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Isles of fun

Wave goodbye to the mainland and discover unspoilt treasures, good food and kids’ activities galore on one of these European islands, says Imogen Lepere

Vulcano, Aeolian Islands Italy

Sitting on an extension of the same geological fault as Mount Etna, the Aeolian islands are a series of seven volcanic chunks rising out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Set in a ‘Y’ shape, one or two can still be seen spitting sparks into the night sky. Vulcano, the southernmost in the group and the closest to Sicily, has sulphur mud pools that you can wallow in, but the kids will more than likely plump for taking a speedboat around its coast, riding bronco-style on the pitching deck. One evening, when warm dusk falls, skip a traditional restaurant and instead go squid fishing on one of the local boats. Fantastical hook-and-light arrangements are dropped into the sea for the squid to attack. Once hauled aboard, and the ship’s steward has cleaned, gutted and sliced them into rings, they are deep-fried on a tiny galley stove and served with a squeeze of lemon. You can also pop the uncooked slices straight into the juice and enjoy them ceviche-style. Stay at the Sable Noir Hotel, a friendly hideaway with a prime location just a casual stroll, or nose-holding dash (depending on which way the wind is blowing), from the sulphur pools. Try pane cunzato (seasoned bread) at homely restaurant Il Diavolo dei Polli.


Travel Details

From £700 per night for a family of four, including accommodation, transport from Sicily, a day’s guided tour and volcano climb. Flight time from London to Sicily is three hours; the ferry crossing from Milazzo to Lipari on Vulcano takes 45

Sicily Italy

The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is the intriguingly shaped beach ball bouncing off the toe of Italy’s boot. Thanks to its key strategic position, balmy climate and hugely varied landscape, civilisations past have snatched it greedily from one another. Previous rulers include the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish, and they’ve all left their own delicious mark on the island’s food scene. Base yourself in Cefalù, a honey-coloured town on one of Sicily’s best beaches with a fortress-like Norman cathedral. On Saturdays, the weekly food market is a trove of sardines, capers, aubergines and local cheeses, a colourful classroom in which to teach children about the produce of the region. Just far enough from the centre to guarantee privacy and perched atop a small grassy knoll, Villa Charme is the perfect place to set up (a very luxurious) camp. Massimo Villas welcomes you with a basket of organic produce and organises for a local chef to visit as often as you like to teach the children how to cook authentic pizzas and other local specialities such as Sicilian pasta with almonds and anchovies. They’ll love rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in, while you enjoy a few quiet hours by the sea-view pool. The villa has recently been entirely renovated in the Sicilian country style, and will be putting its best foot forward from August. Pull up a chair at welcoming Osteria Bacchus in tiny Sant’Ambrogio for simple, colourful plates that pack a serious punch in the flavour department and spectacular views along the coast back to the rocky headland of Cefalù.

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Travel Details

Villa Charme sleeps eight. From £1,620 per week in low season. Flight time from London to Palermo is around three hours; the drive to Cefalù is just over an hour.

Zakynthos Greece

Captain Jack Sparrow may have favoured the Caribbean but we think that the crystalline waters and white sand of Zakynthos, the most southerly of Greece’s Ionian Islands, are just as magic. The wonderfully named Charalambos Kompothekras-Kotsoros, captain of the MV Panayiotis, evidently agreed, for this was where he was sailing when his ship ran aground on Zakynthos in 1980. What happened next is uncertain, but many claim he was carrying contraband for the Italian mafia, which is why the wreck is still here; a bloated carcass on Navagio Beach in the lesser-visited north of the island. Gather your crew and climb aboard – the only limits on where you sail will be their imagination. Nearby beaches include Xigia, a tranquil beauty guarded by a steep natural staircase that offers perfect snorkelling, and Xigia Spa, where milky sulphur springs flow into an azure bay. Head to the mountain village of Volimes to see elderly women dressed in black making lace against a backdrop of sweeping views over the neighbouring island of Kefalonia. With its large pool and blue-painted shutters, Villa Lagaria will instantly get you in the holiday spirit. This hilltop property is ideal for larger groups, and even boasts a pizza oven and Jacuzzi. While away afternoons in the shaded outdoor living room. Nobelos Bio, just south of the port of Agios Nikolaos, serves organic cuisine on a terrace overlooking a private beach. Linger into the evening over menu highlights such as Greek salad, stuffed peppers, grilled prawns, spicy mushrooms, chicken souvlaki and local cheeses, and finish with a scoop of the wonderful home-made ice cream.

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Travel Details

Villa Lagaria sleeps 12. From £686 per night (minimum seven-night stay). Flight time from London to Zakynthos is around three hours and 25 minutes.

