My husband Jesse and I have never traveled on group tours. He’s an intrepid driver and I’m an intrepid navigator so we’ve always preferred to travel on our own, leaving ourselves open to whatever might come our way, making our own schedules (and of course possibly missing some of the good stuff). But I really wanted to go on a bicycle trip in Sicily, and Jesse being a far better biker than I, planning our own trip would leave us woefully mismatched. A good friend had been on an organized bike trip with his wife and had only good things to say about it. We reviewed some of the better known companies that offer these trips– Butterfield and Robinson, Vermont Bike Tours, Trek Travel, and based on the dates that worked for us, settled on BackRoads‘ Premiere Hotels Sicily Bike Tour in mid-April. It was truly a fabulous experience. Here’s how it went down.
We flew cheaply from our closest-to-Italy-home airport in Ancona direct to Catania where the trip began. Since there are only two flights per week, we had a day on either side of our bike trip to explore Catania. On a partly cloudy Sunday, dressed in our biking gear, we met our group outside of a hotel on Via Etnea at 10 AM, and loaded our luggage onto a van. Our group leader and guide, Alessandro talked us through the preliminaries of the trip and basic info on Sicily as we took a 1.5-hour drive to the town of Buccheri. A traffic jam and a parade of antique autos met us in town and our van let us off for a short walk to a cave-like restaurant (Osteria U Locale) where we had the first of many outstanding Sicilian meals. All through this trip, I was inspired by Sicilian cooking, and recipes I’ve been able to recreate follow in a second article. At this Sunday lunch, I was really impressed with a simple pasta of oil, garlic and fresh herbs. The herbs were a wild mix from the garden, giving each bite an entirely different character and flavor– this and the cannoli were an intense intro to Sicilian food.
After lunch we ambled down the street to a small piazza where our second guide, Paolo, had quite invisibly arrived and arranged all of our bikes, each with our name on it and sized to fit. The bikes were amazing– a new fleet, each had a titanium/carbon frame, light as a feather with electronic shifting that made our daily rides safe, swift and comfortable. After a brief safety talk, some time to practice the shifting and braking, and an introduction to our Garmin GPS devices, which contained the routes for all of our excursions, we were off on the road with a warm-up ride of 16-28 miles (25-45 km) that would take us to our first hotel. BackRoads is so well organized and the guides are attentive to every detail relating to safety, comfort and maximum enjoyment of the whole experience. Our three guides were extremely well-educated, well-trained, all spoke several languages, could rack 10 bikes in 15 minutes, and handled every situation with calm competence and humor. They truly made the trip for us.
As I said, I’m a slow rider, and that takeoff point for the warm-up ride was the last I saw of my fellow travelers while on the road. But that is one of the beauties of the BackRoads experience. Everyone goes at her own pace. Expert riders can lengthen their days with extra loops while still joining the whole group at key moments, like lunch. Slower riders like myself can take shorter routes, or like three of the other women riders, use electronic assist bikes. Of our three guides, two were in vans ready to rescue a lost rider, make repairs and fix flats, or pick up those too tired to finish the route. The third guide was on a bike, checking to be sure everyone was safe and still pedaling. The guides were always aware of who was where and if anyone was still riding, there was a support vehicle on the road with them until all had reached the finish point. Consequently, we all felt safe and well-tended. The support vehicles were parked at key points offering water, snacks, gel seat covers, maps and most importantly, an avid cheering section, which, as the daily linebacker, I really appreciated. I averaged 30-35 miles (48-56 km) per day, with a personal best of 44 miles (71 km) on the last jaunt.
I think on most of these type of group trips, the participants tend to get on nicely with one another. People share a love of biking and staying active, most were within a 15-year age range, and of course, all were joyfully absorbing the Sicilian countryside, food and culture. Our case was no exception. Two couples on the trip were traveling together and clearly reveled in each other’s company. Their vivacity enveloped all of us and their inclusivity brought the group together in a very special way. The result was a truly warm, supportive and jovial time with our fellow travelers.
