Nick Bonfield discovers glorious golf, a host of first-class restaurants, wonderful vineyards and sunshine galore at Sicily’s fabulous Verdura Resort... and wonders just why Italy had never before loomed on his golfing horizon
Verdura Resort – Heaven On Earth
I’ll be honest with you – I’d never really considered Italy, and more specifically Sicily, when planning an overseas golf break. Having subsequently now been, I’m left scratching my head as to why.
Perhaps it’s because Spain is such a tried-and-trusted proposition and the Algarve continues to be a magnet for British golfing tourists; maybe it simply comes down to poor research on my part.
Either way, Italy will definitely be on the shortlist the next time I come to plan a golf trip abroad.
Spain and Portugal are rightly very popular, but Italy is emerging as a more than viable alternative.
It shares many parallels with those two golf-tourism powerhouses, while adding some idiosyncratic ingredients into the mix.
Sicily is one of Italy’s 20 regions and ranks among its most significant in terms of history, culture, gastronomy and geographical landmarks.
It’s separated from the mainland by the narrow Strait of Messina, with Palermo, the region’s capital city, situated in the north-west corner of the island.
An hour and a half to the south is the wonderful Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte hotel. This all-encompassing and proudly Sicilian locale is defined by quality in every sphere.
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As I’ve already mentioned, Sicily is rich in historically and geographically significant sights, from Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, to the Valley of the Temples, a World Heritage Site.
But you could certainly be excused for never leaving the confines of the resort, for Verdura is essentially a mini-village, with something to do, see, play or explore at every turn.
Throw in a superb climate – I went in October and came back with a tan – and the sum of the parts add up to perhaps the best golf and leisure resort I’ve ever visited.
Heading out east
I spent three days at Verdura, but you could stay here for two weeks and not get bored.
First on the agenda – following a hearty breakfast buffet, which included a custom-made omelette crammed full of local ingredients – was a round on the East course.
There are three layouts at Verdura – two 18-holers and a delightful par-3 track.
All are the handiwork of Kyle Phillips, arguably the most celebrated modern golf course architect. He draws a lot of inspiration from Britain’s classic seaside courses, something that’s evident on both the 18-hole layouts.
The East course is relatively generous off the tee and features typically large greens with numerous run-off areas.
It’s the more undulating of the two main layouts and feels somewhat different to the West, even though holes from both courses sometimes run alongside one another.
I must admit I preferred the West, although only one other person from our group of six agreed with me. In my mind, that says a lot about the quality of the two courses and the challenges they offer.
The standout hole on the East’s front nine is undoubtedly the short par-3 6th, Verdura’s answer to the 7th at Pebble Beach. You only need a wedge or a 9-iron for your tee shot, but don’t go long, unless you fancy a dip in the Mediterranean. I wouldn’t blame you if you did, to be honest.
If you play the par 3s well on Verdura’s East, you stand a good chance of a decent score.
Despite their tricky green complexes, the 6th and 16th give you a more than reasonable chance of par, but the 12th can be a frightening prospect if you’re playing from the tips. The hole can stretch to 250 yards, but anything outside the line of the greenside bunkers will find a nasty lie among the shrubs.
The course is well balanced and builds to a wonderful crescendo – something it has in common with the West.
The 17th is a mid-length par 4 that plays uphill to a green situated at the foot of a Sicilian hillside, while the 18th is a shore-hugging par 4 with water all the way down the right. If you suffer from a slice, close your eyes and hope for the best.
A rather charming quirk at Verdura is the presence of bikes dotted throughout the resort. You are encouraged to cycle around, something I thoroughly enjoyed doing during my stay.
The ride to and from the golf reception, which runs parallel to the shoreline, is delightful, particularly after a couple of early-afternoon beers following a morning round.
Call of the west
The West course presents more elevation changes and, in general, there is more to think about off the tee. Lost balls are much more likely here, as I found out on the downhill par-4 5th and the dogleg par-4 6th.
The front nine is enjoyable, but the course moves up a notch from the short par-4 9th.
This hole plays parallel to the coastline, and longer hitters may be tempted to open their shoulders and knock one up near the green.
