With its rugged landscape of limestone and granite ranges and oak forests inhabited by pink flamingos, ponies and wild sheep, Sardinia has a fair share of wilderness that's still untamed — despite the ultra-chic resorts of the Costa Smeralda and the cosmopolitan Cagliari dotted with designer boutiques. Add the charming Old City in Alghero to the list of attractions, and you have enough diversity to enchant travelers of all ages.
This picturesque island in the Mediterranean 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 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 Redentore (last week in August) with grandest procession of traditional Sardinian costumes and folk dancing.
A 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 Strait 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 water sports like sailing, diving and windsurfing.
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. There are ATMs, Internet cafes, shops and restaurants.
Alghero, nicknamed little Barcelona, is an atmospheric Catalan town with a walled port and lush harbor. You'll find Internet cafes, ATMs, a tourist office, shops and restaurants, all within walking distance, about five minutes from the port. The tourist office is located at Piazza Porto Terra.
Cagliari's main port is near Piazza Matteotti, which houses the Sardinian tourist office. Cruise ships dock close to the center of Cagliari. There are shuttle buses and taxis.
In front of the bus station, Stazione Marittima, is an information kiosk. Maps and other helpful information can be obtained there. Visitors will find ATMs, Internet cafes, shops and restaurants nearby. 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.
The Nuraghe Palmavera archeological site in Alghero located on the Southern slope of the mountain of the same name is one of the most important settlements dating to prehistoric times. The nuraghe, divided by two towers and surrounded by a defense wall and a village, is an opportunity to explore the remains of an ancient civilization.
Walk along the pier at Porto Cervo in Costa Smeralda, which was created by Aga Khan in the 1960s. Gaze at the bevy of beautiful yachts moored in the harbor. You can also charter your own yacht for a memorable day on the water. Look for prestigious sailing races, such as the Sardinia Cup, the Swan World Cup and the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup.
Take a stroll around Alghero's Old Walled Town, making sure to stop at the 14th-century ornate Church of San Francesco Cloister. Try a lobster dish. It is said that the lobsters in Sardinia are among the tastiest in the world and that England's Queen Elizabeth ordered them from Sardinia for her wedding dinner.
In Cagliari, visit the Citadel of Museums and Castle District with its bevy of museums. The National Archeological Museum (open 9 a.m. to 7:15 p.m.) showcases Sardinia's ancient history, with finds dating back as far as the Pre-Nuragic era (6,000 B.C.). The National Gallery (open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.) is housed on three floors with displays of Spanish artwork dating to the 14th century. Check out the Wax Museum (open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) featuring wax models of human anatomy created by artist Clemente Susini and the Museum of Siamese Art (open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) with its vast collection of Siamese and Oriental art. All museums are closed on Mondays.
Cagliari Botanical Gardens, with its hundreds of trees and thousands of plants, was established in 1866 by the University of Cagliari. Located at the bottom of the Roman Amphitheater, the gardens also contain ancient Roman and Phoenician cisterns. (Open 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., closed Saturday and Sunday)
Try one of the classic scuba diving spots around Sardinia. Among the fascinating options are the sea caves of Capo Caccia. The Cave of Neptune with its monumental stalagmite and bird-nesting fountain is accessible by sea with daily trips by boat from the port, or you can climb the set of 660 steps into the cliff side.
In Porto Cervo
Hiking through the Gola Su Gorropu canyon provides quite a challenge for any hiking enthusiast. Allow 4 to 5 hours for the scenic roundtrip hike that includes many cliffs and caves. Spring and autumn are the best times to hike in Sardinia, as the temperatures are mild.
The Selvaggio Blue is one of Europe's most difficult hikes with stunning views of the Gulf of Orosei. The 30-mile trek is on Sardinia's isolated coast near Costa Smeralda and includes tough terrain.
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 Mount Gennargentu National Park, in the provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra, a wild and unspoiled area of forest and wildlife (mid-June to mid-September).
For a sweeping view of Cagliari rooftops, take the panoramic elevator at Piazza Costituzione to the top of Bastione San Remy. The elevator built from 1899 to 1902 affords stunning views of the city.
Visit the San Benedetto Market with its tasty variety of produce and fish and for a glimpse of the locals as they barter for the best prices. The market, one of the largest in Europe, is on two floors. The first is devoted to fish, with many varieties, from lobsters to baby crabs and oysters. (Open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday)
On Foot: Porto Cervo is pleasant for walking, and the port area has beautiful yachts, designer shops and restaurants. Rental cars or taxis are the best option to venture farther afield.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available in Sardinia's larger towns. In Cagliari, taxi stands are located at Piazza Matteotti, Piazza della Repubblica and Largo Carlo Felice. You can also call a cab (070-40-01-01).
By Bus: 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. In Alghero, buses only operate outside of the Old Town. Taxis are available and you can rent cars.
By Car: 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.
Idyllic beaches are numerous along Sardinia's amazing coastline, but you'll need a car to get to most of them.
