Taormina: Drama aside, Sicily is a family paradise for package holidays
Sophie White takes her family on a package holiday to the Hotel Naxos in Taormina
We've been doing the family holiday thing for a few years now and I like to think that we've become pretty adept at managing expectations.
Ours more so than the kids because, you see, it is we adults that year on year foolishly forget just what exactly a family holiday is.
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A family holiday is essentially about 90pc "family" - think angry, sticky children veering from over-tired to over-heated to just plain over it - and 10pc "holiday" i.e. whatever brief snatches of time you can scrounge to yourself under the guise of going to the loo or standing in line for the tourist information desk.
It's for these brief moments of solitude that we suffer the general palaver of lugging a family of four to a foreign country. Sure, when I'm trying to baste them in factor 50 while they hiss at me in a demonic fashion by the pool, it can feel stressful but then when I steal away insisting I need to get tour brochures and that no one better come with me - those few minutes alone in the queue admiring my family from a distance make it all worth while.
This year we went further afield than ever before with a three-hour plane ride to Sicily, during which my children's behaviour ensured that no one on the flight would be moved to help us in the event of an emergency. Thankfully we landed safely at Catania airport and made our way to our waiting coach with the help of our resort manager.
It's at this juncture in every trip that I feel huge gratitude for the godsend that is the package family holiday. It's just such a relief to relinquish all personal responsibility and be herded from location to location like a cheery lobotomy-patient by friendly capable reps.
The Hotel Naxos was less than an hour from the airport and en route we had our first encounter with Mount Etna, the active volcano that dominates the Sicilian landscape. In an incredibly lucky break, we actually got to witness the lava flow which glowed magnificently in the velvet black night high above us. The mountain had erupted earlier in the week and now, glowing in the darkness, was a river of fire wending its way down the slopes. The five-year-old was astounded, as was I. There was something mesmerising about the sight - it was a unique moment that kicked off a unique week.
Upon rising the next morning, we were able for the first time to get a sense of our new abode for the next seven days and it was with great excitement that we explored the verdant gardens in which Hotel Naxos is set. The main hotel building is large but does not tower, while surrounding two-storey stucco villas provide more accommodation and were, we found, ideal for families. The overall vibe is boutique luxury rather than a colossal factory-like resort.
An elaborate buffet breakfast overlooking the gardens became our first port of call each morning. We each had our routines down by day three. The kids were mixologists of the cereal bar section, creating elaborate concoctions each day, my husband was a devotee of the breakfast dessert area (yep that was a thing!) while I enjoyed the eggs and bacon and vast selection of fresh fruit.
Days at the hotel passed in a haze of intense relaxation. Our hours were spent lounging poolside in the shade of palm trees, occasionally punctuated by iced coffees and snacks. By some miracle, we managed to sell the kids on the idea of leaving us alone each morning to go to the kids' club run by a troupe of unfailingly cheerful women who doted on my little guys.
For lunch, we soon hit upon the perfect formula of pizza in the town of Giardini Naxos, followed by ice creams on the beach. The Hotel Naxos has its own beach access, with bars and loungers and beautiful views along the coast stretching in both directions. Dinner in the evenings was a constantly evolving feast of pastas, grilled meat, fish and salads with again a vast dessert buffet where one could gorge on boozy tiramisus or custard tarts laden with fresh fruit and berries.
Whiling away every sun-drenched day among the citrus groves in the hotel was tempting, but it was criminal to be so close to the hilltop town of Taormina and not take a closer look. Exploring from the hotel was easy with our resort manager helpfully advising on transport and logistics. We took the bus just outside the hotel and made the precarious journey up the mountain via overpasses that seemed to defy the laws of engineering, to reach the town by mid-morning.
The village clings improbably to the hillside high above the sapphire sea below and while there's much to see here, we mainly ambled. The ancient ruins of the Greco-Roman theatre were thronged but even whiling away a couple of hours taking in the ornate terraces and piazzas is delightful. Narrow, tiled streets are lined with shops selling delicious mascarpone-stuffed cannoli, jewellery of natural coral, traditional Sicilian wares and everywhere there are beautiful buildings to admire. While Taormina is stunning with panoramic views of the volcano and surrounding countryside, it was with pleasure that we returned to the pool and more lounging.
Another unmissable trip was a boat tour of the coast, which again was organised with ease at the hotel reception and we set off from the beach at our doorstep. The trip took us towards Taormina and beyond around jutting rocks and headlands, and even into impossibly tiny sea caves. From the waves, we could see Bond-villain style resorts, one of which had a secret lift inside the cliff face for transporting residents from the pool to their room.
We moored for a lazy hour in the clear waters and grazed on juicy fresh pineapple and melon on the deck of what we were gamely pretending was our private yacht. The lapping water was irresistible and I dived in for a leisurely swim - as I waved to my family on the boat, I thought: "They can't get to me here! This sure beats pretending to be in line for the information booth."
Sophie and her family travelled to Giardini Naxos with Topflight, Ireland's Italian specialist. They stayed at the four-star UNAHotel Naxos Beach Resort.
Topflight offers seven-night holidays to Sicily, which will operate until October and can also offer tailor-make holidays to Sicily for different durations, or combine with other Italian resorts for twin and multi-centre holidays.
Prices for the four-star UNAHotel Naxos Beach Resort start at €735 per person (based on two adults and two children sharing) and include return flights from Dublin, transfers, accommodation for seven nights on a half-board basis and baggage allowance. Call 01 2401700, or see topflight.ie.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.