Exclusive Guest Article from John Bantin: Persia Learns To Dive

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My youngest daughter, Persia, first expressed an interest in learning to dive while we were on holiday at Taba in Egypt. She was then only nine-years-old. Notwithstanding that, my I entrusted old friend Mohammed Ali, the manager of the AquaSport dive centre, with looking after the well being of our little girl. He is a highly intelligent and sophisticated man and the conditions in the sea at Taba are extremely benign.

They went for a try-dive together on the shallow house reef. I followed at a discreet distance, watching more out of curiosity than anything else. She was never aware that I was there. Although all the equipment seemed much too big for her, she seemed to manage OK and returned full of enthusiasm for the underwater world. She seemed to be able to remember every creature she had seen. We had found her a wetsuit that was a perfect fit for her slim child’s build so she didn’t suffer getting chilled.

“That was fun. I saw an angelfish, an eel and lots of orange fish. I even saw a puffer fish,” she boasted.

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A couple of years later, we found ourselves on holiday in Grenada at the True Blue Bay resort where Aquanauts of Grenada has its headquarters. We booked Persia on to a PADI junior open-water diver course while we grown-ups went off diving. She sat through the PADI videos and studied the manual.

“I couldn’t understand it properly. It was all in American,” the eleven-year-old complained later, but she stuck it out in front of the video monitor in a rather tropically warm classroom, resolutely determined to do what was required of her.

One way or another she managed to scramble through the theory. It was the same with the pool work. I took some photographs of her learning and acted as an informed observer. She loved it.

“It was easy-peasy! I thought Reece was very clear. He didn’t rush me. He would ask me if I was comfortable doing each skill and if I wanted to, I had time to try again.”

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Persia is very at home in the water and I guess Reece had taught a lot of people with greater problems than she had. However, she had taken on board the fact that it was Reece who was teaching her and was determined to keep her parents at a distance.

When we set off in the boat for her first sea dive she would not let us near her, constantly telling us that she had to set up her gear all by herself without any help. This was admirable and by now she certainly knew how to do it. Neither did she exhibit any fear of jumping into the water from the boat while fully loaded with scuba kit. However, she did look a little serious if not nervous on the journey out to the dive site. My wife and I are not anxious types and let her get on with it.

The first dive was a shallow dive of around only 6m deep and I took photographs of her and Reece as they swam around. The water was warm and clear. She enjoyed an hour underwater and cleared her mask and regulator when she was asked to and seemed to be very competent.

While she was busy looking at things and exploring, she looked to be completely natural but as soon as she was required to do a task she became tense and focussed on the job in hand to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, but that is how it is when you first learn anything.

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I photographed her climbing back on board the boat and her ready smile was evidence of her feeling of achievement. I thought she looked cold but triumphant that she had done a real dive.

Persia then went on several more dives. Nurse sharks can often be found lying hidden among the coral structures during daylight hours and Reece was concentrating on finding one for his latest trainee to see.

“We saw one under a rock. Reece tried to get me to touch its tail but I was too scared to,” she explained gleefully.

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One year later, Persia went with me to Camel Dive Club in Na’ama Bay, in Egypt’s Sinai. Camel is a Diver Magazine’s Dive Centre of the Year. After a relaxed first day in the superb scuba training pool at the Camel Hotel, brushing on her scuba skills, we went together day-boat diving under the watchful eye of a Camel instructor and added a further ten sea dives to her logbook.

During these dives at the reefs in the Tiran Straits and at Ras Mohammed, she had close encounters with numerous large hawksbill turtles, schooling batfish, Napolean wrasse, moray eels, triggerfish, blue-spotted rays, an electric ray, colourful nudibrachs, puffer fish, angel fish and there was no end to the number of anemone fish, but the masses of half-and-half chromis fish proved to be her favourites.

The water was a lot cooler than in the Caribbean and we had to persuade her to wear and extra layer of neoprene in the form of a shortie suit over her 3mm one-piece but everyone was patient and kindly so that the junior diver and her instructor formed an almost unbreakable bond.

I was pleased to see that Persia had a perfect understanding of buoyancy control, better than most adults, and she had really got the measure of her equipment. Not only that but she was given a diving computer, which she immediately demonstrated that she understood. She made incredibly slow and controlled ascents over the last few metres, never failing to observe a three-minute safety stop at 5m and never straying below 18m, the depth-limit for a Junior Open Water Diver.

Overall, she had a great time at Camel and forever spoke fondly of the experience for months afterwards. The twelve-year-old was now a proper scuba diver. It’s great to share an activity like this with your children.

