Editor-at-large: Yeah, but no: the Vicky Pollard tendency

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The Independent Online

their undies on the sunshade, and falling asleep on the lounger clutching a can of chilled ale or tumbler of rosé trying to obliterate recent events in London. This annual ritual has barely unchanged for half a century. But this year a new mood is afoot, and it seems that, in Italy at least, strict rules of behaviour are expected from holidaymakers, otherwise we could find ourselves slapped with hefty fines and even their version of an Asbo! Loafing around on holiday - in Italy at least - has to be tasteful if you're going to be welcome in 2005.

An organisation with the pompous-sounding title of the Italian Union of Bathing Establishments has produced an etiquette guide, a code of practice for all the less stylish incomers who'll be stripped of their hard-earned euros over the coming month. The ludicrous document has immediately sparked off a furious reaction from thin-skinned Germans, who feel they've been picked on for being loud and ebullient and enjoying a pint or five. On the banned list is nudity, wearing a swimsuit around town, hanging up your bra and pants on the spokes of the beach parasol, eating noisily, changing in public and playing football on the sand. In Alassio, the mayor has gone as far as putting up signs around town showing a bikini-wearing woman with a giant cross over her. Not to be outdone, the Mayor of Ischia has banned hanging your towel out of the hotel window, imposing fines from £34 to £54. Other resorts want to ban cigarette butts being thrown in the sand and the use of noisy radios.

Obviously the big cheeses on the Italian Riviera have never spent any time in observing how people enjoy themselves in the North of England. In Sunderland and Newcastle, where I was filming last week, young women all sport Vicky Pollard-style pony tails, and walk around the town centre all day long wearing as few skimpy clothes as possible in grim northern rain. They don't even bother heading for a beach. The local shopping precinct is as good as place as any to display 90 per cent of your body. What's stylish in Sunderland would be shunned in Portofino - where it sounds as if the next step will be to install turnstiles at all entry points to the beach in order to prevent fatties gaining entry and ruining the landscape. In Sunderland, there's a quick transition from slender, barely clad Britney babe (aged 14) to pushchair-toting chubby in a track suit (17). Both versions chew gum like lactating cows, sport huge gold hoop earrings and smoke for Britain.

I managed to go on a mini-break last week where not only was the weather grimmer than Britain's, but my fellow tourists were worse dressed than any babe from Sunderland. God forbid the style Nazis from Italy start talking to their counterparts in the Baltic. I've just been on a beach in Estonia where men and women wore thick knitted socks with sandals, and with potatoes, barley and dumplings featuring at every meal, size is measured from XXL upwards. In Finland, there were sunny intervals between the torrential rain, and so I soon bought a pair of hand-knitted socks to wear with my sandals as mosquito deterrents. Sleeping in a log cabin and swimming in a lake five hours north of Helsinki is OK for a couple of days; you're hardly going to find Claudia Schiffer emerging from behind the next tree looking impossibly gorgeous in a Missoni swimsuit. After a trip to the supermarket I understand why the Finns stick to a diet of fish, potatoes and beer. After eating herring and smoked fish served on wooden planks for a day or two, I began to crave a courgette, a bit of broccoli ... even a mangetout. My hair smelt of rollmops, my skin looked like a pilchard and my stomach began to resemble a half-digested bowl of potato salad.

In Estonia it still rained, but the locals happily stripped off and ran into the sea, before settling down for lunch with a plate of potatoes and beer. They'd already eaten Spam, salami, cheese and potato salad for breakfast and would be tucking into baked potatoes and smoked fish for dinner. Large women roamed the streets of Parnu wearing only their underwear covered by totally transparent white cotton frocks, jewelled high heels and masses of gold, all topped off with a Pacamac. The beach was wide, clean, sandy and inviting. The trouble was it was blowing a gale and pouring with rain. Everyone was super-friendly, no danger of incurring a massive fine for wearing the wrong swimmie or holding a wet towel in the wrong part of town. I'll be back, especially if the sun could oblige - and I'll be taking a suitcase of green vegetables instead of all those fashionable clothes. Estonia is fabulous. If only they could swap cuisines with Italy.

Back home, any dwelling facing the sea has soared in value, and even the humble beach hut with no mod cons can change hands for more than £75,000 in the right location. So far the coast of Kent, Sussex and Suffolk has been the most sought after- but now even the chilly north is becoming highly desirable. A two-storey wooden hut on National Trust land in Northumberland has just been offered for sale with an asking price of £200,000. The estate agent even managed to photograph the property on a rare day when there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the North Sea looked as turquoise and inviting as the Costa Smeralda. The property can't be reached by car, and doesn't have year-round water or electricity. And I imagine that during the winter months it's uninhabitable.

Apart from the chance to pretend you are still living in the 1950s, the attraction of spending time in a basic chalet by a windy British beach is the knowledge that no irritating Italian local dignitaries will be popping around to criticise your flapping wet beachwear and your pile of empty cans and wine bottles, and you won't incur a huge fine if you indulge in a game of beach football in order to get the circulation going and banish the goose pimples. Sling in an alfresco lunch of shrimps and local crab, some brown bread and organic vegetables from the nearest farmers market and you've probably got the best beach holiday in the world. The £200,000 price tag almost seems reasonable.