When Sam Stanley, the first English pro rugby to come out, asked me to visit his homestay in Sicily I was acutely aware I’d be spending a lot of time with an ‘unconventional’ couple.
So, naturally, I said yes.
Sam, and his partner Laurence, who fondly describes their relationship as ‘generational’, are 34 years apart in age. Sam is 26, and Laurence is 60.
Relocating to the Italian island of Sicily, following a sporting injury, for a quieter life Sam and Laurence left the UK after a flurry of not-so-warm comments about their love for each other.
However, with the love of their families, friends, colleagues and teammates, Sam and Laurence started their new life close to the east tip of the island, in sleepy of Gioiosa Marea.
It would be from here, high in the hills, that Casa Piccolo Paradiso would breathe diversity, in the form of our favorite generational couple, into the traditional, lost to time, town below.
Arriving in Sicily
Casa Piccolo Paradiso is two and a half hours of winding coastal road away from both of Sicily’s major airports, Palermo and Catania.
For the simple reason of cheaper flight fares at the time, in late September, we flew into Palermo, the capital of Sicily. Budget airlines from the UK fly into both Palermo and Catania.
Hiring a car, for our journey in particular, staying so far from the cities, is essential in Sicily.
While public transport exists around the island, reaching some of its most beautiful locations can be near impossible, let alone stressful, without personal transportation.
To break up the long drive east we decided to spend one night in Palermo.
Palermo, the capital city of Sicily
We felt very relaxed in Palermo, even with one day to soak everything in.
But, that’s what attracts people here – the lack of need.
We wandered the cobbled squares, admired the glorious architecture and mingled with locals around the many markets dotted around.
For us, a day here to reacquaint ourselves with Italian culture set us up for the week.
What’s driving like in Sicily?
My personal advice is to be brave and do it.
At the time, I had driven once in the three years; never abroad, never in a left-hand drive car.
Outside of the cities, where we spent most of our time, the roads are very easy. The motorways are quiet, maintained well and signposted brilliantly.
However, on our return drive to Palermo we found ourselves caught in rush hour traffic where five lanes turned into three and every car became a fairground bumper car.
So, be vigilant – but be proud you did it.
Casa Piccolo Paradiso offer the ability to book a rental car directly through their website with a trusted company.
Sicily’s answer to a peaceful gay life: Casa Piccolo Paradiso
‘We both weren’t happy with life here [in the UK], with our professions, and having the house there; we pretty much upped and left.’, Sam explained over coffee one day.
How refreshing, to take a step toward the happiness we all think is just out of reach.
We’ve all dreamed of doing something similar; jacking it all in and flying away into the sun to start a new, and this is exactly what they’ve done – with impeccable style.
This is the essence of renewal we revelled in staying with a refreshed Sam and Laurence.
Casa Piccolo Paradiso, a renovated villa over three levels of balconies and terraces, is nestled in a quintessential hamlet with views across to the glowing Aeolian islands.
Opening in May 2017, fully equipped with modern furnishings and fittings, and infinity pool to boot, the homestay is an example of love pouring into a building and creating a home.
Three rooms lend themselves to the guest level of the homestay: two doubles, one with a sea view balcony, and a single room for solo travellers.
Why choose a homestay far from the city? It’s impossible to get closer to Sicilian life.
Laurence, who’s mother was Sicilian, has impeccable knowledge of the surrounding area and Sicily in general, and, promoting themselves as inclusive hosts, both are more than happy to accommodate guests into their daily adventures where possible.
We spent the majority of our time on excursions with Sam and Laurence, taking in outstanding restaurants and natural beauty spots we never would’ve discovered alone.
But, overall, we bonded over a like minded understanding of the important things in life: love, travel and friendship – and, indeed, we left cherishing these.
Oh, and Sam offers personal training sessions… Hello!
Laurence told us, over breakfast one morning: ‘It’s the immersion into our lives. If you’re sociable and you like to rub shoulders with like minded people it’s the perfect place because we’re gay, generational, friendly, we like to entertain and we like to have fun.
You won’t get that in an Airbnb.’
Gioiosa Marea: ‘Probably the most traditional [town] in Sicily’
While Casa Piccolo Paradiso is base camp for Sicilian adventures, the seaside town of Gioiosa Marea below shouldn’t be last on the itinerary.
Returning from the hills on the first morning – which is less daunting coming down than going up, for someone who hasn’t driven in a while – we settled for a welcome gelato.
Gioiosa Marea is that sleepy, wander around licking sweet treats, home from home you pretend your childhood was spent in another life.
Despite not being familiar with the LGBTI community, Laurence says the town has accepted them as who they are: ‘It’s a very traditional town, probably the most traditional in Sicily but they’ve accepted who and what we are and we’re welcomed with open arms.
Everybody says hello to us, people know and talk to us; they’re friendly with us, hug us.’
Sam added: ‘They might not of understood that [the relationship] but now us being there, [them] knowing us, they’re probably learning about it and opening their eyes a little more.’
What more you could want from your hometown? We’re getting ‘I <3 Gioiosa Marea’ tshirts.
Tindari and Cefalu: Historical sites on the Sicily coastline
Forty five minutes east toward the harbor city of Messina lies the ancient town of Tindari.
Around the eighth or ninth century, legend states, an iconic statue of the Byzantine era, The Black Madonna, arrived in Tindari after a storm forced a ship into port.
The sailors stored the iconic statue in an abbey in the town, built by the Ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC.
Today, The Black Madonna still resides in the abbey on the iconic hill and attracts pilgrims from far and wide to visit and pray to the statue.
In the other direction, midway between our homestay and Palermo airport, making it a perfect pitstop to break up the journey again, is the picturesque old town, Cefalu.
Cefalu was our absolute favorite stop off in Sicily.
Crystal clear waters, and terraces jutting out into the sea from cliff faces, characterize Cefalu in a way that’s quintessential of historic Italian fishing ports.
Grab some gelato – because you’ll always want more here – and use this last opportunity to soak in the Sicilian sun and culture.
We recommend, as recommended to us by Laurence, taking to the terrace at Lo Scoglio Ubriaco for a fresh seafood Lobster linguine you’ll struggle to forget.
Careful, they’re closed on Tuesdays.
Saying goodbye to new friends…
Spending time with Sam and Laurence, and seeing how intune they are with another, dispels everything any troll has said about their relationship; I know this, firsthand.
But, do you know what the best thing is – they don’t care what anyone thinks.
It was amazingly refreshing to see two men living outside the boundaries of stereotypes forced upon so many gay men, ultimately deciding how they act and who they love.
If you’d like a crash course on how to live an authentic life as a gay man in true love, spend some time in Casa Piccolo Paradiso with Sam Stanley and Laurence Hicks.
They’ll show you how it’s done.
See more of Casa Piccolo Paradiso on Instagram.
Casa Piccolo Paradiso’s season runs from March 26 to October 28 2018; the single room is available from €40-60 per night, standard double from €50-70 and the sea view double from €60-80.
Family packages are available from €130-190 per night. Prices depend on month of visit.
Flights to Palermo and Catania are available from the UK from London Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester with most budget airlines.