History at Every Turn
The Donna Coraly Resort is a luxurious and historical retreat to hide away at in southern Sicily
Article by Mark Nicholls
It is a perfect Sicilian retreat. Sitting at the heart of a family estate, the Donna Coraly Resort offers intimate accommodation, fine food, and elegance. History nods at you from every direction as you settle into this reclusive, relaxing retreat on the San Michele estate near Syracuse. The backdrop is of a 14th century masseria – a fortified farmhouse with a moat and private chapel in the midst of orange and olive trees, while the remnants of the cistern wall from an ancient irrigation system, stone milking stalls and the olive oil mill are still visible.
Sandy beaches, ancient Greek and Roman sites at Syracuse, and magnificent baroque towns are a short drive away. More recently, the estate played an important role in one of the landmarks of modern Italian history when on September 3, 1943, the armistice between the Italian and Anglo-American forces was signed.
Within the five suites and the pleasant restaurant of the south Sicilian boutique residence, attention to detail, style and guest comfort are paramount. The Donna Coraly Resort has been created by owner Lucia Sinatra di Cameni who, working with architects and designers, has transformed the former estate workers’ accommodation into the individual and intimate suites. San Michele has been in Lucia’s family for centuries and as a child it is where she spent long, hot summer holidays but more recently parts of it had become run down and the gardens were being used to grow potatoes.
With a sense of purpose and vision, she revived it and crafted the five suites, with each bearing Sicilian women’s names and reflecting the strong matriarchy within the family: Carmello (the most popular female name on Sicily); Costanza (a Sicilian Empress); Angelia (after the heroine in the romance Il Gattopardo); Rosalia (the patron saint of the capital Palermo); and Maruzza (from the character in the novel Il Malavoglia). Figurines in each room represent the women of the Donna Coraly Resort, which takes its name from Lucia’s grandmother Coraly Grande Sinatra, who was a noblewoman with aristocratic links across Europe. The family are Italian barons even today. Each suite is sensitively furnished with hand-painted inlaid tiles and individually-designed, with a private lawn that leads down to the thermal pool within the rejuvenated botanical garden.
The revived estate garden, the Hortus Conclusus, is central to the resort and once again laid out with trees, bushes, flowers, herbs and manicured lawns around the pool and sun loungers. Beneath a jasmine arch, the path leads to a traditional Sicilian carrubba tree with a stone monument commemorating the 1943 armistice, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower – later the 34th US President – met with senior Italian military figures in the Vignazze vineyard and signed the armistice between the Italian and Anglo-American forces. “This is a replica,” explains Lucia, “the original having been destroyed. The US had requisitioned the estate as their headquarters in 1943 but the family was allowed to stay while the armistice was signed in the middle of farmland where the American tanks were lined up.”
The garden is now lovingly tended and laid out with cactus, lavender, rosemary, flowers and bushes. A 200-year-old cypress tree rises above while walnut, olive, almond, orange, lemon, avocado, mango, palm and fig trees grow nearby with their fruits nourishing the modern Donna Coraly kitchen. “It is the recreation of the Hortus Conclusus – the enclosed garden,” she continues. “We find people like to spend a lot of time here, either relaxing by the pool or walking around among the plants.”
Beyond the fragrant ornamental garden is the vegetable garden where beds contain onion, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, aubergine and herbs of parsley and basil, and rocket, while vines hug the walls. The produce is picked freshly every morning by the resident gardener for the chef to transform into dishes, such as the traditional parmigiana with fried sliced aubergine, tomato and cheese.
Food, wine and fine dining, as you would expect, are an integral part of the experience. Guests gather for pre-dinner drinks on a lawn bordered by rich, white rose bushes, the blooming Snows of Etna variety. Lucia and her staff have created a defining ambience to the resort. Time matters little; breakfast, lunch and dinner are designed to suit the guest, not the kitchen rota. But as the sun sets, the small group drifts towards tables for dinner, choosing from a traditional Sicilian menu of dishes such as aubergine parmigiana; seasonal vegetable flan; pasta of Penne “alla Norma” of aubergine and dry ricotta cheese; or spaghetti with bottarga: salted mullet/tuna roe.
My main course was the sea bass, fresh from the market or Ortygia near Syracuse and served with a light tomato topping. There was also fillet of veal/beef or succulent pig and for dessert the almond parfait and the chef’s Tirami su. We finished with coffee and Amara, orange tinged liqueur using Sicilian orange peel. The wine list has a strong Sicilian imprint and to accompany our sea bass we savoured the La luci Sicilia DOP from Agrigento, perfectly dry.
The Donna Coraly Resort is a convenient base to explore the island with its rich and diverse history from the active volcano of Mt Etna to the wonders of Greek and Roman temples, amphitheatres and architecture in towns such as Agrigento, Syracuse or Segesta and the Norman cathedrals and Arabic masterpieces. A mere 20 minutes away is the Sicilian baroque town of Noto, while there are also several fine beaches and lidos including the lovely Porto Ulisse, with umbrellas and sunbeds laid out across the sand. Also worth a visit, particularly for fans of the Sicilian detective series Montalbano, is Scicli where the TV drama is filmed.
Donna Coraly Resort is located on the San Michele estate at Cassabile, 15 minutes from Syracuse and an hour’s drive from Catania Airport. Low/high season room rates are 350€/400€ for superior suites and 300€/250€ for mini suites. The restaurant, exclusively for guests, has a priced item menu. www.donnacoraly.it/en