The best resorts: Italy

If you want to avoid the Italian resorts that have suffered from over-development or the beaches where you will pay through the nose just to sunbathe, take some advice from Jill Crawshaw TOUR OPERATORS

taly has probably more breathtaking tourist attractions than anywhere else in the world, but its beach resorts are something of a lottery. Ugly and uncontrolled building has blighted much of the Adriatic, and hefty beach charges act as a deterrent in the more appealing resorts (find out how much these are likely to be from your tour operator or hotel). One tremendous bonus, however, is that you are never likely to be far from superb sightseeing. Here are a few of the best.

PORTOVENERE

Byron and Shelley once colonised the splendid little fishing village of Portovenere, spectacularly positioned on a rocky promontory at the end of what is known as the Golfo dei Poeti. A ruined Genoese castle and Romanesque church loom over tall, narrow, medieval houses, steep stone stairways and cobbled streets crammed with fish restaurants.

Not for the bucket-and-spade brigade, the beaches here are small and shingly, but keen walkers and explorers will appreciate Portovenere's unique selling point - access by boat or cliff path to the Cinque Terre, a series of enchanting, tiny, mountain-hugging fishing villages.

This precipitous coast rarely features in holiday brochures. It was cut off for centuries by formidable mountains (even now some vineyards are so steep that the grapes are accessible only by ladder) and still today, Corniglia and the prettiest village, Vernazza, cannot be reached by road.

Vacanze In Italia offers villas and self-catering cottages in Portovenere and around the Cinque Terre. A villa sleeping six costs pounds 1,218 to pounds 1,912 to hire for two weeks, including a week's car hire or ferry/ Eurostar fares for self-drive holidaymakers.

ELBA

What a pity Tuscany doesn't have a stunning coastline, say the aficionados of Chiantishire. But it does - it's called the island of Elba, just 15 miles by six, and only eight miles from the mainland.

Here you will find Renaissance landscapes of chestnut and pine forests, terraced vineyards, undulating herb-strewn hillsides, great walks, and great eating, too. There is even an old walled town, the port and bustling capital of Portoferraio where Napoleon spent 10 months of exile in some style, though he couldn't wait to get away.

Best of all, Elba has many excellent beaches and resorts that are relatively uncommercial, offering scope for different types of holidays; Porto Azzurro is the chic yacht harbour and Med fishing village par excellence; sandy beaches attract families to Procchio, smaller Biodola and busy Marina di Campo, while the clear waters, rocks and pebbles at Marciana Marina find favour with the diving and snorkelling set.

Crystal Holidays offers one week's half-board at the Hotel Desire for pounds 686 to pounds 1,066 per person, or two weeks for pounds 1,066 to pounds 1,699, including return flights.

GIGLIO

Completely off the regular tourist beat and more like a Greek than a Tuscan island, rocky little Giglio has bags of charm and character. You feel it as soon as the ferry from Porto Santo Stefano decants you on to the quayside at Giglio Porto, scattering excursion boats and yachts in its wake.

Turn right and a clutch of pensiones and cafes overhanging the water vie for your custom; turn left and there's a bit of a promenade, a handful of trendy boutiques and an information office (usually shut) with vital details about buses that trundle round hairpin bends over steep passes. If you decide to stick with Giglio Porto, there are excellent coves about a mile away along the coast, and some superb diving.

The main bus station for some reason is at Giglio Castello, the medieval capital perched absurdly at the top of the island. Take time between buses to visit the great castle there, teetering above orchards and vineyards, and then head down to Campese, the main resort with a large sandy beach and lots of pensiones and hotels.

There are no packages to Giglio. A ferry (allow about 90 minutes) and a faster hydrofoil service in the summer leave regularly from Porto Santo Stefano on the mainland. Return flights from Stansted to Pisa cost from pounds 171 to pounds 181. There are regular trains and buses from Pisa to the port.

SESTRI LEVANTE

While nearby Portofino wins on looks and elegance - it is probably best visited on a day- trip for all but the well-heeled - Sestri Levante is a more modest, but very cheerful and pretty, family-minded resort.

A palm-lined promenade and gardens, and spacious, rather venerable hotels add a slightly old-fashioned charm, but the resort attracts lively Italian families who somehow pack themselves on to its two crescent-shaped dark sand beaches. The Baia di Silenzio still offers an old-world fishing-village scene, but the Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fables), so named by Hans Christian Andersen, has lost its romanticism.

Thirty miles away, Genoa is usually ignored by tourists, considered little more than a sprawling industrial port. But it is well worth a day's visit for its old town, cathedral and rich mercantile palazzos, now museums, stuffed with Italian and Flemish masterpieces acquired when enormously powerful maritime Genoa almost ruled the Med.

Citalia offers holidays at the four-star Villa Balbi Hotel in Sestri Levante. A week costs from pounds 619 to pounds 920 per person, two weeks costs from pounds 920 to pounds 1,163, including return flights and transfers and b&b accommodation.

SANTA MARIA DI CASTELLABATA

There must be a rule that says the British should never go further south down the coast than Amalfi or Positano, because it is astonishing how few British holidaymakers or tour operators ever make Santa Maria di Castellabata. Yet there are few resorts with more going for them in Italy.

It has good sandy beaches - far better than the pitiful pockets along the Amalfi coast or Bay of Naples - a colourful harbour with a satisfying fringe of fish restaurants, a good market and shops, even its own medieval hamlet, Castellabata, above, with spectacular views. No wonder Italian families recognise a good thing, returning year after year, even with the trickiest of teenagers.

