History lies at every turn; the backdrop is of a fortified masseria dating from the 1380s with a moat and private family chapel, while secluded beaches, ancient sites at Syracuse, and magnificent baroque towns are a short drive away.
More recently, in the middle of the 20th century, the San Michele estate (within which the resort is located) was where General Dwight D. Eisenhower – later the 34th US President – met with senior Italian military figures in the Vignazze vineyard on September 3, 1943, and signed the armistice between the Italian and Anglo-American forces.
Today, it hosts a discreet and comfortable retreat run by Lucia Sinatra di Cameni, where luxury, style, relaxation, fine food, Sicilian wine and attention to detail are paramount.
San Michele, just outside Cassabile, has been in her family for centuries, and as a child is where she spent long, hot summer holidays.
But when she returned in 2015 she found the estate workers’ accommodation was run-down and unloved, and the once-fragrant walled garden had become a potato field.
Working tirelessly with architects and designers, she has transformed the rooms where the farm workers and their families lived for generations into the five intimate suites of the Donna Coraly Resort.
Each bear Sicilian women’s names, 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).
Individually-designed, each has a private garden that leads down to the thermal pool within the rejuvenated botanical garden.
“The suites all complement each other in the detail, with the figurine heads of the ladies’ names they carry and with hand-painted inlaid tiles,” said Lucia.
When taking on the project, retaining her family’s farming heritage was central to the plan.
As we wander through the Hortus Conclusus – the revived estate garden - our path takes us beneath a jasmine arch to a traditional Sicilian carrubba tree with a stone monument commemorating the signing of the 1943 armistice.
“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 all nourishing the modern Donna Coraly kitchen.
“It is the re-creation 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.”
Evidence of the horticultural past is all around – the cistern wall of the tank used to water the original garden survives and there is what was once the mill for olive oil production, a tradition Lucia is endeavoring to revive at San Michele.
Beyond is the vegetable garden where beds contain onion, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, aubergine and herbs such as parsley and basil, and rocket, while vines hug the walls.
Ripe and seasonal, 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.
Fish is a mainstay of the menu, fresh daily from the markets of Ortygia, a short drive away and next to the modern city of Syracuse.
Food, wine and fine dining, as you would expect, are an integral part of the experience at Donna Coraly, a resort named after Lucia’s grandmother Coraly Grande Sinatra, who was a noblewoman with aristocratic links across Europe. The family are Italian barons even today.
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.
On lawned areas, we gather for pre-dinner drinks against borders of rich, white rose bushes, the blooming Snows of Etna variety. As the sun sets, our 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 fresh fish of the day, sea bass, served with a light tomato topping, though fillet of veal/beef or succulent pig was an option and the almond parfait as dessert – although the chef’s Tiramisu was also popular. We finished with coffee and a sip of Amara, orange-tinged liqueur using Sicilian orange peel.
Lucia has created a wine list favoring the island’s wines where possible and to accompany our sea bass we savored the La luci Sicilia dop from Agrigento.
Guests stay at Donna Coraly – an hour’s drive from Catania airport - from two to 13 nights, often reluctant to move on from this Sicilian idyll.
Set off the beaten track, hiring a car is a wise move to explore the surrounding area of the island which holds immense variety from the maternal, yet maverick active volcano, Mt Etna to the wonders of Greek and Roman architecture in towns such as Agrigento, Syracuse or Segesta and the Norman cathedrals and Arabic masterpieces. The island bears the imprint of all who have passed through across the past three millennia.
Syracuse – the birthplace of mathematician Archimedes - and Ortygia is a 15-minute drive away to explore the city and Duomo and then experience the Greek and Roman amphitheatre, where you can see performances of Greek tragedy or opera during the summer evenings.
Nearby is evidence of the limestone quarries from which the amphitheatres were built and an intriguing ‘cavern’ 23m high and 65m long and known as the “Ear of Dionysius” for its superb acoustics.
The unique light in the cavern – named after ruler Dionysius I - was to prove an inspiration almost 2,000 years later to the renowned Counter Reformation artist, Caravaggio. That is most visible in the painting the Burial of St Lucia, which currently hangs above the altar in the church of St Lucia near the Duomo on Ortygia.
The baroque town of Noto is a 20-minute drive and there are several fine beaches and lidos including the lovely Porto Ulisse, with umbrellas and sunbeds laid out across the sandy beach, while Scicli - where the popular TV detective series Montalbano is filmed - is also worth visiting.
All are within easy reach of the Donna Coraly Resort which, after sightseeing, offers a hideaway in the Syracuse countryside and time to relax by the pool amid stunning, scented gardens.
IF YOU GO
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. For more information or to book, visit www.donnacoraly.it/en