My husband and I don’t do sitting still very well. Like any stressed, hardworking people in their mid-thirties, all we do all week is moan about wanting time to relax. Curiously – or predictably, depending how in-tune one might be with our Type A personalities- the moment we get that time, we fill it with busyness.
The same held true for our honeymoon. Faced with two weeks of just-married bliss, we could have jetted off to the Maldives and nestled in to one of those luxury wooden huts over turquoise waters, raising a glass to fellow honeymooners in their neighbouring fancy wooden huts as we dozed away our days and actually relaxed. Nonsense. Not for us! Two weeks of driving across Europe please!
Provence was a natural first stop. We got married in South-East France and it is just a few hours’ drive from the venue. The Monday after our wedding weekend, we set off for a hotel I had been obsessed with for years but never stayed at: Crillon le Brave. Thankfully, it was not a ‘never meet your heroes’ moment, but a destination which actually exceeded expectations. Perched on a hill in the majestic Luberon, overlooking Mont Ventoux, this is a truly special place. Waking up to unfettered views of the verdant valley below was an indescribable treat. But, then again, every balcony and terrace of this hotel boasted breath-taking views. My camera roll afterwards was essentially 200 snaps of the same thing. But it never stopped, that feeling that you were surrounded by beauty and had to somehow- futilely- capture it.
We spent our days here relaxing by the pool, playing endless games of pétanque, dining on the hotel’s superlative food, falling asleep (me) during a sublime couples’ massage and taking a picnic in a nearby olive grove with two friends who had gallantly decided to accompany us on the first two days of married life. They called themselves our Honeymoon Consultants and I cannot recommend the notion enough. It quells the wedding blues and you get free photographers for those newly-weds shots.
Tearing ourselves away from Crillon two days later was harder than I had expected. (It did, by journey’s end- spoiler alert – rank as our favourite hotel). But just as I was beginning to regret our decision to honeymoon on the road, we made it to Le Moulin. Set within the offensively charming village of Lourmarin, it is the quiet luxury version of a Stella Artois advert. Provençal authors litter the shelves of your room, savon de Marseille can be found on your sink. We used this hotel as a base from which to explore nearby Avignon (told you we wouldn’t stay still for long) which was as wonderful as I remembered. We took shelter from the heat in the cool old stones of the mediaeval Papal Palace and strolled through the streets before the charm of Lourmarin lured us back. A warm summer’s evening in Provence is truly unbeatable, and Lourmarin proved this. After a delicious dinner in a local eatery, we bought an ice cream and ambled back to Le Moulin to the soft hum of the village at night.
We hit the road again to lose ourselves in Provence’s maritime edge: the Riviera. Les Roches Rouges, perched on the edge of Saint Raphaël – where we stopped for a seafood lunch en route – was the ideal choice. If Le Moulin was delightful, this place was cool. It oozes 1960s glamour; all whitewashed walls, sharp lines and pops of colourful modern art, all while it bashes you repeatedly over the head with the most ridiculous view of the Mediterranean. Our stay here was genuinely relaxing. I dozed off on a lounger by the pool and woke up ensconced in blue from all sides. Nothing could detract from our enjoyment of this place- not even a midnight run to hospital for infected mosquito bites. (Nobody can tell me I don’t know how to honeymoon).
Given our nightly adventure, the next morning’s early flight to Sicily was less than ideal. Yet arriving at Palermo airport to be greeted by its mountainous surroundings was truly a wonderful shock to the system. Sicily, I quickly realised, does this a lot: catch you off guard with its endlessly impressive views. Not even the truly psychotic driving which nearly killed us on Palermo’s motorways could dent our spirits or – thankfully – our rental car.
