For a locale that can steadily boast its place as the second largest island in the Mediterranean—second only to Sicily mind you, which, at just 1.9km across the strait of Messina, sits so close to mainland Italy that you can practically walk to it—the island of Sardinia can at times seem more aptly described by what it is not. It is not the thriving club scene of Ibiza to its East, nor is it the French quaintness of Corsica directly north; it is indeed a world apart and a beautiful example of an island equal parts modern and time-forgotten. An autonomous region of Italy whose history has been, like so many of its neighboring islands, defined by the various conquerors who have passed through over the years (a sore-spot still evident in its national flag today), it remains the ultimate in beachside Mediterranean vacations, equal to the best of the idyllic Greek islands which so many more commonly flock to.
With a total of 8 provinces (think counties) across 24,000 sq. km of wide-open land there is definitely more here than you will be able to see in all of a week or two. Thus, two very simple questions such as ‘where will I fly into’ and ‘where will I stay’ end up far more of a joint decision, wherein one answers the other, more than you might otherwise expect. The Island’s 3 airports: Alghero, Olbia, and Cagliari-Elmas, are relatively modern but remain small enough to be a breeze. They are all, incidentally, located conveniently enough to allow for a quick jaunt to your destination. While lodging itself is plentiful in hotels throughout the island, we decided to forego the usual and rent a hillside, beach-close villa in the Northeast to share amongst friends. In the days of VRBO and many other rental sites, by the homeowner, there are plenty of options for very unique experiences.
The Capital city is Cagliari, and is located in the far South with a population of roughly 150,000. As the long time hub and head of commerce in the South and inhabited since ancient times, the often Art-Noveau inspired architecture of this city will keep you busy as you ramble down its many streets. That said the history of the town is so vast that you will see influences from many different conquerors from several different time periods. It is also hub to one of the biggest ports in the Mediterranean. The Casteddu de Susu (or upper castle) is an amazing walled city high up on a hill and overlooking the entire Gulf of Cagliari.
One other notable town that must be mentioned is Olbia, in the Northeast. With roughly 1/3 of the inhabitants of the capital city, this town manages to stay large enough to get you lost, and yet small enough to have a rustic European charm worthy of mainland Italy. From the many cobblestoned streets, to the cathedrals that abound, you could spend hours getting lost and finding yourself in random nooks and corners of these sometimes-bustling neighborhoods. From nightclubs to wine bars and of course the obligatory tourist destinations, this can easily take a day or more here. One of the many reasons people often end up staying on this part of the island is its close proximity to the Costa Smeralda. This 20 km long stretch of coast is full of white sand beaches and often plays host to international playboys and stars alike, and was even recently heralded as the most expensive location in Europe with some house prices reaching up to 300,000 euros per square meter. Don’t be dissuaded if you are not rolling in the cash though, as there is enough pristine beach around that you may not even see another soul out there if you don’t want to. For our part we spent a day with a boat rental to get to some of the more secluded beaches about and were even lucky enough to stumble on to a few large-scale shipwrecks from decades past. All in all, if it is a beach vacation you are looking for, you would be hard pressed to find anything better than here.
As I happened to be traveling with a Bar Manager friend from New York City, it was insisted upon that we spend a day trampling through the many vineyards in the middle of the northern part of the island, where they are known for a particular type of wine called Vermentino. This late-ripening white grape variety of wine is well known throughout the region, but is increasingly being grown in other areas as well, though often under different names. The wine is the perfect amount of sweet to balance out days on the beach. Aside from the pure joy of spending the day in and out of many small, family, and boutique-run, rustically perfect wineries, was the enjoyment of discovering many new artifacts and ruins along the way. We even happened upon one place that had just closed due to lunch, where the family opened to give us a private tour, complete with tasting all while a wonderful dog stared at us from the corner, perturbed no doubt that we bothered his family time. That we were invited back to an all-you-can-eat and drink dinner on the property later that night turned out to be just one added benefit and perfect ending to a wonderful day.
One last note about Sardines – The term sardine itself was first used in English around the early 15th Century and is thought to come from this island, around which sardines were once even more abundant, though the canned version one normally sees could not be further from the local reality here. Okay, let me preface by saying that I do not like sardines, or at least I thought that I didn’t. The fish here though, indicative of so much of Italian cuisine, is fresher than I could have ever previously imagined. They were also so plentiful that at one point a member in our group was able to literally pluck one from the sea with his hand. At dinner later that night, at the fanciest of beachfront meals, we ate them until our hearts and bellies were content; a wonderful end to an unforgettable vacation. Do yourself the favor, and go!
Note: This article, originally slated for our December issue, was postponed out of respect due to flooding that happened when Cyclone Cleopatra blew through in late November; a tragic incident in which 18 people were reported to have perished. As with all natural disasters, these areas often need the tourism more than ever in the aftermath of such events. Whether you do it for philanthropy’s sake or because it often involves better deals, this spring and summer would be a great time to visit.
Sardinia is located in the Mediterranean and is a once-in-a-lifetime trip – plan accordingly!
Photography by Katie Foster.