April 16, 2007

Taking It Slow in Sardinia

By Gabrielle Fagan

Culture vulture Gabrielle Fagan is lured away from a tour of historical sights by a luxury upmarket resort

ANTICIPATION is part of the fun of a holiday and as the plane circled over Sardinia my head was buzzing with plans to explore a beautiful island rich in history and tradition.

I had a case heavy with guidebooks so that I could conscientiously pore over the details of one of the first lands inhabited by man, with ancient gems like the Roman Phoenician city of Nora and the medieval city of Cagliari.

What I hadn't anticipated was the power of a modern development, the Forte Village Resort, to completely scupper intellectual intentions in a rather pleasant way. With hindsight I'd rather snootily assumed that the upmarket family resort would be just a base for my partner and I - free of children for once - and a starting point for sophisticated adventures across the island.

After all, I figured that on 'adult' breaks without the little darlings it's not much fun being surrounded by everyone else's bucket-and-spade gangs who always seem more irritating than one's own.

On arrival those dismissive assumptions were instantly confounded. Despite its attractions for youngsters, who must find the place paradise with so many supervised activities and a state- of-the-art leisure land area for teenagers, this is also a blissful resort for grown-ups.

For a start the development, which mimics an Italian village with buildings in soft stone-washed colours, is situated in an idyllic spot - the south westerly corner of Sardinia.

Crucially it's also set in 55 acres of tropical greenery so it's rather like stumbling on your own private rainforest. The lush vegetation - a perfect natural sunscreen if you want it - subtly masks the endless facilities on offer.

You can be a few metres from a swimming pool and not even realise it. A stroll down to the white sand private beach along a winding romantic path avoids a busier one bordered by a couple of restaurants offering freshly baked pizzas for the kiddie brigade.

And it's easy to have a quiet, leisurely swim without any sign of cherubs in water wings or rubber rings - because there are ten pools to choose from.

We were staying in the five-star Villa del Parco, one of eight luxury hotels, which has an elegant old world charm and personal service including winning touches like champagne on arrival and pre- dinner delivery to the room of a silver tray loaded with appetisers - canapes and sherry. Our large ground floor room had a private terrace looking out on to what felt like a private garden. Keen horticulturalists would be in heaven as many of the unusual plants are labelled with details and origin.

What really sank my plan for cultural expeditions, however, was a stone's throw from our hotel: the Thaermea Spa. It's been voted Europe's leading spa resort in the World Travel Awards.

The spa's signature treatment is thalassotherapy - the most extraordinary experience, which involves bathing in six water pools that appear to have been carved out of the rocks and are fringed by palms.

First you step into a hot sea-oil pool that resembles a dirty brown soup, but contains anti-inflammatory aloe vera sea oil. The sensation mimics the Dead Sea in that you have no choice but to float and if you try to swim your legs go flying up behind you.

Glistening with oil, you then follow a little path through the trees and throw yourself into the rest of the pools. There's a hot salty seawater pool, a cooler waterfall pool with underwater massaging jets, and several others before you emerge into the cold main pool whose currents can whisk you around as though you were white water rafting.

The different temperatures don't just have an incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating feeling but also claim to relieve numerous conditions, from stress to skin disorders and cellulite. Honestly, once you've tried this process and felt not only the sense of well- being it imbues but also the effect on your skin (and wrinkles) it becomes addictive.

There's also a Turkish bath and a gym so there is no need to splash out on treatments (they are expensive), but other guests were impressed by the massages and facials. Feeling like a sleek seal, bundled up in a fluffy white dressing gown, I headed for the sun- drenched herbal tea bar to doze on a lounger or to read the papers.

No wonder the England football team took advantage of the facilities before Euro 2004, and celebrities from Tina Turner and Sting to chef Ainsley Harriott wax lyrical about its effects.

Once we'd spent each morning in the spa, followed by a swim in a huge seawater pool about 250 metres from our hotel, it seemed ridiculous not to try other healthy and sporting experiences on offer.

I opted for a week's course in scuba diving - not difficult to master in the clear, calm, blue waters of the Mediterranean - while my partner headed off for the golf to have some coaching and play on the nine-hole course.

There's such an array of other activities on offer - tennis, windsurfing, water-skiing, sailing, riding and ice-skating (yes, really!) - that the only problem is fitting everything in.

Eating's another pleasurable distraction, with 21 restaurants to choose from. Our favourite, apart from the Villa del Parco's gourmet- standard Italian cuisine, was a candelit dinner at Le Dune, set just above the beach with superb sea views. A lunchtime destination was the Beachcomber, which is literally within a few feet of the sea and has freshly caught sea food.

We also visited Sardo for authentic Sardinian cuisine, and sampled a speciality, roast suckling pig, and enjoyed spit-turned meats at the Brazilian.

Evening strolls in the moonlight through the landscaped gardens when the sun had gone down are idyllic, or for something livelier it is fun to go to the Piazza Maria Luigia where there are entertainers, bands and dancing every evening.

Our trip was in early September so the blazing heat was over and there was always a cooling, refreshing breeze (it also meant we were out of the busier school holiday period).

This resort is literally a world unto itself, where tranquility and peace seem to descend on you like a warm blanket and although we constantly promised ourselves 'tomorrow' would be the right day for an excursion, somehow it never happened and those guidebooks never left the suitcase.

Perhaps it's because everything you could possibly want is so conveniently located, and there's always someone on hand to help you if needed. The staff are unfailingly courteous, only don't ruffle their feathers by calling them Italians - they are extremely proud of their Sardinian nationality and heritage.

Because the vast acreage of the village means you never feel crowded, the thought of going into a busy town with masses of people and noise becomes distinctly unappealing. The hassles of modern life just don't seem to intrude into this hideaway - even cars are banned from the site, although you can hire bikes or hitch a ride on a type of golf buggy.

We returned home to jeers from the children about not fulfilling our culture vulture itinerary. Now my excuse to return is to see if it's possible to drag ourselves from this luxurious resort to sample Sardinia's other delights. Gabrielle Fagan was a guest of Forte Village Resort, Sardinia, where Citalia operates seven- night, half- board breaks this summer from pounds 904, based on a bungalow room at the four-star Il Villagio.

Seven nights' half-board in a bungalow at Il Villagio, including transfers and British Airways flights, starts at pounds 904 per adult, and pounds 582 per child (2-11), based on two adults and two children.

Connecting flights from Manchester/Glasgow with British Airways start at pounds 89 per person return.

Citalia reservations: 0870 909 7555 and www.citalia.com

(c) 2007 Western Mail. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.