It is 6.30pm, and Gabriel is in two-year-old heaven. He's spent the afternoon bouncing ecstatically between beach, swimming pool and mini club.
It is 6.30pm, and Gabriel is in two-year-old heaven. He's spent the afternoon bouncing ecstatically between beach, swimming pool and mini club. Now he's relaxing in the early-evening sunshine at his all-time favourite supper joint, the children's restaurant at Sardinia's Forte Village, where he picks dashingly at chicken and chips and makes adoring faces at the raving beauty at the next table. The cutie in question, who's three and called Maya, looks wildly uninterested; but then, she only has eyes for the five-year-old with the buzz-cut at the corner table - and, it has to be said, he's not looking too impressed either, being too busy telling his mother about his afternoon at the go-cart circuit. Later on, all three might check out the rock band tuning up in the Piazza Maria Luigia, or perhaps go window shopping at the designer stores around the central square, before - finally - heading back to their rooms to watch satellite TV and raid the contents of the mini-bar. And so it goes: another hard day at Italy's most celebrated family resort.
There must still be people who, when they think of Sardinia, picture an island of rugged Mediterranean beauty, where moufflon haunt the hills and flamingo pad about the marshes below. There may be others who think of a historic island, whose legacy lives on in the mysterious towers, called nuraghi, which dot the landscape. It's possible there are yet others - God help them - who think of the Costa Smeralda, playground of the rich and shameless, where Silvio Berlusconi keeps four homes, and Russian billionaires and (more incongruously) British prime ministers prance among the gin palaces packing the marina.
But then these people have children of their own; and that's when fellow parents start to whisper about a different kind of Sardinian holiday - one on which the moufflon go undisturbed, the gin palaces are thankfully absent and frankly the local history is neither here nor there. "It's like Center Parcs crossed with the Ritz - but with sunshine," one couple had told us, conspiratorially, back in London. This, we gathered, was a good thing. "Our first relaxing holiday since we had children," they added, in what may have been the clincher. We could only ignore the siren calls for so long. After all, we reasoned, we'd tried windy cottages in Devon and insect-infested gites in France, and we had learned a thing or two: most notably, that a self-catering holiday with small children is not always a holiday at all.
So, the Forte Village - founded by Lord Forte in the 1970s as a haven for well-heeled mums and dads and their offspring, and still going strong 30 years later - where else?
Once you had to change planes to get there; these days, the 7.30am BA service direct from Gatwick to Cagliari pitches you up in time for lunch - a great bonus for stressed-out parents and hungry children alike. As the taxi whisks you along the coast towards the resort, you pass signs for the ancient city of Nora, founded under the Carthaginians, though for us any intention to venture beyond the Village's gates disappeared the moment we reached reception. This time we weren't in search of prehistoric culture so much as the last word in modern family-friendly luxury - and, as we and our bags were helped on to f
electric buggies for the short trip to our room, Gabriel and his sister Eliza, aged one, thought they'd found it. There's nothing quite like arriving in paradise on a golf cart to perk up a weary toddler's spirits.
At first, the Village seems so vast - a 55-acre private valley leading down to a kilometre or so of finely groomed beach - that it's hard to know where to begin. There are, for instance, 10 swimming pools - boasting fresh water, salt water, slides, flumes, diving boards, water jets, underwater viewing chambers, poolside bars - and more than a dozen places to have lunch. Then there's the children's club, the thermal spa, the shopping mall, the go-cart track, the bowling alley, the discotheque, the football pitches, the tennis courts, the ice rink... Decisions, decisions - and that's before you even get to the beach.
From top to bottom, it somehow all looks gorgeous, a vibrant garden of palm and peppercorn, pomegranate and colourful bougainvillea, and it's car-free, so the kids can skip around the gleaming terracotta pathways in complete safety. But the Village is so big and so unlike anywhere else that for the first day we experienced a kind of culture shock (not the kind, admittedly, we felt arriving in India).
After a while, however, you begin to get a fix on things, and learn to go with the flow. There's the beach front, of course, with its restaurants and pristine loungers; then there's the central piazza, shaped like a Roman amphitheatre, with its hilariously bad live music and smart (ie unbelievably expensive) shops open till midnight. Then, dotted around the grounds, there are seven separate hotels and apartment complexes, plus various crazy-money suites in case you're David and Victoria Beckham (or indeed any other football family you care to mention, from the Rivaldos to the Vinnie Joneses).
We'd booked in to stay at Le Dune. Smack by the beach, bang by the children's club, and home to the Village's best restaurant, it seemed the ideal spot - though we met another couple, the editor of a glossy magazine and her husband, who told us that the Hotel Costello is where the really smart people stay. Either way, we found the staff fantastically welcoming, and our family suite (children's beds in the sitting room; wicker chairs on the terrace) satisfyingly large, extremely comfortable and spotlessly clean.
It's when something goes wrong, however, that a place like this comes into its own - as we discovered when the cleaner inadvertently swiped the children's swimming costumes along with the dirty towels, prompting a wonderfully Italian red alert. First, an island-wide search for the lost cozzies, along with impassioned hourly updates as to the investigation's progress; then, when they didn't show up, an invitation to replace the H&M originals with something a little more bella figura, maybe by Ralph Lauren, from the kiddie boutique. "Is all right?" asked Alessandro, the manager, with grave concern. "You bet!" we almost replied, while wondering what else we could persuade the cleaner to lose.
For all the luxury glitz, however - and there can't be many holiday complexes that feature their own Gucci and Bulgari concessions - our abiding memories of the Forte Village are simple. The joy of watching the children wander barefoot around this extraordinary, surreal garden of Eden, stopping here for a paddle in a favourite pool, there to chat to a friend at the children's club, and there again to sniff a tropical flower on the way to supper. For Gabriel, it really couldn't have been bettered - unless, that is, that Maya could have been persuaded to pay a little more attention.
Citalia offers 7 nights at Il Villaggio at the Forte Village Resort from £849 per person (based on 2 adults sharing) or from £2,547 for a family of four (based on 2 children of 2 to 11 years). Both prices include dinner, B&B plus return flights and transfers, and are valid for travel in May 2005. Reservations 0870 901 4014 or www.citalia.comReuse content