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Happy Diving – John Bantin

 

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Exclusive Guest Article From John Bantin: Palau

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Palau, a land of reefs and relics from WW2.

With connections via the American island of Guam or Tapei in Taiwan, nowadays it’s not difficult to get to the islands of Palau even if they do seem very far from the UK. The biggest island, Babeldaob, sounds like it featured in Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but the main town is situated on Koror and linked by a famous new bridge. It’s famous because the first modern bridge that was built here not so very long ago fell down, giving international lawyers a field day deciding who was to blame.

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The islands have had a reputation for good diving almost since scuba was invented. That’s because this tropical archipelago in Micronesia lies at the confluence of the mighty Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Sea.

Nutrients brought in by the various currents feed a wide variety of marine life. There’s simply so much to see. During my initial visit many years ago, I found myself doing more than thirty dives from a liveaboard dive boat in my first week and worried that my second week shore-based might be a little boring. After all, I thought I’d seen everything Palau had to offer – but I hadn’t. What sets Palau apart is the sheer variety of its diving. There’s so much of it.

You may have heard of the famous wall dives like Blue Corner, the Ngemelis dropoff  (or Big Drop) and Peleliu Cut where blacktip and grey reef sharks endlessly patrol the margins and huge Napoleon wrasse haunt the back reef.

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The sharks enjoy the ocean currents because it means they don’t need to continuously swim to force water through their gills. We divers find it best to hook to the substrate of the reef and, securely attached by a line, inflate our BCs a little so that we fly above the reef effortlessly while we watch the show.

You may know of the channel dives such as German Channel or Ulong Channel with their manta cleaning stations. German Channel was cut through Palau’s barrier reef when it was under German administration at the beginning of the 20th Century. It gave ships access to the lagoon at Koror. More than a hundred years later it looks an entirely natural phenomenon cluttered with corals and giant clams.

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Once you’ve grown tired of looking at big fishes and burgeoning coral reefs, Palau still has more surprises to offer. The rock islands of Palau have that unusual head-of-broccoli look thanks to a marine organism that eats away at their bases in the tidal zone.

I’ve often climbed the steep sides of the island, Eil Malk. It features a seawater lake in its centre. Water may seep from the ocean through crevices in the rock but animals are trapped and a vast population of jellyfish has evolved without long tentacles or a sting because they no longer needed such a defence. During the night they lie in deep water but come sun-up they propel themselves into the shallows so that the symbiotic algae within them can receive enough sunlight for photosynthesis.

It’s great fun to snorkel in amongst these harmless creatures, each the size more or less of a tennis ball, and one could scuba if you could find someone to lug your scuba gear up the steep incline to the lake. That said, be aware that deeper there lies a bacterial layer of anoxic water laced with high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide so, if you do use scuba, stay shallow or you may get sick.

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Near Blue corner is the Blue Hole. It’s a cathedral sized cavern formed by the reef with a four vertical chimneys providing apertures at the top that allow the tropical sun to stream down in dancing shafts of light. Equally spacious, Chandelier Cave is a true cave with stalactites and stalagmites. There is no natural light once you’re away from the entrance do it’s quite daunting to enter at first and you need a reliable underwater lamp, but there are lots of air spaces where divers can surface and hold conversations about the wonder of it all.

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During WW2, Palau provided the Japanese navy with an important forward operating base. You may recall that General MacArthur fought an ill-thought-out battle to take Peleliu island because it had an airstrip and cost the lives of an awful lot of young men in doing so. The main lagoon at Koror was used as a natural harbour and in 1944 nearly forty Japanese ships were destroyed during an American air strike called Operation Desecrate One. The Americans mined the channel so that all but a few of the ships were trapped and their remains still lie in the relatively shallow lagoon.

In 2004, sixty years after the event, I was privileged to dive with Tomimatsu Ishikawa, the Chief Engineer of the fleet-oiler, Iro. He escaped when his burning vessel went down, but as an old man in his late ’eighties, we took him diving on his old ship so you can say he survived its sinking twice. You can read about it in my book Amazing Diving Stories. Although the visibility in the lagoon is less good than out on the reefs, it makes for interesting diving on a wide variety of WW2 vessels that lie in this watery grave although not all are safe to dive or have even been properly identified.

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The question always arises whether it is better to dive Palau from a liveaboard dive boat or to be based on the shore and access the dive sites by fast skiff. The hotels in Koror are by no means luxurious unless you stay somewhere like the fabulous yet expensive Palau Pacific Resort. However, there are lots of dive operators with Fish ’n Fins probably the longest established and now efficiently run by Navot and Tova. Palau is tidal so it’s important to dive the sites when the conditions are right and they know when and where to send you diving.

