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My First RS Tour--Best of Sicily--My Solo Adventure

Hi Everyone
I took my first RS Tour in May to Sicily and traveled solo. I paid the supplement because I'm a bit of an introvert and knew I would need "my alone time". I have traveled extensively around Europe but this was my first time to Sicily and my first solo trip. I hope it's okay to share my experience with you here. I thought it would make more sense to post it in the Tour Forums (instead of "Trip Reports") where people are looking for information specifically about Rick Steves Tours. I'm hooked! I can't wait for my next RS Tour!

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Arrived one day before the tour

The hotel desk person greeted me warmly. The hotel is beautiful in a very old building with marble stairs. My room on the first floor (second floor in the US) is large, king bed, huge bathroom. I am so excited to have a room to myself in the same hotel for 3 nights! (Note to self: I must check the price of doing laundry as it would be wonderful to have all clean clothes for the rest of the trip. )

I couldn’t get to sleep but after about 1am I finally dozed off. I woke up at 9:30! Breakfast is until 10:30 so I threw on my yoga pants and started the climb up several flights of stairs to the rooftop restaurant. How I love old buildings with marble stairs! Great way to get a little workout before breakfast.

The rooftop view and eating area are spectacular. Reminds me of the Hotel Cesari in Rome. The church domes, the mountains in the background, the expanse of muted pink white orange buildings with clay rooftops. Further in the distance the villages ascending up the hillsides. Just drinking my espresso and eating my hard boiled eggs is a major sightseeing event! Not to mention soft music playing in the background mixed with the sounds of Italian bantering. Moments like this are why I travel.

The Group
Meeting the group for the first time is interesting. I can’t help but wonder as I look out at the 23 strangers.....who might become a good friend? As we went around the room telling a little about ourselves, many in the group had been on multiple RS tours. Some had just come from another tour. It is common to take a month and schedule two tours back to back. How fun!

Our Guides
We have Virginia, the guide who is our tour leader, and then expert guides for specific locations. We will have the same bus and the same bus driver the whole trip. The bus is huge and really comfortable.

After our get acquainted meeting, Virginia asked us to be in the lobby in a few minutes for a short stroll around Palermo. It is a very old, interesting city. As we walked down a quiet street, Virginia stopped and rang the doorbell at one of the residences. A beautiful blond woman popped out of the upper window to welcome us. Come in!

We were in the residence of a Count and Countess, hundreds of years old, with priceless paintings and artifacts. The Countess gave us the history, warmly served hor d'oeuvres and wine, and told us about her life. What a great way to start our tour!

That evening we had a star lit dinner on the rooftop of our hotel. As a solo traveler, I didn’t feel the least bit out of place. The tour members were warm and interesting. I felt really good about my decision to join this tour.

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Monday
Today was a morning walking tour around Palermo, then on the bus to Monreale which is a small town with a rich history in the hills above Palermo.

On the walking tour, we went to a gorgeous church where all of interior was made of various pieces of marble. I’ve been to quite a few spectacular European churches, but this was the most elaborate.

The church was a convent for second born girls of nobility. First born, married off with big wedding to wealthy man. Second born, not so much. At about 11 they are taken to the convent and have no contact with their families again. They spend the rest of their lives making cookies and cleaning and ironing linens, living hidden away in the convento at the mercy of Mother Superior. I kept thinking about my second born granddaughter, Sophie.

Tomorrow we leave Palermo and take the bus to Trapani. I have water, dark chocolate, and clean clothes. My group is warm and welcoming and the guide is really knowledgeable and witty. Loving the tour so far.

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Tuesday

Schedule:
6:00 Wake up and pack (Hate to leave my awesome room.)
7:00 Breakfast on rooftop
8:30 Out front of hotel with bags ready to go. Walk 3 blocks to bus.

Bus ride through gorgeous countryside of green rolling hills to hilltop in middle of nowhere. Archeological Park (Segesta)

Climb hill by foot up steep dirt path to a 5th century bc (yes BC) temple and amphitheater. Amazing view way above the countryside.

