by Chantal Lemieux
- Visit Catania’s lively street and farmers market
- Bring the kids to a puppet show
- Get to Base 1 on Mount Etna
- Do some high end Italian shopping in Taormina
- Get awed (and a bit freaked out) in the lava gorges of Alcantara. The water is freezing so be prepared.
- Do not miss Stromboli, it’s any kid’s fairy-tale vision of a volcano come true.
- Enjoy the vapor spouts under the sea that cause it to gurgle and bubble on the island of Vulcano. Follow the path to its steaming, sulphur-spewing crater and enjoy the smoke clouds, sulphuric mud holes and black sand beaches.
- Enjoy Sicily’s infamous dessert – a cannoli with your afternoon espresso or a typical breakfast of brioche and granita.
- Try a glass of the fabulous wines made from grapes grown in volcanic ash.
- Get the kids ready with maps and stories so the sites come alive when they arrive.
- Engage the kids with watches so they can track flight times and distances on the long-haul flights.
- Automatic shift-gear cars are readily available for rent if you book a few weeks in advance.
- Don’t forget to pack your transformer for small electronics.
- Sicilians eat dinner after 9pm and it is very common during the summer months to see numerous families out and about past midnight.
- Most shops and restaurants close for the afternoon and re-open after 4pm or close completely for vacation so stock up on your must-haves.
- August is high season so be prepared for long wait times at historical sites and at restaurants if you don’t have a reservation.
- The South of Italy is quite affordable and the quality is quite high. Generally, apartment rental is easy to find for families who want to self-cater.
- Sicily is the perfect place for picky eaters and foodies alike.
- Avoid traveling on Sundays. You’ll get stuck in traffic as the locals make an exodus out of the city.
- La famiglia (the family) is revered and children have a special place in the community. If you need something – don’t hesitate to ask.
Simply said, I love to travel and have ventured to some of the most far corners of the world. When I became a mom, my desire to explore the world was replaced by my desire to explore this new phase of my life – motherhood. Now that my children are a bit older and I feel like I’ve got at least the basics down, I wanted to hit the skies again, because moms can and do travel!
Choosing a destination for a family vacation can be daunting. Certainly, you need to decide on practical matters such as time constraints, budget and if you prefer mountains or beaches, city sightseeing or visiting famous cultural sights. However, my biggest and most important deciding factor was “is it kid-friendly?” No bigger than the state of Massachusetts, Sicily ticked all the boxes.
Located between Italy and North Africa, Sicily’s architecture, food and language reflects its crossroads. Invaded and built by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, its rich history offers plenty of ways to keep the family engaged, be it exploring ancient ruins, the many beaches and islands, vibrant street markets, or city-life in the baroque architecture of Catania, there will be a place, (or two) that everyone in the family will fall in love with.
Sicily is the land of deep family traditions and family life is highly valued. Affectionate smiles (and extra ice-cream) are abundant for school-age children, teenagers can break up lazy days at the beach with organized boat trips, there are three volcanoes to climb for a family of adventurous travelers or enjoy a simple passeggiata (evening stroll) with the locals. You’ll also benefit from family discounts and free children’s admission at many sites.
There are no direct flights into Sicily from the U.S., but many major European and Italian cities connect to either Catania (if you are visiting the east coast) or Palermo (if you are visiting the west coast). To experience everything there is around the whole island would take a couple of weeks so it makes sense to at least have a general idea of what you’d like to do and how you’ll get around. We rented a car and enjoyed the flexibility that gave us but there are several reputable tour operators that can guide you around too.
We landed in Catania. The old Baroque town is full of narrow cobblestone streets, twists and turns. We discovered Catania’s secret squares, hidden churches and often stumbled upon enchanting small restaurants. The children played in the various squares surrounded by local children. If your children love castles, then visit the Castello Orsino in Catania and take them to the puppet theatre, one of Sicily’s cultural traditions.
