Italy is famous for its wonderful food, so can you get fit - and still gorge - on a holiday there? Chris Wiltshire certainly thinks so.

Our sailing instructor's disarming smile and laid-back demeanour gives little hint of the drama that is about to unfold.

"I hear there's a wind line coming, but you'll be fine," he assures us as we gather for the start of Neilson's weekly regatta, bedecked in red buoyancy aids, faded T-shirts and lashings of sun cream.

Wind line? I look around at my fellow competitors for signs of concern, but all eyes are fixed on Ash, our bronzed race starter with his shock of bleached blond hair, and the fleet of gleaming new dinghies lined up on the shore of the Ionian Sea.

I'm sure "wind line" hasn't been discussed at our daily intermediates class at Airone, the new Neilson resort in Calabria, southern Italy. But I convince myself it's no big deal.

Within minutes, the 20-or so of us are bobbing along on the shimmering sea, trying to catch the breeze as we make our way out to the start line some 100 metres offshore.

But when the weather suddenly turns, a gust of wind hits my sail and catches me off-guard, forcing me to duck under the swinging boom. Then the ripples of water develop into waves. Now this is getting interesting, I say to myself.

The wind line, a stretch of darker water which had been spotted from the beach lookout post, has arrived. But it comes with much bigger waves than the race marshals had anticipated.

The race is swiftly called off and I turn for home, wrestling with a wind that has dramatically switched from force two to force five, gusting to force six.

Minutes later I'm back on terra firma, relieved to have avoided a complete soaking and elated to have taken part in such a thrilling afternoon's action - even if the race never actually started.

After watching the remaining dinghies come ashore, I check the time and dig out the rather soggy daily sports schedule from my back pocket. Excellent! There's still time for beach volleyball and tennis before sundowners.

My wife, Carole, gives a resigned sigh. "Can't you take it easy just for a minute?" she asks with a roll of her eyes.

The Neilson motto, you can relax as hard as you like, springs to mind. With all this sport going on, who can relax? Not only is it fun, but it's a brilliant way to shape up my ageing frame and keep off the pounds - even if the daily supply of pasta, pizza and panna cotta makes it a losing battle.

Fortunately, I'm surrounded by plenty of like-minded people who relish a challenge and love a spot of competition.

At the week's first briefing, barely a handful of hands go up among the 200-plus guests when asked if they are new to Neilson holidays. It's a remarkable testament to a brand that knows what its clients like and consistently delivers.

Most have been to other summer resorts, in Greece (of which there are seven), Sardinia and Croatia, and are keen to see how Airone - which lies in the toe of the foot of Italy - shapes up.

They are not disappointed.

The one-hour-40-minute transfer after a three-hour flight from Heathrow was initially a concern, but it turns out to be one of the highlights, owing to the comfortable air-conditioned coaches and magnificent Calabrian scenery.

A strip of pine woodland separates the white sandy beach from an impressive pink hotel and villa complex, giving the large pools shelter from onshore winds.

Four new tennis courts - at certain weeks of the year run by former professional Mark Petchey - plus table tennis tables, a basketball court and the renowned kids clubs are all in easy walking distance around the well-maintained grounds.

Dozens of road and mountain bikes are freely available at the cycle centre, with the latest GPS devices helping guests navigate the medieval villages and rolling hills surrounding the resort. And a large, airy sun deck on top of the hotel offers space for daily Zumba, Pilates and yoga lessons, with spectacular views across the region. It's an idyllic spot to warm up for the day's action.

As someone who throws themselves into activity holidays a little too literally, I'm delighted to see a plush treatment room is available to massage my aching limbs and, no doubt, my battered pride.

For once, on these types of holiday, I manage to avoid an emergency visit and somehow make it through to the tennis semi-finals in my rookie group. I'm also fit enough to take part in the riotous 'beers and balls' games, a revered part of the Neilson week that, for some reason, comes naturally to me.

All of the resorts have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, but the high quality food is a given. The buffet restaurant shuts on three evenings a week, encouraging guests to head into nearby villages to sample the local cuisine, although the huge pizzas cooked beside the club bar prove too tempting for Carole and I to venture far.

It was disappointing when Neilson closed the intimate Adakoy resort close to Marmaris, Turkey, presumably because of security worries, but we have a new favourite in Airone.

We leave with many new friends and memories, but the highlight is reacquainting myself with the delights of sailing and getting my gybe and tack shipshape again.

Thanks to the encouragement and patience of the brilliant Ash and his teaching sidekick, Dylan, I come within a smidgen of completing my RYA Level 2 exam - something I had no intention of pursuing before I arrived.

I learn afterwards that it would cost me the best part of £600 to complete the course back home, but it's all part of the service at Neilson.

It gives me the perfect excuse to return to Airone to complete the final two tasks - but this time, hopefully without the dramas.

  • How to get there Neilson (; 0333 014 3350) offers seven nights at the Airone Beachclub from £549pp, including return flights from Heathrow, resort transfers, seven nights' accommodation on a club board basis (breakfast and lunch daily plus four evening meals), a range of activities (from sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and paddle boarding, to tennis, biking and fitness) with inclusive tuition and children's clubs. Price based on a September 29 departure.