(Telegraph) – Being long, thin and high-heeled boot-shaped – and incorporating multiple islands – Italy has a lot of coastline. Expect a mix of long, smooth sandy beaches, pristine marine reserves and stretches of contorted rocky shoreline broken by pocket handkerchief-sized coves, accessible only from the sea.
Lidos and beach clubs with ranks of umbrellas and sunbeds, plus bars, restaurants and play areas for children, are a feature of Italian beach culture. Note that you do have to pay: a couple of sunbeds and an umbrella in an uber-chic destination such as Capri, Portofino or Versilia in August can run to hundreds of euros per day. But winkle out an off-the-radar spot in a little-known resort off-season and you may only pay €10. There are plenty of beaches too where you can just unroll your towel, pitch your ombrellone and enjoy the sun and sea for free.
To avoid the crowds, don’t travel during the Italian school holidays, which stretch roughly from mid-June until early September. Come outside these times and in mid-week, and many beaches will be blissfully crowd-free.
Punta Prosciutto, Puglia
Some of the best beaches in mainland Italy are in Puglia – particularly in a string of pristine sandy strands south of the historic towns of Avetrana and Manduria, the latter famous for its Primitivo wine. For white sand, translucent water and informal beach-shack lunches, head for the seaside villages of Punta Prosciutto (‘Ham Point’) or Torre Colimena. The scene is molto informale, with families from Lecce, Taranto or Bari coming down for the day and either draping their beach mats on the sand or renting a sunlounger under an umbrella.
The nearby town of Porto Cesareo has the best selection of hotels, but it’s also worth looking at agriturismi or country hotels just inland – like the very chic Masseria Potenti. This tranquil 16th-century masseria has the feel of a Spanish hacienda: you enter under a white archway into a large sunbaked courtyard overlooked by a muscular watchtower. Floaty white muslin hangs from wooden beams, guiding you through to a cool, limestone-vaulted reception filled with the aroma of dried herbs and flowers.
San Fruttuoso, Liguria
If you’ve seen the Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon divertissement The Trip to Italy, you may remember that one of their competitive Michael Caine-impression sessions was set on the terrace of a restaurant-pensione overlooking an idyllic cove, with a beachside medieval abbey as a backdrop. This magical place is called San Fruttuoso, and it’s in Liguria, around halfway by boat between chi-chi Portofino and the family resort of Camogli. To get there, you either trek across the Portofino promontory, or get a ferry from the town’s harbour.
Portofino has its fair share of hotels including Belmond Hotel Splendido, perhaps the most famous in the region, which became popular with the Dolce Vita set in the 1960s; it still oozes an air of old-world glamour. Hotel Argentina offers a more affordable base for exploring the area and, a few yards from popular Paraggi Bay, its location offers easy access to one of the area’s most beautiful swimming beaches. As for Da Giovanni – the only place to stay in the cove – don’t expect luxury. The food is good, unrefined trattoria fare – with an obvious seafood slant – and the seven bedrooms are quite spartan.
Calabria doesn’t feature anywhere near as prominently as Sicily or Puglia in Italian summer-sun brochures. The barely regulated sprawl that clutters up much of the coast is one reason. But there are honourable exceptions – like Tropea, a classy enclave and the region’s answer to Positano or Taormina. The old town, full of good trattorias and shops, garlands a rocky outcrop above a gently shelving sandy beach, which is popular with families. Tropea’s evening passeggiata is one of Italy’s busiest and most snail-paced – perhaps because of the sweet distraction of the historic ice-cream emporium Gelati Tonino.
Stay at the Hotel Rocca della Sena, an intimate boutique hotel with direct access to Tropea beach via a private stairway. It also has a gorgeous terraced garden which looks out over the Aeolian Islands – a view that can be savoured from the bubbly embrace of the al fresco hot tub. Inside you’ll also find a sauna alongside 15 smart bedrooms, some with their own balconies, and a wine bar which opens out onto a sea-view terrace.