A great escape: Alex James takes his family to Sardinia
Touring with a pop band has its unruly moments, but the chaos of travelling with four young children is in another league altogether. Happily, that's where the Forte Village in Sardinia comes in
Saturday 29 August 2009
For someone who lived in hotels for 15 years, and who was often an unruly customer, frequently unrealistic in my demands, it seems remarkable now that in all that time I was banned from relatively few. It's amazing, really, that hotels are such big-hearted places. More or less anything goes. There was a really nice one in Birmingham, The Swallow, which closed its doors to me forever after a particularly long night, which was something I came to regret on all subsequent visits to the city. I could never return to Birmingham without feeling that things would have been slightly better if I was at The Swallow.
A shame, but that was all in another life. Now, in a hotel about as far away from Birmingham as it comes, the carnival of my family – a five-year-old, two toddlers, one baby, their mother and an au pair – have paraded off towards the children's paradise of the "mini club". The huge silence that follows in their wake renders me much more aware of where I am. Even on tour with Blur there are fewer people clamouring for my attention during the day than there are when I go anywhere with my family.
There is rarely a chance to get involved with scenery when there are so many children around. And with four of them aged five and under, I wondered if it was really worth going on holiday at all. Ours is a big-footprint operation; taking it on the road is quite a number. It's probably easier being on tour with my band than going away with my family. So much so, that we stayed at home on holiday last year.
I was keen to get away this summer, though, and the Forte Village, Sardinia, a sumptuous holiday camp – a bit like Donald Trump does Butlins – seemed to fit the bill. It promised plenty for children to do, massages for mum, the gentler caresses of luxury in general – and absolutely no thinking, driving, catering or anything challenging whatsoever required for me.
I've been to Sardinia before, but without the children, and taking kids along somewhere always feels like going to a completely different place. Nowhere tangs the nostrils like Sardinia does, though. I noticed that before. It's singularly fragrant. The whole thing hums with aromatic herbs and sweet flora. This could be really peaceful, I thought to myself, as birdsong found its way into the picture, a gentle chatter in the sunshine. Then I began to survey the carnage around me and wondered if this was a bigger mess than the one that got me in trouble in Birmingham.
It was only a room-service breakfast. How could there be so much mess? There was coffee all up the wall. It's hard to say how that got there. A freshly starched tablecloth was strewn with ground-in pieces of omelette, herbs and honey. There was at least one broken glass on the floor. As I cast my gaze across our "luxury suite with its own garden", I realised that we'd inadvertently turned a flagship five-star hotel into a shanty town. Swimming costumes were hung out to dry on the hardwood sun loungers; there was a litter of upside-down bicycles; a gardenia bush had all its flowers in a little pile next to it. Not even when I was at my most spectacular was I this hard to clean up after.
But the great thing was that it looked like that after breakfast, and when we came back from lunch, everything was folded, rearranged and sparkling more serenely than the sky at night. (Although there was no rescuing the gardenia bush.) I suppose the heavy-duty, high-traffic fabric of hotels is part of their appeal for families.
No doubt four small children do make more mess than a rock band but with children it's not just the mess to contend with. There's always at least one with a runny nose. Or worse. It wasn't clear if we'd be able to travel at all until the very last moment as one of the twins was in the itchy phase of chicken pox.
So far, so good, though, I thought as I made my way down to the pool, well, one of the pools. The sea was right there, but there were swimming pools of all shapes, sizes, depths and temperatures spotted around. I found my gang ecstatic beside the warmest one and after five minutes of trepidation I was in a line of small children taking it in turns to do backwards somersaults off the diving board. Maybe that's all I needed, a return to a childlike state. And maybe that's what the best kind of holiday is.
