Nothing can prepare you for Hotel San Domenico in Taormina, a breathtaking combination of rich history and art treasures, boasting the kind of pampering and service that has made the Four Seasons chain one of the most celebrated in the world. No wonder San Domenico was chosen to star on your TV screens. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
A confusing maze of narrow streets in beautiful Taormina, Sicily, led us to the ancient San Domenico Monastery. In 1896, it was converted into a luxury hotel that hosted a long list of the rich and famous, including Baron de Rothschild and Princess Margaret, well-known writers such as Thomas Mann and Oscar Wilde, and Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo, Sophia Loren, and Audrey Hepburn. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are said to have had a heated argument on the balcony of their suite, and Liz even broke a mandolin over her then-husband’s head.
The hotel’s romance with Hollywood continued even when Luc Besson filmed The Big Blue in 1988. Today, after undergoing extensive renovations and reopening in July 2021 as part of the prestigious Four Seasons chain, it was chosen to star in the second season of the hit HBO series, The White Lotus. The hotel manager, Lorenzo Maraviglia, who returned to his homeland to manage San Domenico after a decade of managing Four Seasons hotels in Dubai, proudly said that the Sicilian property was chosen out of 17 candidates. As soon as you enter the monastery’s cloister, it is easy to understand why.
History and art at every turn
San Domenico Palace is the only hotel I know that employs an art concierge, and she welcomes guests on a tour of the ancient monastery-turned-hotel. Margaret led us into the second inner cloister, showed us graffiti scrawled hundreds of years ago on columns looted from the Greek theater, and had some interesting insights about the contemporary works decorating the walls. Next, we were shown a centuries-old dowry chest and a desk that the monks used to copy precious manuscripts. And, as a grand finale, we visited the elegant lounge, converted into a veritable museum with works of art by Caravaggio and Bellini. A pride of place is given to the monastery’s beautiful pharmacy cabinet, which gave the room its name.
The hotel renovation during the pandemic was entrusted to the architect Valentina Pisani, and according to Maraviglia, it was an extremely challenging project. “It is not easy to take a monastery from the Middle Ages and another 140-year-old wing built in Art Nouveau style, consider the countless limitations set by the law because this is a heritage building, and offer a level of hospitality suitable for the 21st century. We even hired an art consultant who moved to Sicily for six months to study the local baroque style.”
A room with a view
The hotel has 111 rooms, 43 of which are suites. Some of the rooms on the lower floor were once monks’ cells, but today they are a far cry from the austere living conditions of the Middle Ages. All rooms are spacious, beautifully designed, and well equipped, as befits Four Seasons properties, from a fabulously rich minibar to a pillow menu.
The rooms in the new wing are huge, many open to a large balcony, and 19 have a private pool with a view of the Mediterranean Sea and the colorful houses of Taormina. But the real wow factor comes when you step out into the manicured and spacious garden designed by landscape architect Marco Bei. When you walk here among the shady paths, you can almost imagine the monks picking herbs to concoct their medicines. The beautiful garden leads to a large infinity pool on a cliff overlooking the sea and Mount Etna. You can see it billowing smoke in the background on a clear day.
More amenities, anyone?
The hotel has a chef’s restaurant, Principe Cerami, for an impressive and well-designed culinary experience. At the same time, adjacent to the pool, you can also dine in Anciovi, an excellent Mediterranean restaurant, for a light or full meal in a less formal atmosphere, with the same spectacular sea views. If you want to get wowed, order the fruit bowl for dessert.
Come evening, you can sit at the bar or in the peaceful inner courtyard and enjoy an aperitivo. And for breakfast, why not sit on the balcony overlooking the garden and enjoy a rich buffet that complements a varied a-la-carte menu?
For spa enthusiasts, it is worth noting that the hotel currently only has a pop-up spa with three treatment rooms. However, by next year the permanent spa, Botanica, should be fully open, including an indoor heated pool and various treatments using medicinal herbs – befitting a hotel that was once a monastery.
To sum up, San Domenico Palace is the perfect getaway; as the hotel manager put it, “After COVID, the tourist landscape has changed. People are looking for an exclusive experience, peace and quiet, and are willing to pay for that.”
And at San Domenico Palace, they get top value for their money because even when the hotel is fully booked, it has so many quiet corners that you can almost feel like reclusive monks, but in style.
The author was a guest of San Domenico Palace in Taormina, a Four Seasons hotel.