Famed for its beaches and celebrity sightings, the island is 236 km off the west coast of mainland Italy and 18 km south of the French island of Corsica. Look beyond the beaches (it’s tough, they’re stunning) and you can see the remains of its rich history. Sardinian roots can be traced back as far as 1800 BC to the Phoenicians. The land was used by the Roman empire for farming and most recently, parts of the Maddalena archipelago were used as a NATO naval base. Today, it’s a compulsory destination for the super rich with their super yachts in the west, for drum and bass fans at the Sun and Bass festival in the east, and for Italian visitors all over. During our week-long holiday on the island, I began to understand why it is so popular.
I arrived with big expectations – a colleague had told me the beaches rival the Bahamas. Looking back, my snapshot memory of the island is not far off: turquoise water with perfect clarity set against the kind of white sand that you see in the movies. Our holiday consisted of visiting beaches and trying to tear ourselves away from the hotel spa, the only thing on our agenda was to relax and Sardinia was perfect for us. In Olbia tourism is mostly beach centric so if you’re looking for something more adventurous I’d suggest visiting another part of the island.
We landed in Olbia at night and tried to navigate the roads in darkness. Do not recommend. Had it not been for unlimited roaming and google maps we would have had to camp out in the car overnight. Coming from drizzly England, it took a few minutes of squinting into the sunlight the next morning to get accustomed to the morning sun. We began the first day exploring Golfo Aranci and happened upon more beaches than I have seen in my life. Golfo Aranci is a national park along the aptly named Costa Smeralda (Emerald coast) on the north eastern corner of the island. The coastal road takes you on a dramatic tour of rugged hills and arid land before you trace the coast and happen upon beach after beach – we were spoiled for choice. In a car it was easy to find the smaller, less touristy beaches but hotels have minibuses and coaches that take you to the more popular destinations. I’d definitely recommend hiring a car if you’re planning on exploring.
There is a reflective sediment in Sardinian water which renders all other descriptions of glimmering water, moot. La Spiaggi Bianca (also known as Tahiti beach) was the unanimous favourite. It sits in a mini gulf of its own which makes it feel secluded. The waves lap the sand very gently so it’s perfect for swimming and spotting little fish scurrying at your ankles. It was relatively busy which ordinarily would put us off but the prospect of the mini gulf was so relaxing that we lost a few hours ankle deep in water watching the odd boat drift by.
We weren’t so much enamoured with San Teodoro despite it being a recommended beach. It curves around for quite some distance but every inch was full of families and children, and it was incredibly loud. The benefit of having a car was that we could drive in the opposite direction of the morning tour buses that ferry the crowds to already overpopulated beaches.
On day three we stopped by a saffron farm on the way to Cagliari, the island’s capital. S’Argidda saffron farm in San Gavino Monreale is a 228km (2.5 hour) drive south of Olbia. The infrastructure is great: it sweeps you through and alongside small mountain ranges and Fume (River) Tirso which you get stolen glimpses of between the trees. We got lost in a small typically rustic Italian village: imagine orange and lemon trees spilling into the street and the obligatory bicycle propped up against blue shutters and a faded peach washed wall. Typically, authentically Italian. We did a few laps before admitting we were lost and were greeted by the kindest man and his two daughters who in broken English and expressive hand gestures directed us back to the saffron farm despite their confusion at us wanting to see – a saffron farm.
I’d recommend booking in advance for a tour, but it’s also worth considering whether it’s worth the journey. Cagliari is a long way from Olbia and I wouldn’t drive all the way down if we could do it again. It was a long day of driving through and alongside mountain ranges which can get tiresome after 5-6 hours. There is more to do in Cagliari but I’d save that for another trip entirely. For now, the lesser known Olbia has won it for me.
We ventured into sleepy old town on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the rest of the town was mid siesta. Olbia’s Old Town is a quaint wonder, and for me, set the bar for rustic Old Towns the world over. We crossed over the railway into town and walked up the hill towards the restaurants, passing ornate wooden doors, cast iron balconies, flowers creeping around wooden lattices, a faded row boat now used as a flower display and cafe seating spilling out into the street under white umbrellas. We ventured along narrow side streets and found ourselves continually stopping just to take it in. The timing was perfect: I don’t imagine Old Town is sleepy and quiet at any other time of the week.
Day four was my unforgettable highlight, we spent the entire day on a boat touring the Maddalena Archipelago. It’s a collection of 55 islands and islets, now a National Park, dotted between Sardinia and Corsica. Gliding through the water from the port in Palau I felt like we were being transported to another continent. I’m not sure which was more serene; the cloudless sky or waters so clear that I could see a couple of boat lengths down to the water bed. We wound around and between the islands, I felt comforted being lost and disorientated among the little islands of absolute splendour.
It did irritate me that the tourist boats were spilling their waste out into the spotless water, places like this should be protected and revered. Of all the places I have visited, I feel as if I left my heart in the archipelago. I was completely entranced by the water, the boat and the islands. We explored a few by foot. On one island, we walked for 20 minutes under an unrelenting 32* sun, batting away branches, whining about the heat and almost spraining ankles but were rewarded with the most spectacular view of the surrounding islets. We happened upon derelict army buildings and the remains of rusted canons when we ventured through the woods on the islands. It turns out that until 2008 they served as a NATO naval base storing US nuclear missiles and have been used for military or strategic purposes since the thirteenth century. We explored beyond the beach of another island and behind a collection of charred purple plants (very obscure) saw the disbanded remains of canons, derelict huts and man holes rusted shut with bolts hammered into the ground. It felt like the island held secrets which we wouldn’t find out. Rich history for a seemingly inconsequential collection of islands. It added to the mystery of the entire archipelago.
Day four finished with a brief stint in Maddalena Old Town. La Maddalena is one of the six larger islands in the archipelago and for the most part, is a national park. Maddalena Old Town is more beautiful than Olbia Old Town (I didn’t think it could be topped). It is very touristy but the stone buildings make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. We got the feeling that the archipelago had a different cultural influence to the rest of Sardinia, most probably because of its great strategic location and stop gap for tradesmen and craftsmen as they ventured into Europe to sell their wares. I was genuinely sorry to leave La Maddalena behind. It was with a heavy heart that we departed the island to complete our day trip that day. I remember standing the entire boat journey home, totally entranced by the sea and increasingly jealous of the yacht owners who didn’t have to go home just yet.
I have grand plans to return, this time for a week of islet-hopping (take that, yacht owners who made me jealous). Some beaches are accessible only by boat and there are plenty of overgrown paths to explore.
Sardinians enjoy a separate identity to mainland Italy, they have their own wine and signature pecorino cheese, the culture has visibly been influenced by long and short term visitors. Sardinian food could probably fill a blog post of its own entirely so I will keep it short. The food is a dream; I still remember tomatoes sweet enough to bite into like apples. We unashamedly had a cheese board every day (I’m not sorry). We found a quaint pizzeria (Trocadero) tucked away in Olbia’s old town which made pizzas so good we couldn’t bear to leave them behind. Fortunately we had time on our last day to sit for an hour until we could finish them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pack ten more to bring home.
For a small island (9,300 miles²) Sardinia packs a punch. It’s a popular tourist destination for Italians: that in itself is a litmus test. If Italians with their rolling vineyards and rustic cities flock to the island, it must be spectacular. There are many many faces to the island, each warranting its own separate trip. I’ll certainly be returning if not for the food then for the stunning panorama.