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.
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.