There’s more to Italy’s stiletto heel than ear-shaped pasta and olive oil (although obviously we’re fans of them too). Scurry along from the tourist honeypots of Lecce and Bari to find rugged, fjord-like bays, coves with waters the colour of a Polo mint packet and a sun-baked landscape that can be likened to the coastline of Croatia before the crowds came.

Here’s where to find Puglia’s finest crowd-free sands.

Baia dei Turchi, Otranto

Otranto is very much the Puglia you’ve seen on Pinterest – it’s all whitewashed houses with spearmint-green shutters, gnarly olive trees and family-run delis selling piping-hot slices of chilli-spiked focaccia. Otranto’s main sandy drag may suffice for some but travel a few kilometres north towards Casino dei Turchi to be rewarded with empty shores lined with abandoned fishing boats. Arrive at dei Turchi’s car park and you’ll likely be confused by the neat rows of striped umbrellas on the horizon. Fear not; this is Alimini Beach. Turn right, walk for five minutes and you’ll find the (blissfully bare) sweet spot.

STAY: Plump for one of Masseria Muntibianchi Agriresort’s garden rooms for its secluded, pretty walled garden.

Acquaviva di Marittima, Diso

More of a craggy inlet than a full-blown beach, Acquaviva di Marittima is one of the few swimmable bays along the rocky coast between Otranto and Santa Maria di Leuca – it’s just a 30-minute walk from the pastel-hued houses and swaying palms of Castro. Cut through the fields behind the Museo Naturalistico and descend the stone-hewn stairs to reach it – you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the white-stone kiosk stocking warm Fanta Lemon. Last summer, the kiosk upped its entrepreneurship and started renting out six sunbeds – there’s isn’t space for anymore – for a few euros. As much as we applaud its efforts, we’d much rather plonk our towel straight on the rocks and make a beeline for the sea. Even in the punishing throes of summer, the water remains cool thanks to the springs that trickle straight down into the ocean.

STAY: Encircled by olive groves and prickly pear cactus trees, Eliados is a gorgeous coral-hued farmhouse that sleeps eight. From here, it’s just a few minutes’ drive down a dusty road to the beach.

Porto Selvaggio, Nardò

Easy-going Nardò isn’t exactly undiscovered – it’s the Biarritz of Italy; plenty of people screw parasols into the market town’s pebble beach come summertime. Yet we recommend scuttling away from gelato stands that sell inflatable crocodiles to Porto Selvaggio – meaning “Wild Harbour” – a cove that’s little known outside of local circles. This coastal enclave is a tranquil 20-minute forest walk from the Villa Tafuro park entrance. Step over shrubby tufts that shoot up from the smooth rocks (these double as au naturel tanning slabs) to take in arresting views across the water.

STAY: At the centre of Nardò in Il Culbo, a design-driven loft conversion with roof terrace overlooking the Ionian Sea.

Torre Guaceto, Carovigno

Italians aren’t very good at keeping secrets; as soon as a beach is awarded Blue-Flag status you can almost guarantee that by the time the next summer rolls around, there’ll be 400 sponsored-by-Walls parasols and a matching lido pitched upon its sands. Unless it’s like Torre Guaceto, that is. Classed as a protected marine area, it’s completely unspoiled. Dotted with crumbling pirate ruins and dunes strewn with shells, its untamed sweeps are more akin to Norfolk than Capri. Pack a picnic – pick up ingredients from the neighbouring town of Specchiolla – rent a bike and, come dusk, spot the dolphins frolicking a few metres from the shore.

STAY: Did you even visit Puglia if you didn’t stay in a trulli? Trulli Olea is our pick.

Dune di Campomarino, Mareggio

Mention the Taranto province to anyone in Puglia and you’ll be met with a furrowed brow and puzzled expression; it’s famous for having a dilapidated, mildew-dappled Old Town and controversial steel-making plant. Yet an hour’s drive south of the forgotten city is the charming town of Maruggio, home to a single honey-coloured church, a few sun-bleached houses and an entirely undisturbed beach. Rarely visited and flying completely off-radar – except to the few resident flamingoes – its fine-sand peaks are blotted with cacti and lavender bushes as purple as a pack of Parma Violets.

STAY: As attractive as the abandoned sands may be, Marruggio is no more than a day-trip destination. Base yourself at I Bastioni San Domenico in Gallipoli instead.

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