I had never spent much time thinking about that “other” Italian island until last year when I was looking for a destination in Italy that would have pretty beaches but other activities to keep my husband (a hiker, a climber, but not a beach bum), my mom (a beach bum and culture enthusiast), and myself (all of the above) happy for ten days. Italian beaches, from my experience, are disappointing–small, crowded, rocky, with polluted water and overpriced real estate (a lounge chair and umbrella can set you back $25 for the day). But to my surprise, I was finding nothing but great reviews of Sardinia’s white-sand beaches with turquoise waters, many only reachable by boat, some backed by imposing limestone cliffs or huge sand dunes on all sides.
I was intrigued by the island’s history of occupation which seemingly has left Sardinians proud and fiercely independent, their culture and traditions intact over the centuries (they still speak their own language, Sardo). It seemed like a rugged, intense, but still welcoming place. And the more I researched, the more I realized that this semi-autonomous Italian island might just be the perfect place for all of us: tales of world-class rock climbing, hiking through mountains on uncrowded trails, more archaeological sites than one could ever see in a single visit, SCUBA diving, gorgeous (/perilous) mountain drives, and quaint towns had me convinced that I needed to look no further. Watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in which he (of course) eats his way through the island with his hot Sardinian wife pretty much sealed the deal for me. Mom and I decided we had found the perfect place for her celebratory 70th birthday trip.
With high expectations, my mom, my cousin Sara (she barely needed the twist of an arm to be convinced to join us), Nick and I found ourselves in sunny Sardinia this June. The three ladies spent our first three days in and around Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, and a city on the southern coast that proved to be much more than just a convenient base for day trips. We started each day with espresso and croissants at a sidewalk cafe, then hit the road to explore the southeast and southwest areas of the island, stopping at gorgeous beaches each day and enjoying our picnic of delicious tomatoes, crusty bread, and mozzarella di bufala while gazing at incredibly blue waters. We hiked in the Monte dei Sette Fratelli, where we saw no other hikers during our 5-hour trek.
While Cagliari is perfectly located within an hour of some of the island’s prettiest stretches of sand and therefore serves as an ideal base, we found ourselves really enjoying the pace and feel of the city itself. I expected it to be sleepy, but was surprised at not only how many locals we encountered at the town’s may cafes and piazzas, but also by the large proportion of young people (the economic crisis has caused many young Sardinians to seek work on the mainland and beyond). And the seafood- THE SEAFOOD!- was to die for. I have never eaten so many different kinds of fish and shellfish cooked in various ways, all for the wallet-friendly price of less than $20 per person for all-you-can eat hot and cold appetizers, brought to your table seemingly fresh from the sea.
On the fourth day, Nick joined us, and after a rental car snafu that may or may not have been caused by me burning out the clutch on an Alfa Romeo during rush hour in a crowded roundabout (no really, I am still not sure if it was totally my fault or if the car was a little screwed up to being with…), we were back on track and driving up into the rugged Gennargentu mountains toward Cala Gonone, our home on the east coast for the remaining week.
Until relatively recently, Cala Gonone was inaccessible by car and only reachable by sea. It’s a pleasantly laid-back holiday town, beautifully situated on the Golfo di Orosei, arguably one of the island’s most breathtaking stretches of coast. Huge limestone cliffs are interrupted occasionally by postcard-perfect beaches that are almost all only reachable by boat. Some of the island’s best rock climbing can be found in this area, so we were basically in heaven. We chose a different adventure each day: hiking between beaches, or bringing our climbing gear and reveling in the jaw-dropping views that rewarded us after a tough ascent.
We drove on roads with switchbacks that would be highly illegal in the US to reach our destinations. We hopped on a boat to check out a grotto one afternoon, and hiked through a gorgeous river valley to explore one of Europe’s deepest canyons the next. In the evenings, we either cooked delicious dinners in our apartment and spent the evening drinking local wine on our cozy balcony, or we tried the local delicacies at a restaurant. Each night we went to bed with huge smiles on our faces–we were tired, full, and happy; excited to see what the next day would hold.
My Umbrian family wouldn’t be happy hearing me say this, but I think Sardinia is my new favorite region in Italy (if not in all of Europe). Somehow, I don’t think they’d be too offended, because Sardinia might as well be its own country; I almost don’t feel that it should be compared to anywhere on the mainland. The slow pace of life, the proud but friendly people, the strong sense of tradition, the striking natural beauty of the place–sure, those things can all be found in Italy, but there is just something incredibly special about this island. Trust me, go there, and I promise you will not be disappointed.