Santa Maria is ideal for sightseeing buffs: the great Doric temples of Paestum, the Phoenician ruins at Velia and the grottoes at Palinuro are all within easy reach.

Crystal Holidays offers self-catering holidays at the Torre del Mare apartments on the beach. One week costs from pounds 444 to pounds 511 per person, or pounds 577 to pounds 677 for two weeks, including return flights.

For those who holiday in a bit of style, CV Travel offers luxury self- catering apartments in the 17th-century Palazzo Belmonte with pool and five acres of courtyards and gardens above a sandy beach. Apartments sleeping four cost from pounds 723 to pounds 796 per person per week, with extra weeks from pounds 395 to pounds 519, including return flights and transfers.

OTRANTO

Italy's easternmost port, Otranto, hardly known today outside Puglia, was once a familiar name because of its associations with the best-selling Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.

In fact, the author never went there, though he may well have found it as romantic and wild as its name suggests. The remote bare coast scarcely seems part of the civilised, cultured landscapes further north - if there is an Italy in the raw, this is it.

Due to its isolation, Otranto attracted more than its fair share of looters and pillagers - the worst massacre, the Sack of Otranto taking place in 1480, is still commemorated every year. Besieged by Turks, the inhabitants were offered mercy if they took up the Muslim faith, but they refused and some 800 were massacred - their bones and skulls are heaped in somewhat macabre fashion in the cathedral here.

Highlights of Otranto are the strange 12th-century "King Arthur" mosaics on the floor of the Romanesque cathedral; the tiny delightful Byzantine church of San Pietro; the sturdy Aragonese "Castle of Otranto", and a wide, sandy, curving beach to the north.

While Otranto is for independent travellers only (buses run here daily from Rome via Brindisi), self-catering holidays are available in the Itria valley further north, based in the traditional conical "trulli" houses now converted for modern use - the valley and the houses have been declared a World Heritage site. Long Travel offers a week in a self-catering house sleeping four for between pounds 350 to pounds 410 per person, including return flights and car hire.

ALGHERO

If you want to do a Marie Antoinette and play at being a rustic in one of the luxury pastiche villages developed by the Aga Khan, head for the Costa Smeralda - but you will need a mega bank balance to stay there.

Only slightly less well-off families, looking for sporting and water activities in a lavish holiday village further south, should make for the Forte Village at Santa Margerita di Pula.

It you want to meet real local people on your beach holiday, the best resort, Alghero, is an old favourite which still absorbs tourists well. Lively both day and night, the labyrinthine old town built by the Aragonese (there are still traces of Catalan in the local dialect) is a huddle of golden walls and bastions, balconies festooned with washing, dozing cats, cafes and souvenir stalls selling somewhat dubious coral. Not surprisingly, since Alghero is Italy's chief lobster port, the crustacean features large on the menus. Best beaches to the north, best hotels to the south.

Sardinia's sights pall by comparison with Sicily, but do take the boat trip to Grotto di Nettuna.

Voyages Ilena offers both self-catering and hotel accommodation in Alghero. One week at the two-star San Francesco Hotel costs from pounds 533 to pounds 614 per person in May, or pounds 874 to pounds 1,010 for two weeks, including b&b accommodation, return flights and insurance.

TAORMINA

Suspended 750ft above the Mediterranean, with dramatic views of Mount Etna, this Sicilian resort has attracted Greeks, Romans, Normans, indefatigable Victorian travellers, writers, artists and, of late, film stars. Most have left behind their architectural debris.

Stroll along one of the world's oldest and most attractive high streets, the traffic-free Corso Umberto, and the first things to delay you are the 13th-century pink-washed and burnt-sienna palaces with a bit of Gothic here, an Arab battlement there and the odd Catalan arch. Add a curved Bacchus or two, and the odd Andalusian wrought-iron lamp, and you have the sort of ingredients that have never ceased to inspire artists and photographers.

Press on past the old 15th- century cathedral, a trio of piazzas, tempting boutiques, restaurants serving up Sicilian specialities, a piano-bar and ice-cream parlour. Below are sumptuous villas - D H Lawrence once lived here, so did Greta Garbo. Between cypresses is the Graeco-Roman theatre, the romantic backdrop for the annual film, ballet and music festival in August.

There's even a beach - way down below. A funicular will whisk you down to swim, windsurf or just idle. Taormina has long since given itself up entirely to touristic hedonism. But in what style!

Magic of Italy offers one week's b&b at the Villa Paradiso from pounds 679 to pounds 849 per person, including return flights. Extra nights cost from pounds 49 to pounds 62. At the Villa Sant Andrea on the beach, the prices range from pounds 789 to pounds 1,139 per person per week, including b&b accommodation and return flights, and from pounds 65 to pounds 105 for each extra night.

Citalia (tel: 0181-686 5533); Crystal Holidays (tel: 0181-390 5554); CV Travel (tel: 0870 6039018); Italian Collection (Ilios Travel) (tel: 01403 259788); Long Travel (tel: 01694 722193); Magic of Italy (tel: 0990 462442); Momentum (tel: 0171-371 9111); Sunvil Travel (tel: 0181-847 4748); Vacanze in Italia (tel: 08700 772772); Voyages Ilena (tel: 0171-924 4440).

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