Gozo Malta

Thanks to a balmy climate and lush soil, Malta’s little sister island is a fertile haven and the perfect place for the whole family to experience agritourism for the first time. While the red sands of Ramla and San Blas are tempting, the real soul of the island can be found on the terraced farms and in the simple villages, where sun-wizened locals will have your tots in rapture with tales of the pirates who used to hide treasure in the underground tunnels in Balluta Bay. Sheep and goats are the backbone of Gozo’s farming traditions, and a day spent shadowing a local shepherd will provide a unique insight into local life. The Ager Foundation’s packages include the chance to feed the flocks and watch dogs herd them, eat lunch with the farmer’s family and learn to make Gozitan cheeselets – little pats of tangy deliciousness served fresh or sun-dried with pepper. The Ta’ Mena Estate in the Marsalforn Valley boasts panoramic views of the ancient citadel, as well as rippling olive, lemon and orange groves. City children will love wandering the fruit garden, seeing where the strawberries, watermelons and tomatoes that they see on supermarket shelves actually come from. Continue the farming theme by staying at Dar ta’ Lulu, one of five honey-coloured stone farmhouses clustered around a pool. Nestling on the waterfront at Xlendi with views over the shadowy Karolina Cave, Ta’ Karolina’s terrace is a tranquil place to relax for an afternoon. This family-run restaurant specialises in locally caught seafood and charms with famous old-school hospitality.

Family In Gozo Citadel

Travel Details

Dar ta’ Lulu sleeps four. From £75 per night. Flight time from London to Malta is around three and a half hours; the ferry crossing from Malta to Mgarr on Gozo takes 20 minutes.

Saaremaa Estonia

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? So the residents of this little tuft off the west coast of Slovenia must have asked themselves as they watched what turned out to be a huge meteorite hurtle towards them, before it crashed to the ground with a force scientists reckon must have rivalled that of an atomic bomb. Today, budding meteorologists and anyone with an interest in space will be mesmerised by the nine craters left behind. Most intriguing of all is the Kaali Crater, which measures 110 metres across and is associated with strange legends about sacrifices and rituals. Nearby Kaali Metoritics and Limestong museum provides plenty of information about the event. The island’s more recent history is equally fascinating. It has re-emerged blinking into the sunlight after more than 50 years under Soviet rule, when it was designated a ‘frontier zone’ and you required a special pass to visit. Stroll through its shady juniper- scented woods and still meadows and it’s hard to imagine any army preparing for siege here, but the monument to those who gave their lives at the Battle of Tehumardi tells a poignant, historic story. Stay at Jurna Recreation Farm, a good-value B&B with several thatched barns which have been converted into endearingly retro bedrooms. The garden has a fire pit around which you can linger and spot the constellations. For traditionally cooked food such as boiled beetroot and herring, try Lumanda Soogimaja.

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Travel Details

Doubles from £49 per night. Flight time from London to Tallinn is two hours and 40 minutes; flight time to Kuressaare on Saaremaa is three hours.

Gotland Sweden

The biggest island in the Baltic Sea and hauntingly peaceful, Gotland is where Swedes go when they need to get away from it all. Visby, the capital, is a medieval toytown where red-tiled cottages and climbing roses sit side by side with a 13th-century cathedral. Follow the sound of seagulls to the Guest Marina, where you can hire bikes from Gotland Cykeluthyrning and make the most of the island’s many quiet, flat lanes. In the north, a disused limestone quarry comes into its own in summer, when it fills with fresh water and becomes known as ‘the blue lagoon’. Park your bikes and paddle, or try jumping in from the steep side. While just two trawlers now supply excellent local salmon and turbot to the island, the whole coast is lined with idyllic fishing stations built during the fishing boom of the 18th century. Children will be fascinated by Kovik, where they can go inside the tiny wooden huts and play at being fishermen. After a full day spent cruising the open road, head to traditional smokery Katthammarsviks Rökeri, which for three generations has been serving the local speciality of flounder cured over aspen. A five-minute walk from the island’s west coast, Hotel Magazin 1 is in a historic building painted ladybird red. Its five simple yet stylish bedrooms will appeal to grown-ups, while kids will be won over by cuddles with Jack, the friendly resident bulldog.

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Travel Details

Doubles from £109 per night, including traditional Swedish breakfast. Flight time from London to Stockholm is two hours; flight time to Visby on Gotland is around 40 minutes.

Vis Croatia

We associate them with mermaids, magic and piracy, so it’s no surprise that caves retain their ability to fascinate adults and children alike. The Blue Grotto on a tiny islet called Biševo is the stuff that fairy tales are made of. Guarded by a choppy crossing from Vis, around 5km away, it is a deep, dark sea cave which becomes flooded with an ethereal aquamarine glow at certain times of the day when the sun is in just the right spot. Croatia Gems offers a fantastic day itinerary from Split, which includes a visit to the Blue Grotto and its neighbour the Green Cave, where you can swim in water dancing with flecks of emerald and silver light formed by a hole in the roof. Thanks to its recent history as a military base for the Yugoslav army, Vis was cut off from foreign visitors until 1989 and it retains a charming, forgotten air. Climb through abandoned vineyards and olive groves to the top of Mount Hum and you’ll be rewarded with views over romantic fishing villages and pebble inlets with beautiful swimming, such as Stiniva Cove. Stay at The Garden House, a driftwood dream of a home in the Vis’ old town with a lemon-scented garden, just 25m from the sea. Nearby, Kantun serves excellent local dishes and has a patio that’s great for people-watching. It’s popular, so be sure to book in advance.

