Sardinia is one of the Med's largest islands, and one of its most arresting. Lisa Markwell takes her family to the stunning Costa Smerelda

I've a thing for islands. The best holidays I've ever been on have been on islands. And, to make matters more complicated, I prefer an island starting with the letter "S". Sicily was a brilliant find, like southern Italy with the volume turned up and the flavours more intense. Sri Lanka with a new boyfriend was magical; exotic; life-changing (the boyfriend became husband). Symi - the best Greek island of them all, deliciously tricky to get to, unbelievably difficult to leave. Hiring a boat to phut-phut around the rocky coast looking for a cove to skinny-dip and sip Amethystos rosé.

I've a thing for islands. The best holidays I've ever been on have been on islands. And, to make matters more complicated, I prefer an island starting with the letter "S". Sicily was a brilliant find, like southern Italy with the volume turned up and the flavours more intense. Sri Lanka with a new boyfriend was magical; exotic; life-changing (the boyfriend became husband). Symi - the best Greek island of them all, deliciously tricky to get to, unbelievably difficult to leave. Hiring a boat to phut-phut around the rocky coast looking for a cove to skinny-dip and sip Amethystos rosé.

Then there was Shelter Island, a ferry-ride on from the rest of the Hamptons, and the dernier cri in East Coast posh - think Ralph Lauren, bagels and very, very dry martinis. Scotland's Summer Isles - OK, they were just a day trip from the spectacular Summer Isles hotel in Achiltibuie in the Western Highlands, but still...

Er, then there was Singapore - does that count? I'm not sure, since you can drive to Malaysia. It was a bit of an Asian theme park, so squeaky clean was the atmosphere, but the street food was the best I've ever had. (Other islands of different alphabetical persuasions that I have known and loved include Grenada, Clare Island, Ponza, Ustica, Diu and Cozumel. I wonder if there's a support group for recidivist isle-hoppers?)

So, a trip to Sardinia seemed logical. Little did I realise when I booked the holiday that I was heading off to this year's grooviest European destination. This summer I haven't been able to pick up a glossy magazine without some celebrity spouting off about how much they love the jewel in the Med. Naomi Campbell, Sarah Ferguson, Eddie Irvine, the Rothschild family, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Rod Stewart, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jon Bon Jovi and Tom Cruise are all fans. And, of course, the England squad may well have happier memories of their Italian training venue than of Euro2004 itself.

Certainly Sardinia is gorgeous. It's big, one of the Med's giants, and has more than its fair share of white sand beaches and craggy scenery. But most of the island is like the supermodel Gisele Bundchen without her make-up on - naturally pretty but no show stopper.

The coast is where it's at; more specifically the Costa Smeralda, the area in the north-east of the island that was "invented" as a playboy's paradise by the Aga Khan in the 1950s. I'm not a millionaire, so I didn't book into one of the area's ritzy hotels. Instead I took my family to nearby Cannigione, a fishing port just round the corner. The island has clusters of attractive towns and beaches, but the north-east is the part that attracted us - not only because of its proximity to the glitterati, but also for its white sand beaches, nearby sports facilities and the delicious-sounding restaurants. Choosing a holiday destination for a pair of gadabouts who've recently adopted two lively children is quite a task. Sardinia ticked all the boxes because of its mix of the groovy and the child friendly. But would it live up to the stardust-sprinkled advance publicity?

When we arrived at the villa we were renting, the first signs were not great. Two dead baby birds were splayed on the terrace in a tiny pool of blood. We averted the five-year-old's eyes. Is it a Sardinian mafia warning? Have a good time, or else...? Any worries are swept aside by the frankly fabulous apartment - three big bedrooms, two bathrooms, a well-equipped kitchen and the aforementioned terrace - complete with big squashy sofas and a built-in barbecue. We had barely any reason to stray, apart from occasional dips at the affiliated hotel next door in the cleanest, freshest pool I've been in for years. Unheated, naturally, since Sardinia has long hot summers, but, a little earlier in the season, it was rather bracing. That doesn't stop children, of course, so I had rather more of a chilly work-out than I'd planned.

Cannigione is a pleasing destination, a clean, clear bay with a bustling port and - the sign of a well-to-do resort - chic ceramic shops, a boutique selling pricey bambino clothes, and, overlooking the sea, a restaurant with lobster in a tank. Now there's fancy. We go there on the first night and discover that the fabled Italian love of children stretches as far as making off-menu pasta pomodoro. But it doesn't stop them charging €20 for it. Mental note: start using the local market...

