by Matt Hampton
Picture the Aga Khan, anchored between Corsica and Sardinia in his luxury yacht.
He stands on deck, beguiled by the emerald waters that would give the Costa Smeralda its name and thinks: “Here is where I will build my resort.”
Thusly; tourism to Sardinia was born. Prince Karim Al Husseini, Imam of the world’s Ismailiti Muslims and a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, led an investment consortium here in the late 1950s, bringing luxury to the northerly tip of the island.
Successive generations of celebrities followed – the haves and have-yachts – equally charmed by its pink granite coast and clear turquoise waters.
They paid handsomely for privilege – and judging by the private jet terminal at Olbia, still do – but turn left out of the airport instead of right and you get the same spotless, sandy beaches, Aleppo pine groves and rolling green hills – for about half the price.
It is still quite old school, however. Planning laws prohibit any beachfront development – so forget the sea view – and it’s hard for newcomers to find a foothold and offer anything different.
Neilson got around this two years ago by buying an existing hotel - the Baia dei Mori, about 30 minutes south of Olbia airport - and running it in tandem with the original owners.
It sounds like a match made in heaven: jolly hockey sticks Britannia with Italian flair.
Neilson, for the uninitiated, is an activity specialist which has bolted boats, bikes, tennis and more to a mostly inclusive package. Bed and board, child care, sports and activities (often with lessons) are all paid up front. It’s not a cheap holiday, but it can be terrific value.
Take sailing, or windsurfing. My memories of both comprise standing thigh deep in a chilly Welsh reservoir, wrestling with heavy bits of fibreglass and waiting for a breeze – resenting every pound I had wasted in doing so.
Too scarred by the experience to try again, I sent the wife out to test the beginners’ windsurfing course. And with the children safely tucked away in kids' club, I turned my back on the beach altogether.
Oddly enough for waterfront set up, bikes could be the ace up Baia dei Mori's sleeve. Not only are there around 130 to choose from – including kids’ models - but, like everything else here, they are all brand new.
Richard Frost - the omnipresent and chipper manager who goes by Frostie - coordinated seven articulated trucks worth of supplies for the opening and new toys kept arriving as our half-term week progressed: a ping pong table here, flat screen TVs there...that's on top of several dozen boxes of fresh paddle boards, kayaks, dinghies and windsurfers.
And it’s good quality stuff. I had anticipated paying the extra €100 to hire a fancy Trek Madone carbon road bike, but the free-to-use aluminium versions were plenty good enough for a week’s riding. Bike shed boss Tim fitted the pedals I had brought with me and I was good to go.
There are group rides daily - from beginner off-roading to full days in the mountains - or you can just follow any of the routes the bike team has mapped out. Pre-programmed Garmins are available for €15 a ride, or you can bring your own and the team will help you upload the maps.
“We knew road cycling was going to be popular here and the Giro d'Italia was the icing on the cake," says Frostie over coffee in the (brand new) pool bar.
The 100th edition of the race - Italy’s equivalent of the tour de France - rolled out of Alghero in 2017 and the bike team have based several of their routes on the roads that graced the first three stages.
And what roads they are! From glass smooth tarmac to pockmarked byways, they reveal a side of the island few tourists see.
There is often a reason lesser-known attractions stay that way – mostly because their charms are few – but Sardinia’s backroads reward the intrepid with curious treats. Pecorino from the Sarda breed of sheep is a matter of local pride, and best consumed in the form of a sebada (or seada, depending on who you ask and which dialect they speak). It is a cheese pastry, sweetened with honey and, halfway through a 92km jaunt though the mountains, it tastes like something delivered directly from heaven.
In between refuelling stops there is nothing but beautiful scenery. Nor are there any credit card machines: take cash for sebadas. They’re about a euro each, so €10 should cover your needs.
Family holidays do, however, mean more than riding off in the opposite direction from your children, so I endeavoured to play the part of a committed parent back in resort. Neilson make this quite difficult: I felt no guilt in booking Miles and Ava (nine-year-old twins) into Sharksters each day - their programme looked something like an outdoor bootcamp. Sailing, paddle boarding, tennis, windsurfing - the same sporting ethos is apparent across all of the club’s the five different age groups.
And on the two mornings a week when child care doesn’t run, we could see how effective it had been.
My first active engagement on the parenting front was a kayak excursion, with Miles in the front seat. We had tried this on previous holidays and shed quite a few tears in the process. I’m sure trying to paddle in unison has been the flashpoint for many a father-son tantrum.
But this time we were away, splashing through the current like a couple of Oxford blues. I allowed myself a moment of pride.
Paddle boarding began equally well. Taking turns at the front, we made excellent progress across the bay, although why the lifeguard let us go out so far I don’t know.
This is another of Sardinia’s quirks: an Italian lifeguard must be present on private beaches, although ours seemed most concerned about policing the size of sunshades (permanent structures are outlawed – you can bring your own small shade or deckchair, but you must also take them away again).
Luckily, Neilson provides its own lifeguard too, as Italy’s job for the boys initiative was, in practise, more jobs for the buoys.
We were practically into open water by the time I’d realised our predicament. A passing dinghy sailor offered to tow us back to the beach, having noticed the tide was pushing us backwards.
But we weren’t about to be beaten. The return journey will surely go down in the Hampton family annals as an epic seafaring feat; one that involved Miles swimming part of the way. But we made it back to the beach to meet his mum’s slightly-angry-but-trying-not-to-show-it face.
I was flushed with a mixture of smugness and exhaustion when Miles knocked me off the board and at last I had a reason to be annoyed.
A seven-night May half-term holiday at Baia dei Mori Beachclub costs from £5,213 for a family of four (2 adults and 2 children aged 2-14 years), including return flights from Heathrow, transfers, accommodation in interconnecting rooms on a club board basis (daily breakfast & lunch plus four evening meals), a range of water sports and shore-based activities together with kit and tuition, plus children’s clubs (neilson.co.uk).
Five other active breaks for May half-term
1. Jolly hockey sticks in Sardinia
At the other end of Sardinia you’ll find Forte Village, a flashier, larger resort with activities and kids’ clubs for all. This May half term Legends is running a hockey academy with Olympic medal-winning Kate Richardson-Walsh OBE and Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE, coaching children aged 5-16 each morning for five days for €600 per child.
Forte Village offers a seven-night stay from £6,333 for a family of three booked through Citalia (citalia.com), staying at Hotel Bouganville on a half board basis. The package includes participation of the child in the Hockey Academy by Legends, private resort transfers and return flights from London Stansted with easyJet. Based on 26 May 2018 departure.