If you prefer to be on a liveaboard, the beautifully clean Ocean Hunter III is owned and operated by the same couple, together with the much smaller Ocean Hunter that may be a little cramped but only carries a handful of divers at any one time. Tova is something of a gourmet chef (she’s written books on the subject) so it’s no surprise to discover that the food onboard both these vessels is nothing short of excellent. Having the owners living on the spot makes a huge difference to any liveaboard operation. Standards are maintained to the high level set by the owners yet they can take advantage of the skills of local skippers who understand the prevailing sea conditions.

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Be sure to take an underwater camera with you when you diving in Palau. You’ll be diving reefs and wrecks, lakes and lagoons, seawater caves and even the remains of a Jake seaplane, sunk at its moorings in 1944.

If you’re interested in WW2 relics, when you’ve done diving there’s plenty to see around Koror and Peleliu. Go to Peleliu and marvel at the way so many young American marines gave their lives in taking the well-established gun emplacements that still remain. Take a jeep and drive around the hinterland of Korar and stumble across battle tanks abandoned and left to rust. It’s a thought-provoking experience.

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Happy Diving – John Bantin

The Best Places to Learn to Dive – Part Two: The Mediterranean –

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It looks like Part One of the ‘Best Places to Learn to Dive’ series was very popular! Thank you to all who have and will read it; I hope it was of help. A special ‘thank you’ to Sykose Extreme Sports News for re-blogging the post.

While I did say that there would be two posts, I must confess that in the process of preparing Part Two, I found that I have yet even more to say on this topic. So, the series has now been increased to three! While that bit of news sinks in, let me continue with Part Two – The Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean is an obvious choice for many young families to get introduced to the world of Scuba Diving. Unlike the Red Sea, there are no coral drop-offs or exotic fish – in fact Britain could be a better option, but the sea is cold and, quite often, it rains…

So, over time, we have explored locations that still have abundant and interesting marine life, which are suitable to family holidays in the Sun with activities to hold the interest of all in the family. We are always looking for reliable dive centres offering safe diving with excellent instructors, in an environment that will make for a successful family holiday where there is much to interest those not engaged in Learn to Dive including culture, wildlife and history.

Remember: the better the marine life, the cleaner the sea!

 

Kas, Turkey

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Based on the Turquoise Coast, it is the perfect choice for a truly Mediterranean experience, as well as Learn to Dive.

Once the ancient capital of the Lyceum Empire, today Kaş has a rare charm as an attractive historical maritime town perched at the sea edge. Lively and interesting – there is a submerged city near Kekova Island, which you can kayak/canoe over.

For diving here, we use PADI 5* Bougainville Travel – an English-owned, leading Adventure Company based on the Turquoise Coast. They also provide a number of other activities including kayaking, cycling, trekking, canyoning, para-gliding and excursions.

Kaş has many advantages: warm water temperature, superb visibility and a wide range of dive sites including wrecks and ancient artefacts. Roman amphorae lie on the sea bed and the oldest shipwreck in the world, a 1400BC Phoenician trade boat, was discovered here.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £255.00pp / Diving: £194.00pp / Accommodation: £107.00pp

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Ustica, Sicily

This small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea is Italy’s ‘Diving Capital’.

The island lies to the North of Palermo, Sicily. It has grottos, beaches, volcanoes and some extraordinary agriculture including their world-famous capers, lentils and vineyards. The tiny volcanic island of Ustica is an oasis of peace and tranquillity, yet is unspoilt by tourism, and the sea surrounding the island is a protected natural marine reserve, where there is an abundance of marine life in its clear waters. The island has a small, pretty town perched above the harbour and, along with small restaurants and cafés, it houses an underwater archaeological museum. One can find the presence of several ancient Mediterranean peoples, like Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. For a long time Ustica was the base for Saracen pirates.

Profondo Blu – the premier dive centre here – is run by Paulo and Ann. They are PADI 5* and have a base in the port, as well as the best Dive Boat in the harbour. Being a small island, there is hardly a day they cannot dive ‘due to weather’, as they can change venues to other parts of the island. Nepaulozzo is their small, a purpose-built resort providing communal areas and quality guest accommodation.

Ann teaches diving, with the sea as her classroom – with instruction from the shore or the boat. Paulo and Ann are superb hosts, and are also passionate about the regional food and wine.

