Alghero in northwestern Sardinia (right)
Having enjoyed the delights of southern Corsica a couple of years ago, where we gazed across the Strait of Bonifacio to Sardinia some eight miles away, this summer my wife Victoria and I decided to visit the Mediterranean’s second largest island to see how it compares to its French-speaking neighbour.
In some ways, Sardinia feels very Italian, but it also has a strong identity of its own. The local language, Sardinian – or Sardo – is as frequently spoken as Italian here, and it has more in common with the Corsican dialect than it does with that of Rome or Tuscany.
The island’s strategic location as a trading post and military stronghold has also given it a unique architectural heritage, with the Romans, Phoenicians, Vandals, Byzantines and Spanish all leaving their mark. The city of Alghero, in the west of the island, was colonised by the Spanish Catalans for centuries and its street signs are still written in Catalan.
All this history, combined with a stunning natural beauty, fantastic weather, amazing food and drink, and a friendly welcome from the locals, make Sardinia one of the most memorable places either of us have visited.
We stayed at Lu Lioni villa, a beautiful traditional four-bedroom property with a swimming pool, barbecue area and extensive lush gardens, where the air is filled with the heady scent of jasmine, and flashes of vivid colour from bougainvillea and oleanders catch the eye at every turn.
Set in the countryside a few miles from the island’s north-east coast, the villa is such a great place to “decompress” into holiday mode that we actually spent the whole of our first day there, soaking up the sun, swimming and drinking in the views of the mountains looming over Arzachena, the nearest town.
I had heard great things about the beaches in Sardinia, but was delighted to find the reality actually exceeded the expectation. And there is no shortage of variety – small rocky coves, secluded sandy beaches and long stretches of dunes were all within easy reach of our villa – and we seemed to be lucky in that each beach we visited was more magical than the last.
Probably the best known area of Sardinia is the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), especially the resort of Porto Cervo, which attracts the rich and famous from Italy and beyond in the summer. On the balmy evening we visited, one of the first people we spied was former Chelsea and Germany footballer Michael Ballack.
Sardinia is the perfect place to learn to dive
Created in the 1960s by the Aga Khan, Porto Cervo exudes glamour and opulence, from the super yachts lined up in the marina to the exclusive boutiques and galleries. For mere mortals, it is still possible to eat well here at prices that won’t make your eyes water – we enjoyed the excellent pasta and immaculate service at Elit on Promenade du Port, enhanced by a beautiful sunset and a glass of local Cannonau red wine.
On day three, we took a boat trip from Palau to the Maddalena Islands. There is quite a choice of trips, and we opted for the Lady Luna 2, a full-day excursion which included stops at Santa Maria, Budelli and Spargi.
All three islands, but especially Spargi, have beaches that are more than a match for anything the Caribbean can offer – intense turquoise waters, white sand and fascinating granite cliffs which have been eroded over the centuries into various animal shapes, each with a local legend attached.
The boat trip included a tasty lunch and a stop on the archipelago’s main island, La Maddalena. Other excursions include the island of Caprera, where Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the founders of modern Italy, spent his final years. His house is now a museum, largely unchanged since his death in 1882.
One of the greatest things about Sardinia is its sheer variety, especially if you hire a car. We were full of anticipation each day about what we would discover, and were never disappointed with what this enchanting destination had to offer.
Way to go
George travelled with Sardinian Places, the UK’s leading Sardinia holiday specialist. Lu Lioni, a four-bedroom villa with private pool and gardens, is just 15 minutes’ drive from the beaches of the Costa Smeralda and features within the company’s Premium Collection. Prices start from £438pp (travelling October 7, 2017), which includes flights and car hire, based on eight sharing. Call 01489 866959 or visit sardinianplaces.co.uk.
Ten things you must do in Sardinia
1 Visit a vineyard. Sardinia produces lots of excellent wine, particularly the light to medium-bodied Cannonau reds.
2 Mix with the super-yacht set at the island’s most glamorous resort, Porto Cervo. It’s a shopper’s paradise, too, brimming with cosmopolitan style.
3 Learn to dive. Sardinia has some of the clearest water you’ll ever see and an amazing array of marine caves and underwater cliffs to explore.
4 Take a boat excursion to the glorious Maddalena islands. This stunning archipelago off the north coast of Sardinia has beaches to rival anywhere in the Caribbean.
5 Step back in time at one of the island’s many ancient sites. Sardinia is home to a host of Roman, Phoenician, and prehistoric Nuragic ruins and burial sites.
6 Get your walking boots on and explore the Gola Su Gorropu, an isolated and dramatic gorge described as “Europe’s Grand Canyon”.
7 Play a round of golf. There are several excellent golf courses here, including Is Molas, which regularly hosts the Italian Open.
8 Saddle up. Sardinia has a deep-rooted equestrian tradition (jockeys Frankie Dettori and Andrea Atzeni both hail from the island) and offers a range of riding and trekking experiences.
9 Explore the Grotta di Nettuno (Neptune’s Grotto), a stunning sea cave near Alghero that bristles with stalagmites and stalactites, reflected in an underground lake.
10 Get haggling at a food market. San Benedetto in Cagliari and Olbia’s farmers’ market in the Piazza Mercato are a sensory overload of sights, sounds, scents and flavours.