Sardinia, Italy: Beyond Flip-flops and the Costa Smeralda

Italy is always a good idea.  An island in Italy before the heat and crowds of July and August is a jolly brilliant Half Term School Break idea.

In terms of island size, Sardinia is like the Ohio State of universities.  In the same way you would only know a small percentage of your classmates after 4 years you can only cover a fraction of Sardinia’s vast natural beauty in 4 days.  Sicily, another place we have seen a sliver of, is bigger but Sardinia is still the third largest region in Italy with almost 2,000 meters of coastline.  This then is fair warning to balance this post with a more authoritative source on what not to miss in Sardinia.

However, if you should fly into Olbia in the North of Sardinia … a few suggestions:

First, don’t assume because the Olbia airport is small you will transit through it quickly.  Even if you are the only flight to land at 8:30pm on a quiet Wednesday night.  It took us one hour, a portion of it (weirdly? unsafely?) standing outside adjacent to the tarmac, to get through the two men/one chatty supervisor passport control line.  Either it’s payback for having chosen EasyJet or a welcome to island time.   I wish I could report I managed the wait time with an attitude of dolce vita that every other person not holding an American passport seemed to be capable of but my countenance was unmistakably prima donna.  My Global Entry passport carrying husband wasn’t doing much better.  Thankfully our children, who haven’t had as many years to be conditioned for efficiency and customer service, recognized the daggers darting from our eyes to the supervisor and redirected us.  By the time we reached the front of the line, our impatience had melted but our hunger for pasta had kicked in.

Second, because it is Italy and food is central, a late arrival is “no problem” for the kitchen.  Not only was the restaurant at the farmhouse we stayed at happy to serve us dinner at 10pm but the owner delayed her departure home for the evening so she could welcome us.   Guided by our gracious, grey-haired, quadrilingual Italian waiter, our first bottle of big but not bossy Sardinian red wine was at our table by 10:10pm.

There are many agritourismos/farmhouses scattered throughout Sardinia.  We choose Stazzo Lu Ciaccaru, a relaxing rural hotel with 10 suites, a great pool and grounds, and easy car access to a variety of sites in Sardinia’s northern tip.  It was a lovely choice and one we would recommend but there are probably many in the same vein.  Like the masserias in Puglia where you can follow coastline for miles on end, if you had the time and inclination Sardinia is the ideal place to cover more ground by hopping from farmhouse to farmhouse by car, motorcycle or road bike.  

Unlike other trips where we work to find special restaurants, we allowed ourselves to settle in to Stazzo Lu Ciaccuru for all but one of our four dinners.  We all took turns ordering the risotto with local pecorino cheese (80% of Italy’s pecorino comes from Sardinia), gnocchi with sausage ragu, tempura sardines, and the highlight was a Friday night grilled fish set dinner.  While Sardinian food didn't stand out as much as the food from other Italian regions, it did offer a little bit of everything.  We skipped the maggot cheese and donkey meat.

Rather than park ourselves at one of the stunning beaches along the Costa Smeralda to soak up the sun (which was in full supply in early June), we decided to hit the hiking trails along the Northern coastline and mountainous interior.    A car rental and a willing driver is therefore critical for this kind of trip.   However, as Sardinia is the only region in Italy without a motorway, the continuous landscape payoffs along winding but mostly generous two lane roads appeals to even back seat passengers.

Day 1: Hiking a village town and the natural beaches of the Costa Smeralda

Lucky for us, the traditional village of San Pantaleo which sits high between movie-set like granite mountains, has a weekly market on Thursdays which was one of the days we were there.   We were expecting fruits and vegetables but this was that plus truly special artisan crafts, clothing and jewelry.  We later learned that San Pantaleo is the inland playground for the glamorous people who come to the Costa Smeralda. 

After wishing there was room in our suitcases to bring something back and a lunch at the local pizzeria, we spent the afternoon scrambling around rocks, cliffs, and sand to see the best jaw-dropping natural beaches (the ones that don’t rent beach chairs and often require a short walk to get there) along the Costa Smeralda: the interconnecting beaches of Capriccioli, Romazzino, and Portu Li Coggi.   With only one afternoon, we intentionally avoided glitzy Porto Cervo, the resort heart of the area but we wished we had made it to the long walking beach of Liscia Ruia.

Day 2: Hiking inland on Monte Limbara

Designated national parks and wildlife reserves take up 25% of the island.   When we were told by the farmhouse (we think erroneously) the only way to tour the main islands of the Maddalena Archipelago was via chartered boat, we opted instead to drive inland to Monte Limbara.  It was a place that jumped off the map at my husband but largely skimmed over by the guidebooks.  The husband was right.

From Vallicciola which is roughly 2/3 up the mountain, there are several well signed trails that lead you through dense forests and ridge lines to the highest point in Northern Sardinia for some grand views.  Apart from an epic thunderstorm that had us take cover for 45+ minutes, the 5 mile hike we choose was one of the best hikes we’ve had in Europe. 

In route from the farmhouse to Monte Limbara, we detoured to see a lake we had read about as a hidden gem which was ho hum (Lago di Liscia), stopped in a cork forest near Calangianus,  and circled a number of out of the way, gorgeous roads on the map should we ever return on bikes.  With the delay and drenching of the thunderstorms, we skated by the town of Tempio on our way back but it seemed a look-see town.

 Day 3: Coastal hiking in “Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa” in Santa Teresa Gallura

Trading the inland mountains for coastal granite rocks, we spent our last day hiking in the Northwest corner of the island in an area called Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa a few kilometers from the town of Santa Teresa Gallura.  A small isthmus separates the two areas, best described as massive granite rock sculpture gardens. 

We passed on the easy “A” and “B” routes in favor of the more challenging but rewarding “brown Natural Trail hike” which dipped and turned through rocky outcrops and scrubby vegetation, delivering countless dramatic views of nearby Corsica, for about 4 miles.   It was the kind of hike that makes you glad for a large camera memory card and sympathetic companions for when you inevitably twist your ankle because you are too busy looking out instead of down at your scrambling feet. 

The town of Santa Teresa is an easy one to navigate and enjoy for a post hike lunch and a good pivot point for the nearby beach and dunes of Rena Maiore.  Like so many places in Sardinia, it turns out that Rena Maiore deserved more than an afternoon drive by.  Though gelato fueled, there wasn’t enough gas in the tank to hike the cliff hike trail that extended generously in both directions but it was a great place for a late afternoon swim and a circle on the map for another time.