Travel

Every Castle, Ancient Fortress, and Lighthouse You Can Rent in Italy

How often do you get to say you slept in a medieval pirate's tower?

Castello di Naro
Castello di Naro
Castello di Naro

Imagine watching the sunset over Sardinia’s cliffs from your own private lighthouse or waking up to seagull cries from a medieval pirate fortress. With many people feeling a lingering caution about crowded, cramped places ever since the pandemic, it’s no wonder ordinary hotels are so over. That’s even more true when you have the opportunity to experience Italy’s picturesque architectural heritage as an exclusive guest. After all, if you’re finally going to Italy, why not stay in a castle?

Renting old, stunning fortresses, lighthouses, and castles-and even former tuna factories-offers a throwback and probably the most unique place you’ll ever be able to say you stayed in. It’s the latest travel fad: with COVID still out there, many crave more space all to themselves, whether booking the whole place for a weekend or a special event, such as a birthday or destination wedding.

From Sicily to Tuscany and Sardinia, have breakfast on sun-kissed panoramic terraces and frescoed tower suites where great lords and ladies once rubbed shoulders, wearing lavish gowns and throwing balls. Art and history are intertwined in many Italian towns, so here are a few places where you’ll feel like the king of your own little kingdom.

Tonnara di Scopello
Tonnara di Scopello
Tonnara di Scopello

Tonnara di Scopello tuna fortress

Tuna trapping facilities (called tonnare in Italian) have been banned, but after years of decay, they are now experiencing a revival. This ancient, tiny tuna fortress near the city of Trapani in Sicily is located in the pristine Zingaro marine reserve, sitting in front of huge sea stacks of rock jutting out of the water.

At the base of a cliff topped by a lookout tower are a few elegantly restyled reddish stone dwellings with private porch-decks where you can park a dinghy or canoe. You’ll get to sleep in majolica-tiled suites with fish-motif decor, which were once the lodgings of the tuna fishers, as well as the warehouses for storing boats and tuna processing. Stone bathrooms are carved into the rock, while each room has private exotic gardens and beach access.

Nature and snorkelling fans, this one’s for you. At dawn or sunset, jump out of bed, open the front door, and dive right into the clear water with a big splash. Also included is everything for a relaxing escape: hammocks for reading or lounging, fennel liqueur drinks served in sun-kissed courtyards, and fresh sea urchins for dinner right from the fisherman’s net.

Castello di Scipione dei Marchesi Pallavicino
Castello di Scipione dei Marchesi Pallavicino
Castello di Scipione dei Marchesi Pallavicino

Castle of Scipione

Walking inside this medieval castle, you’ll find frescoed green-and-purple suites, salons with plush cushioned armchairs and high-end fabrics, and great halls with antique furnishing where Italian aristocrats ruled over their county. The Castle of Scipione, set in the Emilia Romagna region and built in the 14th century, comes with just two exclusive, romantic suites with a private garden and entrance, wooden ceilings, ancient terracotta floors, and a stunning view of the surrounding forests where nobles once hunted.

The two-floor Blue Suite is located in the watchtower, and comes with a marble bathroom, while the Green Suite, right behind the old drawbridge, boasts a ceiling-high fireplace. Both have their own fully equipped kitchenette, but guests are still treated to fine Tuscan dishes of wild hare and handmade tortellini at the en-suite restaurant.

Be prepared to bump into the heirs of the old aristocratic family that still runs the estate. You can also opt to rent the whole palace-stables and all-for a special occasion.

Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia
Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia
Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia

Capo Faro resort lighthouse

Imagine sleeping in a sleek, white lighthouse surrounded by lush vineyards that produce sweet amber-coloured wine called Malvasia, dubbed the “nectar of the gods.” Part of an estate run by an old aristocratic family, the seafront lighthouse sits on the volcanic island of Salina, the pearl of the Aeolian archipelago, which is a green paradise that has two twin peaks. The refurbished hotel now boasts 27 rooms, including a suite with a kitchen for private dinners, with terraces that look out to sea, as well as a pool made of black rocks.