The Forte Village is a self-contained purpose-built community, a mixture of interlinked four- and five-star hotels, spas, restaurants and recreational facilities at the south-western tip of the second-largest island in the Mediterranean. There's plenty to do. It's a big site – vast, actually – but the artful balance of bijou and grandiose hotels and the hidden villas of Le Dune where we were staying kept it all feeling quite village-y. The mix of hotels leads to a wide variety of holidaymakers, from honeymooning couples to marauding gangs of small children such as mine. There are legions of willing and helpful staff – and restaurants beyond number. These range from simple beach-side pizza and pasta joints, to opulent smorgasbord-style buffets, to formal dining with silver service and tasting menus.
We took the Noddy train along cobbled streets to the pizza restaurant, through the smelly candle-flowers, the pines and the palm trees. It was all perfect. There were no clouds in the sky and the beach looked like a drawing of one: simple lines and big bands of bright colour, plus mountains.
Sand fascinates children. They happily milled around for days digging holes and filling them up again at the water's edge. Water goes in, water goes out. The hypnotic rhythm, the immense balance speaks to everybody: a universal language. Any hotel that can not only cope with children but also be able to show them a really good time, while offering peace and luxury for their parents, is performing a fairly complicated trick.
But the Sardinians can't resist children, even spotty ones. The food was always excellent but Le Dune's restaurant, the most upmarket at the resort, was busy with couples dressed to impress whispering in candlelight as the evening breeze gently wafted off the terrace.
"Did you book?" said the maître d', "I think you might find the other restaurant is more suitab... ah bella bambina." He wasn't talking to me any more, but to the baby, as he led us to a table. High-chairs appeared and serviettes snapped into billowing clouds. It was past the kids' bedtime and I wondered if they would manage. One of them played drums with his cutlery. Another one found some ice. Another one threw a slice of lemon at the other one.
"Don't eat the tablecloth, you nugget! Right, that's it. Any more messing round whatsoever and no one gets ice cream. That's it."
"I want sardines! Sardine-ian sardines."
"Er, quick as you can with the food, please."
"Can we get the cartoon Spider-Man mummy?" But mummy's looking at the wine list. "When can we get the cartoon Spider-Man mummy?" Now they're all asking. The sommelier arrives.
"Er, white?" says my wife, completely Spider-Man-fuddled.
"I'll take care of it," he said. And he did. The kids loved every minute, apparently hypnotised into reasonable behaviour by the constant flow of culinary delights. From the moment the big doughy poppadoms arrived, suddenly it was very calm. They devoured the little suggestions du chef. Those piffling inter-course mouthfuls that irritate me normally were a huge source of delight to them. I could feel my cynicism melting.
"What shall we get at home that they've got here?" I asked them. "A swimming pool! The clown one."
"Sauna," said the au pair, quietly.
The five-year-old established a sign-language rapport with the chefs behind a huge glass window. A paper chef's hat came out for him. The two younger ones started wailing. Then they were presented with hats. They are more pleased with those hats than my wife would be with a new Aston Martin.
They didn't get ice cream, but a little salver of petits fours arrived and it went quiet again. The children's eyes glazed over like the sea outside as the light dimmed imperceptibly from deep blue to darkness sprinkled with floating fairy lights of distant ships.
Sardinia is one of those places where it's hard to go wrong. It has everything. It's often described as a Greek island with Italian food and that's about right, although it doesn't smell of goats the way Greek islands do. By the end of our holiday, I realised that I need only have brought one pair of trousers as I'd spent practically the whole time in swimming trunks. My beard was long, my hair was a mess and there were one or two bites on my feet. What do you miss most about home, I asked the kids.
"Nothing" they said. Nor did I.
Alex James travelled with Sardatur (020 8940 8399; sardinia-holidays.co.uk ), which offers seven nights at the Forte Village from £997 per person, including charter BMI flights from Heathrow to Cagliari, half board, private transfers and spa entry. The price for two adults and one child starts at £2,465, with two children from £2,765.
The nearest airport is Cagliari, which is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) from Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester; BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from Gatwick; and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) from Luton.
Sardinia Tourist Office: 0039 070 606 7226; sardegnaturismo.it
Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk
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