The Complete Guide To: Sardinia

From the party people of the Costa Smeralda to the whitewashed villages of the hilly interior, this Italian island is a truly chic retreat, says Harriet O'Brien


WHAT'S THE LIE OF THE LAND?

Sardinia has 1,850km of coastline and a staggering variety of landscapes: from dramatic cliffs to sand dunes, marshes and long, golden shores. The interior is a mix of plateaux, plains and mountains - the highest point is Punta La Marmora in the Gennargentu Massif, at just 1,834m.

Cagliari, the capital since at least Roman times, is on the south coast. Its airport is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it) from Gatwick, and by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Luton. In the north-east, Olbia has become the gateway to the glamorous Costa Smeralda; easyJet and Meridiana fly there from Gatwick. From Stansted Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Olbia and also Alghero on the north-west coast.

HAVE EARLY VISITORS LEFT MANY TRACES?

Inland, Sardinia is dotted with enigmatic ancient remains in the form of 7,000 Bronze Age stone nuraghe. These strange round towers clearly had a defensive purpose but beyond that no one is quite sure why they were built. The early inhabitants also constructed sacred wells and tombs guarded by standing stones (betyls) in male and female form.

You can find many of these ancient monuments for yourself, but to get more of an insight consider a specialised tour. Andante Travels (01722 713800; www.andantetravels.co.uk), for example, is offering two trips to Sardinia this year. Its one-week Bare Bones holiday leaves on 30 May and visits sites near Alghero and Gergei. The price of £785 excludes flights but covers three nights' B&B accommodation in a family hotel and three nights' half-board in a comfortable inn, as well as transfers and entry fees. An eight-day Nuraghic Warriors and Phoenician Traders trip departs on 7 October and starts from £1,500 including flights from Gatwick (£1,325 without flights); accommodation in Dorgali, Alghero and Pula; all meals; transfers and all entry fees.

AND LOCAL COLOUR?

The island has many and varied festivals, which take place year-round and generally honour saints' days or are linked to the farming year. Among the most important is Festa di Sant'Efisio at Cagliari, from 1-4 May. Pilgrims from all over Sardinia gather to venerate the saint, whose effigy is paraded around on an ox-drawn carriage. In the evening, shows and folk concerts are performed in the capital.

The most dramatic festival takes place at Sedilo in central Sardinia. The Ardia, on 6 and 7 July, is a chaotic horse race that celebrates the victory of Roman emperor Constantine over Maxentius in 312AD. The route requires very skilled horsemen who must control their mounts against the background cacophony of crowds and gunfire. Just Sardinia (01202 484858; www.justsardinia.co.uk) provides festival-related packages, including a five-night break costing from £435 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Luton to Cagliari, transfers and half-board accommodation. Alternatively, a three-night trip to coincide with the Ardia starts from £319 including flights, car hire and three nights' half-board at Mandra Edera Farm, in Abbasanta, central Sardinia. (Prices are based on low-cost airline fares at the time of going to press.)

WHERE CAN I STAY IN STYLE?

It would be difficult to find a holiday haven more chic than the Costa Smeralda. In the 1950s the north-eastern tip of the island was a wild area occasionally visited by the sailing set who would anchor off its semi-secret coves and beaches. At the start of the Sixties, the Aga Khan arrived there and was so impressed that later he set up the Emerald Coast Consortium. They bought a strip of land between the Golfo di Arzachena and the Golfo Aranci and set about transforming it for the luxury holiday market, imposing strict planning controls and regulating the (very tasteful) look of the place. The result is a super-stylish summer playground populated by crowds of beautiful people.

Hotel Cala di Volpe, in the eponymous Bay of Foxes, has been designed to look like a fishing village, with terraces, towers and landscaped gardens. Accommodation is in 125 elegant rooms with views. Italian Expressions (020-7433 2675; www.expressionsholidays.co.uk) offers a seven-night half-board break here from £2,185 each (based on two sharing) including flights from to Olbia and car hire.

Over on the Bay of Liscia di Vacca, Hotel Pitrizza feels like a wonderfully luxurious home - albeit one that has 55 bedrooms, a pool carved out of granite and a good restaurant. Kirker (0870 112 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) arranges four-night packages here from £2,070 per person (based on two sharing). The price covers flights from Gatwick to Olbia, full-board accommodation and transfers.

ANY OTHER BEACH RESORTS?

The Forte Village Resort lies near the southern tip of Sardinia, just under an hour's drive from Cagliari. This is a scenic world unto itself: a large estate of lush vegetation bordered by fine beaches, it has seven luxury hotels, 20 private suites, 10 pools, 14 restaurants, 12 tennis courts, a spa, go-kart track and much more. The resort is open during Easter and the summer season begins in May. Citalia (0870 909 7554; www.citalia.com) is offering some excellent deals for early-season holidays here. A seven-night break departing 20 May, for example, costs from £2,583 for a family of four including flights, transfers and half-board accommodation at the four-star Il Villaggio. Between 1 and 14 July prices start from £1,600 per person.

For those wanting a more intimate setting, nearby is the Mark Warner Abamar Beach Resort (0870 770 4222; www.markwarner.co.uk), with just 80 rooms. It offers good access to a long stretch of sand and is backed by the Sette Fratelli National Park. With a large saltwater swimming pool and gardens filled with palm and pomegranate trees, the emphasis is on relaxation - outside school holidays the resort is for adults only. Family holidays between 15 July and 26 August cost from £1,076 per adult and from £646 per child sharing the parents' room. The price includes flights to Cagliari from Gatwick, transfers, full-board accommodation, most watersports, and clubs for six- to 12-year-olds

Meanwhile, the charming fishing town of Isola Rossa on the north-west coast is the location of the striking Pierre & Vacances resort of Calarossa. The 328 villa-style apartments are set around a central swimming pool and overlooks an attractive bay, with good beaches and sand dunes nearby. Erna Low (0870 750 6820; www2.ernalow.co.uk) offers seven nights here for a family of four from £296 for a two-bedroom apartment (accommodation only) with a 27 May departure, rising to £1,336 in August.

