When most people think of Sardinia they envision the mega-yachts, high society soirees and sticker shock-priced cocktails that are famously found along the island’s glitzy Costa Smerelda — the one part of the island you hear the most about. But aside from that tiny sliver of this truly lovely destination, Sardinia is not just a place for celebrities and billionaires. There is a whole different side to be discovered. The aquamarine coves along the Golfo di Orosei, the mountains and vines of the inland Supramonte and the original farm-to-table cuisine, in the form of agriturismos scattered all around the countryside are a good place to start. Sardinia is a haven for beachlovers and adventurers, oenophiles and foodies, vacationing families and honeymooning couples alike. The best part? Many of Sardinia’s luxe pleasures come at a fraction of the price you’d spend in Italy’s mainland cities like Rome and Florence for quality of the same.
We are just back from a two and a half week tour of the island and we wish we could have stayed even longer. Here is how we did it, what we loved and what we didn’t.
Our first stop was Tenuta Pilastru, an intimate family-run agriturismo situated 5 km outside of Arzachena. We chose the hotel for its proximity to the airport (35 minutes,) its well-known restaurant and the fact that we could stay put and enjoy the property once we got there since we’d be coming off a long travel day. The grounds are beautiful, flower-filled and serene. The air smells like juniper. At the center, there’s a large and very inviting swimming pool surrounded by lounge chairs where you can order a glass of house-made wine. Rooms are charming and simple; many come with outdoor patios. The restaurant didn’t quite live up to the hype, but made for a solid rustic meal that ended with seadas (a traditional dessert, like a fried ravioli drizzled with honey) and mirto (a liquor made from the island’s ubiquitous myrtle plants), which always sweetens the deal.
In the neighboring village of San Pantaleo we loved Foresta-g, a hip little shop filled with all sorts of limited edition textiles, blankets, linens and cute clothing exclusively designed and sold by the proprietors.
Also in the area don’t miss the Capichera winery, one of Sardinia’s top producers of Vermentino.
SANTA MARIA NAVARESSE
Our decision to base ourselves in quiet Santa Maria Navaresse as opposed to any of the other towns along the Golfo di Orosei was partly inspired by our desire to stay at the stunning Lanthia Resort, a fabulous boutique hotel with a clean, modern design. We are so glad that we did. Guest rooms have names instead of numbers here, each dedicated to a town in Sardinia. We stayed in “Pula,” the largest of the deluxe rooms. The room itself is plush and stocked with amenities and floor to ceiling windows allow for a spectacular view of the Supramonte mountains from your bed. Service is fantastic and staff is on top of your every need — ours included a poolside caprese & negroni aperativo one day and a late night bottle of wine from the open-all-hours gift shop the next.
It’s all about the breathtaking beaches on this part of the island, many accessible only by boat or very long hike. There are various boat trips on offer but for a truly special day out, book a spot on Paolo’s boat (ask at the hotel.) He picks you up, cooks a serious lunch (we had seafood fregola, peel n’ eat shrimp and lemon sorbet) and even provides little extras like sun umbrellas to borrow at each beach stop and afternoon aperatifs. You’ll visit some of area’s best stretches of sand including Cala Mariolu, Cala Biriola and Cala Luna.
Or, be your own skipper for the day and rent your own boat along the marina.
If you’re feeling brave, make the challenging one hour trek down to Cala Goloritze –– reportedly a little slice of heaven — and then the 1.5 hour trek back up. (We wanted to do this but were warned against attempting it with a 3 year old.) This is a wild beach with no facilities so come prepared with plenty of water.
The best option in the town of Santa Maria Navaresse is Nascar Ristorante, with great food and wine in a lovely al fresco setting. We thoroughly enjoyed their house-made trofie with shrimp and zucchini and tasty grilled prawns, while Jake played with their cat under the table.
We rarely eat at our hotel’s restaurant, but Lanthia‘s happens to be one the best in the whole area. Start with fantastic grilled octopus and move on to seasoned-just-right lamb chops. After dinner mirto comes perfectly chilled with a frozen block of ice at the bottom of your glass.
Many people come to Oliena and the Barbagia region to stay at one of the most famous agriturismos on the island, Su Gologone – and after tasting one bite of thier slow roasted porcheddu, its easy to see why. Su Gologone is an interesting hotel in an exceptional setting. The grounds are expansive and resort-like. You’ll need a map to find your way from the lobby to the library to the various cellars, gardens and other communal spaces within the property. Our junior suite was quite small and slightly drab, the A/C was iffy in hot hot August, and we found the wifi system to be extremely annoying (guests must ask at the front desk for a unique user name and password for each device that expires every two hours.) Those gripes aside, the pool area is beautiful and well attended, the Bar de Tablao is a gorgeous spot to watch the sun set and the restaurant is truly deserving of all its praise.
The Su Gologone Spring is just a few minutes walk from the property and worth the detour. Swimming is not allowed at this national monument, but taking a drink of the cold spring water is. There’s also a small snack bar and playground for kids.
If you only visit one cave in Sardinia, Grotta di Ispinigoli is a worthy contender, housing Europe’s tallest stalagmite (and one of the tallest in the world) at around 125 feet in height. You’ll descend 280 steps down to the bottom; tours are given in both Italian & English.
Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, dinner at Su Gologone is a must. Favorite dishes include their ravioli with wild fennel pesto and their mixed grill with insanely flavorful cuts of roast suckling pig, veal and lamb.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but Ristorante Ispinigoli in Dorgali turned out some of the best food we had of our entire trip, paired with lovely views from a panoramic terrace out back. Black ravioli with stonebass, clams and bottarga and saffron and fiore sardo gnocci were the clear winners here. Staff even went out of their way to physically move a wooden rocking horse Jake had his eye on from the inside dining room out to the terrace so that he could rock within eyeshot of our espresso.
Ask for a seat in the shady garden out back at Masiloghi, the blue and white washed restaurant at the end of the road just before exiting the town of Oliena. We loved their potato and fennel balls, home-made culurgiones and sweet, friendly service.
Pay a visit to Gostolai, a small winery just outside town that produces unique wines using unconventional techniques. You’ll have to stuff your suitcase full of their Nepente di Olienas and vini dolcis since there’s only one importer bringing these babies into the US, and you wont pay wholesale prices like this back home.
We loved our stay at Villa Mosca, one of Alghero’s finest boutique hotels housed in an Art Nouveu villa overlooking the sea. Its 9 rooms have been given a modern update with sophisticated slate bathrooms, tufted headboards and quirky prints throughout. Details like octagonal walls and a spiral staircase leading up to the guestrooms only add to the property’s charm. The hotel’s sun terrace is a great place to enjoy a leisurely breakfast or a quick sundowner before heading out for the night.
Yes it’s overcrowded, parking is a nightmare and you will overpay for a sunbed — but none of that should stop you from spending a day at La Pelosa, Stintino’s most photogenic spiaggia. An easy one hour drive north of Alghero, the water is crystal clear with turquoise hues and the sand is powder white – the closest you’ll get to a Caribbean beach in the Mediterranean. Shallow sandbars and good facilities make it very family-friendly. An all-around stunner. Don’t miss it.
The colorful town of Bosa is just under an hour’s drive from Alghero in the other direction and makes for a fantastic daytrip. Take the coastal road — it’s one of the most beautiful drives on the island with spectacular views of the sparkling sea down below. Visitors can rent boats by the bridge to motor along the river Temo, get lost in the cobblestoned alleyways leading to cute shops and cafes and hike up to the castle that overlooks the town.
The top table for seafood in Alghero is Al Tuguri. Everything here is prepared fresh and well presented. The space is rustic with wood beams, dim lighting and their many awards and accolades flanking the walls. Standout dishes include a selection of small seafood starters, trufellas with prawns and bavette with bottarga and basil.
Another Alghero favorite is Angedras, with its thirty al fresco tables lined up along the Bastioni Marco Polo. Pastas are on point, especially their fabulous spaghetti with bottarga topped with sardine tartare (trust us).
The 4 star Hotel Excelsior is a fine choice for a stay in La Maddalena, occupying a prime position just across from the ferry terminal and right in the center of town. Rooms are basic but comfortable with rates to match — very reasonable, even in August. Ask for a sea view room, and grab one with a balcony if you can (there are only 3 in the whole hotel.)
The best way to see the other islands in the Maddalena archipelago is by boat. We went out on the Veliero Maria, a Lanteen sailboat built in 1899 that has been lovingly restored by operators Paolo and Daniele. They’ll take you to some beautiful beaches including Cala Corsara on Spargi and serve up a nice antipasti spread followed by a fantastic paccheri with mussels and bottarga.
Earn your beach with a heart-pumping hike on the green isle of Caprera, attached to la Maddalena by bridge.We did two: The first to Cala Brigatina was short (about 15 minutes) and easy enough to do with kids of any age. The second to Cala Coticcio was more challenging and involved some vertical scrambling in parts, but in the end was worth it. Don’t attempt these in flip flops and pack a bag with water, snacks, and beach umbrellas. One enterprising couple even brought a bottle of champagne to go along with their picnic.
The best restaurant in La Maddalena is Locanda del Mirto, a very special spot hidden down a dirt road 15 minutes outside of town. (GPS won’t get you here, so ask a local for directions.) Anything that’s fired on the wood burning grill out back is sure to be a hit- especially their lamb chops (possibly the best on earth) and their gigantic bistecca fiorentina (which trumped any we’ve ever had in Florence — and can feed a family of 10.)
This town has an influx of gelaterias (there’s literally one on every corner) but the best of the bunch is Dolci Distrazioni. Try their biscotti flavor.
We wouldn’t recommend giving La Terrazza a try. Dinner there was one of the biggest disappointments of our trip. It’s worth seeking out some better options in town and further afield.
We flew direct from JFK to Milan Malpensa (8 hours) then transferred to an Easyjet flight to Olbia (1 hour 20 min.) Our two and a half hours in between flights was just enough time to clear passport control, pick up our luggage, find the ViaMilano desk (a new free service that allows you to drop off your luggage for your connecting flight) and find the shuttle to Terminal 2 since Easyjet operates out of MXP’s Terminal 2 and most international flights arrive at Terminal 1. Upon arrival at the Olbia airport, we picked up our mid-size automatic car rental from Europcar, arranged in advance through AutoEurope, which turned out to be a pretty sweet Audi A3.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
English is not widely spoken outside of the main cities, so practice a few key phrases to make getting around a bit easier.