TRAVEL / A (sort of) healing trip to Sicily

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The trip: Sicily

Who: Two separated-but-civil parents and the son who wanted to show them why Sicily rocks.

Why: After some 40 years of a challenging marriage, I wanted to see if my parents could behave like adults together, and could think of no better place than the setting for some of cinema’s most famous vendettas.

When: I identified a 10-day window in June that fit with my father’s surgery schedule (he’s a semi-retired anesthesiologist) and would enable us to explore different areas before the height of the tourist season.

Preparation and compromise: The trip began with (not surprisingly) a fight, because my father wanted to see the Amalfi Coast while my mother only wanted to see Sicily. It didn’t help that I wanted to see the volcanic island of Stromboli, technically part of Sicily but near nowhere. I wasn’t sure how to combine everything in 10 days, so I turned to Select Italy for some hotel and itinerary tips. Then I started consulting Italian ferry schedules.

Fear of ferries: My parents are from St. Paul, Minn. and unless it’s a lake, they hate the water. They didn’t want to drive, and a flight from Naples to Sicily would have meant too much backtracking. When I told them I had booked a ferry between Naples and Panarea, an island near Stromboli, they looked nervous and asked how big the boat was. I had no idea, but I told them we would do a boat trip around Capri as a dry run so to speak. The idea was to spend the first part of the trip along the Amalfi Coast and the second part in Sicily.

The pick-up artists: We used several private car services. The first was a service called Benvenuto and they fetched us in Rome without a hitch, taking us on a three-hour ride in a nice sedan to a hotel called Relais Blu, near Sorrento and overlooking the Isle of Capri. The following day, I booked a private tour of Pompeii with Car Sorrento. I had been to Pompeii before, but it was all a beautiful jumble; I thought a guide would give the ruins greater context and this proved to be correct. Renato from Car Sorrento also took us the following day to Positano, which would be our base for three days.

The dry run: No matter how cliched, no trip to this part of Italy could be complete without an excursion to Capri. Ours began on an overcast morning and though we felt raindrops, the sea was calm’ at first. After a brief stop in Capri’s port, the weather started getting rough and our tiny ship was, if not lost, certainly taking its fair share of wave-smack. In fact, the whitecaps suddenly grew so big they started sweeping over the deck and I honestly thought we might get tossed against Capri’s famous rock formations. My mother’s face turned greener than the sea and my father gave me the evil eye. Back on the beach in Positano, we all felt like kissing the black sand.

The transition: Fortunately the weather forecast called for smoother sailing so I was able to persuade them not to make me cancel the ferry to the Aeolian Islands (of which Stromboli is one). We arrived in the smaller of Naples’ two passenger ferries and boarded the SNAV ferry, which was actually a hydrofoil making the four-hour crossing incredibly smooth. In fact, my father loved it, and my mother befriended a couples’ Chihuahua, Sonia-Precious. Its owners happened to have booked the room next to ours at the Hotel Raya, in Panarea. It’s from there that we organized a day-trip to Stromboli. Panarea is like a mini-Mykonos, with narrow whitewashed lanes, trendy restaurants and a relaxed island vibe. Stromboli is a more severe place, dominated by the active volcano at its center. The boat ride over was pleasant enough, thanks not only to calm seas but a fantastic father-and-son outfit called Luna Quinta. But my parents, in rare mutual agreement, decided that Stromboli wasn’t for them so we took the fast SNAV ferry back from Panarea, where my mother particularly enjoyed the volcanic thermal waters at the hotel’s pool, provisionally guarded by Sonia-Precious.

Sicily: After the three-day sojourn on tiny Panarea, it was one more ferry to Milazzo, on the Sicilian mainland, and a taxi to the Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina. This is a “grand dame” Continental-style old hotel that recently underwent a renovation. It is located between the ancient Greek Theater and the Mediterranean Sea, and the views of the coast and the Mount Etna volcano are spectacular. After all our car rides and ferry transfers, none of us wanted to leave. But the following day was my turn to surprise Il Padrino… that’s Italian for godfather, which I had been calling my dad the entire preceding week. His favorite movie of all time is “The Godfather,” and I realized that some key scenes of the film were shot not far from Taormina. But I knew I could never find them on my own, so working with the affable general manager of the hotel, Luca Finardi, I found an English-speaking driver and Sicilian Godfather junkie who would drive us to the hill towns of Savoca and Forza d’Agro, with some scenic stops along the way.

Granita and OMG moment: My mother and I kept a code of silence about the “Godfather” excursion. So when the car arrived at the hotel, we told my father that we were going to go for a hike up the side of Mount Etna. As the driver negotiated too many hairpin curves to count on the way up to Savoca, I just hoped dad wouldn’t realize the volcano was in the complete opposite direction. Once there we parked and made our way past a leafy piazza. Approaching a small tavern with a terrace covered in vines, we were witness to a look of total surprise, maybe even shock, on my father’s face as he stammered, “But that’s … Bar Vitelli!!” Indeed it was: the very place where a young Michael Corleone said he wanted to marry Apollonia in the movie. And it hadn’t changed much. Faded movie memorabilia inside, just a few tables outside and lots of sun. Our guide ordered the local specialty snack, brioche stuffed with fresh lemon granita, as both my parents seemed to forget years of … let’s call them issues … and paused to savor the sweetness of the moment.