Hotel Signum- A Review By Punam Mohandas
The Hotel Signum on Salina in the Aeolian islands of Sicily is quite simply one of the most unusual properties I have ever visited. Effortlessly marrying the B&B style with upscale luxury as well as heritage, it is a unique boutique hotel that, to my mind, has no parallel.
The owner, Signora Clara, is a quiet, softspoken lady with an indomitable will. I am always filled with admiration for resort owners who take the trouble – as well as the initiative – to adapt the local ethos and culture within their plans, who are extremely mindful of the pristine environment they inhabit and are conscious that construction within is going to bring with it its own liabilities and therefore, try and minimise the damage by adhering to the existing building and architectural norms. I have only ever seen this once before – at the Elounda Mare in Crete – and I am remarkably pleased to find the same state here.
To access the Hotel Signum, the taxi or car must needs be parked on the narrow main lane that runs through the village. From here, one takes little winding paths that run past houses until one suddenly stumbles on the wooden, open doors at the end of one of these paths that is indeed, the Hotel Signum! It is all very quaint and storybook-like! Step into the really small drawing room that has space for a wooden desk and just two chairs and serves as the Reception, where one is warmly greeted by Annalisa and Gianni and allora!one is home!
Hotel Signum has 28-rooms and three suites; the latter are brand new and still in the stage of being fully furnished. Signora Carla bought the land in phases, as a result of which there are different building blocks set on gentle slopes, dotted here and there with bushes of wild fennel, rosemary, capers and lemon and orange trees. The hotel has its own herb and kitchen garden and practically all the produce for the meals is homegrown.
The rooms are divided into the following categories: Classic (18sqm); Superior (20sqm); Deluxe (22sqm); Deluxe with terrace (22sqm); Executive Deluxe with terrace (22sqm); Suites with no terrace and Suites with terrace (40sqm) The sea view rooms start with the Deluxe category. In the typically Sicilian empathetic and hospitable way, given the size of the hotel, there are also two rooms for the physically challenged.
The rooms are accessed by narrow winding paths or staircases, and all have the traditional Sicilian shutters and “half” doors, i.e.the doors can be opened halfway from the top to middle too, while the bottom remains latched. Signora Clara scouts around for these and other antiques to ensure that the Signum stays as true to traditional style as possible. The rooms are in simple, Sicilian country style, all whites and bieges, with handwoven rugs; simple, but aesthetically pleasing. I stayed in two different room categories to experience the contrast. The Deluxe with terrace is small and rustic, with the typical Sicilian shuttered windows, no fan – albeit air conditioning – and a pull chain flush. The terrace is a small patio with breathtaking sea views and ripening grape clusters just above my head! Verdant shrubs with large, sunny yellow lemons ripe for the plucking lead to the Executive Deluxe, which is a much bigger room with a double bed as well as sofa-cum-bed and a vintage ceiling fan. The bathroom here is completely modern, with stone flooring.
The suites have come up in an ancient house and Signora Clara has retained all the stone tiled flooring, thick, wooden overhead beams, kitchen and old-style chimney. The dressers and cabinets too are antiques. All of them have some subtle style differences; while all have bathtubs, one of them has a sunken stone one reminiscent of the Roman style. This one also has a long, narrow balcony with panoramic sea views, while the other two have terraces.
All rooms come equipped with minibar, electronic safe, TV’s, hair dryers, slippers and bathrobes. Tea/coffee maker is available on request. (Suggestion: body moisturiser and hair conditioner should be part of the toiletries.) There is free wifi all over the hotel.
F&B includes the 60-covers Terrace Bar, a circular space overlooking the sea, that is open from 3pm until midnight. The adjacent 40-cover, open-air Signum restaurant serves Sicilian specialities for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (There is also a separate, 30-covers indoor restaurant for when it rains.) It has a thatched roof supported by wooden beams, ceramic (ceramic production is big on the island as the clay here has the unique mix that is required for it) dining tables with blue colour tiles at the corners and centre, offset by wrought iron chairs. The Signum restaurant is further enhanced by the recent addition of a Michelin star this April! That’s right, Martina, Signora Clara’s daughter and the executive chef, has just won this accolade and brought pride to the entire island; many locals stopped me to ask if I had eaten here yet, as it is now a Michelin starrer. Indeed I did; Martina uses the local produce skilfully to produce some nouvelle cuisine, including a capers ice cream! (Suggestion: Apart from the chef’s creations, the menu would benefit from including local Sicilian specialties….perhaps ancient and traditional recipes sourced through lore.)
