Why Sicily is a must-see destination in Italy

Sicily is not the first place you'd think of when planning a snorkelling trip but it's one of the best snorkelling experiences I have ever had and it's well worth a trip for many other reasons.

I flew into Catania, Sicily, on a 5am flight from Malta and my first experience of Sicily was huge, fist-sized, conical arancini waiting in the local cafes for my breakfast.

These are nothing like the tiny balls of fried rice you see in Australia. Sicilian arancini is a meal in itself and a delicious one at that. Saffron-infused rice, crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, covers delectable fillings of ragu, peas and mozzarella cheese. They are huge and very filling. After this breakfast, I knew Sicily was going to be a great experience.

Delicious Sicilian arancini. Photo: Nicole Phillips

Delicious Sicilian arancini. Photo: Nicole Phillips

Catania itself is a spectacular city of Baroque and Rococo architecture, sitting in the shadow of Mount Etna, Sicily's still active volcano. We stayed right in the city centre near the Piazza del Duomo, a large town square fringed by fabulous architectural specimens and monuments.

The food and fish market, just off the del Duomo is a wonderful opportunity for photography, an all-senses, immersive experience. There is a huge range of fish species, pesce to the locals, including calamari, octopus, prawns, sardines and many species I had never seen before. I tried to not think of how we're over-fishing the world's oceans as I enjoyed this experience.

Catania's Piazza del Duomo with Mt. Etna in the background. Photo: Nicole Phillips

Catania's Piazza del Duomo with Mt. Etna in the background. Photo: Nicole Phillips

Beautifully fresh fruits and vegetables and colourful spices are also a part of this market. My partner and I bought fresh, crisp grapes and enjoyed them as we wandered around in the humid heat of the Sicilian summer.

But back to snorkeling. After visiting Mt. Etna and the three Baroque towns of Noto, Modica and Ragusa, we caught a train from Catania up to the town of Taormina. This is a trip of 1 hour and 35 minutes following the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean along the Sicilian coast.

The markets of Catania. Photo: Nicole Phillips

The markets of Catania. Photo: Nicole Phillips

A quick taxi drive from the historic Taormina station took us to our accommodation overlooking Isola Bella. Isola Bella is tiny island nature reserve in a beautiful bay with a rocky, narrow path connecting it to the mainland. As budget travelers, we were thrilled to be upgraded to the top apartment in our hotel which included a large patio with an expansive view of the bay and Isola Bella.

Be warned, the beaches here are stony. They don't have golden sand like we do in Australia and it's hard going on the feet, especially feet which have been in shoes all Australian winter. It was torture walking on the narrow band of stones out to Isola Bella and I wished I had a pair of thongs or waterproof sandals. However, all pain was forgotten once I got underwater. It's like no other place I've ever snorkelled; and I've snorkelled all over the world including the Maldives and the Great Barrier Reef.

Isola Bella from hotel balcony. Photo: Nicole Phillips

Isola Bella from hotel balcony. Photo: Nicole Phillips

Huge boulders, and I mean HUGE, lie littered on the seabed, thrown no doubt from eruptions of Mount Etna which is close by or by whatever it was that thrust Isola Bella up out of the water. They are so big you can't see the sea floor in many places and have fallen over each other like the Gods have been playing a giant game of dominoes. I feel like a Lilliputian swimming around in a land of the giants.

The sunlight streams down through the clear water, illuminating the boulders and hundreds of tiny silver fish swimming around in large schools. I presume these are sardines or anchovies or sprats but am not really sure. Some of the rocks closer to shore are covered in a carpet of seagrass, those further out are largely bare. There are giant clefts between the rocks where fish go to rest and it's easy for humans to grab onto a rock and have a rest, too.

The stone beaches of Isola Bella. Photo: Nicole Phillips

The stone beaches of Isola Bella. Photo: Nicole Phillips

You can snorkel around the entire island and it's easy to lose a day swimming in this wonderland. We make camp on the stony beach of Isola Bella and explore the island. Long abandoned buildings have been made into a museum detailing the history of the island. Braving the stones back to the mainland, there are cafes and restaurants along the bay where you can hire a deckchair and relax on something more comfortable than stones. But the real attraction here is snorkelling and we spend many hours swimming around Isola Bella, captivated by the large schools of silver fish and the enormity of the randomly strewn boulders.

We spend three glorious days here, snorkelling, sightseeing and and enjoying a good feed of arancini for every breakfast. We reluctantly hop on the train at Taormina to travel to mainland Italy. We are in awe as the train is put on the ferry to cross the Strait of Messina over to Calabria and we note that when we get to mainland Italy, the arancini are tiny in comparison to the Sicilian ones. Sicily has been a truly wonderful experience, especially the snorkelling (and arancini).