I'D LIKE A PLACE OF MY OWN

Sardinia's accommodation options are by no means limited to resorts. There are plenty of apartments and villas to rent - Voyages Ilena (020-7924 4440; www.voyagesilena.co.uk), for example, has Stazzo Picucedda, a delightful old house in a country setting with views over the Bay of Arzachena. A holiday here for a family of four costs from £487 per person in May, rising to £796 in high season, including flights from Gatwick to Olbia and car hire.

Further north, in Porto Rafael, Magic of Italy (0870 888 0228; www.magicofitaly.co.uk) has a charming apartment overlooking the main square. At the time of writing a seven-night holiday with a 24 June departure costs from £325 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Gatwick to Olbia and car hire. Meanwhile, over on the north-west coast, Long Travel (01694 722367; www.long-travel.co.uk) rents Casa Dolores, set amid olive groves about 3km from Alghero. The property sleeps four and costs from £660 (£165 per person) including car hire but excluding flights.

For a comfortable budget option make for a campsite. Close to Arzachena and near the beach, Isuledda is perhaps the island's best-placed site and provides a host of activities. Eurocamp (0870 366 7552; www.eurocamp.co.uk) offers a week here from £345 for a family of two adults and up to three children in a mobile home. The price excludes flights - and rises to £899 in mid-August.

WHERE CAN I GO WILD?

While Sardinia's beaches lure the crowds, the interior of the island remains wonderfully unspoilt and is dotted with whitewashed villages. Its mountains are grazed by wild sheep, or mufflon, and wild boar inhabit its forests. This is good walking country, crossed by old shepherds' trails and offering a staggering variety of landscapes, from rugged peaks to wild-flower meadows.

Adventure travel expert Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk) has an eight-day group hiking holiday that takes in the dramatic mid-east of the island. Staying in hotels and inns, you cross rugged hills, skirt deep gorges and wind down to the east coast. Highlights include the magnificent rocky terrain around Punta Sos Nidos and the resort of Santa Maria Navarrese. The holiday costs from £800 (based on two sharing) for departures in May (with more trips in September and October), including return flights to Olbia, seven nights' hotel accommodation with breakfast, some lunches and dinners, transfers and the services of tour staff.

Meanwhile, Walks Worldwide (01524 242 000; www.walksworldwide.com) offers self-guided trips, also around the mid-east. Accommodation is in small hotels which you reach on foot while your baggage is transferred. The route takes in the wild beauty of Monte Corrasi, the wine-producing area around Oliena and the secluded beaches of Cala Gonone, a village that until recently was accessible only by boat. Departures are weekly (Saturday or Sunday) between April and October, and the price from £895 (based on two sharing) includes flights to Alghero, transfers, seven nights' accommodation, maps and most meals.

INTO THE WIDE BLUE YONDER?

With sheltered coves and clear blue waters, Sardinia is a sailor's paradise. There are boating outlets all around the coast, with the most glamorous yachts predictably anchoring around the Costa Smeralda. Top Yacht (01243 520950; www.top-yacht.com) offers tailor-made charters from the UK, in partnership with Kiriacoulis, which is based in Portofisco on the Costa Smeralda and in Carloforte in the south-west. A bare-boat charter package in May for a crew of six costs from £350 per person. The price includes flights to Olbia and a week's hire of a 12m boat. The crew must provide evidence of relevant certification and experience. Even if they are qualified, some parties prefer to employ a local skipper for a few days to get a feel for conditions in the area: charges for skippers start at around £100 per day plus meals.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it) or Sardinia Net (00 39 070 503093; www.sardinia.net).

ITALY'S ANSWER TO CORSICA?

Two islands to the west of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia meet all the usual expectations of a Mediterranean beach holiday. Beyond that, though, both places have wonderfully wild and unspoilt tracts, and are populated by proudly independent-minded people. The Strait of Bonifacio, just 11km wide, separates these patches of France and Italy, with a ferry trip taking about 50 minutes (00 49 611 14020; www.mobylines.it). But in some respects they are a world apart.

For a start, size matters. At more than 24,000sqkm Sardinia is nearly three times the size of Corsica After Sicily, it is second-largest island in the Mediterranean.

Then there's the issue of language. It is not simply that French is spoken on one island, Italian on the other. Some Corsicans still speak Corsu, but many Sardinian people are bilingual in the language of their mainland and in their own tongue (of which there are several versions). This is essentially a form of old Italian with a grammar astonishingly close to Latin, but with a vocabulary that reflects the island's rich history of colonisation and trade, showing traces of Phoenician, Catalan, Arabic, Spanish and more.

Balzac wrote of Corsica that it is "a French island basking in Italian sun". By contrast, D H Lawrence remarked that Sardinia is "lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere". Indeed, the island is actually 10km closer to North Africa than to Italy. However, identity is not an issue for the people of Sardinia - for them the island belongs, of course, to itself. They vigorously retain their traditions and colourful festivals, while across the length and breadth of Sardinia's interior the remains of ancient monuments serve as reminders of an enigmatic culture that predates their customs and history.

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