Walk down very steep hill, back on bus. It’s hot. Water on bus. Lecture by Virginia on the Phoenicians.

Bus to large house in the country. Walk in to big room all set up for lunch. At least 25 local dishes on buffet. What a spread!

After lunch, I’m ready for a nap. Nope, we are led into another room and handed an apron. Cooking class by Maria Grammatico, the best pastry chef in Italy! She explains how to make almond cookies and cannolis in Italian with her helper/interpreter. I took a selfie with her and bought her book. Yes I did.

Can we nap now? Nope, short bus to adorable hill town Erice. More walking uphill. Explored and wandered.

Bus to Trapani, seaside town where we checked into our hotel. Trapani has upscale shops and gorgeous coastline. I could come back here. My room is huge with a kitchen! Pinch me!!

Nap time now? No. Virginia gives us 15 minutes to put our stuff in the rooms. Then meet on the roof for hor d’orves and cocktails. After happy hour Virginia led a little walking tour of Trapani. (Does this woman ever stop?) including a very informative lesson on how gelato is made and how to tell good from bad (bad gelato???).

I’m tired. Hot. No need for dinner after heavy hor d'oeuvres, so I meandered back to the hotel. Uh oh, wrong street. Which way? Thank goodness for google maps!

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Wednesday and Thursday

After these two days I know I must qualify for a PhD in ancient history.

Highlights:

Dinner on the water in Trapani with Sally, the other solo of the group. We found a casual salad spot and watched the sun set over the sea. It was nice to get away from the group and just get to know each other better.

We explored the island of Mozia, the oldest Phoenician settlement dating back to the 8th century BC. Our guide was a fascinating archeologist. As we were walking along the dirt path looking at ruins, he bent down and picked up a pebble that was about 1/2 inch square. It looked like someone had scribbled on it with magic marker. Casually he said it was a piece of a drinking cup from around 500 BC!

More ruins outside of Agrigento, a thriving democracy 2,500 years ago. Our guide, a professor, took us on a private museum tour and in depth visit of the Valley of the Temples where well preserved ancient Greek buildings stand on the hillside. It was very informative, but after a while I found a bench in the shade away from the group.

After a full day of touring, lectures, walking uphill on dirt/rocky paths in the hot sun, and riding in the bus, we finally checked into our hotel in Agrigento. What a surprise! It’s a 13th century inn with a huge garden laden with bougainvillea and lavender and a view of the Greek temples on the hill in the distance. Once again I have a big room with a marble bathroom. Who’s luckier than me?

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The Bus
The bus is big enough that I always get a whole seat to myself. We don’t go longer than two hours without a short coffee/potty break. (Bring tissues, don’t pay any attention to male/female, just go) The scenery is really beautiful—somewhat like Tuscany with green rolling hills and colorful patchworks of farmland. We have a water fridge with self serve bottled water for 1 euro (honor system).

Occasionally Virginia makes announcements or provides interesting information. She explained all about the current Italian political turmoil and how and why Italy was without a government. She also talked about growing up in a tiny village in Italy and that they were raised to consider themselves citizens of the EU first, Italy second. (Side note: She is 36 with an infectious laugh. She thinks it’s funny that I call her Mommy.) Virginia warned everyone early on that she will leave anyone who is even 1 minute late. Yes, ma’am.

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My Buddy
All Rick Steves tours have a buddy system. You must choose a buddy who you have never met. Every place we congregate Virginia does a buddy check. It’s fun to see everyone warmly greet their buddy.

My buddy is Sylvia from Kansas. Since I am known to get lost, it’s nice to know that Sylvia keeps an eye out for me. Especially since I am very sure Virginia would leave me if I went missing!

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Friday/Saturday

Luggage in front of hotel and everyone on the bus at 8:00! Do you see your buddy?

Virginia hands out information about our next stop and gives a brief recap about the day ahead. I need more coffee.

It’s a long ride from Agrigento to Siracusa across the middle of Sicily. On the way we stop to explore a Roman mansion.