It was perhaps our death-defying drive which made us appreciate Fontes Episcopi all the more. After road rage, horns and perilous overtaking, the peaceful idyll of this eco resort felt like an oasis in the desert. We had plans to head into nearby Agrigento for dinner, which were abandoned the minute we arrived. Chirruping cicadas, kittens wondering around the grounds, a kitchen brimming to the literal rafters with pasta and fresh vegetables from the garden. Did I mention the kittens? This family-run, boutique hotel set on an eco-farm is a truly special place, as was proven by our evening meal. Each dish a surprise, each more delicious than the next, all served on a candlelit terrace with the crowing of peacocks in the distance and the farm’s cat eating from my hand.
Fontes Episcopi is ideally located near one of Sicily’s prime attractions: the Valley of the Temples. The UNESCO word heritage site is actually where the organisation gets its temple logo. The vast hillside (‘valley’ is actually a misnomer) is a history nerd’s paradise. From ruins to gravestones to tombs and temples, there are myriad, brilliantly preserved Greco-Roman sites here. It was all we could do (being huge history nerds) to tear ourselves away, but our foolhardy decision to visit in the middle of a scorching hot day, proved the sticking (well, sticky) point.
Thankfully, our home for the next four days was Il San Corrado di Noto, a former monastery, turned luxury hotel in the middle of Val di Noto, one of Sicily’s most beautiful regions. It is deliciously quiet, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. Though, perhaps what we loved most about this place, was our private villa. With a pool just to ourselves, it was a secluded paradise just for two, and the closest we got to the feeling of being in one of those Maldives sea-houses. Our first night, we had a tasting menu with champagne from the year we met. We walked home full and happy, pausing only to catch the outdoor screening of The Godfather, before we fell into our large four-poster in our dream room.
Our days at Il San Corrado were spent visiting the many delights of Val di Noto during the mornings and relaxing by our private pool or at the hotel’s beach club in the afternoons. Noto itself, the resplendent baroque town, was of course a must-see and proved a very successful shopping stop, riddled with beautiful pottery and linens. Modica was another atmospheric stop, while Ragusa was a highlight. Quieter than Noto, but with the same range of Rococo architecture and winding streets, it somehow manages to provide a distinct character that feels lacking in Noto. We had a gorgeous lunch here and lost ourselves in the view from the Ibleo gardens.
On our way back to Palermo, we stopped off at Verdura Resort for the night. This sprawling resort and golf course had a stunning beach setting and breath-taking verdant hills everywhere. A particular highlight was the ability to cycle everywhere- from the delicious restaurants to the spa, from the pool to the beach. I read my third Agatha Christie of the trip (my second favourite travelling companion, after my husband) on this rugged sandy beach, before cycling back for dinner of divine linguine and a glass of locally grown Sicilian wine.
We managed to survive our drive back to Palermo, which was heartening news for honeymooners and Sicilian drivers alike. I was glad we had, as our final stop was worth the wait. Villa Igiea is truly a jewel in the Italian island’s crown. It is exactly the classic, old world hotel that hits all my buttons, and the sea-view suite we stayed in had me practically crying with joy. (Yes, it was a long and hot drive).
There was plenty to keep us there: the suite, the gardens, the pool, the stunning pool restaurant, yet Palermo’s magic awaited. We did what any honeymooners would do when we got there: we went straight to the catacombs to look at rows and rows of skeletons. I’m not sure quite why, but it was a surprising highlight of the trip. Less desired were the nightmares this later produced…
Palermo is loud, busy, dusty, dirty and magnificent. There is history on every corner, from the magnificent cathedral (well worth a visit- and do go to the roof) to the Norman Palace (make sure to visit Friday-Monday to see the royal apartments and get your money’s worth) but it is very much an alive, modern metropolis. The nightlife is gorgeously atmospheric, the restaurants are great and there is live music, it seems, on every street corner.
On our final night, we dined at Villa Igiea’s Florio restaurant and had a nightcap in its stunning Terazza bar. In front of us were the glittering lights of the gulf of Palermo, dancing on the dark and still Mediterranean Sea. There was also real life and a long drive back to the Eurotunnel once we flew back to France, but now with the memories of the greatest road trip of our lives, and, of course, the beginning of an even greater adventure.
Related article: Honeymoon Review: Hotel Principe di Savoia