue in good health. Brooke and Mike, love to both of you, I know you will take good care of the ‘OLDIES’ . Until next time, safe seas and good health, John and Tess.

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