Back on the bus (can we please do a buddy check? Hi Sylvia) Virginia explains that we have a special lunch planned but it will be later than we normally eat. She opens her eyes very wide, pauses dramatically, and yells, “But I have a surprise for you!” (Imagine Ricky Ricardo with an Italian accent.) Then she passes out the Italian version of Twinkies while laughing hysterically. Her eyes crinkle when she laughs. This is classic Virginia. No one could ever be in a bad mood around Virginia. Just before the bus takes off, she yells “Amuninni!” (Lets go in Sicilian)

Speaking of bad moods, one of the Rick Steves tour rules that is taken very seriously is “no grumps, no whining”. You even have to sign a contract! It sounds silly but it is wonderful to travel with people who are upbeat and positive. Lots of gratitude.

We stop in the countryside at an old farmhouse. The owner lady welcomes us and for the next few hours we enjoy local dishes and desserts in the yard as if we are visiting an old friend. (Wine, coffee, and sparkling and spring water are always available at every meal.) As we walk back to the bus, our hostess gives me a hug and we take a picture.

Amuninni!

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Next stop: Siracusa

Siracusa (Syracuse to you Americans) is on the eastern coast of the island of Sicily on the Ionian Sea. 2500 years ago it shared the “world's largest city” distinction with Athens. (Will tourists be visiting the little town of New York City in the year 4500? Hmmm) Parts of buildings built in 800-500 BC connect to “new” additions from 200 AD or Baroque restorations from the earthquake of 1692. I’m beginning to think of all structures built after 1000 AD as “modern”!

Our hotel, Duomo Maria, is an old convent/hotel. I am sure to be assigned a “less desirable” room since I’ve lucked out so far. My room is in the annex, up many flights of stairs (no elevator). Ok. I’m due. No problem. The small room is sparse but clean with a big bathroom. I open the floor to ceiling window shutters—omg! I have a balcony overlooking the Ionian Sea! Hear that? That’s me squealing like a little pig!

Saturday
Highlights:
St Lucia painting by Caravaggio
Private Puppet show—family makes the 3 foot tall puppets and produces an hour long show in a tiny theater.

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Sunday
The bus climbs higher and higher to Mt Etna. We get out and walk around at about 6000 feet. To the top is 11,000 feet, but I’m high enough, thank you. I walk around the crater and look down at the world below. I find a shady spot and have an espresso. It’s nice to be in a cooler climate.

Next stop: Vineyard and wine tasting

Best afternoon of the trip:
I’ve been to vineyards and wine tastings in Napa. This made that seem like a campground.

Picture a beautiful old manor house in the middle of gorgeous rolling farmland where wine has been made for hundreds of years. The sommelier, an animated young American woman with Sicilian roots, greets us with sparkling wine (not prosecco, but champagne from Italy) that is the “house wine” of the winery. (Retails in the US at $125 a bottle) Her lecture is in a room with centuries old equipment where the family used to stomp the grapes (a la Lucy and Ethel) with their feet.

After learning about making wine, we moved to a huge room with 17th and 18th century paintings covering the walls, classical music playing, and an abundance of local dishes and various wines on the tables. The son of the owner came to welcome us and talk about his family venture. He said his family does not invite any groups except Rick Steves tours. I asked about the art (which could have been an attraction on its own!). His father is obsessed with collecting art and even has a warehouse filled with more paintings.

By the way, the owner’s son was a drop dead gorgeous young Italian. Not that I noticed.

After eating way too much, our hosts brought out coffee and chocolate, the perfect ending to a perfect experience! Wow! Rick Steves really knows how to spend an afternoon in Sicily!

Grazie! Arrivederci!

Back on the bus. Next stop, the beach hill town of Taormina.

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Monday
Taormina reminds me a bit of the Amalfi Coast. Built high on the cliffs over the coast, the views are spectacular. The town is cut by one main street of upscale shops and lots of people. Our guide pointed out significant buildings and gave us the history while we strolled through town. At the end was a huge Roman amphitheater. I normally would have been interested but I’ve seen so many ruins by this time that I was pretty numb. I would like to go back to Taormina sometime and give it another chance. I think it’s a gorgeous city that is worth exploring, perhaps in late October or April when it isn’t as hot and there are fewer crowds. I wanted to venture out and do a boat tour but there’s always next time.