Ustica and Learn to Dive can be perfectly combined with a week’s stay in a villa, beach hotel or a self-drive in Sicily.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £364.00pp / Diving: £300.00pp / Accommodation: £220.00 per week, self-catering

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San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily

A richly Italian resort located on mainland Sicily, and known for its seemingly endless stretch of glorious, white sandy beach against a backdrop of rough, jagged mountains. The town is refreshingly ‘low-rise’, with much of its streets being pedestrianised and lined with tempting cafés, bars, shops, and good restaurants and trattorias serving local specialties. Food is a passion here, with good quality at reasonable prices – the town holds the International Cous Cous Festival, which is currently in its 17th year from 23rd to 28th September 2014!

The town has its origins as an ancient Roman port – signs of this heritage can still be seen near the town’s old tuna fishery. The Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve is adjacent to the town; a visit to the reserve offers over 7km of stunning cliff-top walks through a staggering 700 varieties of fragrant Mediterranean trees, flowers and shrubs. For the bird watcher, there are a number of migrant and indigenous birds including eagles and peregrine falcons.

Diving here is done with PADI 5* Under Hundred – the dive centre and resort is very close to the Lo Zingaro National Park, and is run by husband-and-wife-team, Roberto and Marina and their experienced and professional staff. The base has a wonderful location facing the enticing sandy beach, and is shaded by pine trees that keep it cool even on the hottest days. Many of the dive sites can be reached quickly and conveniently from the jetty near the centre; the area can be considered a ‘Divers’ Paradise’ as it features walls; shoals; caves, and wrecks at different depths – for all levels of experience.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £245.00pp / Diving: £255.00pp / Accommodation: £210.00 per week, bed and breakfast

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Malta, Maltese Archipelago

Malta, the main island, is less than a 3-hour flight from anywhere in Europe and has many regional UK departure points. It is a perfect destination for a week’s holiday or even a long weekend.

This small country has a long history, with early settlements estimated to have been from 5200 BC. You will find mysterious remains and megalithic temples of prehistoric ages beside military buildings and forts built by the Knights of the Order of Saint John – all beside beautiful examples of pure Maltese style found in the vast majority of houses.

PADI 5* dive centre, Maltaqua in St Paul’s Bay, has over 40-years’ experience in training divers, and is one of the leading schools in Europe. Over time, they too have built their own 2* accommodation: Sands, which is a complex of purpose-built, air-conditioned apartments and is a short walk from the dive centre and shop. As one of Europe’s premier dive centres, it trains divers from Junior Novice to the most advanced tech levels.

The neighbouring towns are steeped with history, bustling markets, bars and cafés to suit all.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £180.00pp / Diving: £296.00pp / Accommodation: £444.00 per week, self-catering apartment for four

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Gozo, Maltese Archipelago


A regular helicopter and ferry service operates between Malta and Gozo, which is a small and enchanting island. Its 5000 years of history, and the pristine clear blue waters that wash its ancient shores, lure holiday-makers and divers from all over the world. The Blue Hole, Azure window, Inland sea, Cathedral cave and Reqqa reef are some of the brilliant and unforgettable dives on this tiny Mediterranean island, where time seems to stand still.

This charming island has something for everyone – idyllic scenery, imposing cliffs, open markets, fine restaurants, historical places, buzzing night clubs and, above all, friendly locals!

Blue Waters Dive Cove, the dive centre here, is in Qala Point – a village close to the ferry terminal and facing Comino Island and the Blue Hole. This PADI 5* centre is run by brothers Franco and Mario Bugeja, and their expert team of dive instructors. They use the bay – a short walk from the village – as their ‘pool’ for training.

A typical family could rent a ‘farmhouse with pool’ – a long established tradition in Gozo, located in the village. You can cater for yourself, or eat in the village, and or a week’s visit you don’t need a car. However, for extended stays of two weeks or more, it is recommended as this is a beautiful island and driving around it rich in local tradition, and there is excellent sea kayaking to be experienced.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £250.00pp / Diving: £178.00pp / Accommodation: £800.00 per week, villa with pool – sleeps four

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Palau, Sardinia

Situated on the northern tip of Sardinia, Palau is a port town with a very different atmosphere and feel to the rest of the island. Here, you will get an authentic feel of Sardinian life – there are shops, cafés, restaurants and bars just a few steps away.

Palau is in a strategic position and is the gateway to the Maddalena Archipelago in the Straits of Bonifacio. From here, Corsica – the birthplace of Emperor of the French and King of Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte I – is a boat ride away, with access to the Lavezzi Marine Reserve. The water here is breathtakingly clear – offering up to 30m visibility – and very clean, which allows for an abundance of marine life to thrive. There are nearly 40 dive sites to choose from that, together, make for an unforgettable diving experience.

