Sardinia – Sardegna in Italian – is a large island in the Mediterranean to the west of Italy. It has a mountainous interior and a famed coastline with turquoise waters which attracts throngs of holiday-makers every year. The island is a region of Italy, and its regional capital is Cagliari, on the southern coast. With three international airports and ferries from mainland Italy, it is a very accessible tourist destination.
The island has a long and intriguing history, and is dotted with interesting archaeological sites. In the Bronze Age the island was populated by an enigmatic people who built nuraghi – stone towers – across the island, along with palaces, sacred wells and other structures. Many remain, as ruins, and the importance of these sites is recognised with a UNESCO World Heritage listing. As Sardinia is on Mediterranean trading routes, various subsequent civilisations colonised or conquered the coastal areas, including the Phoenicians, Romans and Byzantines. Later the island was for some time under Spanish domination. A version of Catalan is still spoken in Alghero. The mountains inland, difficult to conquer and offering little to invaders, have a reputation as untouched pockets of ancient culture and tradition.
Sardinia has a dual reputation within Italy. It is one of the most popular summer holiday destinations for beach-loving Italian families – indeed, it’s said that whole districts of Romans decamp with their neighbours to the same Sardinian beaches each August. At the same time , Sardinia’s ancient ‘otherness’ casts a lingering and occasionally sinister shadow: the shepherds and hardy inland communities, the mountains once seen as the lair of kidnappers and the enduring individual character and dialects of Sardinia all make the place rather un-Italian. None of this, however, affects the tourists who flock to the white beaches and blue seas.
The smartest destination in Sardinia is the Costa Smeralda, the ’emerald coast’. This beautiful stretch of coastline at Sardinia’s north-east corner was developed in the 1960s by wealthy investors including the Aga Khan. Every summer gossip magazines are full of photos of Italian and international ‘celebrities’ partying, swimming or hanging out on huge yachts in Porto Cervo and the other exclusive resorts of the Costa Smeralda.
Sardinia isn’t all glitz, though. The island has many beaches and stretches of coast which are largely unspoiled and plenty of down-to-earth towns and resorts. Lagoon, island and mountain habitats all feature among the region’s nature reserves, where you can see a wide range of wildlife including flamingoes, golden eagles, mountain goats and wild white donkeys.
Airports and travel
Sardinia has three international airports: Alghero, Olbia and Cagliari. All three are served by flights from the UK, although services are reduced considerably in the winter. British Airways and Easyjet both fly to Sardinia’s capital Cagliari. Ryanair fly to Alghero and Easyjet to Olbia. These three airports make Sardinia, in the summer months at least, very accessible. The airports are all very close to the towns they serve, and connected by public bus services.
Ferries connect the island to mainland Italy, and if you prefer not to fly, you could travel by train via Paris to Genoa or Livorno and then catch a ferry.
Sardinia is best explored by car, as the island’s prehistoric archaeological sites and glorious beaches are scattered and often remote. However, the island’s towns are connected by trains and buses, and with a bit of research it is possible to enjoy a rewarding holiday using public transport. In the summer steam trains operate on some of Sardinia’s scenic trenino verde (‘little green train’) routes.
Sardinia is ideal for several different types of holiday, or, if you have time, a combination. For a lively city break, visit Cagliari, with its museums, bars, affordable restaurants and nearby sandy beaches. For more of a holiday resort feel, fly to Alghero to explore the historic town centre and enjoy boat trips. North of Olbia, the exclusive – and expensive – resorts of the Costa Smeralda line one of the island’s most beautiful stretches of coastline, and beyond the glitz you’ll come to the island archipelago of La Maddalena. This cluster of islands – once home to Garibaldi and now a marine reserve – and the island of Sant’Antioco, down in the south west, make good locations for a tranquil island getaway.
Hotels and when to visit
Sardinia is a hugely popular summer destination for Italians, with lots of run-of-the-mill hotels charging huge prices and still full to bursting. If possible, August is best avoided for the crowds, the heat and the prices. Visiting in May, June or September is more affordable and more comfortable. In the winter you’re likely to find the island an atmospheric ‘local’ place, but many hotels and restaurants will be closed; cities make the most practical bases at this time of year.
Although, as mentioned above, Sardinia does have lots of uninspiring seaside hotels to cater for the full-board Italian market, you will also find luxurious places to stay, rural family-friendly resorts, decent B&Bs and thoroughly modern urban hotels. Prices are fairly high, varying from location to location, but outside the summer months you can find good deals. Check hotel location maps and read other guests’ reviews to work out if a hotel will suit you. Some hotels cater for touring holidays and won’t suit car-free travellers, while others, in tight-packed town centres, may not have parking or easy access for drivers. In most towns you will be able to find one or two first-class places to stay – but as the most charming tend to have only a few rooms, it’s a good idea to book well in advance.
Tempting Sardinian hotels
Near the picturesque and historic seaside town of Castelsardo, the Bajaloglia Resort is a small and exclusive establishment on a hilltop with sea views. Rooms are stylish, and the hotel has a large garden with a swimming pool and sun terrace.
La Locanda del Conte Mameli, Olbia
In the useful gateway town Olbia – which has an airport and ferry port – this is an elegant historic townhouse hotel which makes a good place to stay at the beginning or end of your travels around Sardinia. The small, chic hotel has a convenient central location and excellent reviews from past guests.
Hotel Balocco, Porto Cervo
Porto Cervo is the most glamorous resort on the Costa Smeralda, Sardinia’s coastline of choice for the well-to-do. The four-star Hotel Balocco is perched outside the town, and is a (relatively) affordable way to enjoy a luxury stay with good views, good service and a swimming pool.
Hotel Domomea, Alghero
A smart and modern hotel in seaside resort Alghero (another convenient airport town), the Hotel Domomea has a rooftop pool and is a stylish choice for a town-centre stay.
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Hotel Excelsior, La Maddalena
The four-star Hotel Excelsior is a smart hotel on the island of La Maddalena, north of Olbia. Part of a small archipelago, the island makes a good base for beaches and boat trips; the Excelsior is conveniently-placed for ferries and exploring.
Stazzo Lu Ciaccaru
Stazzo Lu Ciaccaru is a lovely rural place to stay inland from the Costa Smeralda; a quiet and pleasant base for those exploring Sardinia’s prehistoric sites and beaches with a car.
Hotel Luci Del Faro, Sant’Antioco
Hotel Luci Del Faro is on the island of Sant’Antioco, off Sardinia’s southwestern corner. It’s a good three-star holiday resort-style hotel, with sea views, a pool, a tennis court, bicycles and children’s playground.
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