Meet at 6:30 in front of the restaurant for pizza making class!

Two long tables set under the bougainvillea pergola. Perfect weather. A young man in a chefs uniform explaining about dough and tomato sauce. Everyone laughing and enjoying the camaraderie of a group that has traveled together for a week.

The pizzas start hitting the table. Who wants the margherita? Pass me the one with the artichokes. Have you had the spicy one? Oh my gosh, there are more? They keep coming. I can’t eat another bite. Seriously so full I hurt. Oh, there’s tiramisu? Yes, I’ll have one thanks.

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Tuesday
Last full day

Breakfast at 7:00, in front of hotel with bags at 8:30.
Is there such a thing as a pizza hangover? I was definitely over-served last night.

The ride from Taormina to Catania is only an hour. On the bus Virginia provides interesting information about Sicily and Italy during WW2. We stop on the way to visit the WW2 Museum. It’s a nice change to see something in this century after so many ruins. I am struck by how involved the Americans were in “liberating” Sicily. The museum is fascinating.

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Catania is a bit disappointing. Perhaps I am just tired from traveling for almost two weeks. There is a beautiful cathedral and town square. My room is nice (another beautiful marble bathroom!) but the area around the hotel is a bit shabby. I need to pack, so it’s a good excuse to stay in my room and relax until dinner.

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Our Last Night

Our “last supper” was at a seafood restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. As we walked, everyone talked about where they were headed tomorrow. The food and wine, as usual, was plentiful. We laughed and joked like friends who were familiar with each other beyond just a 10 day relationship. I didn’t feel sad the tour was almost over, instead, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience this adventure with these wonderful people.

We said our goodbyes in the lobby of the hotel. I sincerely enjoyed getting to know each and every one of them. The one I will miss the most, however, is Virginia. My first Rick Steves tour guide will always have a special spot in my heart.

Amunami!

Posted by
1846 posts

I am so enjoying your tour right along with you, Annie. I love the way you are presenting your trip report; lots of facts, lots of humor and lots of historical information (as well as good info about the tour mechanics) for anyone thinking of taking this wonderful tour. Caveat: I have taken it twice, I enjoyed Sicily so much! Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts.

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7681 posts

"He said his family does not invite any groups except Rick Steves tours."

THIS is why I do RS tours.

I loved reading your Trip Report. I admit to having to sit on my hands until I was pretty sure you were finished adding. What a fun, fun trip. This tour is on my list of things to do and you might have sold me on it. Maybe the off season one when it's cooler, though!

Thanks for taking the time to write this up and to post. I love the way you broke it up and I'm glad you posted on the Tours forum. Very easy for people to find it when they are contemplating taking a tour.

And, yes, I find RS tours a wonderful way to enjoy solo travel.

Posted by
3372 posts

Annie, thank you so much for posting your trip report! I loved your descriptions and humor throughout - definitely NOT a grump - ha! Hope you could catch your nap on the flight back home as you were dreaming great memories.

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515 posts

What a wonderful tour! Loved reading your description of places and adventures!

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129 posts

Annie, what a great trip report, I took this tour in 2015, it’s still my favorite of 10 RS tours. Your journal/comments brought back great memories. I’m thinking about repeating this tour again - but I’m signed up for South Italy for my next trip. I love Italy!

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51 posts

Thank you for all of your sweet comments! I want to be one who says, "this is my 8th RS tour" or "I'm planning two tours back to back"! What an incredible experience. I can't wait to meet each of you on our future tours!

Posted by
11154 posts

Great report - thanks for taking the time to post it!

Posted by
771 posts

I have already informed my husband that our first RS tour will be Sicily in 2020. Not that he put up a fight. This wonderfully detailed trip report sealed the deal for me. Thanks for taking the time to write it! It sounds just as wonderful as I had hoped.

Posted by
1304 posts

Annie, this was a delight to read. You really brought the trip to life with your words. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by
850 posts

Thanks for posting this, Annie. The Sicily tour has been on my list for a few years now, and your report has definitely raised it in the rankings!

