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Azamara Journey, Day 5: Taormina, Sicily

The ship anchored off Taormina at about 8 o’clock in the morning and we were treated to a spectacular view of Mt Etna’s snow-covered peak, towering over the island.

We had booked a day-long 4WD trip to the lava fields of the 10,800ft high volcano but as there were not enough takers it had been cancelled, so we set off for Taormina to see if we could find a local tour operator offering something similar.

I mentioned this to a beautiful Sicilian girl who was pointing people to the shuttle bus and she said her brother was taking a small group, would we like to join them if there was space? She called Francesco and as luck would have it there were two spare seats in his 4WD – within minutes he’d turned around and picked us up from the port. We joined a couple of American passengers from the ship, who’d booked the trip online, plus a Russian tourist, and for half the price of the ship’s tour we enjoyed a fascinating, educational day. Francesco was a superb guide, pointing out evidence of the country’s Greek, Roman, Norman, French and Spanish heritage.

At the foot of Mt Etna the landscape is lush, green and fertile – tropical plants grow in profusion alongside chestnut bushes

and cherry trees, and higher up the slopes you see vines, olive groves and citrus trees. Sicily is famous for its blood oranges and lemons (limoncello is on sale everywhere).

We stopped at St Alfio, a quiet, pretty village, to down espressos and buy lunch in a deliciously old-fashioned delicatessen and then proceeded up the winding road to the Chapel of Miracles. Built as a memorial to a village destroyed in an earlier volcanic eruption, a second lava flow in 1979 stopped, miraculously, at the chapel’s wall.

As we went higher thick clouds shrouded the dramatic craters and lunar landscape and silver birch trees loomed ghostlike through the mist. We walked along the edge of a crater, crunching over ash and cinders, clambered into a lava cave and stopped at the shortest road in Europe – one cut short by another massive lava flow.

As we drove back towards the port, we stopped at the medieval town of Castiglione and then walked down a series of steep steps to the Gole Cantara, a spectacular ravine where you can see more effects of Mt Etna’s eruptions in the form of columns of lava through which the river Cantara flows.

This glimpse of Sicily was more than enough to make me want to return – my father sailed around Sicily and Corsica in a small yacht many years ago and I hope to follow his course one of these days.

Meanwhile, we had a very special dinner on the ship to prepare for – Azamara Journey’s Best of the Best, hosted by Captain Jason Ikiadis, whose name is romantically Greek Odyssey although he hails from the totally English town of Southampton. Details to follow…