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Why You Should Plan a Trip to Sardinia
Second in size only to Sicily, Sardinia (Sardegna in Italian) is located off the western coast of Italy, just south of Corsica. With over 1,000 miles of coastline and a mountainous interior, Sardinia has some of the most beautiful beaches in Italy as well as its own unique culture, cuisine, and dialect. It’s also home to the first identified Blue Zone, one of a handful of places around the world where people live the longest.
A reader, who’s planning a trip to Italy for this summer with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, recently wrote to me: “Was wondering if I could pick your brain on a beach getaway after our Rome visit? We’ve wanted to check out Sardinia. Have you visited it? If so, would you recommend it for a family like ours?”
The answer, in short, is yes. I would absolutely recommend Sardinia for a beach getaway. The beaches there have some of the cleanest, most crystalline water I’ve ever seen—and I’ve traveled in the Caribbean, the Maldives, and other renowned beach destinations, so that’s saying a lot. The island is huge, so you can choose your own adventure depending on the kind of vibe you’re looking for.
Last year, I visited Sardinia twice—once on vacation with my husband Marco and then for a conference at Forte Village, a megaresort popular among families—but I’ve only scratched the surface. I definitely want to go back and explore more, but in the meantime I’ll share what I learned from my experiences to date.
For our summer vacation last year, Marco and I decided to split our time between two opposite sides of the island. We started in Carloforte, the main town on the tiny Isola di San Pietro off the southwestern coast of Sardinia, and then drove across the island to the northeastern coast, where we spent five days in Palau and used it as a base to explore the glamorous Costa Smeralda. Though they’re both part of Sardinia, these two areas couldn’t be more different.
If you know nothing about Sardinia, the one place you’ve likely heard of is the Costa Smeralda, i.e. the Emerald Coast. Like much of the island, this area was rugged and untamed until the 1960s, when Prince Karim Aga Khan IV fell in love with it and decided to turn it into a ritzy destination for the rich and famous. He was one of the founders of the Consorzio Costa Smeralda, which was created in 1962 to develop the area while protecting its natural beauty. The project developed infrastructure, including paving roads and building four luxury hotels that are still the hottest places to stay on the coast.
The development is centered in Porto Cervo, where yachts dot the marina and designer boutiques by the likes of Armani, Gucci, and Prada radiate off the main piazza. The area draws celebrities and jetsetters who go to soak up the sun and party at exclusive clubs like Billionaire and Phi Beach.
Marco and I toured the four hotels—Cervo Hotel, Hotel Pitrizza, Hotel Romazzino, and Hotel Cala di Volpe (my personal favorite)—and had lunch at Hotel Romazzino’s beachfront barbecue restaurant, but we stayed with friends in Palau. We also spent a day at Nikki Beach Costa Smeralda, an outpost of the trendy international beach club on a secluded strip of sand a short boat ride away from Cala di Volpe.
Even if a stay at those hotels is out of your budget, it might be worth stopping by for a drink or a meal so you can have a peek around. Cala di Volpe in particular is spectacular from an architecture and design standpoint. Designed by Jacques Coüelle, a friend of Picasso and Dalí who called himself an architect-sculptor, it was designed to reflect rustic Sardinian architecture, with sinuous curves, whitewashed walls, and beautiful stained glass windows.
We spent some time hanging out on the free beach at the Isola dei Gabbiani, where we sunbathed, swam, and watched the windsurfers. The beach was full of people and had several beachfront cafes and shacks where you could get a light meal, coffee, or smoothies. We also did a full-day boating excursion to the Maddalena Archipelago, where we jumped off the boat to swim in secluded coves and explored Maddalena Island, a charming little island with a statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of the Italian reunification movement, who lived on the neighboring island of Caprera.
As fabulous as the Costa Smeralda is, we loved our time in Carloforte even more. We spent five days there and while it’s a fairly popular destination for domestic tourism, it’s still quite under-the-radar among international travelers. We hung out on four different beaches and I’m pretty sure I was the only American on them. Historically, Carloforte was settled by Ligurian sailors, which is why the town is full of pastel-painted buildings like the ones you see in the Cinque Terre.
It was also an important center for tuna fishing and though most of the tuna processing plants have closed, it’s still an important industry. Just about every restaurant on the island serves tuna in more ways than you can imagine. We loved trying the local dishes like Da Nicolo’s signature linguine alla Nicolo with tuna, olives, capers, pecorino, and lemon zest. Even at the beach clubs, we would get sandwiches with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil pesto, and tuna on Ligurian-style round focaccia. Before leaving, we bought a few cans of buzzonaglia tuna, which the guy in the fish market recommended using for pasta.
Every day, we chose a different beach to hang out on and then returned to our hotel to freshen up before going for an evening stroll and dinner in town. There are lots of cute little shops and since we were there to celebrate our anniversary and both our birthdays, we bought each other gifts.
I bought Marco a new shirt at Ismeralda, which sells chic linen clothes for men, women, and children, and he gifted me a coral necklace at la Casa del Corallo, a family-run jewelry shop established in 1979. We also bought some mirto, an after-dinner drink similar to limoncello but made with Sardinian myrtle, and a few bags of pasta (fregola, malloreddus, and cassulli) at Pastificio Artigiano Luxoro.
One of the things that struck me about the beaches here is that unlike at most Italian beaches, there’s no demarcation between the free beach and the beach clubs reserved for paying guests. Usually Italian beach clubs are set up with neat rows of lounge chairs and umbrellas that can be rented by the day or for the season, but at the beaches near Carloforte, people can lay their towels on the sand wherever they want and when people want to rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, the staff at the beach clubs will just set them up wherever there’s space.
Most of the beach clubs there are just little shacks equipped with espresso machines, freezers stocked with ice cream, and someone making sandwiches and salads. For a few euros, you can get cold beer or an Aperol Spritz served in a plastic cup. These are the most laid-back beach clubs I’ve experienced in Italy.
I definitely want to go back to experience more of Sardinia’s beautiful beaches, explore the mountainous interior, and see the nuraghi (ancient megalithic stone structures that only exist in Sardinia). Have you been to Sardinia? Share your tips with me and other readers in the comments!
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Want more tips for visiting the Costa Smeralda? For The Points Guy, I wrote about how to visit this glamorous destination popular among jetsetters.
For a closer look at Cala di Volpe, which recently unveiled a renovation by lauded architects Bruno Moinard and Claire Bétaille, check out my Nuvo article about it and the book Assouline published last year to celebrate the Costa Smeralda’s 60th anniversary.
My favorite article to come out of last year’s trip is this feature for Food & Wine about why the Isola di San Pietro is an under-the-radar paradise for food lovers.
When researching Sardinia’s best hotels, I read this Condé Nast Traveller article by my Florence-based colleague Nicky Swallow, who has a book about Cala di Volpe coming out in June. Stay tuned for an interview with her in a future issue!