Posted by
91 posts

Annie,

Thank you for the wonderful trip report. Loved your style - so informative and fun to read! I am taking this trip in September and, after reading your trip report, I am more excited than ever!

Posted by
2333 posts

Thanks so much for this great and funny report! We are taking this tour in May 2019 and really looking forward to it. My 8th RS tour, my wife’s 9th. We felt the same about RS tours after our first and it has not changed!

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307 posts

You're a great writer, Annie. I felt like I was right there with you! I've been to Italy once (Sorrento, Rome, Florence) and going again this September to Milan and Florence. Now I want to go to Sicily! Keep up the great work!

Posted by
744 posts

Thanks for the great report. I did this tour a few years ago; interesting to hear the differences your tour had. This is another reason I love Rick’s tours, always updated.

Posted by
744 posts

Thanks for the great report. I did this tour a few years ago; interesting to hear the differences your tour had. This is another reason I love Rick’s tours, always updated.

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51 posts

Yes, I loved Monreale. We were only there for a short visit, but the scenery was gorgeous.

Posted by
2075 posts

What an engaging trip report. And it sounds like a great tour. Thanks for sharing!

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1086 posts

That was a vividly described trip report - I loved it! I could see what you were describing in my mind's eye.

I've been harping to DH about doing an RS tour, and specifically this one, but he's been resistant since we have such great times organizing our own tours. This report seems to have changed his mind. Thank you!!

Nelly, perhaps we can get together a bit of a Canadian contingent for 2020!!

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14 posts

Hi Annie,

Thanks for your post. I’m taking this tour in September and I have a single also. This post helps me get ready by beefing up my weight workouts and doing a lot of incline walking on the treadmill. This will be my fourth RS tour.

Posted by
4018 posts

Annie, what a great report! I'm so glad you had such a wonderful experience your first time out.

We've taken 12 RS tours, and two of them were the Best of Sicily. One was off-season, which at the time had a different itinerary from the "regular" tour. Now both are different from either one we took, as was yours.

Your delight in the tour is palpable, and evidently contagious! And congrats on snagging the great rooms. We won the room jackpot on our last tour; most of our rooms were so great we didn't let anyone see them!

I can't wait for you to take another tour so I can read another of your reports. Thank you.

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40 posts

Hi Annie, thanks for the great recap. Hubby and I are interested in this tour next year.

The activity level is the highest for this tour. What did you experience and did you prepare for such an active tour?

Posted by
2373 posts

Great report. Enjoyed reading it! Thanks for posting it.

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51 posts

I’m loving all of these comments! Thanks so much for your feedback!

Andrea, I can totally relate about planning your own trip. I am the person among my friends who organizes the trips. I take pride in creating great experiences for everyone. So I was hesitant about RS tours. I learned quickly that RS has incredible connections, years of experience, and access to the BEST guides. All I had to do was show up and soak it all in!

gtjackets8083–The Sicily Tour was not overly active. I am pretty high energy so I enjoyed the walking more than the bus. My tour was at the end of May and it was hot, which made it a bit more challenging physically. All in all, even with the pizza and almond cookie pig outs, I lost 5 lbs!

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314 posts

Thank you for such a wonderful trip report! I did this tour in 2015 and it was fun to travel there again with you! You have a wonderful sense of adventure and humor! Hope to have you on a tour I take in the future:)

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272 posts

Well Annie, I'm squealing with delight after reading your tour report. It was so fun to hear about your first RS tour. My first tour was Best of Italy in 17 days and the following tours have all had to live up to that. It was so funny to read about your first full day of travel and waiting for your nap. I've felt that way before! The best answer is to arrive 2-3 days before your tour starts so you can get over the jet lag. But the amount of touring can seem daunting at times. You need to meet my husband. He is huge fan of tiramisu! On our trip of Italy he would order tiramisu at every restaurant that it was available. His favorite tiramisu was at Menaggio on Lake Como. We also ate gelato for lunch on several of our tour dates. The Sicily tour is definitely on my bucket list. I hope to meet you on a future tour. You sound like lots of fun, (definitely not a grump).

