Elle McPherson was being photographed wearing a tiny white string bikini as she waterskied off the coast of Sardinia when I arrived. There was also breaking news that Silvio Berlusconi, currently hosting Vladimir Putin, had just sold his 68 room Bunga-Bunga palace – where he once entertained Tony Blair – to the Saudi Royal Family for £360m. It was all happening.
Actually most of the locals are so accustomed to the rich and famous arriving in their Dolce&Gabbana flip flops on the Costa Smerelda, that they barely look up at the arrival of yet another celebrity’s yacht. After all it was here, outside the Hotel Cala de Volpe, that Roger Moore, as James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me, drove an amphibious Lotus Esprit out of the sea and onto the beach like it was nothing.
Apart from this red carpet enclave of blingy glitterati and oligarchs, Sardinia remains an empty island of wandering shepherds, imposing fortresses, desolate mountains and deserted beaches. I wasn’t heading to the private villas on the fashionable north of the island, but to the un-spoilt south for kicks of a different kind. Until a few years ago, only impoverished goat herders roamed a rugged coastline of gnarled olive trees, Mediterranean umbrella pines and clumps of wild fig bushes. The romantic landscape will strike a nostalgic note in anyone weaned on classic Italian movies like Cinema Paradiso.
On the south side there’s a 16th century conquistador fort that was built by Spanish settlers to watch out for invaders, while a peaceful lagoon is home to a flock of pink flamingos. It’s here, beside two sheltered beaches, that the Italian Hospitality Collection has built Chia Laguna resort, a collection of four hotels and private villas catering for mainly Italian guests – a reassuring endorsement. They can pick from three swimming pools, nine restaurants, boutiques, a spa and nightly musicals by professional performers at an open air theatre in a piazza.
Chia Laguna is really a village set in fifty acres of manicured gardens, linked by terracotta paths shaded with hibiscus, down which, in the cool of the early morning and late afternoon, excited children aged from six to sixteen race to the resort’s soccer academy. It’s a truth known to all parents that children on holiday have a tedium threshold of about two days, after which the familiar refrain of “I’m bored” is heard.
Chia Laguna has an ingenious answer to this annual dilemma, channelling the youngsters’ energy at the soccer school, screened with flowering foliage, where they are taught to bend it like Beckham by former premiership stars.
This allows parents “me time” to chill by the pool with a margarita or wander through epic sand dunes and Biblical rushes to the beach for a dip in the warm Mediterranean.
Some English girls staying at the resort, clearly enthused by the success of the England Ladies Football team at the recent Women’s World Cup, also pulled on the smart blue and white shirt and shorts of the Italian national team, a strip given to all the kids. Little Anya Helden, aged seven, from Bromley, and her new friend Sara Heshmani, ten, of Ealing, tear into tackles that would make Wayne Rooney wince. Sara’s Dad Adi watched with pride as she wrong footed a big lad on the other team with a George Best-style body swerve.
He tells me: “Sara’s a mad keen Liverpool fan. She plays a game every Sunday morning with other girls from her school and it’s a job to get her off the pitch. The soccer academy has brought all the parents together too and we usually end up having dinner with each other.”
Andrew Johnson, once of Everton, who has played nine times at centre forward for England leads the coaching staff. He recruited Bobby Zamora, scorer of one of the goals of the season for Queen Park Rangers in the Premier League last year, who has also played striker for England.
It would be wrong to think this is just a kick about to take the kids off their parent’s hands. Andy and his team coach them seriously in penalty taking, passing, dribbling and shooting. At the end of the week each child is called up onto a stage, given a DVD of their game time, and the group receives an inspirational pep talk by videolink from Chelsea Captain John Terry.
Sardinia is the second biggest island in the Mediterranean and has a smaller population than its neighbour Sicily. Crucially, it also has fewer tourists than the smaller Ischia and Capri. It sits between the mainland and Tunisia, the mountainous interior almost deserted apart from rural communities now studied by Oxford University because so many among them live to well over one hundred.
They swear it’s because of the diet, much of it traditional Mediterranean dishes. I dined alfresco like a Sardinian grandee, feasting on lobster, clams, mussels and swordfish, the terrace restaurant white with moon-light.
Chia Laguna resort has a variety of accommodation on offer. The high-end Laguna Hotel is recommended for couples seeking Dolce Vita luxury and seclusion. The Village Hotel, a collection of family cottages, is free for children under twelve. Spacia Oasis offers spectacular views of the Mediterranean and the more rustic Hotel Baia is hidden in dunes on the beach. For those too relaxed to walk to the beach, a shuttle, disguised as a toy town train, whisks guests to the shore.
Sitting by the sea I mused how all Italians are natural actors, swaggering about in their swimsuits, but with a joy of life that is infectious.
Chez Laguna staff are more reserved but need no invitation to shower you with notes about places you just must visit, such as Isola San Pietro, a picturesque fishing village just along the coast. I have one regret from my visit to the land immortalised by Greek mythology in the Golden Fleece: I chickened out of the Dad’s versus sons football match. Next year it will be Dad’s versus Daughters.