As one of BackRoads’ Premiere Hotel trips, our three lodgings were wonderful. Castello Camemi near the town of Grammichele was beautiful and my favorite. A renovated castle, just one of several belonging to a noble and wealthy Sicilian family, the guest rooms were tasteful and luxurious, lots of limestone and brass, and a bathroom bigger than my first New York apartment. The Jacuzzi tub was like a small swimming pool. We kept peering around corners to see if George and Amal were staying there. The grounds were lush with green grass, fruit trees, rosemary and chaises. The staff was discreet and courteous. Dinner there was opulent– the chef, truly innovative and creative in her use of local ingredients.
Breakfast at Castello Camemi, at the start of our first challenging day on the road, was spectacular. Fresh homemade yogurt, homemade honey and jams, the most flavorful strawberries, kiwi, pineapple and oranges that I’ve ever tasted, and superb cornetti. What a brilliant way to get started!
The five routes on our trip were well engineered– plenty of challenging hills (up and down), relatively traffic free, splendid landscapes. As I mentioned, there were extra loops for the more avid bikers who wanted more exertion. I was able to opt out of one 6-km uphill that felt a bit daunting after the morning’s ride, and just at the point where I decided to stop and wait for the van, it pulled right up to me, driven by our support guide, Laura. The landscape each day was varied and otherworldly. Miles of dry-stone walls typical of the region demarcated landowners, crop rotations or tenant farmers. Flocks of sheep and cows brought us to a halt on several occasions. Wind turbines at the higher elevations where the landscape was most sparse were somewhat jarring in their modernity, but beautiful in their own way, especially considering their environmental benefits. Fields of new wheat felt Tuscan in their gentle undulation; lush greenery, plus groves of olives, fruit trees and cactus pears heralded early spring.
Biking after lunch was always a bit more arduous, especially considering the bounteous spread that awaited us for each midday break. Lunches generally included an interesting tour– the Unesco heritage town of Scicli, a centuries old olive oil producing estate, a jam tasting at a local agriturismo, a typical mountain town with an atypical hexagonal piazza, a seaside gelato. Evening excursions were also packed with cultural interest. In Caltagirone, a town known for ceramics production, we climbed the 140 ceramics-adorned steps to the cathedral and enjoyed a ceramics making demo before dinner at a local seafood restaurant. We visited and ate in the beautiful towns of Ragusa and Siracusa/Ortigia, returning to Ortigia the next day for a walking tour of the historic sites. These glimpses into local life, albeit as a tourist, were one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Our two remaining hotels were also quite nice. Eremo della Giubiliana is a restored monastery with its own ancient burial ground. It’s been meticulously renovated with castle-like furnishings. Our room had a small terrace with so many birds in a nearby tree, it was like an aviary. The pool was situated in a relaxing grove– unfortunately it was a bit too cold for a swim. Dinner at the hotel was preceded by a wine tasting and demo of arancini making. The underground dining room with its graceful arches and torch lighting was a lovely setting for a lavish and delicious buffet.
The Grand Hotel Minareto, where we spent our last night, did not appeal to me. There were some lovely elements– the terrace where we sipped aperitivi overlooking the sea and a distant view of Ortigia was quite special. And, had the weather been warmer, the pool, beach and natural stone lounge areas would have been well worth a half-day visit. But the Minareto is a resort that felt more like Florida than Sicily. The rooms and grounds were a bit tacky in their decor and breakfast was mediocre — small details that had no adverse effect on the overall positive impact of the trip.
After a short walking tour of Ortigia on the last day, BackRoads loaded up all of our luggage into a van, handed us gigantic sandwiches and water bottles, and drove us back to Catania, dropping one of our now friends at the Catania airport. As we strolled around the city that afternoon, we encountered fellow bikers from the trip, and not wanting to break the spell, had drinks and then dinner with them. More pictures, more toasts, more sharing of the moments that were now our private jokes. Would I do this kind of trip again? Definitely. Maybe Ireland next time. But we want to do a few more while we’re still feeling fit and energetic. Stay tuned for some Sicilian-inspired recipes that I recreated Americana-style when we returned to our house in Le Marche.