As gorgeous as the location and views are, there’s something truly special about drinking premium wine on the patio of a sun-drenched terrace surrounded by the scent of those same vines, which are exclusive to this isle thanks to fertile soil and the sultry heat. The tantalizing drink (which is also used in the onsite restaurant today) was loved by British admiral Horatio Nelson’s navy that often partied in these waters in the 1700’s, fueled by golden Malvasia.

Only Fabrizio/Shutterstock
Only Fabrizio/Shutterstock
Only Fabrizio/Shutterstock

Salvucci Tower

Living like a lord in the middle ages wasn’t always easy, even if you had a whole fortress to yourself. There were no elevators and dozens of stairs. But for those who relish unique adventures, imagine vacationing in a fortified tower where your accommodation is stretched across 11 floors of a narrow tower with thick stone walls.

The Salvucci Tower in the enchanting Tuscan village of San Gimignano is perhaps one of the most quirky accommodation options in Italy. San Gimignano is known as “the village of the many towers,” and this is the only habitable one.

Prepare to stretch your muscles going up and down 143 steps to get from your bed to the bathroom, kitchen, or mezzanine. There are only three beds and two bathrooms in the entire 11-floor tower, which you would have completely to yourself. The best part, though, might just be the panoramic rooftop, great for an evening Negroni or a candle-lit truffle pasta dinner prepared by a private chef.

Faro Capo Spartivento
Faro Capo Spartivento
Faro Capo Spartivento

Faro Capo Spartivento lighthouse

Located in the secluded bay of Chia on the island of Sardinia, you can have this watchtower all to yourself for a superb holiday. Built in 1865 on top of a cliff, the reddish lighthouse, still functioning, has been converted to just six luxury suites with sunrise and sunset views, surrounded by translucent waters and solitary inlets.

The on-site restaurant, open only to hotel guests, serves breakfast and intimate dinners on the terrace. They create locally-sourced dishes including seafood, handmade Malloreddus pasta, and Sardinian pecorino sheep cheese. You can also opt to have your evening drinks, with the best Sardinian wines such as Vermentino di Gallura, served at the panoramic pool.

Castello di Naro
Castello di Naro
Castello di Naro

Fortress of Naro

This majestic medieval fortress at the top of a cliff is located in the secluded region of Marche, surrounded by forests, rivers, and sleepy villages. Once home to a proud princess-warrior, it is now a little-known retreat where guests can live in a chunk of history.

The suites are lavishly decorated with ornate sculptures, paintings, and old furniture. The bathrooms are sheer luxury, featuring painted frescoes and chromotherapy showers. The old ice storage room is now used as the wine cellar, while you can visit the old cistern, once used to collect water. There’s also an underground rock spa if you want more pampering. Or have fun looking for the secret passageway said to be located underground.

One of the most charming parts about the rental is the panoramic gardens. There you’ll find a huge stone patio featuring comfy sofa beds, where you can unwind, enjoy the mountain views, and sip a Martini with premium local Ascolane olives. Plus, the walkway along the fortified walls will give you a sense of what it was like to look out for approaching enemy troops.

Torre Trasita Positano
Torre Trasita Positano
Torre Trasita Positano

Trasita coastal tower

Visiting the vibrant fishing village of Positano and the spellbinding Amalfi Coast tops pretty much most travelers’ bucket lists-but staying in a unique location ups the game. This 1300’s pirate lookout tower is carved into the side of a cliff and stretches down to the translucent waters below, which according to mythology were inhabited by mermaids. The property even has a private path leading down to the inlets and beaches.

The white-washed interiors of the Trasita tower make for cool panoramic suites, but you’ll most likely be spending your time at the pool and suntanning or taking a siesta on the multi-layered stone terraces dotted with lounge chairs. From the gardens and rooftop, where guards once patrolled, the view stretches all the way to the Li Galli archipelago.

In the morning, before indulging in an iconic ricotta-filled Pastiera cake, jump right off one of the rocky platforms at the foot of the tower and go for a swim-or skinny dip! From the windows of the three suites, you’ll be so close to the water it’ll feel as if the sea is about to wash up right into your room. At a walking distance from Positano village but tucked into its own quiet corner, the tower guarantees utter privacy and silence.

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Silvia MarchettiĀ is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave-er, depths.

Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringoā€¦ you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

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Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out atĀ JenniferBillock.comĀ and follow her on Twitter.

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