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Sicily for Bambini: A Family Holiday with Damian and Helen – Aug 1, 2010

Playtime, Pampering and Pasta

by Helen McCrory | British Airways Highlife | August 1, 2010

Damian and children practice sword fighting in the castle ruins, Caltabellotta (Courtesy of Helen McCrory)

Actors Helen McCrory and husband Damian Lewis plus their two children head to Sicily for playtime, pampering and pasta.

‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a wrap!’ It’s 1am and I’m standing in a disused industrial park in London in the rain. We’ve been filming the same ten lines for hours now and even the writer has fallen out of love with the scene. But who cares. In 12 hours, I shall be sitting by the pool in Rocco Forte’s Sicilian Verdura Golf & Spa Resort for a week of pampering, peace, pasta and a bit of good old-fashioned shuteye.

My husband Damian and I both know Italy well, but I have never visited Sicily. Damian went there some years ago with a mate on an Edwardian-style grand tour, when he’d quickly learnt the all-important phrase ‘Posso avere una camera con due letti, per favore’ — which translates as ‘a single room with two separate beds, please’ — after they had been presented with a luxurious double bed on their first night. But they stayed in the northern part of the island and Verdura is on the southwest coast between Sciacca, a fishing port, and Agrigento, home to some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world. The resort also has a children’s crèche, and we have a three-year-old, Manon, and a two-year-old, Gulliver, with energy levels that would put even the Sicilians’ famous love of children to the test. It sounds perfect.

We fly to Catania, where we pick up our car to drive across the island east to west. What a way to see Sicily. Spring has definitely sprung as we drive past orange groves, goatherds and vineyards all under a bright blue sky. With the aid of my superb map reading, we arrive three hours later at the resort’s gate, from which you look down over the golf courses onto the spa, the hotel and the sea. We don’t leave the resort for three days. Our suite has its own entrance with steps leading down to a private, secluded courtyard (perfect for drying wet swimming costumes and nude sunbathing), which in turn opens up into a large elegant sitting room overlooking the ocean, a butler’s kitchen and two bedrooms, each with an en-suite bathroom.

Helen and family at Verdura Resort (Courtesy of Helen McCrory)

For me, the suite is the highlight of the hotel. The interior design is beautiful, all nude colours, cool polished concrete floors, contemporary four-poster beds swathed in muslin and a bath that you can lie in at night and see the stars over the olive trees. On our private terrace we have a hammock, loungers and a dining table, at which we frequently eat supper to the sound of the sea and the shouts of ‘fore’. This is a golf resort too, remember.

I, however, head straight to the spa, a fantastically sci-fi affair with white plastic bubble chaises longues, white marble floors, a bleach-white ceiling and therapists dressed in regulation white. My pale gleaming English body blends in perfectly. You could, and people do, spend days wandering from treatment room to treatment room, sinking into deeper and deeper states of relaxation — there are more than 20 facials alone. But I am a low-maintenance girl and too much dazed smiling makes me twitchy. My two treatments are excellent and I’m done.

What we do use every day is the spa’s indoor pool to teach the children to swim, or rather to teach the children they can’t swim in an attempt to curb their urge to throw themselves into every passing patch of water. Lots of other parents do the same. There are set pool times for children (the childless guests will be delighted to hear) and it is a nice way for them to meet each other and play.

After much persuasion (Me: ‘Do you want to play some golf?’ Damian: ‘I’ve already booked a round with the professional tomorrow’), Damian gallantly sets off for a couple of rounds in the name of research. Any golf widow reading this will know the real problem with golf is that it takes so long. Not so when Kyle Phillips has designed two 18-hole championship courses wrapped around the hotel. Yes, it’s four hours, but hell, it’s not seven. And being stuck on a beach with waiter service is hardly a hardship. The course overlooking the sea is excellent, as is the pro, and the next day Damian forms a pair with another delighted dad.

A lot of people visit for the golf, including our favourite guests. They are a party of four, two retired German couples, who breakfast at nine, are on the course for ten then, after play, sit outside one of the resort’s five bars drinking bottles of wine and laughing their heads off. They are having such a thoroughly good time I vow to put more into my pension when I get home.

Damian also has a couple of tennis lessons. I do not venture into the sports facilities, nor do I ever, but it is great to feel my inadequacies do not mean Damian can’t enjoy charging about. We visit the children’s club daily, but leave our two there by themselves for only one hour during our stay. It’s run by two lovely women, both called Angie, one from London who is bilingual and one from Italy who speaks five languages. Manon and Gulliver enjoy pottering about there but are just as happy scouring the grass for snails or adopting caterpillars and ladybirds.

It is then I realise why families stay in resorts — time stands still. You have all the time in the world to be with your children, because all the energy you might put into driving to the beach, eventually finding that nice restaurant and saving the children from falling under the wheels of a car is spent walking to your own beach and ordering lunch from the poolside. Our kids couldn’t give two hoots about variety — all they want is time to play with us. Which is what we do.

After a few days of pottering around the resort, we decide to explore. There is plenty to do nearby. In Sciacca we stroll through the Moorish alleys and eat superb monkfish, before plying the children with ice creams and wandering along the dockside. We drive up winding roads to the cloud-swathed village of Caltabellotta and sword fight our way up into the Norman castle. Another day we visit the city of Palermo, a fascinating mix of inspiring architecture and ramshackle chaos, hard with little ones but worth it.

We see only a fraction of what Sicily has to offer but we would return in a flash. The children are welcomed wherever we go, which makes an enormous difference if you don’t want to spend your entire time eating in pizza joints and avoiding galleries.

When we first arrived at Verdura, it was hard to ignore that it was still being finished. The vegetation is patchy and tractors trundle along the beach pouring in the sand (the beach is naturally pebbled). But it has wonderful potential. And the food, though good, is pricey: £50 a head for the buffet means supper for four is steep. But these are teething problems, which are being addressed. It’s a great idea — the first five-star luxury resort on the Mediterranean — and the amount of families staying proves it’s a service that people want. It’s almost there. Sicily couldn’t be a better place to offer it.

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