Best for Families: Popular Poetto Beach, just east of Cagliari, is easily reached from the city center. It has a white sandy beach, is excellent for swimming and surfing, and has chairs and umbrellas for rent. It's good for families because it has public restrooms, and there's a supermarket nearby where snacks and drinks can be purchased at reasonable prices.
Best for Nature-Lovers: Su Giudeu, with its sandy dunes, clear sea and fine sand dotted with juniper trees, is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean. Chairs and umbrellas are available for rent.
Best for Families: Close to the city's ancient walls, flanking Alghero in the village of Fertilia, is a sandy beach with still waters ideal for families with children. Chairs and umbrellas can be rented.
Best for Nature-Lovers: The shapes of junipers and the deep green of the pine trees provide the backdrop for the white sandy dunes of Maria Pia beach. At the back of the beach is a picturesque pine forest.
Best for Beach Bums: Speranza Beach, surrounded by breathtaking bays, has fine sand and crystal blue waters. Visitors will find umbrellas and chairs for rent, as well as a restaurant. Biking trails lead to the beach and provide a fun excursion.
In Porto Cervo
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.
Best for Beach Bums: Try a day trip to Spiaggia del Principe Beach on the Costa Smerelda. This beautiful beach with its fine sand and blue-green water was described as Aga Khan's favorite. It is a perfect spot to work on a tan and provides excellent opportunities to snorkel.
Sardinia's culinary heritage has evolved from the sea that surrounds the island. Lobster boiled and garnished with olive oil is a local cherished dish. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are served alongside entrees. Lunch is the main meal of the day, served between noon and 2 p.m. Other favorites include hearty meats like roast piglet (porchetto), braised wild boar and lamb, fried tentacles of sea anemone (orziada), stuffed calamari 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.
Casual: Da Lillicu is a popular trattoria in Cagliari's marina quarter that serves fish and meat dishes on large marble tables (Via Sardegna 78; 070-65-29-70, open 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. 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).
Gourmet: 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 (Viale Regina Margherita 28; 070-66-43-18; open 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday in season, March to November)
In Porto Cervo
Local Fare: Blues Cafe serves delicious and moderately priced vegetarian dishes, along with Italian, Lebanese and pasta meals. There is a beautiful view of the bay. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. (Liscia di Vacca; 39-0789-91248; open 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.)
Il Pomodoro-Esmeralda Churrascari, located in the heart of Porto Cervo, serves moderately priced Brazilian, Italian and Mediterranean dishes. They have delicious brick oven pizzas, meat on skewers and tasty Sardinian sweet desserts. Outside tables overlook the port. (39-0789-931638; open 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily)
Gourmet: Aquatica Lounge Bar Restaurant, located in the back of the harbor below the ancient wall, is the setting for a romantic meal with a view of the yachts. Tuna, swordfish, prawns and lobster are specialties. (39-079-983-199; open 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily, May to August; expensive)
Beach Restaurant: Rafel is located on the beach at Lido di Alghero. Chairs and umbrellas are for rent on the beach. The restaurant will serve you on the beach while you eat. There are also chairs for free inside of the restaurant overlooking the beach. Try the spiny lobsters, grilled fish or fish chowder. (39-079-950385; open 12:30 p.m. daily, closing hours vary)
Local Eats: Close to the main attractions is Bella Napoli, a pizzeria. Enjoy many varieties of pizza and pastas. (39-079-983-014; open 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily)
Most cruise ships dock either in Porto Cervo in the northeast, Alghero in the northwest or Cagliari, the southern capital. The larger lines such as Costa, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Carnival dock at Cagliari. Smaller lines such as Silversea and SeaDream dock at Alghero. Porto Cervo is for smaller luxury yachts.
Porto Cervo, also known as the Old Port, is part of the village of Porto Cervo, with shops, stores, restaurants, ATMs and Internet access.
You arrive at Porto di Alghero, adjacent to the historic walled city. After you tender ashore, you walk directly into the city, which features shops, restaurants, Internet cafes and ATMs.
Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, has the largest port in the country. The center of the city is located just across the wide avenue from the Port of Cagliari.
Alghero and Cagliari have cobblestone streets. Wear comfortable walking shoes before venturing on a tour of the old cities. Beware of the heat in the summer months of June, July and August. Wear a hat, use plenty of sunscreen and bring water along so you don't get dehydrated. Streets are narrow and the drivers drive faster than in the U.S. If renting a car, drive cautiously.
Sardinia's currency is the euro. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Money and travelers checks can be exchanged at a post office, cambio booth or bank. Banks are generally open 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. In Cagliari, Banco di San Paolo is conveniently located next to the main train station at Piazza Matteotti with ATMs inside the station. ATMs are also located throughout the city.
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. English is spoken in the shops and restaurants.
Handicrafts are popular. 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 in Cagliari (via Baccaredda 176) and Porto Cervo (Sottopiazza).
The coral that is sold in Alghero is fished on the coral riviera, a stretch of coastline in northwest Sardinia. Coral earrings and jewelry are popular souvenirs.
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.