4 WAYS TO THE TOP – MOUNT ETNA
You can visit Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe, by jeep, helicopter, or cable car depending on your budget. A ride on the cable car will definitely thrill children of any age as they marvel at the little cabin suspended over mounds of cooled lava.
The end of the cable car run is 8,200 feet above sea level, but it is possible to continue your ascent in a special minibus jeep up to the summit or you can hike up to the crater with a local guide although it might be better suited for older children.
RIDE THE RIDES AT ETNALAND
For more traditional entertainment, thrill the children with a day at Etnaland, the biggest amusement park in the South of Italy, and only a twenty minute drive from Catania.
HANG OUT IN TAORMINA & CASTELMOLA
Situated on a cliff, Taormina’s quaint and elegant windy streets attract an international elite. The rocky beaches, hidden coves, and the famous island of Isola Bella at the seaside town of Mazzaro’ which connects up to Taormina by a cable car (also a little adventure for younger children) is a perfect retreat for lazier vacation days.
Marvel at the Greek Amphitheatre, built in 3rd Century BC, and later enlarged by the Romans, Taormina’s most important ruin and the second largest of its kind (after Siracusa). Today it is still used as a venue for many events, including plays, fashion shows, concerts, and cinema festivals.
The small medieval village of Castelmola, built into the upper cliff of Taormina, is the easiest excursion to do in terms of time and distance. Besides the breathtaking views and maze-like streets, Castle of Mola, the fortress that controlled a vast territory from enemy raids, is worth a visit. You can ride the bus up and walk back down but there is also ample parking onsite too. www.visitsicily.info/en/
COOL OFF IN THE LAVA CANYONS AT THE GORGES OF ALCANTARA
For time out from the heat, there’s nothing like leaving the beaches behind for a visit to the Gorges, canyons made of black lava walls up to 165 feet high. The Gorges can be explored by two paths; the Eleanor path which encompasses the Botanic and Geological Park, the view of the canyon and the descent to the narrow beach via an elevator or you can choose to take the numerous public steps (probably more suitable for daring teenagers). The Venus path runs about 2 km along the river and crosses the various beaches, waterfalls, and the Arabic bridge. Public restrooms and restaurants are located at the bottom of the canyon.
Heading toward the port for the Aeolian Islands, enjoy Sicily’s rocky karst landscape, if you have time, stop at some traditional coastal towns along the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily and the Italian mainland and where two seas, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian meet. According to Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis, the mythical sea monsters noted by Homer’s Odyssey sited them on opposite sides, ready to devour and destroy any ship that ventured within their waters. The Strait is also an important migratory route for fish and mammals (swordfish, whales and dolphins moving from deep ocean waters to mate in the warmer shallower waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea). Spot the ancient Sicilian tradition of hunting swordfish by a specifically designed boat named feluca, which move up and down the coast from May to August.
ISLAND HOPPING AROUND THE AEOLIAN ISLANDS
Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Aeolian archipelago is comprised of 7 small islands off the coast of Sicily. Each one varies in character. Lipari, Vulcano, Stromboli, Panarea and Salina are the most famous. It is incredibly easy, cost and time efficient to travel from one island to the next with small children. Power boats will shuttle you across, you can rent a private boat or hire a tour operator. Whichever island you choose as your base it is easy to get around. We rented a self-catered apartment in Salina as it is the greenest and less crowded of the islands. Make plans to spend at least 3-4 exploratory days on the islands. Visit www.italia.it for more information.
The landscape around Sicily is rugged in its beauty, and the steep rocky coasts that drop towards the sea are just as mesmerizing as its history and architecture. With thoughtful creativity, we can teach our kids to appreciate our world’s diverse cultures and customs. There are lots of child-friendly things to do apart from spending days frolicking in the crystalline waters, and Sicilians are some of the most enjoyable people to interact with. As September approaches and we’ve started making plans for the new school year, the days of our summer vacation in Sicily are becoming a distant memory. We returned from our adventure with a stronger and healthier family view of the world and our family album of photos reminds us of family time well-spent.