SICILY
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The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is a rough triangle that sits just off the toe of Italy's boot. Though a popular holiday destination for Italians, in many ways the island differs greatly from the mainland. Due to its strategic location, Sicily was occupied and ruled by a fantastically diverse troop of invaders, beginning with the Greeks in the 8th century BC and leading to the Romans, Muslims, Romans, French and Spanish. Each group left its mark, leaving Sicily with a unique cuisine, a hodge-podge of ancient ruins, and even a separate dialect of Italian.

Sicily's largest city is Palermo, a once-grand, now largely neglected city that you'll likely pass through at some time during your travels. The city's lively squares and ornate churches are its main attractions. This is also a good base to travel from, especially if you want to explore the Lipari islands just off shore.

Sicily's landscape seems to be in a constant state of change: mountainous and fertile one minute, flat and dry the next. The major land feature here is the towering Mt. Etna, a 3300m-tall volcano that sits on the east coast. The lava formations in this area, especially around Sicily's second city, Catania, are amazing.

You'll likely spend most of your time on the Sicilian coast, where chic resort towns and once-quiet fishing villages draw visitors from throughout Europe. Stylish Taormina, with its spectacular location overlooking Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean, is one of the best towns to visit. Also interesting are Agrigento in the southwest, where you can see a group of Greek temples, and Syracuse in the southeast, which is home to a host of Roman and Greek ruins.

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Sicily's Mediterranean climate means that winters are mild and summers hot. June through August the heat descends on the island, driving everyone to the coastal resorts, which are generally jam packed this time of year. The 'shoulder seasons' of Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit. The weather is pleasantly warm though not hot, and crowds have yet to descend on the island.

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The island's major airports are Catania's Filippo Eredia airport, 6km from the city, and Palermo's Falcone-Borsellino airport, 35km from the city. Both have flights to and from major UK and European cities. Flight time from London is about four hours, though you'll probably have to fly through Rome or Milan, adding another hour or two to the trip.

It's possible to arrive to Sicily by cruise or ferry. From Palermo, the island's largest port, there are links with Genova, Naples and smaller ports like Cagliari (in Sardinia) and the Eolie Isles.

If you're in Italy, you may choose to drive across to Sicily. The island is just 3km off the mainland, and a ferry makes the trip regularly. The drive from Rome to Messina should take seven or eight hours.

Once on the island you can move around comfortably by bus; bus services are plentiful and more or less reliable. If you choose to rent a car or drive your own be prepared for clogged traffic in the towns but relatively easy driving on the highways.

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Cultural activities are far and away the most popular things to do here. You can explore Greek and Roman monuments, visit ancient temples, and gawk at the ornate baroque churches that fill the larger towns and cities. Bus, bike and walking tours are available if you'd like to see the sights with an expert. Yet for those looking for something a little more active, Sicily doesn't disappoint.

With nearly 1,000km of coastline, water sports are a natural attraction here. Sailing is popular, and you can rent a sailboat to captain yourself or be toured around in a captained boat. Sicily is also a great place for diving. With its warm, calm waters and volcanic rock formations, there are plenty of opportunities for divers of all abilities. Hikers will want to head to Mt. Edna, the looming volcano on the island's eastern shore.

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