Entertainment options – hmm. You mean apart from gazing out at the spectacular seascape and quiet sunsets which one never tires of? There is a small, inner bar with a chessboard, and a room known as the Library that is just meant for quiet contemplation and to relax in, filled with books, a piano as well as a computer for guest use. There is also a decent sized swimming pool with no time restriction.
The Signum Spa, which has come up on the ruins of an ancient Roman spa, offers quite a few unusual, advanced and enriching therapies. Indoors, it has two treatment rooms with curtained partitions and single beds. The main treatment highlights here are the orange or lavender flowers or almond milk baths, in a copper tub. The signature Signum Salina massage is done with crushed capers, sea salt and olive oil. It serves as a scrub as well as a moisturiser and one feels quite deliciously soft and supple all over. The masseuse recommends that one have a light shower and not wash away all the oil, to give it more time for the skin to soak in all the richness of the olives.
There are two outdoor geo-thermal jacuzzis with the water coming out directly from underground springs; there are lots of minerals present in the water on the Aeolian islands. Salina has more of magnesium, while Vulcano has more of sulphur. One of the jacuzzis is in a pool filled with salt water, so that is thalasso therapy right there. Rough hewn stone steps across from it and off to one side lead down to a Turkish hammam. The spa also offers a ‘Kneipp’ walk – a walk in waist-high water that is first hot and then icy cold, to stimulate the blood circulation.
Overhead, all around outside, are fat bunches of grapes, while the entrance to the spa is redolent with the heady fragrance of jasmine. The hotel supplies the flowers for two exclusive perfumes, one more delicate, for morning use and the other more potent, for the evening. The Signum also supplies capers, oranges and lemons to a manufacturer, to be made into body products exclusive to the hotel.
The spa is open to non-resident guests as well as casual diners at the restaurant, although priority of course is given to in-house guests. Many of the locals come simply to use the thalasso pool.
Quite a few B&B’s on Salina surprisingly, although the Signum remains the most exclusive and priced property on the island. What sets the Signum even further apart is that their hospitality does not end at spa treatments or Michelin meals. Signora Clara most kindly requested the good-natured and ever smiling Santino and his Australian wife Libby, to take me around, from where I was introduced to the Malvasia wine produced from tiny Malfa, caper preserves and its production process from Sapori Eoliani in Pollara and Alberto’s famous granitas at Lingua (more on these later, in my travelogue.)
The Signum is mainly family run and you find the many members popping in and out throughout the day, greeting all guests with a smile and some personal asides. Luca, the son, manages the office while daughter Martina, as mentioned, is the chef. Signora Clara’s husband can often be seen in the distance, supervising the suites or else checking the kitchen gardens. Her nephew, Raffaelo, mans the bar, along with his German fiancee Josephine; both are young, chirpy and friendly. The entire restaurant staff is helpful, and seeing Graziella’s smiling face at breakfast is sure to set your day right.
Although one really does not like leaving the utter tranquility of Salina: can you imagine any other place in this madding world that has one small store, one butchery, one bakery and THREE gelato (ice cream) outlets – this, if nothing else, tells you where the priorities of the locals lie! – where the post office is in a home, where old men sit sunning themselves on a bench in the square and eating a gelato, where life thrums along serenely, at its own pace, where the church Angelus tolls out the hour of the day….well, as I said, if you must go around, then check out the Virgona vineyards for the Malvasian wine, the Sapori Eoliani or the house in Pollara where the movie Il Postino was filmed. Salina and its surrounding villages are remarkably scenic and serene….quite literally where Time has stood still.
To get to the Hotel Signum, you can fly into Catania or Palermo airports in Sicily; in any case you need to tie up with a hydrofoil operator. If you fly into Catania, you need to take a bus till the port Milazzo, from whence you will get aboard a hydrofoil; Palermo is simpler as it is a port, and so you avoid the bus trip. Once at the Salina pier, it is about a ten minute car ride to the Hotel Signum.
TEL: +39 0909844222
FAX: +39 0909844102
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author.