The ‘sexy’ reality behind Sicily’s ‘White Lotus’ hotel


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(CNN) — With lavish Baroque villas, exotic gardens, dramatic landscapes, ancient art and a seductive vibe, Sicily seems to be the perfect location for season two of dark comedy series “The White Lotus.”

The award-winning show charts the tangled, erotic and sometimes dangerous adventures of super-rich vacationers staying at the beautiful clifftop San Domenico Palace, a five-star resort operated by Four Seasons in the town of Taormina.

A former 14th-century monastery with unique views of the Etna volcano and coastline, the hotel is as much a star of the show as its cast of Hollywood and Italian A-listers. And, says its real-life manager, Lorenzo Maraviglia, it’s a match for its fictional counterpart.

“The resort’s real vibe is very much similar to what you see and feel in the series,” he tells CNN Travel. “It’s vibrant, it’s about Sicily — both romantic and sexy –and about our incredible guests who this year included Madonna and Sharon Stone.”

Made for HBO (which, like CNN, is part of Warner Bros. Discovery), the series is filmed around Taormina, Noto, Cefalù and Palermo, but the San Domenico Palace is at the heart of the intrigue and steamy liaisons that develop over the course of the seven-episode season.

And while guests looking for their own White Lotus escape might not get quite the same racy experiences, Maraviglia insists his hotel will at least deliver the same level of service enjoyed by the show’s characters.

“The success of the series is based on the reality of what occurs in a luxury hotel; the interactions between staff and clients, and among clients, are very real,” he says.

But the “extreme situations like the two local escorts coming and going to entertain guests are part of the drama and theatrics that add a layer of spiciness,” he adds, insisting that things generally happen at a more sedate pace — as far as he’s aware.

“We may notice if there are weird movements if a situation becomes obvious, but Taormina and our resort are places where such things usually don’t happen. It’s for families and couples on their honeymoon. Even if someone may have a weekend adventure, it is not perceivable by us.”

Visitors to the San Domenico Palace will find it exactly as portrayed in “The White Lotus.” Those connecting doors between suites really exist. There are lush gardens for sunset drinks, pretty cloisters, a panoramic pool and a terrace overlooking the bay where guests have breakfast and a Michelin-starred restaurant where the show’s characters often argue.

Not that Sicily is any stranger to frisson. The island has an ancient Greek heritage of sexual freedoms — a past reflected in the series, with pagan statues and religious frescoes silently witnessing the wealthy guests’ extravagant activities.

Saints and prostitutes

"The White Lotus" season 2 is filmed in the San Domenico Palace hotel in Sicily.

“The White Lotus” season 2 is filmed in the San Domenico Palace hotel in Sicily.

Fabio Lovino/HBO

Taormina is seen in all its glamor: the imposing ancient Greek theater, the panoramic piazzetta, the pastel-colored dwellings, elegant alleys with cafés and glossy boutiques, the chic restaurants like Baronessa where one bickering couple’s dinner scene is filmed.

The best suites in the hotel, where most of the show’s sex scenes take place, have plunge pools and paintings of saints made by the monks who once lived there.

“The decor, the rooms, it’s all original, what you see is real, even the staff uniforms,” says Maraviglia.

While Maraviglia may not have had to field some of the more outlandish guest requests that crop up in “White Lotus,” he says he’s had to deal with extravagant requests since the San Domenico opened last year as part of the Four Seasons chain.

“Some guests wanted to visit the Aeolian isles with a private helicopter and rent a yacht to Syracuse which is only an hour’s drive away,” he says.

Physically, there are only two real deviations from reality — the beach scenes and shots depicting the guests arriving by boat. The resort, perched 400-meters atop Taormina’s high rocky plateau, has no sea access. The private deck of a nearby fish restaurant, La Cambusa at Giardini Naxos, was used to film sea-arrival scenes.

And since the hotel has no private shoreline, the nearby Unahotels Capotaormina resort is where guests can enjoy sun loungers and umbrellas at a beach club carved into a reddish cliff flanked by rock arches and sea stacks, overlooking the small island of Isolabella.

The islet, which also features in “White Lotus,” is connected to the shore by a narrow strip of sand and is one of Sicily’s most beautiful and popular snorkeling spots thanks to its emerald-green, still waters. It’s part of an archeological park and has a villa surrounded by exotic plants that hosts a botanical museum.

Most bathing and underwater scenes were shot at the public beach of the picturesque fishermen village of Cefalú, between Taormina and Palermo.

Taormina’s bay witnessed real-life intrigue back in 1955, when a Polish heiress was allegedly drowned by her husband under mysterious circumstances said to be linked to an inheritance.

Spats between couples in “The White Lotus” are also true to life. In 1967 a furious Elizabeth Taylor apparently smashed a mandolin over Richard Burton’s head on the terrace of their suite.

Plant pots and phalluses

The hotel building is a 14th century former monastery.

The hotel building is a 14th century former monastery.

