Forget the Costa Smeralda, I'm off to see the wild side of Sardinia

An extraordinary part of this island used to be hard to reach without a yacht. But a new air route and road have opened up miles of unspoilt coast, says Andrew Tuck
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The Independent Travel

It's been an effortless flight from London, we are holed up in the tiny fishing village of Cala Gonone in the wonderfully named Hotel Pop and now, like extras from Duran Duran's classic "Rio" video, we are sailing across azure waters in the Dovesesto, an immaculately restored 1918 ketch. Could it get any better? Excuse me while I eat another of the fresh-from-the-sea oysters that our skipper, the sun-blackened Captain Gaetano Mura, has just shucked. Minutes later we are dropping anchor off a white pebble beach with a backdrop of soaring cliffs and I am diving from the boat (well, gingerly easing myself off the ladder) into the cooling waters. This is the life. And it's no longer an expensive one.

It's been an effortless flight from London, we are holed up in the tiny fishing village of Cala Gonone in the wonderfully named Hotel Pop and now, like extras from Duran Duran's classic "Rio" video, we are sailing across azure waters in the Dovesesto, an immaculately restored 1918 ketch. Could it get any better? Excuse me while I eat another of the fresh-from-the-sea oysters that our skipper, the sun-blackened Captain Gaetano Mura, has just shucked. Minutes later we are dropping anchor off a white pebble beach with a backdrop of soaring cliffs and I am diving from the boat (well, gingerly easing myself off the ladder) into the cooling waters. This is the life. And it's no longer an expensive one.

Cala Gonone is on the east coast of Sardinia, far away from the glitzy Costa Smeralda where the Aga Khan's upscale holiday developments help to lure the supertankers of the yachting world (Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, was here last summer in the world's biggest private yacht, the 416ft Octopus). This part of the island, known as Nuoro, has the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the Mediterranean: for 25 miles (40km) there are no houses.

Until now, however, it has been very hard to reach by scheduled flight: your best bet was to fly to Alghero in the west, then drive for two-and-a-half hours along a mountainous route to reach the town. Since the end of May, however, easyJet has been flying into the small town of Olbia. And a new highway has just opened. This means you can be off the plane and sitting down to a plate of lobster spaghetti and a glass or two of the robust local red wine (if you want to splash out try the Turriga) in just over an hour.

Then, especially outside the peak Italian holiday season of late July and August, you can find a clean, simple three-star hotel such as Pop, run by the charismatic, dapperly dressed Anglophile Simone Spanu, for a modest price. Even hiring the Dovesesto and its crew for a whole day is something of a bargain: about £69 each (the boat takes a minimum six and maximum of 16 people), and that includes food, wine and a hard to quantify dose of feeling really rather happy.

And then there's the local knowledge. We are spoilt today on the Dovesesto because not only are Gaetano and his cousin Giampaolo on board, but Simone has come along for the day, too. Between them they know every rock and cave. And there are certainly plenty of caves: we stop at the Bue Marino complex, which runs for a total of 9 miles (15km). Carved out by underwater rivers, it has vast caverns covered in huge drapes of stalactites, dagger-like stalagmites, and cascades of calcium that look like melted ice cream (the Dovesesto has a motor launch which it uses to ferry you to the beach or take you into caves). Other caves are less extensive but seem to have more important uses: "This one is very good for a quickie," smiles Simone with a glint in his eye. Gaetano also points up at an eagle's eyrie high up on a cliff face and down at the water where, in some places, you can see for up to 40m.

But it's the beaches - still often empty at the end of May, and each seeming more dramatic than the last - that amaze. Most are accessible only by boat or after a mighty trek and there are no beachside restaurants or ice-cream sellers on any of them. Their perfection was enough to win over the location scouts for Madonna's film Swept Away, which was filmed on Cala Fuili and Cala Cartoe beaches.

If you want to explore the coast alone, you can hire a motorboat in Cala Gonone from one of the companies that has kiosks on the harbour front. Simone takes us out on his one day and it feels very easy and safe to navigate the flat, clear, waters. Although you do have to be careful of the sea-patrolling cops who will fine you on the spot for any transgression of the strict seafaring rules. For example, you can drop people off on the beach, but then you have to moor your craft a couple of hundred metres from the shore and then swim back to the beach.

But you don't have to like messing about in boats to enjoy Nuoro. Walking, mountain-biking (even some of the brochures for the region make clear that you have to be slightly mad and super-fit to accept this challenge), kayaking and rock climbing are all popular here. Again, ask a hotelier such as Simone and everything can be arranged.

There's also the food. I soon wonder if the Hotel Pop is so named because its guests explode from the feasts of local delicacies. At each meal there are large baskets of the Sardinian "bread", pane carasau, which is more like a poppadum. Then there's the seafood (Simone tells me that fishermen call him as they are approaching the dock and ask him what he wants for his guests) in the form of swordfish carpaccio, spaghetti with mussels, stuffed octopus and juicy king prawns. You'll also be introduced to bottarga, something of an acquired taste, which is a kind of caviar, the colour of apricots, made from sun-dried mullet roe. Bottarga is used in pasta dishes and eaten on toast.

Leaving the boats and Hotel Pop, we spend our last two nights south of Cala Gonone in the town of Arbatax, a ferry port. The Hotel La Bitta is four-star and has a horizon pool, small spa, pretty gardens full of look-at-me brightly coloured banks of geraniums and walls of bougainvillaea, and a stunning beachside setting. The food is not up to the standards of Hotel Pop, but again it's affordable (the best room is number 318 with its sun terrace and Jacuzzi).

From Arbatax we drive along the coast to some of the beaches that are accessible by car - those at Santa Maria Navarrese are popular. Then we head for Sosta a Pedralonga, a giant rocky outcrop that looks rather like a Sardinian Sugar Loaf Mountain. Despite its perilous, sheer, weather-polished sides, we spot a climber who has made it to the very top. Leaving the spectacular coastline, we then edge inland along hair-pin roads and past rocky outcrops covered with ancient juniper and olive trees and we stop for our final meal of the holiday at Il Rifugio, a restaurant where they serve Sardinian shepherd-style cooking. The place is packed with outdoorsy Italians refuelling after long walks. We, however, have just got out of a car and so don't quite do justice to the antipasti, pasta, two courses of meat, and a pudding that's like a giant pastry ravioli filled with cheese and covered with honey. The waiter seems almost shocked when we decline coffee and a digestif. So not wanting to offend, I have those too. Let's just say that by the time I leave I am seriously concerned that the airline may ask me to go in the hold.

Give Me The Facts

How to get there

EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Olbia from £90 return. The best way to reach Cala Gonone is by car. Avis (0870-606 0100; www.avis.co.uk) offers seven days' car hire from Olbia airport from £134.

Where to stay

Hotel Pop, via Marco Polo 2, Cala Gonone, Dorgali (00 39 078 493 185; www.hotelpop.com). Prices start at €27 (£19) to €50 (£36) per person per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast.

Hotel La Bitta, Via Porto Frailis, Arbatax, (00 39 0782 66 70 80; www.labitta@arbataxhotels.com) costs from €69 (£49) to €189 (£135) per person per night, based on two sharing, for half board.

What to do

Dovesesto (00 39 0784 93737; www.dovesesto.com) is harboured at Cala Gonone. It costs €67 (£48) per person per day, plus €35 (£25) for lunch on board. Chartering the whole boat costs from €992 (£708) to €1,550 (£1,107) per day.

Where to eat

Il Rifugio, Localita Golgo, Baunei (00 39 0782 610599; www.coopgoloritze.com).

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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