Don’t tell anyone — my teenagers would die of shame. But my favourite thing about our family villa holiday in Sicily were my 8am Embarrassing Dad nudie swims.
Each morning, ignoring my wife’s protests — ‘Oh really. Must you?’ — I’d stride starkers across the lawn to the cliff at the bottom of our garden, down the flight of steps and — splosh! — launch myself into the Mediterranean.
Then I’d swim out a hundred yards or so and gaze in awe at the empty bay, with its spectacular white rock pillars thrusting up from the sea bed. ‘Wow!’ I’d think. ‘We’ve got this all to ourselves for the whole week.’
James and his family stayed in two sizable Sicilian villas, Baia Faraglioni (pitured) and Apolline
At least that’s how it felt at Baia Faraglioni and Apolline, the villas where we stayed on the unspoilt south-east coast, a two-hour drive from Catania airport.
The ocean view, the private water frontage, the snorkelling bay, the outdoor spa bath. And if you want to push the boat out, you can hire staff.
We hired a cook one night: a jolly, local woman came over with her team and prepared us delicious bruschetta, and spaghetti with prawns and caponata, the ubiquitous (and more-ish) local version of ratatouille, with added celery, capers and olives.
But even self-catering is a pleasure because the local ingredients are so abundant and fantastically good.
So good is the food, in fact, that I almost got into a fight defending Sicily’s gastronomic honour following our only bad meal out, a pizza smeared with tinned tomato in a dodgy tourist hole in Syracuse.
I demanded furiously of the manager whether his Sicilian mother would serve such inauthentic rubbish. Given how touchy Sicilians can be, I was probably lucky to escape with my life.
Glowing: The hilltop town of Ragusa surrounded by the dramatic countryside of Sicily
Almost everyone has occupied Sicily at one time or another — Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Muslims, even the Normans, whose benign rule in the early 12th century under Roger II turned it briefly into an artistic haven.
More often, though, it has been about violence, misery and oppression.
From Phalaris, the baby-eating 6th century BC tyrant who roasted his enemies inside a giant bronze bull through the corrupt, cruel and rapacious Roman governor Verres (eventually undone by Cicero) to the Mafia.
James (pictured) manning the barbecue
Life is certainly a lot more enjoyable for modern day visitors.
To see the sights, we tended to set off in the late afternoon in our hire car on the terrifying roads, normally in time to catch the passeggiata — the evening stroll when Italy’s cities come back to life.
Syracuse (once the world’s largest city) is probably better enjoyed by aerial photograph than it is in the real life: too touristy.
But we fell in love with the precipitous hilltop town of Ragusa (‘Look at the road, Dad. We’ll look at the view’), unassuming Scicli and, most especially, the baroque splendour of Noto, its golden stone glowing in the late afternoon light like a scene in Game Of Thrones.
It’s hard persuading sulky teenagers to take much interest in culture. By the end though, at least one of them had been turned into a ravingly enthusiastic architecture buff, while the other grudgingly conceded that Sicily is better than OK.
That’s a massive vote of confidence, by the way.
British Airways (ba.com, 0344 493 0787) Gatwick to Catania from £105 return.
SoloSicily (solosicily.com, 020 7097 1413) offers a two-centre holiday, staying a week in Villa Apolline and a week at Villa Baia Faraglioni, both near Ispica from £2,724 self-catering.