PADI 5* Gold Palm and BSAC Dive Resort: Nautilus Dive Centre is run by British and Swiss couple, Vincenzo and Stephanie. Having many years of experience teaching around the world, they will show you the best of this idyllic part of the Mediterranean and offer the full range of PADI courses available as well as speciality courses. At the dive centre, they also have facilities for Nitrox dive and Underwater Digital Photography.

Rates from…

Learn to Dive: £288.00pp / Diving: £160.00pp – some dives have distance tax / Accommodation: £23.00pp – bed and breakfast per night

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Our next part in the series will look at exotic sites, such as Zanzibar, Kenya, Mauritius, Bonaire, the Far East and more! Well…not too much more…

See you in two weeks!

Red, White or Blue – What’s the Choice for You?

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School break, in our experience, has always been quite difficult to plan. It’s a holiday, so naturally one wants to take the family away, but for a holiday it’s just not long enough. So, what does one do, and where does one look, when planning a break to de-stress from the New Year? Let us share with you some of our insights…

White is for Skiing!

A great bonding experience for active families, with endless outdoor thrilling adventures! However, it may be over budget as 80% of skiing families actually book 8-months or more in advance, and now it’s really tricky to get good value for money.

Checking on 1st January 2014, we found availability for 15th February 2014: Chalet Les Arcs on ‘chalet board’ from £1,108.00pp, so about £4,432.00 for a family of four. And that excludes ski packs and passes! (Allowing for £1k to £2k…)

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Blue is for the Caribbean!

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Again holidays to the region are at the high end of the budget, but there are ‘value’ buys out there. For example, a deal for a family of four:

Date: 15th February 2014 Resort: Smugglers Cove, St Lucia Details: 7-nights All Inclusive, departing from Gatwick Price from…£8,031.00 total

You can also include a ‘Learn-to-Dive’ Package from £320.00pp or a 5-Day Dive Package from £230.00pp. The weather makes it a popular choice with average water temperatures of 23°C, air temperatures at an average high of 27°C and an average of 1.9 inches of rainfall.

Unfortunately, charter flights to the more affordable Caribbean destinations are mainly midweek. So, if you have to travel at the weekend, some of the best and most affordable destinations are ruled out like the Dominican Republic and Cancun, which are half the price of St Lucia!

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Red is for the Red Sea!

Everything is ‘good’ here: price, Sun, the lack of rain…To give you an idea, take a look at the following example for a family of four:

Date: 15th February 2014 Resort: Sharm Resort Hotel, Sharm-el-Sheikh Details: 7-nights All Inclusive Price from…£2,100.00 total

As for the weather, in Sharm the average water temperature is 21°C, with an average air temperature of 25°C. For the sporty families, you can also include a ‘Learn-to-Dive’ Package from £255.00pp, or dive packages for the more qualified from £135.00pp.

The biggest issue is country stability, however despite the upset over the last two years, all is back to normal. There are no travel ‘advices’ in operation.

So, what’s the problem?

The Red Sea has ‘fallen from grace’, as it were; the disturbances in Central Egypt and all the news about ‘The Middle East’ has caused prices to drop drastically. 4* and 5* hotels on prime dates are selling at ½ the price of Ski holidays (before adding ski packs), and a ¼ of the price of a comparable Caribbean holiday – and they are available.

There is ample choice here, with resorts to suit every need – we explored ‘like for like’ holidays, comparing the Red Sea against other destinations. So, if you want simpler; more rustic, or can travel midweek? We have some really good deals – just enquire!

Check back in two weeks for our next blog: Family Scuba Discovery Options – a review of the best and affordable destinations to take kids for Learn-to-Dive.

See you then!

10 Things You Don’t Know About Sicily

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Sicily is one of those rare gems of the world where you’re likely to have an experience like no other. Largest of the Italian Islands, Sicily is rich in history and culture – you wouldn’t think this idyllic retreat would harbour such charming secrets, and it’s all there for you to discover.

To start you off, though, we would like to shine a light on the following ten:

  1. Grown at the base of Mount Etna, Sicily is the home of the seedless Tarocco Blood Orange – the sweetest and most flavourful of the three types. Almonds are also a specialty, and are a staple of the Sicilian culture – being associated with love and fidelity, and symbolising good fortune; sugar-coated almonds – ‘confetti’ – are given at weddings and baptisms. You will also find them used in Sicilian cuisine, often in their delicious desserts.
  2. The island shares a volcanic complex with the Aeolian Islands, where you will find a number of smaller dormant volcanoes lining the way between Mount Etna and Mount Stromboli – both of which are currently active. There are also volcanoes off the southern coast of Sicily, including the underwater Ferdinandea and the island of Pantelleria – itself a dormant volcano. What’s more – you can hike the big three: Etna, Stromboli and Vulcano. Continue reading