Geographically shaped like a boot, Italy is the perfect place to kick up your heels on vacation. There are so many unique regions all rich with history, fine art, food and wine and yes golf. Unless you have an extended period of time, one visit will not be enough, so we consider this Italy, Part 1.
When in Rome, have your walking shoes packed or buy a new pair in one of the stylish shops filled with leather and lace. Hotels are abundant in walking distance to everything on the tourist map. We checked in at 10pm and stepped right into the cobblestone nightlife. Passing cafes and shops, a couple blocks and the Trevi fountain was lit like a movie scene, igniting romance. Never were we more awestruck in our travels as in the heart of Rome; the magnificence of ancient architecture, standing at the forum and coliseum where gladiators entertained Romans to their death. Rome is a perfect hub for transportation spokes to other cities.
For a heel of a good time since that is it’s geographical location on the boot, Puglia stretches along the southeast coast from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean Sea. Much less touristic than other parts, it will quickly gain fame as the spot where Justin Timberlake and Jessica Beale were married at Borgo Egnazia. They rented the whole property but you can secure a room or a villa for 14 people costing up to $60k beside the San Domenico Golf course – a challenging track along the Adriatic Sea.
We stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Acaya Golf Resort, 45 minutes away, more understated but elegant under the nightlights with spacious accommodations. Dana Fry of Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design created the property’s Acaya Golf course, host of European Challenge Tour events, with excellent routing through natural vegetation. The clubhouse serves local flavors including ricotta cheese produced by the flock of goats that roam around the course, paired well with the native green fava beans. The Acaya Spa facilities are open to guests for soaking in the massive hot tub with many unusual pulsating jets around the perimeter, high and low, in lounge or seated positions and even in the center.
Fly into Brindisi or Bari or take the high-speed train as we did, a five-hour hillside tour of vineyards, olive groves and the sea from café seats with snack service. Raileurope passes work with Tren Italia and throughout Europe. By boat Debrovnik and Greece are well within reach – maybe next trip.
Lecce is one of the oldest little towns in all of Italy. A short drive from Acaya, it is still home to the original
noble family members and a place of antiquity worth exploring, especially magical under the night-lights as swallows swoop between artistic columns and forum remains with shops and restaurants assimilated into the architecture. 800 kilometers of coast along the heel await exploration of promontories, sandy beaches, overhanging rocks and caves to discover. Gallipoli is one such port built around
the must see Angevin Castle and Basilica of St. Agata. Take a load off your heels seaside and dine on the cliff watching the sunset. Bring your appetite wherever you eat as the plates keep coming with fresh sea delicacies and of course, pasta and desserts.
A short train trip transports from Rome’s throng of tourists to tranquility as “Under the
Tuscan Sun” draws us all to Cortona. We were under the Tuscan umbrella but the essence still shined. Both author and actress Diane Lane frequented Albergo Portole’s restaurant and hotel, where we stayed. Owner Franco pointed out the famous villa on our mountain descent to hop the train to Florence. He also shared that he and his wife were flown to Hollywood for the movie premier and to make the Italian Cream cake for the party. Needless to say, their cuisine was extraordinary. If we had a mulligan, we might have asked for a cooking lesson.
A pilgrimage of art aficionados line up for cathedral and museum entrances but a whole day can be spent admiring the outer art and intricacies of Florence. Inside is Michelangelo’s little David but outside the masters’ dominating sculptures are magnificent to behold in the piazza. Across the river is Michelangelo’s Rose garden amid the ancient architecture that can only be appreciated in person. A week later, news of the Kardashian wedding there couldn’t crash the ancient appeal.
Renting a car is the way to really see the sprawling vineyards and olive groves in artistic rows with grand villas that define the beauty of Tuscany. Roads are narrow and stick shift is standard so put on your driving gloves and go, not slow. Pick a winery on the trail, such as Val di Suga in Monatalcino for an introduction to Sangiovese, Grosso and Brunello wines.
A volcanic island off the toe of the Italian boot, Sicily is sizzling with seaside and mountain scenery. Il Picciolo Etna Golf Resort & Spa has the first course built in Sicily, a short flight from Rome and situated on the lower slopes of Mount Etna. The holes traverse blindly up and down the mountain with a smoking (literally) view of the volcano, spewing fire or lava. Helicopter excursions offer a birds eye view of volcanic activity if you dare. Like earth quakes in California, another eruption is imminent and the occasional fireballs shoot this warning into the sky. Il Picciolo features a pool with a view, spa, trails and an elegant restaurant. The chef’s spiced gallinella fish complemented the Patria Rossi so well that we stopped at their winery for a tour where ancient French Oak barrels are climate controlled naturally in the volcanic underground caverns. The lava-enriched soil produces very fine wine grapes for both red and white varietals.
Danny shifted the Renault Twingo expertly around sharp curves of Catiglione for breath-taking views, stopping to hike the Gorge of Alcantara with fissures formed by the fast river cooling of magma in overlapping lava flows over 8,000 years. The winding road then descends to Taormino, a touristic enclave of boutique hotels perched high on the cliff side overlooking the Mediterranean with Gondola transport to sea level.
Further south, Donnafugata Golf Resort and Spa in Ragusa is a relaxing retreat on 800 acres with well-manicured floral grounds and Italian Baroque architecture. Gary Player designed the Parkland and Franco Piras the Links courses to be the best in Sicily. Sebastiana is the golf operations director who loves Americans and with his friendly staff accommodates golfers from all parts of the globe. He invited us to participate in the Audi Quattro Tournament, a European two person alternate shot event based on Stableford scoring. Accommodations, cuisine and service are world class at Donnafugata. The day begins with an elaborate breakfast buffet inside or on the terrace with golf course view. The wine bar serves lunch and dinner with subtle, romantic lighting in the evening. The floor has a glass covering to view the ancient wine press below. Upscale gourmet dinners are served in the Il Carrubo restaurant. We recommend splitting courses if you want to still walk. Head to the bar for an after dinner drink and perhaps a billiard game before retiring. Trust the concierge for recommended tours of Ragusa to see the archeology and Baroque palace and churches, wine cellars, farm houses or for seaside dining advice and private beach excursions. Lounging poolside and enjoying the spa amenities onsite at Donnafugata between golf rounds is a vacation in itself.
Back in Rome before home, we were honored by a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica with Father Richard Wolak. Passing over our apostles’ tombs, taking in all the sculptures, murals, mosaics and domes; to discover the origination and interpretation of each is an enlightening experience, Catholic or not. The best Italian farewell came with dinner at Ivan Torresi’s Il Tartarughino (turtle) restaurant. His son Sergio in Indian Wells insisted that sister Serena and husband Marco take us to their Daddy’s restaurant. Aperitivos, pasta, seafood, desert and wine made us friends forever. Limoncello led to laughter and singing, “Volare” in the piano bar with the soccer nationals.
Arrivederci Roma and Grazie.