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Travel Details

The Garden House sleeps six. From £350 per night. Flight time from London to Split is two and a half hours; ferry crossing from Split to Vis Town on Vis takes around two hours.

Porquerolles France

Despite the fact they are a short hop from Hyères, which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the Golden Islands – Porquerolles, Port Cros and Le Levant remain one of the French Riviera’s last secrets. Named after their sandy beaches and long, blazing sunsets, this carefree trio are lapped by the gin-clear waters of the Hyères gulf, which offers lovely boating. On Porquerolles, the biggest in the group yet still just 7km long, you’ll find Attitude Paddle on Courtade Beach. Hire kayaks and spend an afternoon sliding silently across the bay. Or spread your wings further with Intersail, who offer an 11-day itinerary along the whole Riviera, but you can just join them for a day trip around the Golden Islands to discover deserted beaches backed by pine forests. Porquerolles was once owned by wealthy Belgian businessman François Joseph Fournier, who bought it in 1912 as a wedding present for his wife. Today, most of it is the Port Cros National Park, a haven of fig trees and blueberry bushes which children will love exploring. The exclusive Mas du Langoustier hotel is tucked away in a eucalyptus forest on the west coast. Still owned by Fournier’s descendants, it has a polite, nostalgic air, complete with family portraits and antique furniture, as well as the best restaurant on the island.

Sailing The Tagus River In Lisbon With Kids

Travel Details

Doubles from £300 per night. Flight time from London to Paris is one hour and 15 minutes; flight time to Hyères is one and a half hours; ferry crossing from Hyères to Porquerolles takes around 15 minutes.

Sardinia Italy

Always wanted to learn windsurfing? Harness the famous squalls of Sardinia, a rugged island in the Mediterranean Sea. From October to April the Mistral wind whips along its western coast, but in summer gentle sea breezes provide welcome relief from the shimmering heat. The east coast tends to be more sheltered, making it our pick for lazy days on milk-white beaches and giving little ones their first taste of water sports. Guarded by spiny mountains which plunge into turquoise waves where dolphins play, Ogliastra Province is among the most beautiful on Sardinia. Indeed, it’s easy to hike all day without seeing anyone except for the odd shepherd. Perdepera Resort commands an enviable swathe of sand. A jutting headland ensures the bay is as flat as a sheet of glass, just begging the whole family to make the most of the free tuition at the water sports centre. Try windsurfing, set sail or explore nearby beaches on a paddle board. The hotel has the feel of a Mediterranean village thanks to lush gardens and buildings painted in pastel colours. To get a sense for a real community, look no further than Arbatax, a sleepy town with russet-coloured roofs and a bustling port. Ittiturismo La Peschiera is run by the local fishing co-operative and always has the day’s freshest catch.


Travel Details

Seven nights full board from £1,698 for a family of four, including childcare, activities and travel. Flight time from London to Cagliari is two hours; the drive to Perdepera takes two hours.

Isle of Wight UK

Follow in the giant footsteps of dinosaurs to the Isle of Wight, the beach-fringed island in the English Channel which offers seaside kitsch by the bucket and spadeful. For many summers Queen Victoria sought sanctuary in the sherbet-coloured splendour of Osborne House, and your own children will be enchanted by Swiss Cottage, the mini-chalet and farm that Prince Albert built to teach his own brood household skills. However, the real draw here is the 25-mile shoreline, home to some of Europe’s most prestigious fossil-hunting grounds. Pack a magnifying glass and an old toothbrush for removing mud from your treasures and set off for Compton Bay, where the prints of clawed feet can still be made out in the rocks. Teeth and bone fragments are frequently found along the foreshore but, if the curly imprints of ammonites are more your thing, head to Rocken End, a small inland quarry. Dinosaur Isle is a fantastic, interactive museum which will bring your finds to life. If your kids prefer fluffy animals to those in fossil form, a stay in one of the self-catering cottages at Nettlecombe Farm is for you. At 8.30am every morning they are encouraged to help the farmer feed his resident alpacas, reindeer, sheep and goats. Be sure to visit the New Inn’s wooden deck for locally sourced fish and chips.

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Travel Details

Oats Farmhouse sleeps four. From £125 pernight.Train time from London to Southampton is just over one hour; ferry crossing to East Cowes on the Isle of Wight with Red Funnel Ferries takes 45 minutes.

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