San Domenico Palace, Four Seasons

There’s a lot of Sicilian lore in “The White Lotus,” alongside references to the island’s mafia connections.

A ceramic sculpture of a bearded Moor’s head is frequently shown in the show as a symbol of betrayal, a nod to a local legend dating back to medieval times. It’s said one of Sicily’s Arabic occupiers had his head chopped off and used as a plant pot by a woman he had an affair with.

“This story embodies the Sicilian essence of love, passion and vengeance which are all represented in the ‘The White Lotus,’” says Sonia Bonamassa, San Domenico’s public relations coordinator. “She beheads the Moor because she loves him but he has betrayed her.”

These testa di moro ceramic heads are today used by Sicilians as vases, lamp holders, citrus bowls and flower pots or just to decorate rooms.

The mori are emblematic of Sicily’s Arabic heritage. Other local mementoes include colorful pigne pine nut-shaped ceramics that are believed by Sicilians to bring good luck.

“Director Mike White was extremely receptive of these local things, we’d joke about them and he included many of our suggestions in the season, like Italian songs, adapting his approach to reality,” says Maraviglia.

One tip that did not make the cut, probably because it was too extreme even for such an erotically charged show, was a local watering hole that the actors nicknamed “the penis bar.”

Bar Turrisi, in the picturesque medieval village of Castelmola near Taormina, is filled with objects shaped like phalluses. “Bottles, watches, cups, everything,” says Maraviglia. Even staircases and floor tiles have penises.

Waitress Giorgia Ponturo says the (real) hotel staff and crew regularly visited after a tough day of shooting and hopes the series will draw tourists to quieter, lesser-known places around Taormina like Castelmola.

“This bar dates back to 1947, it used to be a brothel and gay hotspot,” says Ponturo. “Then the owner decided to adopt the phallus motif, which was an ancient Greek symbol of sexual potency and fertility, to reaffirm the virility of Sicilian men. It also brings good luck.”

Wild parties and lavish mansions

The hotel's manager says real-life guests can expect the same level of luxury seen in the show.

The hotel’s manager says real-life guests can expect the same level of luxury seen in the show.

San Domenico Palace, Four Seasons

Some scenes were filmed at a renaissance palace called Villa Tasca, which is actually located in the town of Monreale, near Palermo. Set within a lush park it has sumptuous frescoes and statues, king-sized rooms and an exotic pool-pond with fresh spring water. Rented for weddings and private events, it is said German composer Richard Wagner stayed here while creating one of his masterpieces.

Another extravagant mansion featured in “The White Lotus” as the scene of an orgy is Villa Elena, which sits among olive groves near Noto. It’s decorated with old tapestries and marble pieces and has a huge pool jutting out of a temple.

“The White Lotus” pays homage to “The Godfather” mafia movies, featuring the location of a classic scene — Castello degli Schiavi in Fiumefreddo, an elegant castle with a cloister. It’s a private property open to guided tours and events bookings.

The best of Sicilian food is showcased in the series, too. Guests gulp down ricotta-filled cannoli, cassata cakes, gelato and arancini rice-balls. Characters regularly quaff local rosé and Martini. Two couples spend a wine-tasting day at the Planeta canteen on Mount Etna’s flanks, where the volcano’s fertile black soil produces top bottles such as Eruzione (“eruption.”)

Since the 1800s Taormina has been a VIP international hotspot renowned for its wild parties and sexual freedom that harked back to the pagan Greek days when homosexuality was the norm. Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was one frequent visitor.

It is said Taormina might have been the birthplace of D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” The author and his wife were guests at San Domenico Palace in the early 1920s and the book was apparently inspired by an affair between Mrs. Lawrence and a local donkey rider.

Global spotlight

Unlike in the show, guests can't really arrive at the hotel by boat.

Unlike in the show, guests can’t really arrive at the hotel by boat.

Fabio Lovino/HBO

Locals hope the global promotion of Taormina in “White Lotus” will further draw tourists to Sicily and boost its appeal as a Hollywood stage.

Giacomo Chillé of Discover Messina travel agency plans to organize guided tours to the series’ locations. “There’s enormous potential in cine-turismo (tourism linked to movies), we already take Americans to ‘The Godfather’s’ spots with tailored trips,” he said.

Not everyone is happy. Enzo Anastasi, owner of hotel La Canna, on the offbeat Filicudi isle in the Aeolian archipelago, is concerned about “dumbing down Sicily to a rich man’s Disneyland.”

He said: “These American series promote and portray the usual super-rich people and their glamorous spots, which are not the real, authentic soul of Sicily where traditions and simple lifestyles survive.”

Taormina local Giuseppe Quattrocchi, owner of Le Bistrot du Monde restaurant, thinks the series will be a godsend for Taormina’s tourism but says he didn’t appreciate how Sicily was at times portrayed.

“When three guests go searching for their ancestors in a remote village and get kicked out by their alleged relatives, that’s the opposite from our inbred hospitality,” he says. “Also, the escorts and the reference to local criminal organizations depict a negative image.”


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