Explore an underwater museum and discover some classic Med diving
If you’re the sort of diver that enjoys different underwater experiences, as well as perhaps a little adventure above the surface in between dives, then Sicily rates high on the list of potential destinations. A new, cross-border initiative between Sicily and Tunisia known as Progetto CULTURAS aims to bring the unique cultural heritage of the two locations to interested parties both above and below the water, and their 'Bike’n’Dive' program is designed to do exactly that. 'Underwater there is another world…. Above, as well', is their catchphrase.
The initiative is focused on the north-eastern region of Trapani – approximately one hour by road from Palermo. Diving from San Vito Lo Capo affords a range of beautiful options with sea conditions that lend themselves well to divers of all experience levels; indeed the excellent visibility, lack of current in many locations and the general topography of the region are as perfect for deep technical diving as they are for the entry level diver. Characterised by a pristine, white sandy beach and catered to by small and welcoming beachfront dive shops, San Vito Lo Capo is reminiscent of the days before diving became a major tourist industry in some other locations.
One underwater experience that Sicily offers, and which cannot be found among the reefs of the Indo-Pacific and the Red Sea, is the opportunity to see the relics of an extraordinary maritime history.
As a strategic island situated between Italy and the North African coast, Sicily was colonised or invaded by the Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian and Roman Empires, and the remains of an eight-hundred-year spread of ancient civilisation can be found littering the seabed.
From San Vito Lo Capo it is possible to dive the wrecks of the Grinders and Amphorae, where local archaeologists have painstakingly cleared the area to reveal stone millstones, anchors, and the pottery jars that once carried olive oil and wine through the region, some of which date back to the 4th century BC.
Capo Boeo, around 45 minutes from Trapani town centre and located along the shore of the picturesque city of Marsala provides another archaeological hotspot. With a maximum depth of only ten metres, the remains of stone anchors among a collection of amphorae and other ancient artefacts are easily visible to snorkellers and divers alike. Many of the finds are identified and dated with small underwater signs and while the remains of the ships that held them are long gone, there is something quite special about seeing items that date back more than 2,000 years in some cases, and in the same position they fell; an underwater museum, unfettered by the glass cases of the land-based equivalent.
The sub-aquatic archaeology is not, however, limited to ancient history. Marettimo, a small island approximately one hour away by boat from San Vito Lo Capo is host to an underwater collection of 17th century iron cannon, and back on the mainland, wreck diving enthusiasts looking to get their teeth into something more substantial may wish to explore the modern wreck of the Kent – also known from its cargo as the 'Wreck of Korans' – which sank in 1973, a popular dive but with a depth of between 45m and 52m, not for everybody.
More accessible is the Capua, a British-built cargo boat used during the second world war by the Italian Navy, a 44m-long vessel sunk in 1943 and at a more easily manageable depth range of 28-37m.
If you’ve ever dived in Malta then you will have some idea of what to expect from Sicilian waters; spectacular walls and caves are the order of the day and while there is no coral reef system in the Mediterranean, soft corals and sponges abound in great numbers. Some are endemic to the region, with examples such as the glorious red sea-fan providing a beautiful backdrop for photographers, who will also encounter a plentiful supply of obliging subjects.
Nudibranchs, shrimp and lobster are easy to find among the corals and within small caves, and octopus are very commonly encountered, as are moray and conger eels.
Recommended highlights such as Punta Negra wall and Cala Rossa shoal afford divers the opportunity to encounter all of these, with larger pelagic fish such grouper, snappers and jacks frequenting the waters, especially later in the year.
There are plenty of options to continue with the historical adventure – Sicily’s history of conquest did not end with the Romans but continued for another millennium, with Germanic, Byzantine, Arabian and Norman conquerors all claiming the island as their own. The nearby Mont Ericé, with its glorious panoramic view over Trapani, is home to a town and castle dating back to the medieval Norman period, although ruins from as far back as ancient Greece can also be found. In among the narrow streets, patisseries serve the most delicious of Sicilian desserts – cannoli – heaven on the tongue, but hell if you’re on a diet!
One way to get a closer look at the countryside and the history is through the cycling component of the bike 'n' dive initiative, for which a number of pre-planned routes have been prepared and, as for the divers, are designed to cater to cyclists of all levels.
Some routes such as the 70km round trip between Trapani and Marsala are mostly level and over asphalt roads, whereas the much more challenging ride between Trapani and San Vito Lo Capo is for hardcore bikers who like their trails steep and rocky.
The routes travel through countryside which is by turns lush and rugged, full of vineyards and olive groves, pausing at areas of historical significance along the way. The Via Salle (salt road) involves stopping at a working salt museum where you can take a boat ride around the lagoon and the island of Mozia with its Phoenician ruins, and observe the resident population of flamingoes wading through the salt flats.
Twitchers might like to know that Sicily is home to 208 species of endemic and migrating birds.
There are plenty of other things to do in the area outside of diving and biking and exploring ancient history. Rock climbing and hiking are popular; high winds in sheltered bays make conditions perfect for kitesurfing and then, of course, there is the food. Sicilian dishes – in which seafood often plays a leading role, as does the omnipresent cannoli and cassata (cheesecake, but not as we know it!) – is divine.
Trapani, Marsala and San Vito Lo Capo offer an eclectic mix between the traditional and the modern, so if you want bars and clubs then you can find them easily, along with secluded restaurants and quiet cafés if you prefer.
Diving, biking, active tourist or a sedentary beach-dwelling gastronome, there really is something for everybody in Sicily.
What you need to know
At the time of writing, there are no direct flights to Trapani from the UK; Ryanair did operate a route but it is not currently available. It’s relatively easy to fly via Malta which is accessible from most major UK airports and then catch a short hop via Ryanair to Trapani, although direct flights to Palermo are available from Stanstead, Gatwick and Heathrow through Ryanair, EasyJet and Britsh Airways respectively, from as little as £160 return with a 1-hour transfer to Trapani town centre.
Where you stay depends on what you wish to do, but Trapani is a good base, situated almost half-way between Marsala and San Vito Lo Capo with easy access to both locations, along with other attractions such as Mont Ericé and the Via Salle.
High Season is June and July when it can get quite busy, but the sea temperature peaks at around 27°C is at its warmest in August and September which is generally regarded as the best time to dive.
Accommodation-wise you can find everything from campsites to luxury hotels with a range of options available both in and around the town centres and along the routes in between.
Project Culturas – an amalgam of the Italian for 'Culture, Tourism, Active and Sustainable' is an initiative in development between the regional governments of both Sicily and Tunisia, two nations inextricably linked by their shared history. While tourism is prevalent across Sicily, Culturas is specifically focused on a drive to promote accessible archaeology, of which there is plenty. For more information about the Bike’n’dive initiative, check out www.bikendive.com – the website is still developing and not all of it in English but a useful source of participating operators including dive centres, hotels and restaurants, camp sites and cycling centres.
Hotel Vittoria – www.hotelvittoria.it (Trapani)
Hotel and Restaurant Mediterraneo - www.hotelmediterraneotp.com (San Vito Lo Capo)
Baglio Oneto – Wine resort and restaurant – www.bagliooneto.it (Marsala)
Ristorante Angelino – no accommodation,but magnificent food – www.angelino.it (Trapani)