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In his book "Sea and Sardinia," British author D. H. Lawrence compares this Mediterranean island to a "Celtic landscape unlike any other place else on earth." Though part of Sardinia's wild coastline has been tamed with the ultra-chic resorts of the Costa Smeralda and cosmopolitan Cagliari dotted with designer boutiques, Lawrence's description still holds true.
Where else will you discover a rugged landscape of limestone and granite ranges, cork, and oak forests inhabited by pink flamingos, ponies and wild sheep with large curling horns? The island's extreme wilderness is matched by an equally fascinating human history. Thousands of mysterious stone fortresses, known as nuraghi, are found throughout the island. Ancient ruins and medieval towns reflect thousands of years of invasions from ancient Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans to the Byzantines, Arabs, Spaniards and Austrians.
Despite this history of domination by outsiders, Sardinians have clung to their culture and traditions, which are today celebrated with numerous festivals. Among the most famous are the Ardia Horse Race (July 6 - 7) in Sedilo (considered even more dangerous than Siena's Il Palio race) and Nuoro's Festival of Rendentore (last week in August) with grandest procession of traditional Sardinian costumes and folk dancing.
A recent tourist boom has led to efforts to preserve Sardinia's natural resources. A good example is the Oasis of Biderosa, a three-mile stretch located in a forest preserve along the island's east coast. A maximum of 400 people, or 120 cars, are admitted daily and beachfront cafes and other developments are not allowed.
Located about 120 miles from the Italian mainland, Sardinia is surrounded by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the east and south, the Mediterranean to the west, and the Straits of Bonifacio to the north. The result is a beautiful wind and sea-sculpted coastline with emerald bays and soft sand beaches, fantastic seafood and excellent watersports like sailing, diving and windsurfing.
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Many Sardinians are bilingual, speaking Italian and Sardinian (which is closer to Latin than Italian). Sardinian is more likely to be spoken in smaller towns and villages. Some residents of Alghero speak a version of Catalan.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Sardinia's currency is the euro. Make sure you check www.xe.com for the most current exchange rate.
Money and travelers checks can be exchanged at a post office, cambio booth or bank. Banks are considered to offer the best rates and are generally open from Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. In Cagliari, Banco di San Paolo is conveniently located next to the main train station at Piazza Matteotti with ATM's inside the station. In Alghero, Banca Carige (Via Sassari 13) has an ATM.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships dock either in Porto Cervo in the northeast, Alghero in the northwest, or Cagliari, the southern capital.
Porto Cervo, gateway to the famed Costa Smeralda, is packed with tourists between June and September, the regatta season. The main area is the cafe and restaurant-lined Piazza Azzurra, a hub for cultural events.
Alghero, nicknamed little Barcelona, is an atmospheric Catalan town with a walled port and lush harbor. Its colorful medieval center with its cobbled streets and churches feels more like Spain than Italy. In the summer, the Chiesa di San Francesco cloister is the setting for classical concerts.
Cagliari's main port is near Piazza Matteotti, which houses the Sardinian tourist office. A maze of streets off the square leads to the waterfront, known as the Marina, with numerous restaurants and churches including Chiesa di Sant'Eulalia.
There are no highways in Sardinia. Roads are twisty, with frequent switchbacks and sheep crossings. The cost of a rental car ranges between 40 and 55 euros per day, including insurance. In Cagliari, rentals are available from Autonoleggio at via S. Giacomo 134 or Augonoleggio Mereu at Piazza Giovani XXIII, 37. Rent for scooters is 25 to 30 euros.
Taxis are readily available in Sardinia's larger towns. In Cagliari, there are taxi stands at Piazza Matteotti, Piazza della Repubblica and on Largo Carlo Felice. You can also call a cab (070-40-01-01).
Buses operate around and between Sardinia's towns. In Cagliari, the main ARST intercity station is at Piazza Matteotti. PANI buses to various towns leave from Cagliari's Stazione Marittima (the ticket office is inside the port building). A biglietto giornaliero (day ticket) on CTM, which services Cagliari and Poetto beach is 2.10 euros. Bus service is infrequent on Sundays and holidays.
Archeology: Some 7,000 conical-shaped nuraghi are found throughout Sardinia. These mysterious structures are believed to be fortified dwellings of Bronze Age Sardinians. There are also tombs dug into rock, "giants' tombs" with ceremonial entrances, sacred well temples and prehistoric menhirs. Ancient ruins of Phoenician and Roman settlements can be seen at Nora and Tharros.
Yachting: Costa Smeralda, the playground for the rich and famous created in the 1960's by Aga Khan, gets its name from the beautiful emerald green Mediterranean Sea. The tony area hosts some of the most prestigious events in sailing, including the Sardinia Cup, the Swan World Cup and the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup.
Handicrafts: Pocket knives, a traditional symbol of bravery in Sardinia, are a prized souvenir with handles carved from a single piece of mouflon (wild sheep) or goat horn. Hollow pieces of cork are made into trays or taulazzinos. These items, as well as baskets, weaving, pottery and jewelry are available at Isola shops (Instuto Sardo Organizzazione Lavoro Artigiano) in Cagliari (via Baccaredda 176) and Porto Cervo (Sottopiazza).
Nature: Thousands of neon pink flamingos spend their summers and winters near Cagliari and Oristano, on hiatus during their migrations between Tunis and Camargue. Nature lovers will also enjoy the island's parks, the best of which are Gennargentu, Sette Fratelli, Montel Arcosu and the Tavolara Marine Preserve.
