La Bella Italia! Which Other Country Offers Great Food, a Superb Climate and Amazing Variety? Matthew Sturgis Offers His Personal Guide to the Very Best of Italy in Our Series on Classic Holiday Destinations

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Byline: MATTHEW STURGIS

BEST FOR FAMILY BEACH HOLIDAYS: SARDINIA THE Italians are a social race, and their idea of a perfect beach holiday is one spent as close to other people as possible.

For the brightest waters and the whitest sands, head for Sardinia. The natives refer to it as a continente, and it does offer a rich variety of seaside charms.

There are expanses of dazzling sand in the south, while along the Costa Smerelda - the wild northern coastline 'discovered' by the Aga Khan in the Sixties - sandy coves nestle amid the rugged landscape.

o A ONE-WEEK package holiday from u879pp until June 20. Contact Citalia, 020 8686 0677, www.citalia.com.

BEST FOR WALKING HOLIDAYS: DOLOMITES THE finest walking is in the Dolomites, the eastern section of the Alpine range that runs through the heart of Europe.

There are well-maintained paths, maps are readily available and there is a network of huts (rifugi) where you can find shelter and food during the official hiking season, June 20 to September 20.

o A NINE-NIGHT guided walking tour from u849pp. Includes accommodation, flights and all meals, departing June 20 or August 30. Sherpa, 020 8577 2717, www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk.

BEST FOR FOOD: EMILIA-ROMAGNA OUTSIDE the pages of cookery books, Italian food can hardly be said to exist at all. It is a collection of regional cuisines: Tuscan, Neapolitan, Sicilian and so on.

But the consensus of outside opinion favours Emilia-Romagna - particularly the charmed gastronomic triangle of Bologna (as in bolognese sauce), Modena (famed for its balsamic vinegar) and Parma (home of the ham and Parmesan cheese).

The region's wines include the foaming red Lambrusco. In Britain, fizzy red wine is regarded as little more than an alcoholic form of cola. But drunk from a good vineyard in Emilia-Romagna, it's the real thing.

o THREE nights at the Grand Hotel, Bologna, from u374pp, bed and breakfast. Exclusive Italy, 01892 619 651, www. exclusiveworldwide.com.

BEST FOR HISTORY: ROME FLORENCE was the cradle of the Renaissance and Naples the nursery of the Baroque. Despite these competing claims, there's no place like Rome.

Relics and reminders of its glorious past are apparent everywhere. Each street corner offers a fresh surprise: a glimpse of the Colosseum or of some Triumphal arch. The opening of the new National Museum of Roman Antiquities, as well as the overelaborate restoration of the Borghese Palace, have provided a foil to the established greatness of the Vatican.

o TWO nights at Hotel Brasile from u239pp in June. Includes flights and B&B accommodation. Indigo Holidays, 0870 11 22 333.

BEST FOR NIGHTLIFE: RIMINI ALTHOUGH Milan and Rome boast good clubs and interesting venues, it is at the seaside that Italy's nightlife is at its most frenetic. The young of Europe gather at Rimini on the Adriatic coast.

Its beaches are among the most crowded in Italy, and so are the clubs.

The town was the birthplace of film maker Federico Fellini, and something of his sense of glamour, magic and La Dolce Vita infuses the atmosphere.

o HOTEL Ambasciatori from u90pp per night, accommodation only, 00 39 0541 55561, www.hotelambasciatori.it.

BEST FOR SPORT: LAKE GARDA THE Italian Lakes became popular as a tourist destination at the end of the 19th century because of their sublime scenery, mild microclimate, glorious gardens and atmosphere of mellow tranquillity.

Now they are a mecca for water-sports enthusiasts, and none more so than Lake Garda.

The largest, cleanest and most dramatic of the lakes, Garda is ideal for waterskiing, sailing and windsurfing.

Thirty-three miles long and 22 miles wide, Garda is ringed with small towns and villages. The most popular with watersports enthusiasts is Torbole, at the northern end.

o SEVEN nights at Hotel Royal, Limone, from u379pp based on two sharing, b&b. …