And what a market. In the delightful tradition of southern Italy, the produce stalls are piled high with plump tomatoes, pungent garlic and a huge variety of salad leaves. We fill our bags and stop off at the supermercato on the way back to buy Sardinian sausages and some superb local fish.

Next morning, there's a frog in the pool. Everyone has to cool off somewhere, but I don't fancy sharing my sun lounger with an amphibian, so it's off to the beach. The nearest patch of sand is lovely but there's a busy road close behind, so into the hire car, round the bottom of the bay and up to Baia Sardinia, a classic seaside town, Italian-style - creamy gelatos every 100 yards, lots of caffe lungo action and a spectacular beach. White, white powder sand, crystal clear turqouise sea - did the hire car transport us to the Caribbean instead? I've never seen such an idyllic beach in Europe (and remember, I've been to a few islands in my time).

To complete a picture-postcard moment, an extremely retro-looking seaplane zooms overhead and lands on the water at the front of the bay. The children squeal with delight, momentarily distracted from the endless circuit into, and out of, the shallows.

When we get back to Cannigione we have a look around the port. There are hacked-off fish heads next to several of the boats, much to my son's consternation. Another mafia reference? More likely the off-cuts from lazy fishermen, but it all adds to the drama.

As our week in the sun continues, the holiday shapes up as the perfect first foray into family adventure. We mix familiar picnics and sand castles with opportunities for trying new food ("Mum, can I have more artichokes/calimari/rocket?") and a bit of rugged exploring - of which there is much in Sardinia. My preference is for exploring by, ahem, car. I want to spend the one overcast day touring the Prada, Gucci and Pucci boutiques of Porto Cervo, the Costa Smeralda capital. My more gung-ho husband wants to go horse riding or scuba diving, both of which are available very near to our villa. There are pockets of activity all over the region - and water sports fanatics should definitely book one of the new cheap flights to Sardinia.

An exorbitant coffee in the pedestrianised centre of Porto Cervo - and a bit of speed browsing - is enough to make me realise that I should keep my sandal-and-handbag shopping for the next time I visit Positano. I'm not ready (or able) to join the jet set just yet. The yachts jangle their sails mournfully as we leave town.

But there are other delights in the area. To explore the beautiful beaches around the Costa Smeralda, we decide that since Plan A is unavailable (buy a house facing the coast and make the approach road private), we follow Plan B: park the car and walk down a tiny track. It's well worth it - both directions are fringed with perfect little beaches, with just a few snoozing billionaires lounging around the place.

Downsides to Sardinia? The nerve-shredding roads that twist and turn around the coast should be avoided by the faint-hearted and delicate of stomach (in fact, the junior Markwell lost her breakfast Cornetto on one of the tighter hairpin bends).

The island's food is not as cheap, or as imaginative, as in Sicily, but wafer-thin, metre-wide pizzas hit the spot after a day at the beach. And without a car (assuming a superyacht is also out of the question) it's hard to see the splendour of Sardinia's hidden treats.

If we had been more adventurous we would have taken a boat trip across to the protected, wildlife-friendly islands to the north; or even nipped over to neighbouring Corsica. But my view is; if you've only got a week, make sure you explore one small area properly.

Sardinia beats North Norfolk hands down for a chic, simple family destination - and it's not much more expensive if you choose your villa carefully. A cool, stone-flagged apartment, plentiful delicious food and a mesmerising coastline to explore. What's not to like? Now, if I could just persuade Mr Valentino to let me and my posse spend the rest of the summer in Sardinia on his yacht...

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest airport to Cannigione is Olbia, just south of the Costa Smeralda. The only direct flights between Olbia and the UK are with Meridiana (020-7730 3454; www.meridiana.it), which flies twice a week from Gatwick. A return fare in September costs around £100. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies twice daily from Stansted to Alghero, on the north-west coast. To Cagliari, on the south coast, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Meridiana both fly from Gatwick; Volare (0800 032 0992: buy.volareweb.com) flies from Luton.

STAYING THERE

Lisa Markwell and her family stayed at Cala di Falco Villas in Cannigione, booked through Just Sardinia (01202 484858; www.justsardinia.co.uk). A week's rental of one of the two-bedroom villas in Cannigione in August costs around £1,488, excluding flights.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Cannigione Tourism (00 39 078 989 2019; www.cannigione.com)

Sardinia Tourist Office (00 39 070 60231; www.esit.net)

The Islands Guide ( www.islands.com/sardinia)

The Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it)

Sophie Lam



Comments