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Guest Farms & Country Retreats (Agritourism)
It's something of a cross between a country inn and a farm - a charming rural alternative to commercial lodging or even a cottage (villa) rental. Agriturismo, a country bed and breakfast, is an Italian trend popularised during the last twenty years by the owners of small farms or, in some cases, equestrian establishments. Quality varies widely; all "agritourism" farms are certainly not created equal (be careful to avoid possible pitfalls). That said, the best are truly exceptional experiences. Our favourites are the castle-like settings of estates once owned by noble families, though some less grandiose establishments are charmingly rustic. A few exceptional farm house estates and villas are listed on this page.
Agriturismo isn't "tourism" in any conventional sense. (Official guidebooks translate the term "farm house resorts," which is perhaps more precise, though it sounds strange, and "ecotourism" would not be very accurate.) The quality of the farm you choose depends on several important factors. The guest rooms are important, naturally, but the common areas (atria, courtyards, dining rooms, gardens) equally so. Even the region, because the mountainous parts of Sicily are usually more interesting than flat fields or orchards, and because it's important to be reasonably near sights and attractions. (Yes, you'll have to rent a car.) Farms that are family-operated, with the owners present, usually offer the best experience. There's nothing more unsatisfying than a guest farm with mediocre service and atmosphere because it's run by hired hands instead of dedicated people passionate about their efforts. That's the key to almost every success we've seen in this field.
There may be a pool, but don't presume this. Accommodations usually aren't too Spartan, and you may even have a chance to visit wine making or cheese making facilities; other "aziende" raise fruits, vegetables or livestock. Most of these "aziende turistiche" are working farms or estates located near small towns; others are more remote, so you may have to drive some distance into the country to reach your retreat. Some guest farms are located amidst olive groves or grain fields, while others are set in lush woods.
The food, based on the local cuisine, is usually excellent. The smaller retreats are run by families and host just a few guests at a time --rarely more than twenty-- so the ambience is that of a small country hotel. Or even a medieval monastery, a baglio (like a castle courtyard or "bailey" without the towers) or an old mill; Sicilian agriturismo takes many forms. To really enjoy the experience, plan to spend at least two nights. You might even use the guest farm as a base for excursions to interesting places.
Springtime is beautiful in Sicily, but heating is expensive here, so April and May are better than February or March if you want to ensure that your stay at a guest farm will be as warm as your reception. Many owners heat the rooms only at night, if at all.
Some owners are a bit "montati" (arrogant about pricing) when it comes to rates. Make sure you check carefully to see if breakfast and lunch or dinner is included in the prices listed, and if there are seasonal rates (summer costs more). Staying at a guest farm is a great experience, but it shouldn't cost as much as a five-star hotel.
Our experience is that websites and books listing numerous guest farms offer too little editorial review to be reliable, though they may be a good point of reference to begin your quest for the right one. Unfortunately, logistical and financial factors preclude our listing numerous guest farms on this page, but they're not too difficult to find on the internet.
To find a guest farm, try a search on Google with the terms agriturismo sicilia or sicily agriturismo.
"Agritourism" or "Rural Tourism?"
"Agriturismo" implies that you'll be staying on a working farm whose cuisine is locally produced. The estate, typically (but not always) family operated, will include orchards, vineyards or livestock, and the meats, wines and cheeses served will be produced on the farm or locally. Some of the best agritourism choices are historic farm houses, mills, monasteries or aristocratic estates converted into lodging areas in the midst of farms, vineyards or cattle estates (ranches).
"Rural tourism," on the other hand, encompasses various forms of rural lodging which differ from agritourism in that they are not actual working farms. Often, they're just bungalows or small apartments constructed in the country for rental, but rural tourism could also describe many historical rural dwellings (houses or barns) which no longer function as the centre of working farms. In some cases, the owners have established working relationships with nearby farmers or livestock owners to make these things available to visitors, thus creating the misleading image of a working farm. They may even sponsor things like cheese making and sell local products (olive oil, wines). In many cases, a new "rustic" estate has been constructed. As the authorities cannot prevent the owners' use of the word "agriturismo" in the commercial name of the firm, trickery is easy. In itself, rural tourism is great, but it should not be promoted as agritourism. Setting up a cheap lodging facility, inn or hotel in the country isn't the same thing as operating a working farm!
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