Travel: Discover the unique charm of Donnafugata, Sicily
The chances are that if you have arrived at the Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa then you are here to play golf. Around 70 per cent of the 5-star luxury resort’s savvy visitors are here with their clubs.
Breakfasts are spent casting an envious eye over how much better the Europeans, male or female, dress for the golf course, casual but always seemingly ultra stylish, before small pockets of people make their way to the Links and Parkland courses or the practice ground.
Elsewhere things happen slowly as other clusters of relaxed couples stroll either to or from the spa or pool before it is time for a bit more food, a glass of something nice or maybe a brief snooze. Days are generally lazy and indulgent, it’s that kind of place.
Let’s start with the names of the courses, not overly inspiring or particularly accurate but they are just that, a name. North and South were considered but they weren’t thought to mean anything.
Most people you speak to will quickly single out the Links as their favourite of the two though I would politely suggest the back nine of the Parkland is pretty much the best loop on the property. Each nine loops its way back to the clubhouse so, if there is time for just nine more holes, you are well catered for, and the courses complement each other brilliantly.
It is quite a skill to create such different layouts given they share the same land but Gary Player (Parkland) and Franco Piras (Links) have done just that. Piras is a renowned Italian course designer and heads up Player’s work in Italy.
So what’s good about the Links? For a start it looks just that. It might not be bouncy like our own links but you could imagine, at points, that you are in the Highlands of Scotland or the west coast of Ireland given some of the surrounds.
Small derelict (but protected) bricked houses remain which add their own charm and the course sweeps this way and that. The Links has more elevation changes so the views are that much more spectacular, there are more water features to add a certain drama – the 14th tee shot is particularly dazzling given a vast diamond expanse of water in front of you – and the gorse-like shrubbery that divides the holes and coastal breezes make this very much, on looks alone, a home from home.
I’m making this sound like you will be in for an Open-like test and not the sort of fun golf you want from a holiday but it’s nothing like. The fairways are generous and the course is set up for the proverbial ‘bogey player’.
The resort only opened in 2010 but the management have already wisely decided to soften things up, with less rough and more generous fairways. Five months after opening the men’s European Tour took place on the Parkland course for the inaugural Sicilian Open.
Here the first three holes are the plainest on the resort but then the low-lying olive and carob trees and the rocky walls, which have stood for centuries, take hold.
There is an immense, disused and again protected building (reputed to be a Greek necropolis) that lies behind the 6th tee which is part of the original estate. At some stage it might be resurrected for the best possible wedding venue, and from here the course improves at every turn.
The short sunken 15th, with a lone pine, might win your ‘Best Hole of the holiday’ award before water plays its hopefully not-too-pivotal role over the closing three holes. And, having spent the previous few days calculating a strategy for the 18th from my balcony, I fail at the first hurdle and drive into the lake, which I had anticipated happening, but with my second shot.
See more about Donnafugata’s golf experience
The clientele is part family orientated though mainly an older crowd who are happy to unwind after dinner rather than try and locate the most bouncy of local bars. The week after our visit a group of ladies from Stoke Park were due to arrive, continuing an upward trend of UK traffic.
The bulk of the visitors are either German or Italian with the French and UK markets the next most popular. Incredibly for a country that will host the Ryder Cup in 2022, there are only 60,000 golfers in Italy of which something like 500 come from Sicily.
The resort came about when two locals had the vision and they spoke to the landowner who lived where the a la carte restaurant is today. They were obliged to bring in an international hotel chain, which had to be non-Italian, so the Spanish NH group took up a majority share.
In recent months Sheraton has taken it over so the promise of five-star luxury remains in safe hands. You’ll like it here, I’m not sure how you wouldn’t. There is very little sense of time, everything ticks by slowly, the staff couldn’t be more helpful and every restaurant or bar is overly spacious and relaxing.
You will struggle to find a more appealing place to tuck into your buffet breakfast than the Il Ficodindia restaurant and, for fine-dining there is Il Carrubo or the more relaxed 19th Hole. And then, when you are ready for a change of scenery, there are all manner of quaint towns, with even quainter names, within a half-hour drive, all seemingly with characterful plazas which are decorated with ice cream parlours, pizzerias and small pockets of elderly men putting the world to rights.
We visited half a dozen towns and there was no sense of anything ‘touristy’ – Sicily might be the largest Mediterranean island with 600 miles of coastline but it is still somewhat undeveloped for tourism. Size-wise it takes roughly 3 ½ hours to cross from east to west and 2 ½ from north to south. People in Sicily consider themselves Sicilians first and Italians second yet it is only three kilometres from the Italian mainland.
To finish, a good quote by Wolfgang Goethe no less, who said of Sicily: “L’Italia senza Sicilia non lascia immagine nello spirito: qui è la chiave di tutto.” Should your Italian be a bit patchy these days: “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.
WHERE WE STAYED:
All 220 bedrooms, in eight stylish and different coloured blocks, are spread around a U-shaped courtyard that sits within a minute’s walk to the pool and variety of restaurants and have either private terraces or balconies. The bedrooms are pretty much identical in both. All the suites have views of the course and are especially enormous, both inside and out, with a sliding door separating the bedroom from living area.
Or, in our case, 18-month-old twins who found the balcony and sliding doors to be one big adventure playground. Two bathrooms, all mod cons and a handy space for your clubs complete ideal accommodation.