Fly into Bari, the gateway to the Puglia region of southern Italy, and at first you’ll be hard-pressed to see why this area has been touted over the past few years as the next best thing to Tuscany. But a 40-minute drive southwards towards our destination of Savelletri di Fasano on the coast and the panorama began to magically transform before our eyes. First there’s the 800km of glorious azure Ionian and Adriatic coastline, boasting some of Italy’s best beaches. Then there’s the landscape of Italy’s ‘heel’: what at first seemed like arid scrubland is in fact rich with fertile farmland. Indeed, it turns out that Puglia is the country’s main producer of olive oil, seafood, wine and pasta, and whichever way you turn you’re faced with olive groves, lime trees and fields of lush produce.
It’s also Italy’s closest point to Turkey, Greece and north Africa, giving it a chequered history and unique cuisine, as well as some interesting architecture, including the Moorish-influenced 15th-century Apulian houses resembling stone igloos, known as trulli. Many are now derelict, but a trip to the UNESCO-listed town of Alberobello 19km from Fasano is a treat, with its 1,000+ examples, many serving as homes. Increasing numbers of trulli are being revamped as luxury holiday homes – younger members of the family will be charmed by their ‘dolls-house’ factor.
If you need something a bit larger, stay in one of the increasing numbers of beautifully converted farmhouses known as masserie. Masseria Torre Coccaro, also just outside Fasano, is about as far removed from a farmhouse as you can get, with beautifully furnished rooms (some were once haylofts) with antique furniture and oversized sofas, a spa and a cookery school, plus a family-friendly beach club, a horse-riding centre offering kids’ lessons, and laid-back Italian hospitality.
But if proof is needed that Puglia has definitely arrived on the well-heeled map, the sprawling resort of Borgo Egnazia is it. Built out of the region’s creamy, rough-hewn stone, the all-white resort resembles a mini Greek village. Especially stylish by night – think oversized lanterns with candles to light your way and floaty chiffon white curtains billowing in the balmy breeze – you’d assume this was an adults-only kind of place. But Borgo is in fact filled with laughing children and laid-back parents, with nothing too much of a problem where younger visitors are concerned. As an example, the extensive lunch buffet has separately laid-out offerings for youngsters, including fresh pasta, grilled fish and mashed potato, with the menu changing daily. Refreshingly, I didn’t once see a child eating chips (though they are on offer if they crave them).
There are chic hotel suites and luxury villas with private pools, but the best accommodation for families is the Borgo townhouses, decked out to resemble rustic cottages, reached via winding alleys and pathways with actual street names, via piazzas and shady terraces. Inside, it’s cosy comfort – sumptuous white bedlinen, luxury bathrooms and flatscreen TVs. Outside, each house has enough terraces for just about each member of the family – an impressive Moroccan-style roof terrace, balconies with sundecks from the bedrooms, and a tiled garden terrace, ideal for enjoying a glass of vino after the kids have gone down.
The kids’ club is very practically located next to one of the three pools (the one with a kid’s pool attached), so you’re a short, comforting distance away. Activities are inspired and entertaining – pottery-making, treasure hunts, beach trips and pizza-making. Meanwhile, older kids enjoy a teenage room kitted out with just about every electronic game and gadget you can think of. If you do get a little time off for good behaviour, there’s the 18-hole San Domenico championship golf course on the doorstep plus the Egnathia Spa, centred around a modern Roman bathhouse and one of the biggest spas in the Med. Aiming to evoke the early traditions of Roman bathing, it offers a range of Roman thermae treatments, as well as dermatology, massage and physiotherapy. Its monastic atmosphere is just the ticket for reviving your senses after the kids have had one too many gelati.
It would all too easy not to tear yourself away from your sumptuous daybed, but the resort is surrounded by places to explore. A 20-minute drive away, the white city of Ostuni has a charming centre with narrow little lanes leading up to an impressive Gothic cathedral, although it’s the approach to the town, perched high up on a hill, that is truly heart-stopping – all you see are stark white buildings precariously nodding towards the sea. The main Piazza della Libertà is just the place to find a bar or café and watch the locals enjoy their evening passeggiate.
Fasano itself is nothing much more than a straight avenue lined with a few restaurants and shops plus its local beach, but does boast Maddalena restaurant, where we had one of the most memorable meals of our trip. Having spent nine years working at some of the best Italian restaurants in London, including Locanda Locatelli, local boy Vito Nardelli returned to apply a slick, urban touch to sumptuous local produce. Like all good chefs, this one was happy to adapt a few of his dishes to keep the kids happy.
So did we discover the new Tuscany in Puglia? The answer is no. But that isn’t a bad thing. Puglia is wilder and makes the more well-trodden parts of Italy seem rather contained in comparison. Tuscany has pretty fields of sunflowers and gorgeous medieval buildings to sigh over, whereas the sights here are rough around the edges and there’s a sense of really discovering a place. This element of secret beauty is precisely Puglia’s charm and no doubt the reason that design hotels and those-in-the-know are making the region their own.
Read more about family holidays in Puglia, including things to do and family-friendly places to stay.