The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called Sicily "the land of gods and heroes," and if that's the case, Taormina is its Mount Olympus and the big attraction for cruise passengers visiting the Mediterranean island.
This charming cliff-top town has pretty much everything you could want -- varied shops, a lively atmosphere, beautiful churches, medieval walls, lots of restaurants featuring good quality local dishes at affordable prices and best of all, fabulous views across the Med (particularly from its spectacular Greek amphitheater, where you can get a glimpse of Sicily's other big attraction, Mount Etna).
Better still, Taormina is compact and easily explored in a short time, so first-time visitors can get a lot out of a day visit (including a chance to splash about in the Med off the town's pretty Isola Bella beach).
Meanwhile, repeat visitors will find plenty to do further afield in Sicily, a beautiful and richly historic island that has been shaped over 30 centuries by invaders from Africa, Asia, Arabia and Europe.
Down the centuries, Sicily has played host to many legendary figures including Archimedes, St. Paul and Richard the Lionheart and (more recently) Goethe, D.H. Lawrence and those twin Hollywood deities, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
So, although you might find tourists thicker on the ground nowadays than either gods or heroes, at least you'll know you're treading in some famous footsteps.
Giardini Naxos is a tender port, and there's nothing there in the way of cruise terminal facilities -- just a small tented area where cruise lines provide seating and cold drinks for passengers. But Giardini Naxos is also an attractive seaside town set on a pretty bay lined with beaches that offer water sports and some jolly local restaurants, gelaterias and cafes. So, if you've previously been to Taormina and fancy a day by the sea, the coastal area at Giardini Naxos will provide it.
You'll also find ancient artifacts and chronicles of the history of Naxos (which was the first Greek settlement in Sicily) at the Museo di Naxos, which is located near the cruise tender dock. (+39 0942 51001; open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in winter, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer)
Of the other two ports, Messina is marginally closer to Taormina, while Catania lies about 34 miles away in the foothills of Mount Etna. Tours to Etna run from all three ports, most meandering up to Rifugio Sapienza, a hotel on Etna's north side, which acts as "base camp" for various hikes around the impressive Silvestri craters.
A stroll along Corso Umberto, Taormina's main street and the place to shop. You'll find everything from designer clothes shops and jewelers to fabulous delicatessens stocked with mouth-watering Italian goodies. Drapers also are stocked with exquisitely embroidered tablecloths and linens. Look out for little art galleries set in the narrow streets, which climb up or lead down to the sea on either side of Corso Umberto.
A photo stop in the lovely Piazza IX Aprile, a broad terrace, offers sweeping views over the Mediterranean Sea. It's the prettiest place in Taormina (that's some contest) and home to the Caffe Wunderbar, one-time haunt of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and a suitably glamorous place to grab a drink.
The Teatro Greco (Greco-Roman Amphitheater) is the second largest ancient theater in Sicily and a sight to behold. Originally built by the Greeks in the third century B.C., it was rebuilt by the Romans in the first century A.D., when it was used for gladiatorial contests. A 15- to 20-minute walk from Corso Umberto (just go right at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and along Via Teatro Greco), the theater is set at the top of a hill and offers fabulous views of Mount Etna, the Calabrian mountains and the Ionian coastline. (+39 0942 23220; open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. April to September, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter)
The Giardino Trevelyan (also known as the Parco Duchi di Cesaro) is a lovely public park on Via Bagnoli Croce, between the Greek theater and the sea. The English-style garden -- designed by 19th century British noblewoman Florence Trevelyan -- has a bench-lined walkway overlooking the sea and Mount Etna, and there is a lovely terrace and an aviary, as well as several Victorian follies (including a cottage, tower and pavilion). (Open 8:30a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer, 6 p.m. in winter)
A must-do in Taormina is a visit to Mount Etna. This magnificent volcano -- one of the biggest active volcanoes in the world -- climbs to 3,323 meters at its peak.
Get back to nature on Isola Bella, a lovely island nature reserve that sits just south of Taormina and is connected by a causeway to the beach just below the main town. Once owned by Florence Trevelyan (who designed Taormina's Trevelyan garden), the island -- also known as The Pearl of the Ionian Sea -- is set in a small bay on the sea and is run by the Italian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature. It has a small, rocky but popular beach.
From Giardini Naxos, a taxi up the hill to Taormina can cost between 12 euros and 20 euros one-way -- so travel with three pals or take a bus from Taormina-Giardini railway station (at sea level) for around 2 euros each way. Buses and taxis stop at a car park below the main town and you ride up to street level in a lift (press the button for Level 7).
Taking a taxi in from Messina or Catania costs an even heftier 150 euros to 200 euros (though that's round-trip and should include a couple of hours' waiting time, so it can still work out cheaper than a ship's "Go As You Please" tour if you can travel as a party of four). Be sure to negotiate the fare and waiting time in advance.
Alternatively, you can catch a train to Taormina from Messina Centrale station (about 15 minutes' walk left, right and left again from the port) for 3.50 euros each way.
A train ride to Taormina-Giardini from Catania costs 4 euros each way, and you'll find the station in Piazza Giovanni XXII, less than a mile from the port.
