Travel

How ‘The White Lotus’ Found Its Sicilian Hotel For Season 2

The HBO show's producer says the show considered spots in Greece and the south of France before landing at the San Domenico Palace in Taormina.

HBO
HBO
HBO

When Mike White and the producers of The White Lotus began casting the show’s second season, they knew they had to keep a few things in mind. First, they needed to pick a place where you could shoot early in the year and have it still look like summer. They also needed a country or locale that offered tax rebates for Hollywood productions (budgets matter, after all), a resort that could shut down for most of the show’s several months of shooting, and a site that would be big enough to house the whole cast and crew. (Not to mention a hotel with enough suites to accommodate a star-studded cast.)

With all those stipulations in mind, the crew focused on a small cluster of countries around the Mediterranean. “The three places we really zeroed in on were the south of France, the southern part of Italy, and Greece,” says David Bernad, the show’s executive producer, “but then we heard Knives Out was going to Greece, so that took that out of the running.” Though Bernad says he and White Lotus creator Mike White had never thought about shooting in Sicily, once a scout suggested they visit as a “cultural pilgrimage,” they went and explored, falling in love with the island and its complicated history.

When Bernad and White began to scout Sicilian hotels as potential locations, their first stop was the San Domenico Palace in Taormina. A 14th century Dominican convent first transformed into a hotel in 1896 and purchased by Four Seasons in 2021, the clifftop retreat has 111 guest rooms, including some that were once monks’ cells. It was also once a popular stop on many aristocrats’ “grand tour” and has hosted everyone from Oscar Wilde to Elizabeth Taylor.

“When we walked into the hotel, it was just obvious immediately that it was the place,” says Bernad. “It’s such a unique space. It was production-friendly, so we could shoot there, and it was big enough to house the crew and the cast.” Bernad says that while everyone working on the first season of The White Lotus was forced to stay in the same hotel to create a sort of COVID bubble, they didn’t technically have to do that this time around. Still, Bernad says, the show encouraged people to opt in to staying at the Four Seasons for the second season, just because White and company liked the “summer camp” atmosphere it created the first time around.

HBO
HBO
HBO

Interestingly, while the first season of White Lotus was also shot at a Four Seasons resort, Bernad says it was a “complete coincidence” that the production chose another property owned by the luxury hotelier for its second season. “We thought it could be a little helpful that we’d shot at one before. It wasn’t, really,” Bernad explains. “The hotel had only just re-opened [as a Four Seasons] in Taormina about six months earlier, and that made them a little precious with the space.”

If anything, Bernad says, the fact that producers opted for a second Four Seasons location speaks to the fact that the company seems to have its luxury game on lock. That makes it easy to translate a resort’s look and vibe to a fictional entity like the White Lotus, where the exacting guests are always looking for an experience that’s second to none. They’re also looking to stay among themselves, Bernad thinks: “With this kind of travel culture, with rich people travelling to hotels, they’re always looking inward and never looking outward. They’re more focused on the immediate than their surroundings.”

While the show does step outside the boundaries of the resort in Season 2 more than it did in Season 1, that’s a function of not just White’s interest in pushing characters out of their comfort zones, but also production trying to work around the limitations of shooting inside the actual hotel. “We owned the hotel for a certain period of time,” Bernad explains, “but at the very end of the shoot, the hotel was open to guests so there were times we were filming in a corner and regular people were just walking by.”

Fortunately, being forced to shoot outside the hotel led Bernad and White to explore their creative surroundings. Bernad says the pair was particularly charmed by Taormina’s liberal past. “It was the only city in Sicily that allowed openly gay residents, and so it became this enclave for gay Sicilians,” Bernad explains. “It’s also a very literary town, and a lot of great authors wrote and socialized in our hotel.” It’s said that D.H. Lawrence found inspiration for Lady Chatterly’s Lover at the hotel in the 1920s after his wife had a dalliance with a local donkey driver. Henry Miller, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams all visited the hotel after WWII, and after an L.A. newspaper described Taormina as a “Disneyland of sin,” rich Americans like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began frequenting the hotel in droves. In fact, Taylor and Burton once had such a big blowout at the San Domenico that she allegedly broke a mandolin over his head.

