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.
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.
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 traveling 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.
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 headsWhite 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.”
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.”