School holidays are the noose that tightens around the travel plans of young families everywhere, and one that has become increasingly difficult to slip. With our temporary stay of execution due to awaiting a school place, the opportunity to hit the beach without the cost, crowds and drama of holidaying at the same time as everyone else was too tempting to pass by.
Sardinia ticked our boxes. With a 2-year-old wriggler on board, the two(ish) hour flight time was attractive. The famous Italian love of children also seemed a ‘good idea’ when potentially inflicting a tantrum or two upon the off-peak poolside scene. Then there was the universal family appeal of pizza, pasta and ice cream direct from the source.
Hotel Mare Pineta was the right balance of a boutique aesthetic but with some convenient amenities at its neighbouring sister hotel just up the beach. Its crisp, minimalist rooms, spacious enough for the whole family to co-exist without being on top of each other, nestle in the pine forests on the island’s rustic southern coast.
It’s far removed from Sardinia’s famously chic hangouts, found up north, and all the better for it. However the backwater vibe outside of the July/August frenzy severely restricted our dining options.
Perhaps I was naïve in my culinary expectations, picturing piles of flavoursome fresh tomatoes, decadent cheese boards and just-caught seafood at every table. That’s how it is in Italy, right? Well, the food at both hotels was decidedly hit and miss. The hits included local fare such as a rich, saucy seafood fregola (small balls of pasta) and a genuinely lovely aubergine parmigiana, benefiting from the quality of its golden olive oil.
But even a trip into the nearby town of Pula failed to produce food close to the kind of quality that the regional Italian restaurants of Kentish Town served back at home. Of course our young bucket-and-spade brigade were quite happy with their spaghetti, but daddy was left a little disillusioned that the ice cream wasn’t even close to the quality a quick pit-stop at St Pancras’ Gelato Mio can produce.
Midweek, we sheltered under an olive tree and awaited the reliable bus service into Cagliari, the island’s pre-Biblical capital city. It whisked us past salt flats full of pink flamingos, and over the harbour with its neat rows of floating mussel beds, before depositing us at the foot of the steep hills up which unfold the old town.
The walk to the top was semi-arduous, but full of enough ancient excitement for a 4-year-old to stick with it (daily ice cream break notwithstanding). The 14th century Torre di San Pancrazio, the bright limestone of which D.H Lawrence termed a ‘white Jerusalem’ in the crystal clear sunlight, towered above us. Vast churches cropped up around every new twist in the road. Without pushing our luck with the little ‘uns and venturing inside, I instead became enthralled with photographing the doors. From mighty portals to humble thresholds, each proved more photogenic than the last.
We tried hard to swerve the tourist hotspots as the kids’ hunger timebomb ticked ticked ticked, plumping for a charming looking sidestreet with alfresco tables and plenty of locals sat dining. However the food proved to be the kind of bog standard international Italian to be found anywhere, an unpretty slab of grilled Pecorino the sole highlight.
Later that week, a stroll up the beach revealed a pleasingly undeveloped coastline. Camp sites and RV parks hidden by the forest, with only the odd historic stone watchtower carving a soft human touch upon the view.
Two weddings were getting underway in the hotel grounds upon my return. This is the season for island nuptials, with the heat and the tourists subsiding for another year. It brought more families into the hotel’s relaxed social equation, as we all enjoyed these extended summer days, feeling like members of a special little out-of-school club.
All too soon, of course, our week was over. We headed home, consoling ourselves with the promise of a decent authentic K-Town Italian pizza on our return.
Words & Pics: Tom Kihl