Sicily, where the people and culture are perhaps even more visceral and explosive than the volcanic geography, offers a host of delights if you are up for powerful experiences. Most visitors settle on a single point - usually the aristocratic and coquettish Taormina - and hardly stir from there beyond perhaps a few hours at sea or visiting the Etna lava fields. But, after all, there are plenty of beautiful beaches in many other corners of the Mediterranean.
What those other corners can't boast is the intense story of this island, set in the middle of the Mare Nostrum, the long parade of history along its coasts, the scattered wealth of monuments and its warm, fun and talented people. So, if you dare, the best plan is to rent a car, get hold of a good map, and set off to explore in the company of friend who'll share the treasures you'll discover and the moments of surrealism and laughter that await you on the island just when you least expect it.
Sicilian roads, particularly in rural areas, are a challenge, and far more of a worry than either the Cosa Nostra, who don't seem to be very interested in tourists, or the spurts of fire that erupt every now and then from the craters of the largest active volcano Europe. (You can climb to the summit, though you'll need to be suitably equipped with good footwear and a fleece even if the sun is blazing down when you set out from the foot of Etna.)
Once you're behind the wheel you should be prepared for problems. You'll probably face your first dilemma at the very first crossroads: either there won't be any sign at all, let alone one indicating where you want to go, or there will be dozens of them, all stacked up, offering you the choice of this highway or that, a host of small towns your map doesn't even show, not to mention one pointing to best bakery in town. (Incidentally, the bakeries are all "honey traps" that you may prefer to avoid if you don't want to pile on the pounds and regret it later.) So it's impossible to take the right turning unless your co-pilot is on-the-ball. Even so, Sicilian driving habits and the bumps and dents that all the local vehicles are covered in are no reason to be intimidated. With the right balance of confidence and caution, the roads will prove far less daunting than their reputation.
The ideal plan would be to fly into Catania and back from Palermo (the island's two international airports) but that may increase the cost of the trip, so it's more common to arrive in and leave from one or other of the cities. That gives you the chance to travel around the entire island - though you'll have to be fast, because Sicily is so big and has so much to see that a single week will leave you wanting more.
Catania - with a host of monuments, but dilapidated beyond words - can be visited in a single afternoon after spending the morning exploring Etna, which is usually covered in cloud in the afternoon. But Palermo, at the other end of the island, is one of those cities that people love or hate with equal passion. And if you're one of those who love the place, you'll find a couple of days is all too little time for you.
The simple experience of the atmosphere of icons and candles in the Church of the Martorana, in the great old town, makes a trip to Sicily worth it. But Palermo, as shady, surreal and chaotic as anywhere, offers far more for those who want to get to know her: the markets, where, above the dirt and the cries of the vendors, fine baroque steeples rise like a vision, the decaying carvings of the thousand and one mansions and private palaces decaying down through the centuries, the workshops in the old neighbourhoods, and all the monumental legacy left behind from the comings and goings of Arabs, Byzantines, Normans and Spanish.
The mark left by the Greeks and Romans is clear in the temples of Agrigento, Selinunte, Segesta, the unmissable city of Syracuse and the even more beautiful Taormina, in whose theatre performances and festivals are held. Also unmissable are the charming small towns and villages such as the fishing village of Cefalu; take time out on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean and enjoy a coffee or one of those glorious ice creams that no one does quite like the Italians. Explore the cobbled streets of Erice, or slow down the pace in one of the lesser-known towns such as Noto, Modica and proud Ragusa, whose centres brim with belfries and steeples, mansions with courtyards filled with flowers and vines, and where old men with caps and walking sticks sit in the shade by panoramic viewpoints that will take your breath away.
If the world of cinema interests you, there are several scenes yoy might want to include on your own road trip. From between the wide cereal fields and olive groves of rural Sicily, rises Palazzo Adriano, where Cinema Paradiso was filmed; Prizzi, with its clear links to the gangster movie directed by John Huston, and of course, Corleone. It may not be particularly impressive, but perhaps it'd be as well to pay your respects to the home town of "Don Vito".
Tips & suggestions:
Catania and Palermo are the island's two international airports. From around £165 on Lastminute you can rent a small car to tour Sicily for a week. If you prefer, most travel agencies will arrange an inclusive package with flights and car rental for a week for around £325 per person, or around £650 € with hotel included.
Where to stay:
The island has many pleasant hotels; here are just a few: San Pietro, part of the Relais & Chateaux group, looks out over the Mediterranean from its setting near the old quarter of Taormina, and offers views of Etna from its best suites; in Palermo, the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes, where Wagner completed "Parsifal", or the Villa Igeia, an art-nouveau mansion popular among royalty and celebrities. If you're looking for something radically different, Valdikam suggest lodging in the houses of real Sicilians, in whose company you can explore the typical cuisine, arts and crafts of the island, as well as enjoying walking trails and a selection of the most imaginative themed activities in rural Sicily.
The Italian Tourist Office or the Sicilian Tourist Office.