Check return times, though; allow yourself plenty of time to get back to your ship, and don't even consider this if your ship calls at Sicily on a Sunday because train service then is very erratic.
Taormina -- 689 feet above sea level -- overlooks a beautiful coastline dotted with picturesque bays and lined with sand or pebble beaches. The best known is the stretch of sand overlooking Isola Bella.
If you're fit and feeling energetic, you can get down to the beach area on foot from the main town, but in peak summer season, an easier option is to take the cable car (funivia) down to Mazzaro Bay.
The three-minute ride takes you to Isola Bella beach from Via Luigi Pirandello, a three-minute walk from Taormina's Porta Messina gateway. Cable cars run every 15 minutes and operate 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, 8:45a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday. You can travel back and forth all day on a multiple-use ticket. (+39 0942 23906)
Taormina has more than 80 restaurants, trattorias and pizzerias. Most are open from noon or 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to midnight or, in some cases, early morning hours. All display full menus with prices outside, so you can take your pick depending on your budget and whether you want a seat on a terrace with a sea view (recommended!)
However nice your ship, try to have lunch -- or at the very least, a plate of antipasti -- in Taormina if you can., Sicilian food is a fabulous blend of culinary influences gleaned from the invaders who inhabited the island down the centuries.
Thick, hearty fish and vegetable stews reflect Spanish and French influences, while the Moors brought eggplant and a love of rice and richly spiced sweet-and-sour dishes. These influences now blend with the Italian love of pasta, fresh herbs, juicy tomatoes, tangy lemons and olive oil to create a fresh, flavorsome but simple cuisine enriched with locally sourced seafood, chillies, pine nuts and olives.
Local specialities include melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant baked in cheese and tomato sauce), pesce spada affumicato (smoked swordfish), pasta con le sarde (with sardine, tomato, pine nuts and raisin sauce) and -- if you're feeling adventurous -- spaghetti al nero di seppia (featuring a sauce of black squid ink).
Traditional Lunch: La Griglia, a classic Italian restaurant, offers great sea views and a varied but affordable menu -- sea bass costs 14 euros seafood salad 14 euros and puddings 6 euros. (Corso Umberto, 54, 98039; +39 0942 23980; open 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to midnight, closed Tuesdays)
For a Good View: Ristorante Al Duomo is a pleasant, unpretentious trattoria that overlooks medieval Piazza Duomo -- home to Taormina's 13th century cathedral and a stunning Baroque fountain featuring Taormina's key symbol, a figure that is half woman, half bull. If you call ahead, you might be able to bag a table for two on the balcony. (Vico Ebrei 12; +39 0942 625656; open daily 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.)
For a Splurge: Michelin-starred La Capinera is a beachfront restaurant in Mazzaro. It's pricey but sophisticated and offers fabulous fish dishes. (Via Nazionale Spisone 177; +39 0942 626247; open 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., closed Monday)
Smaller ships anchor in the large bay of Giardini Naxos and transport passengers to and from a small outdoor dock on tenders. A bus journey from Giardini Naxos to Taormina takes about 25 minutes. Larger ships go to Messina or Catania -- about 30 miles from Taormina -- and passengers travel to Taormina from there.
Hidden charges if you choose to have a refreshing gelato while sitting on a cafe terrace, however humble. (This added 2 euros to the bill for two ice creams.)
Uphill walking and -- at the amphitheater -- some steps and uneven ground. Wear sensible shoes and take a walking stick if necessary.
Crowded streets -- especially in the peak summer months.
Siesta time, generally from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., when many shops close. If you're set on a serious shopping fest, head to Taormina in the morning. That said, this is a tourist town and tourist-oriented stores -- particularly along the Via Teatro Greco -- typically stay open at busy times.
The official currency is the euro. For the latest exchange rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
You'll find plenty of ATMs and exchange bureaus along Taormina's main street -- this is a town that wants you to spend your money.
Tourism is Taormina's main business, so most people will speak at least a smattering of English. However, they will warm to any visitor at least attempting to speak Italian. In an emergency, dial 112 from any phone to summon police, ambulance or fire services.
Take home a bottle of speciality liqueur. Limoncello is Italy's most famous, but in Taormina, you'll find falling-down water available in all kinds of weird and wonderful flavors like orange, cinnamon and pomegranate.
For a real taste of Sicily, buy some Marsala, a fine fortified wine first produced on the island by the Englishman John Woodhouse in 1773. Rich and addictive, Marsala is a little like sherry. Although it's known as a sweet wine, it has dry varieties that make an excellent aperitif when chilled (ask for Marsala Vergine).
If bottles of booze are too much to lug home, you can pick up prettily ribboned packets of speciality pasta -- some shaped like large conchiglie (seashells), or frilled at the edges and tinted lovely shades of delicate ochre and pale dusky pink -- for a few euros in one of Taormina's many delicatessens. While we can't vouch for the taste, the pastas make a fine visual addition to a foodie's kitchen. Or pick up some biscotti, candied fruits and other goodies you'll find in ample supplies at the food shops.
Sicily is famous for its wines, so if you're lunching there, sink a glass or two of ruby-red Nero d'Avola (made from one of Sicily's oldest indigenous grapes) or Etna Rosso, made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.