Travel: Coasting along towards Cagliari: Chris Arnot learns how to drive like an Italian, then takes his family on a tour of the beautiful bays and idyllic beaches of Sardinia

The last-minute rush to board the ferry to Carloforte was competitive. Umpteen cars converged on the same space, every one of them going backwards. My middle daughter's 16-year-old Sardinian friend, Anna, had warned us that it would be like this. 'Keep close to us,' she advised, 'and drive like an Italian.'

I managed to keep the back of my hired Fiat Panda less than a tow-rope's length from her mother's Volkswagen as we edged towards the ramp. An attempt by an Alfa Romeo to squeeze in between us was staunchly repelled. The first rule of Italian driving is never, under any circumstances, give way.

The second rule is to blast your horn at every opportunity. A cacophany of horns sounded across the dockside. Above it I could hear the voices of ferrymen, all of whom seemed to be bellowing at me. It gradually dawned on me that I had secured the last place on the ferry - as long as I could squeeze into a tiny space in front of a huge lorry. Squeeze into it? I could hardly see it.

Just over half an hour later, I restored my shattered nerves over a beer outside one of the many cafes along the handsome seafront at Carloforte. This is the only town on the tiny island of San Pietro. Although it is sited just off the south-west coast of Sardinia, its 1,200 or so inhabitants are descended from Genoese settlers and have a language and culture of their own. Among Sardinians, the Carlofortini have a reputation for being canny business folk.

We drove out of town through undulating fields of brownish vegetation bordered by dry stone walls that echoed to the high- pitched drone of passing two- stroke engines. Convoys of scooters and mopeds were passing by on their way into town. The majority of the canny Carlofortini, it seems, prefer two wheels to four. Easier to get on the ferry, perhaps.

At least there was no shortage of parking space on the road near the beach. We followed Anna and her mother, Gianna, along a sandy path through fields of wilting thistles and over craggy rocks. At the end of it was an idyllic cove of white sand, lapped by a warm, clear sea. On this holiday we had come to expect nothing less.

We had taken a round trip to San Pietro from the southern coast of Sardinia, where we were staying at Cala Verde, a pretty resort in Santa Margherita di Pula. Here we were spoilt for choice between beautiful bays and great sweeps of sand. At Chia and Villasimius the sand is almost as fine as flour.

To get to Villasimius in the far south-east meant travelling 40 kilometres (25 miles) into the capital, Cagliari, and then the same distance again. That's what the road signs said, anyway. Hairpin mountain bends made it seem much longer. But if the road was long and winding, at least the views were memorable.

We broke the journey at Cagliari, where Gianna and Anna share a flat in a stylish block on the Via Sebastiano Satta. I loved sitting on their balcony in the evening, listening to the clamour of the street below while taking in the serene view of distant domes and craggy mountains.

Cagliari is a bustling Mediterranean port. Ferries to Rome and Naples lie on the far side of the Via Roma, over the road from a lengthy arcade of vaulted stone arches that provides much needed shade for the pavement cafes.

In one of the narrow streets behind is the long-established Trattoria Lilicu, a must for lovers of seafood. Signor Lilicu is elderly but still more than capable of letting rip with the occasional operatic aria. His impromptu performances bring thunderous applause from the diners, most of whom are long-standing regulars.

Waiters bustle between marble- topped tables bearing steaming bowls of fish and pasta, molluscs and crustaceans. There is no set menu: choice of dishes depends on the morning's catch. One day we called in for lunch, a feast of octopus, prawn and squid in a garlicky dressing; more squid served with peas in a tomato sauce; cockles and mussels with spaghetti; and, finally, a white local fish, orata, in a white wine sauce. Bill for six: 160,000 lire ( pounds 75).

We emerged into fierce afternoon sunshine, glad that we'd foregone wine, and embarked on a steep climb to the ancient castello at the top of the town. The view is superb, and the walk offers a chance to admire the different architectural styles that have left their mark on the city. Sardinia's position at the centre of the Mediterranean has made it a target for invaders. After the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Pisans, Spanish and Portugese came the England football fans.

They too influenced the architecture. In a vain attempt to keep them away from the town, the authorities put up a neo-brutalist structure near the airport where they hoped the supporters would lay out their sleeping bags. Once the 'guests' had been ushered off to the mainland, the plan was to convert their concrete dormitory it into a multi-storey car park.

The conversion never came about. As with many projects in Sardinia, the money ran out. The roads are a good example. Our trip to and from Alghero in the north- west took us all the way along one of the island's major trunk roads. Occasionally there would be patches of fresh Tarmac, but just as you were getting used to it, the surface would become worn and pitted again, as though the Panda had strayed on to a cattle grid.

Alghero is a pretty enough place, with cobbled squares and alleys and a harbour full of bobbing pleasure craft. Stay overnight if you can afford it: our 360-mile return journey from the south is not to be recommended in the heat.

We spent the following day relaxing at our base on the south coast. Our neighbours at Cala Verde were holidaymakers from Italy and Cagliarians wealthy enough to own a weekend retreat. There were some obsessive gardeners among them. Occasionally we would come across vividly coloured Mediterranean plants set in lawns that wouldn't look out of place in the Home Counties. Not much evidence of hosepipe bans here, despite a niggardly rainfall. The water in our villa, though, was erratic, as was the electricity.

There were other minor irritations: the nearby swimming pool had deteriorated since our last visit; so had the adjoining restaurant. But we ate well down the road in a restaurant called Pam Pam. It offered good seafood salad, mussels and swordfish, which were served in a delightful terraced garden.

Children eating out were extraordinarily well behaved - even those without their parents. At an adjoining table one night there were four kids who could have been no more than 11. Between mouthfuls of pizza, they gave the impression they were discussing the state of the lira or Marcello Mastroianni's latest film. At times like these, you feel glad to eat among Italians - even if you prefer not to drive like them.

Chris Arnot booked through Sardatur Holidays, 200 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9LA (071-637 0281/0648). A fortnight for two adults and two teenage children in the high season came to pounds 1,880, including flights, insurance, car hire and accommodation.

(Photograph omitted)

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