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771 posts

@Andrea - let's definitely get some Canadian spirit on this tour! Being Canadian however, we can't take too much heat so we're looking at the February dates. I think average temps of 10-15 Celsius sound delightful!

I've never ever done an organized tour other than day walking tours. But after my recent week driving all around southwestern Ireland, I think I'm very happy to let someone else drive around another big island. I got very tired of driving on tiny twisty roads every day. This sounds so appealing. (Thanks again Annie!)

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1846 posts

For Nelly (and anyone else thinking of taking this tour who doesn't exactly 'flourish' in hot weather....). I have taken the "Off Season/Winter" tour twice, once in mid February and once in late March (over Easter Week). The itineraries were enough different and I loved Sicily so much, it was worth a repeat. For me, the weather was perfect. We did have some rain on the Feb. tour but it was in Sicily, not Colorado, where it would have been snow, so I was more than ok with that. I can't recommend taking this tour (or any other) over a holiday highly enough, particularly during the Easter celebrations. It was amazing; a celebration every night in every town during the entire tour. Easter in Sicily is very different from Easter here; the basics are the same but the observation is very different. I agree that it's not all that challenging. Some hiking but nothing too strenuous. I also lost weight in spite of the most wonderful food, every meal, ever!

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51 posts

Janet—I actually arrived in Europe 4 days before the tour started, so I was already over jet lag. Every day on the tour there was so much to see, learn, and experience that at night I slept HARD. I could have opted out but I didn’t want to miss a thing. But I did constantly yearn for nap time. :)

Posted by
953 posts

Annie -

Great trip report. We were on this tour in April 2016, and it was one of our favorites.

Posted by
1086 posts

Well, I do turn 50 in February of 2020... perhaps I should do so in Sicily!

Posted by
524 posts

Annie, great trip report. Your enthusiasm is infectious. My husband and I took this tour in May 2017, the offseason version. We had wonderful weather, although I did get sunburnt a the Valley of the Temples. Thanks for the memories.

Posted by
5716 posts

As for Monreale, I was really asking about the cathedral and it’s mosaics. Did they live up to your expectations?

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51 posts

Suki—Frankly, I had no expectations. The cathedral and mosaics were spectacular.

Posted by
79 posts

Annie, thanks for the lovely trip report. We have done 3 RS tours. Now Sicily is on our list of future hopefuls!

Ellen

Posted by
52 posts

Annie,
Thank you so much for posting this trip report! My friends and I are planning on taking this trip in November 2019 (we've already put down our deposits) and cannot wait. I'm so glad you got Virginia as well (we had her for our Venice, Florence, Rome trip in November 2016). I cannot wait for Sicily!

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359 posts

Thank you Annie for your wonderful trip report. We have only been on one RS Tour Best of Italy which set the standards high. It is still our favourite vacation ever. Since then we returned to Italia independently and spent 10 night/9days in Sicily as part of our 6 week trip. Our earlier RS tour experience prepared us for travel in Italy so we enjoyed the independence of a car in Sicily while travelling by train and car on the mainland. We came away wanting to return to Sicily and your experiences and TR may have tipped us over the edge to taking this tour instead of Village Italy which also sounds fantastic.

Posted by
4018 posts

Sherry, we've taken both trips, Sicily and Village Italy. They are both great tours. I would rank the VI tour higher, but reading these posts reminds me how much we enjoyed the Best of Sicily.

In other words, you won't go wrong with either.

Posted by
1846 posts

For Sherry-Jane is right. But apparently I felt that way about the Sicily tour since we took it twice; slightly different itineraries (thus different experiences), different tour friends and different guides. Amazing what a difference these things can make! Not to say I wouldn't take a repeat tour of Village Italy, either. It too, was wonderful. As Jane says, "In other words, you won't go wrong with either."

And Annie, thanks again for this terrific trip report. I feel as if I have visited Sicily for a third time! Well, almost....😀

Posted by
73 posts

Oure delight! Your trip report was like a great book. I didnt want it to end. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by
63 posts

Loved your report! Thanks for taking the time to write it.