HBO
HBO
HBO

Throughout the years, it has also been suggested by some that the hotel is haunted, a notion that Bernad believes. The producer cites the property’s long ecclesiastical history, as well as its use by the Nazis during WWII as potential reasons why the space would draw ghosts, saying “you feel the ghosts of the past” inside the San Domenico. He also claims he experienced eerie instances himself during the White Lotus shoot. “I swear, multiple times I was in bed sleeping at 3 or 4 in the morning and I would hear knocking on my door. I would get up and open the door, but no one would be there.”

Bernad also liked the idea of shooting at the San Domenico because it seemed so self-contained. The hotel and spa offers views of nearby volcano Mount Etna from its rooms’ private terraces, some of which also have plunge pools. Those, of course, are in addition to the brand new clifftop 69-foot infinity pool with its picturesque views and shaded lounge chairs. There are three bars and three restaurants on site, including the Michelin-starred Principe Cerami, which serves local Sicilian specialties like “Stimpirata style” cappelletti with Guinea fowl and grilled peppers and ox cheek braised in local vermouth and served with truffled mashed potatoes and juniper from nearby Mount Etna. The hotel also boasts two ancient courtyards, marble baths in all the rooms, and a museum-quality art collection on property, including plenty of the Moor’s heads White Lotus viewers first glimpsed in the Season 2 premiere.

As far as rooms, guests of the hotel can stay in traditional singles like Albie, Bert, Dominic, and Portia, slightly larger and more modern suites like the two couples, or nab an even more palatial suite, a la Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya McQuoid-Hunt. Full disclosure: Even the San Domenico Palace’s smallest rooms don’t come cheap; even off season, nightly rates start at about $1,000 and can soar to almost $5,000 for a larger suite.

While some fans have quibbled over the idea that rich guests on holiday wouldn’t venture beyond the boundaries of the resort, Bernad says that at a place like the San Domenico-or the White Lotus-guests really do stay on property much of the time, in part because the amenities are so luxe. “We scouted two hotels in Rome and there was a hotel in Rome that we really liked,” says Bernad, “but we decided to [shoot at the San Domenico] because if you’re in Rome, you would leave the hotel. You’d go out and have dinner, but if you’re in Sicily, you’re primarily going to eat at the hotel.”

HBO
HBO
HBO

One thing guests would have to venture off property for is beach access, which the White Lotus appears to have but the San Domenico Palace very much does not. Bernad says scenes like the season opening chat between Meghann Fahy’s Daphne and two new hotel visitors were actually shot about three hours away from Taormina in a town called Cefalù. “By the hotel on the eastern side of Sicily, we couldn’t find beaches that were sandy,” he explains. “There’s a beautiful beach by the hotel, but it’s all little stones, and so when we were doing scenes where we had actors walking into the water, it seemed cruel to make them stand on these really uncomfortable rocks trying to do dialogue.”

Bernad stayed at the San Domenico Palace throughout the Season 2 shoot and says it’s an experience he’ll remember fondly for the rest of his life. “It was very emotional leaving and I cried,” he says. “You really develop these bonds with the people that work there when you’re there for four or five months, and you become this little family. A lot of the people who work at the hotel are actually in the show, though, and I look forward to going back someday and reconnecting with everyone.” And just like we see on the show, Bernad says that, in his opinion, the hotel’s bar is one of the best hangs in all of Taormina.

Interest in The White Lotus appears to have been good for both the San Domenico Palace and for Sicily, as well. TMZ reported that visits to the hotel’s website have increased by 70 percent since the show started airing and Bernad says he’s heard from other nearby hotel owners that interest in the island in general has “skyrocketed” since the season started airing. “Say what you will about the show and whether you like it or not, but Sicily is a poor island and tourism is its main industry,” he says. “If the show can have some sort of lasting impact and bring more money, more jobs, and more opportunities to Sicily, that would be an amazing byproduct.”

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Marah Eakin is a contributor to Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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