It’s by no means the prudent option, though, as one of my playing partners found out. A four-putt double bogey at the 8th may have had some bearing on his dubious approach to course management on the front nine’s closing hole!
On the back nine, almost every hole is noteworthy.
The 10th is a distinctive par 3, with a bean-shaped green that curls around an area of wetland you want nothing to do with.
The view from the par-5 11th is one of the best on either course, and even though the fairway is fairly generous, don’t stray right.
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I found the short grass with my drive, then proceeded to hosel-rocket an 8-iron lay-up into the bushes shortly after putting my 3-wood back into my bag. Note to self: when you’re off 14, don’t take the conservative option.
The final four holes on the West are exceptional.
The 15th and the 17th – both par 3s with lovely coastal backdrops – come either side of a testing par 4, where you drive at a slight angle to a fairway bisected by a ridge.
The final hole is perhaps the pièce de résistance. It’s an uphill par 4 with water all the way down the left and some clever bunkering. If you manage to avoid trouble with your drive, you’ll face a mid-iron to a deep green that sits in the shadow of the Torre Bar – as good a spot as you could imagine for a post-round beer.
There’s also a double-ended driving range, chipping and putting greens, a golf academy and expert tuition, not to mention the par-3 course, which is ideal for families, beginners and those wishing to take a break from the championship experience.
In May, stars of the European Tour descended on Verdura for the Rocco Forte Open, won by Alvaro Quiros.
Away from the fairways
There’s so much else to experience away from the course at Verdura too.
The 60-metre infinity pool – the centrepiece of the complex – is extremely impressive and the private beach is an ideal late-afternoon spot.
If you’re feeling active, you can even indulge in various water sports.
If tennis is your thing, there are six clay courts, while coaches from Juventus are on hand during the summer at the resort’s football pitches.
Children are also well catered for in the form of a newly revamped Kids Club.
Verdura even offers Sicilian cooking classes, which is why I now make the finest Pasta alla Norma north of Rome.
I’m generally not much of a spa-goer, but most of my spare time was spent at Verdura’s wellness mecca.
You can exercise if you’d like (there’s a 20m indoor pool, a fitness studio and a sizable gym) but why do that when you could be in a double-height steam room or a Finnish sauna? I particularly enjoyed the four thalassotherapy pools, which work in unison with each other to unlock pores and generally make you feel rather relaxed. Who knew!
As you might imagine, relaxing and playing golf makes you rather hungry and thirsty.
There are a combined seven restaurants and bars at Verdura catering for different palates and moods.
If you’re looking for a more formal experience, try the wonderful Zagara, which serves exquisite Mediterranean food. Two of the other highlights include the more family-friendly Liola, which provides stupendous clifftop views, and Amare, where you’ll find some of the finest local seafood.
Indeed, Verdura prides itself on its use of local ingredients. It even produces its own olive oil.
Speaking of produce, I’d also heartily recommend a visit to one of Planeta’s wine estates, which are dotted throughout the island. Walking through vineyards with a glass of white in your hand and the sun beating down on you back isn’t the toughest way to spend an afternoon.
It’ll come as no surprise that the accommodation is really rather good too. There are 203 rooms and 50 suites, all beautifully designed and offering stunning sea views. Opulently furnished, with private balconies and salubrious bathrooms, the suites deliver the height of luxury.
A little piece of heaven
It really is difficult to convey just how good a resort Verdura is.
Looking back some six weeks after visiting, as I did when putting metaphorical pen to paper, so many memories came flooding back, and not just of the golf.
Naturally, playing is the main motivation behind a golf break, but it’s often the off-course atmosphere and amenities that turn a good holiday into an exceptional one.
Verdura is a little piece of Sicilian heaven, and I’d encourage everyone considering a golf trip abroad to put it right near the top of their contender list. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
How to get there
Palermo accepts daily flights from a host of major European airports. Ryanair operates daily flights from London Stansted, and you can also fly to Palermo with EasyJet and British Airways. Verdura is roughly an hour and a half by car from the airport.
East course – par 72, 7,221 yards
West course – par 72, 7,474 yards
Par 3 course – par 27, 1,056 yards