Been There, Done That
Scuba dive one of the classic spots around Sardinia. Among the fascinating options are the sea caves of Capo Caccia, La Maddalena archipelago and the WWII wrecks near Cagliari.
Trek through the Gola Su Gorropu canyon or the Selvaggio Blu, one of Europe's most challenging hikes with stunning views of the Gulf of Orosei (Cooperativa Gorropu offers guided treks.).
Hop aboard the Trenino Verde (The Little Green Train), a historic steam locomotive. Of the four lines, the Mandas/Arbatax line is considered the most scenic. A vintage rail car crosses the southern slope of Mt. Gennargentu, a wild and unspoiled area of forest and wildlife (mid-June to mid-September).
Sardinia's culinary heritage is distinct from mainland Italy. Lunch is the main meal of the day, served between noon and 2 p.m. Local favorites include hearty meats like roast piglet (porchetto), braised wild boar and lamb, and seafood specialties like spaghetti with lobster, fried tentacles of sea anemone (orziada) and stuffed calamari. Other local favorites are carta da musica, an unleavened paper-thin bread, and pecorino sardo -- a fabulous ewe's milk cheese (the happy sheep feed on pungent wild herbs). Don't miss torrone, nougat candy made with local honey and nuts. Sardinian wines have been linked to longevity among villagers of Oliena, so drink up! Among the best are Vermentino whites and dry Cannonau reds. Don't leave without trying the delicious dessert wine, mirto.
Casual, local food: Da Lillicu is a hugely popular trattoria in Cagliari's Marina quarter that serves fish and meat dishes on large marble tables (070-65-29-70, Via Sardegna 78, Monday to Saturday). Trattoria Dal Conte offers culurgiones (a Sardinian ravioli with different shapes and fillings), plus risottos and tiramisu (Via Cavour 83, 070-66-33-36, open Tuesday to Sunday). For affordable fare in Porto Cervo, try the pizza at Mama Latina (Marina, 078-99-31-11) or sandwiches at Panino Giusto (Piazetta Clipper, 078-99-12-59). In Alghero's Old Town, El Pultal offers reasonable seafood and pizza (Via Columbano 40, 079-97-47-20, open Tuesday to Sunday).
Gourmet Dining: Hotel Su Gologone (0784-287-512) in Oliena is regarded as one of Sardinia's finest restaurants. In Cagliari's marina quarter, elegant Dal Corsaro serves traditional specialties like tagliatelle with mussels, lobster salad and eel with pecorino cheese (070-66-43-18, Viale Regina Margherita 28, Monday to Saturday).
Ancient Nora: This ancient port was founded as a Phoenician settlement and was eventually taken over by the Romans. Visitors can stroll among the seaside ruins that include public baths, houses and charming theater, used for summer concerts.
Sardinia's Coastal Charms -- Alghero & Bosa: A walking tour of the old, walled port of Alghero is followed by a visit to Bosa, a village known for lace making.
Introduction to Sardinia: Visitors explore the nuraghi and other prehistoric ruins at Palmavera as well as a stop at Cape Caccia where cliffside stairs lead to the Grotta di Nettuno caves.
Scenic Costa Smeralda: This excursion introduces visitors to one of Europe's most elegant resort areas, with stops at Porto Cervo, Cala di Volpe and Pitrizza known for their luxurious hotels, beautiful beaches and yacht-filled marinas. Crystal Cruises also offers a Porto Cervo train tour; Seabourn offers a mountain biking excursion.
Scenic Tempio: About three quarters of Italy's cork comes from Sardinia. A major center of cork production is Calangianus, where travelers learn about the methods used to extract cork from trees. The tour includes a visit to the nearby town of Tempio Pausania whose buildings are made from the local gray granite.
Idyllic beaches are numerous along Sardinia's amazing coastline, but most require a car. Along with sunscreen, bring water and provisions. Here are some of the best spots:
Best for Families: Poetto Beach, just east of Cagliari, is usually safe for swimming, with chairs and umbrellas for rent. This hugely popular beach is home to the Women's Beach Volley Mondial Championship and Motor Boat Formula One Grand Prix (Take the Orange CTM busses marked PF, PQ, or PN depart from Piaza Matteotti for a 15 minute ride).
Best for Windsurfers: Mistral winds on the west coast create ideal conditions for surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers, notably Vignola, Santa Teresa di Gallura and Porto Pollo.
Best for Dune Lovers: A challenging drive along the Montevecchio ridge rewards visitors with the lovely beaches, dunes and inlets of the Costa Verde, or Green Coast on the southwest coast. The dunes near Piscinas and Torre dei Corsari are considered among Europe's best.
Best for Romantics: Costa Paradiso, between Santa Teresa and Castelsardo, is one of the island's most beautiful stretches of coastline. Other lovely spots include Capriccioli and Romazzino beaches set on sandy bays near Porto Cervo.
Staying in Touch
In Cagliari, Internet rates at Intermedia Point (Via Eleonora d'Arborea 4) are 3.50 euro per hour. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Le Liberie della Costa (Via Roma 63 - 5) charges 5 euro per hour and is open Monday to Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Editor's Note: Due to an anti-terrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (or a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
For More Information
On the Web: Italian Government Tourist Board and www.sardiniapoint.it
Cruise Critic: Mediterranean -- Eastern & Western
Independent Traveler: Italy
--by Susan Jaques, a Los Angeles-based writer whose favorite travel adventures are with her husband and teenage son and daughter. In addition to Cruise Critic, Jaques' articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine.