With 36 holes of championship golf and a stylish five-star hotel, Sir Rocco’s Forte’s Verdura Resort has single-handedly put Sicily on the golfing map
Words by Matt Nicholson
When someone with the reputation in the hospitality world as Sir Rocco Forte decides that he wants to build a golf resort, you know it’s going to be good.
That is exactly what happened around the start of the new millennium when, after an exhaustive search, the world-famous hotelier found what he was looking for – a spectacular plot of land on the south west coast of the volcanic Italian island of Sicily.
Things were not exactly plain sailing from there, as Sir Rocco encountered numerous problems in an eight-year planning battle with local officials in his bid to obtain the necessary permits. But as you can imagine for a man who, when working with the Trust Houses Group, had responsibility for more than 800 hotels, 1,000 restaurants and almost 100,000 employees, and now co-owns the luxury Rocco Forte Hotels group, he wasn’t going to let a bit of red tape stand in the way of his achieving his dream.
The final result is the five-star Verdura Resort; a 500-acre site nestling adjacent to the azure waters of the Mediterranean which opened in 2009 and features an extensive range of luxury sports and leisure facilities, restaurants, bars, and two 18-hole championship courses.
Located on the southern coast of the island, a 90-minute drive west from Palermo airport, Verdura occupies a spectacular, mile-long beachfront spot overlooking the Mediterranean. Offering 203 rooms and 50 suites, the luxury resort boasts a wide range of sports and leisure facilities, including six tennis courts, a 60m two-tiered infinity pool, a 170sqm gym and a 4,000 square metre spa complex.
Guests can sample an authentic taste of traditional Sicily with an array of dishes at one of the resort’s seven restaurants and five bars – with fresh, organic produce sourced straight from Verdura’s own gardens. In addition, visitors can enjoy an array of cultural and culinary experiences where they can discover the secrets of Sicilian cooking and taste the many famous wines of the region. There is also plenty to keep the younger members of the family entertained, with dedicated kids and teen clubs providing a variety of activity programmes throughout the year.
But golf is the reason we’re here. A member at Sunningdale for 45 years, and also a member of The R&A, The Wisley and New Zealand Club, Sir Rocco is a self-confessed golf obsessive, so it was no surprise that the 12-handicapper turned to the services of one of golf’s leading course architects, Kyle Phillips – who designed Kingsbarns in Scotland and The Grove in London – to create his three courses – the East, West and a nine-hole par-three course. Built to the highest specifications, a composite course of the East and West was used when Verdura hosted the European Tour’s Sicilian Open in 2012 – and again from 2017-18, although the tournament is sadly no longer on the schedule.
After picking up some useful inside tips on how to tackle the East Course from Director of Golf Antonio Castelo over a leisurely lunch in the hotel’s excellent Liola restaurant – the pizzas are not to be missed – we headed out to the first tee in a freshening breeze, excited, yet slightly nervous about what lay in store.
The East Course has been completely renovated since it first opened in 2009, with Kyle Phillips making the most of the closures caused by the Covid lockdowns to complete the work in 2021.
Having not played the course in its original state, it’s hard to make meaningful comparisons, but the result is a stunning links-inspired layout that features new putting surfaces, additional bunkering and manicured fairways lined by rough featuring native grasses. With views of the Mediterranean from almost every hole, the setting is as magical as the flow of the design, which first takes you inland, before sweeping out to the shoreline, with the coastal stretches from 5-7 and 12-14 being obvious highlights. The 6th, a short par-4 which sits hard by the sea, and the par-3 13th, which is also adjacent to the water, would be my two personal favourite holes, but any number could be regarded as ‘signature’, such is the strength in depth of the design. Requiring creativity, accuracy and a sense of adventure, Phillips has created a superb course that makes you think before every shot and demands total concentration to score well. Factor in the wind, and you have a course that can, and has tested the best.
After my round I checked into my room in the hotel, where I was greeted by a jaw-dropping view from my balcony of the sea and the golf course and I had just played. The room was luxuriously furnished and generously sized, with the bathroom alone being the size of a standard double room in most hotels. The rooms are divided into Superior Deluxes, Classic Suites and Grand Suites – the latter come with central courtyards reminiscent of Roman villas. The Deluxe Rooms and Junior Suites have sea-facing terraces rather than gardens, and all are done out in a warm contemporary Sicilian style, with rich earthy colours and much use of natural materials – stone bathroom fixtures, wooden four-poster beds and ceramic tiles.
After a quick shower, it was off to the fine dining restaurant Zagara for dinner, which serves exquisite Mediterranean food and was every bit as good as I’d hoped, with a mouth-watering selection of local and seasonal dishes, with freshly caught grilled fish and a prawn ceviche being a highlight, along with some superb Sicilian wines.
The following morning, after a relaxing sleep and a reviving breakfast at Café Buongiorno, I slung my golf bag on my back and hopped on one of the many bicycles that are freely available to guests to make the three-minute ride to meet my playing partners on the first tee of the West Course.
A little more undulating than the East, standout holes for me were the loop from the eighth to the 12th, and the seaside finish, which builds to a crescendo and finishes beneath the clubhouse. Each hole stands alone on merit – the long, ridge-top par-three 12th is a hole of simple design and beauty, but one of the hardest par-threes you’ll play – before the round finishes in breathtaking style with two memorable the par-fours. The 17th requires an approach up to a sloping green set deep into hillside, while the stunning 18th then takes you back in the opposite direction towards the clubhouse, with the glistening Mediterranean waiting on your right to swallow up any errant drives or second shots.
As you would expect for a Tour-level venue, the practice facilities are outstanding too, with a double-ended driving range and excellent academy providing the ideal complement to the courses. Visitors can save on airline charges and leave their clubs at home, too, with the resort having invested in a significant upgrade of its club rental services, with two-round hire packages starting from €40.
After the round we had lunch at the pool bar overlooking the stunning outdoor swimming pool, after which I decided to get back on my bike and visit the resort’s impressive spa and use the Technogym to burn off some of those lunchtime calories. The spa features four outdoor thalassotherapy pools, while its treatment rooms offer the usual mix of massages and facials, and form part of a wellness centre whose facilities would be hard to improve on.
Before dinner we were treated to a drink – or two – in the hotel’s stylish Granita Bar, where bar manager and resident mixologist Cristian Concari conjures up a range of superb cocktails. Cristian spent many years in London working in the capital’s finest bars and I can thoroughly recommend trying out one of his specials, including the Zafferano, which is made from oak-smoked whiskey, lemon juice and a homemade saffron syrup. After that we headed to the resort’s beachside Amare restaurant, where we dined on an amazing seafood platter as the sun went down.
The following day, our last at the resort, I managed to squeeze in another quick 18 holes on the East Course – which went up even more in my estimation second time around, even if my golf wasn’t quite so good.
As we had an early flight the following morning, we headed back to Palmero for the final night, staying in another luxury Rocco Forte hotel, the five-star Villa Igiea, a 120-year-century palazzo, with turrets and colonnades, which is perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Med. All of the 78 huge and elaborately decorated rooms and suites – designed by Sir Rocco’s sister, Olga Polizzi – boast amazing sea views, and the whole hotel experience proved a wonderful way to finish a trip that will linger long in the memory.
A three-night stay in a double room at Verdura, including three rounds of golf and daily breakfast, costs from €312pp for booking made between now and November 12. For more details, visit www.roccofortehotels.com.