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Traveller's guide to Sardinia

Tucked deep into the jagged fjords of Sardinia's north-eastern tip lies some of the most expensive real estate in the Mediterranean, the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). In high season, three-storey yachts putter around pools shimmering a kaleidoscope of azure hues, oligarchs occupy faux Arabian villas, and trophy wives glide from boutique to boutique. The result is a pseudo-idealised Mediterranean village, the artificiality of which allows scarcely a bougainvillea out of place. This Moorish-kasbah-meets-Mykonos wonderland is the island's most famous attraction. Yet it has almost nothing to do with the rest of Sardinia.

According to Sardinian legend, after God created the Earth, he gathered all the leftover pieces from everywhere else, threw them in the sea and stepped on them to create Sardinia – or, as the Greeks called it, Ichnusa, meaning "footprint". Since then, the island has been walked on by anyone who has ever sailed through the Mediterranean. Invaded in name but never conquered in spirit, Sardinia has managed the clever trick of absorbing a cultural buffet of influences while holding its head high with independent pride.

Lying 178km from the nearest mainland, slightly closer to Tunisia than Italy, no other island is as marooned in the Mediterranean as Sardinia – a fact that has shaped the island's character and brought a history of guests with the changing tides. While the Sardinians, or Sardi, have adopted the Italian tongue of their latest landlords, they cling fiercely to Sardo, their native language, and are recognised as a distinct ethnic group from their mainland counterparts. In effect, Sardinia is a sort of Italian Hawaii. It boasts the Romanesque churches, tile mosaics, medieval castles and fine wines associated with Italy, but also pulsates with an undiscovered and unscripted spirit that the mainland lost long ago.

Foreigners usually find it difficult to move beyond the 2,000km of Mediterranean coastline – and for good reason. The island is ringed by a shimmering shoreline of jaw-dropping beauty. But to limit your visit to the beaches is to miss the essence of an island whose people have traditionally turned their backs to the sea, fearful of those coming to exploit them and, until fairly recently, of the malaria outbreaks that plagued the coastal lagoons. Instead, many Sardinians have long sought refuge in the interior, a landscape of deep chasms, impressive massifs and impenetrable macchia (maquis) brush that nurtures the Sardinians' defiant character and hides the most compelling evidence of their secret history: more than 7,000 nuraghi stone towers and prehistoric villages built by one of the world's most advanced and mysterious Bronze Age societies. The best of these are Santu Antine in Torralba, the Unesco-protected site of Su Nuraxi in Barumini, Losa in Abbasanta and Arrubiu in Orroli, all of which are available to the public without a guide. Italy's least "Italian" region is an enchanting recipe of striking beauty and rugged brawn — one that secluded Sardinia has guarded fiercely until recently.

Eliot Stein is the author of the Footprint Travel Guide to Sardinia. To receive a 50 per cent discount (excl P&P) off any Footprint Italian guidebook, visit footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde11 in the coupon code at checkout. Valid until the end of July.

Exploring the Barbagia

Sardinia's rebellious character springs from its interior, a rugged collection of villages hemmed in by the Gennargentu and Supramonte mountain massifs. Despite nearly 3,000 years' worth of invaders, this region has only ever been conquered in name. The Romans raided it 15 times before giving up and dubbing it "Barbarie" after the barbarian-like ferocity and customs of its inhabitants. While the age-old traditions of kidnapping, banditry, and vendettas associated with the region have subsided, the name Barbagia has stuck.

The Supramonte's most famous site is the Villaggio Nuragico di Tiscali (€5). The site is reached by climbing a loosely laid rocky trail up the side of Monte Tiscali with breathtaking views of vertical limestone dolomites dyed rust-red by erosion, and the Lanaittu valley below. After nearly three hours, you descend into a fissure to find the scant remains of an ancient village hidden inside the depths of a giant sinkhole that has partially caved in.

For a close look at Sardinia's mysterious past, visit the nearby nuraghic village, Sa Sedda' e Sos Carros (00 39 347 824 9517; €5). The village must have been the height of Bronze Age urban sophistication: dozens of bronzetti statues have been recovered here and the whole place benefitted from a plumbing system that fed water from a cistern in the site's centre via conduits into each stone hut. The site's jewel, however, is the world's earliest constructed fountain, built using five different coloured stones.

A few miles away, Orgosolo has long held the distinguished title of bandit capital of Sardinia. Yet since the 1960s the shepherding community has softened its image and its cinder-block buildings are now dressed with roughly 120 politically charged murals. Most are found along Corso Repubblica and its side streets, and reflect a wide range of international events, from the condemnation of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, to the extermination of Native Americans by white settlers.

Stay the Night

Those staying in Sardinia's capital, Cagliari, should book a room in its best B&B, Kastrum (00 39 070 662 304; kastrum.eu). Tucked into Cagliari's classiest neighbourhood, Castello, these six recently refurbished rooms start at €35 for a double and are built above Punic cisterns. Each has access to a rooftop terrace overlooking the entire city and Mediterranean.

Cash-rich visitors to Alghero should find a friendly ATM and check into Villa Las Tronas (00 39 079 981 818; villalastronas.com). Rooms start at €775 a night including breakfast, but the lush gardens, pool, and spa set on a rocky bluff with sweeping views of the sea are certainly impressive.

Sardinia's finest hotel is in its interior. Su Gologone (00 39 0784 287 512; sugologone.it) offers cottage-style apartments brimming with Sardinian handicrafts. The breakfast terrace and pool both offer views of the Lanaittu valley. Doubles start at €400, including breakfast.

Outside of Sardinia's few cities – Cagliari, Sassari, and Alghero – you won't find accommodation that is more faithful to the rural spirit of the island than the agriturismo. With reasonable prices and plenty of opportunities to get your hands dirty with the animals, a good farm-stay can be the highlight of a holiday. There are nearly 600 agriturismi in Sardinia, with most clustered around the north-eastern Gallura and central Nuoro provinces. The website Agriturismodisardegna.it is a good resource.

Cagliari and Alghero

Sardinia's capital and largest city, Cagliari, is an urbane beacon. Set on the southern coast, the city boasts the island's most vibrant nightlife and best museum, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in the Cittadella dei Musei (00 39 070 684000; €4).

Like Rome, Cagliari is spread across seven hills. Of the capital's four historic districts, its gem is undoubtedly Castello, the castle district. Standing guard over the port and surrounding city from its highest perch atop a limestone bluff, it is a fetching medieval maze of narrow streets. After ascending the 42m Torre dell' Elefante in Piazza San Giuseppe (€4) continue to Piazza Palazzo and you'll see the Cattedrale di Santa Maria, or Duomo (00 39 070 663837), which was built in the 1250s. Afterwards, follow the cobbled streets towards the sea to Cagliari's most recognisable landmark, the Bastione di San Remy. The terrace's two neoclassic promenades carved into a rock sit as a two-tiered balcony overlooking the city below. Clear skies offer sweeping views across the Gulf of Cagliari to the Capoterra mountains.

Suitably, Sardinia's most touristy town is also its most attractive: Alghero. Colourful campaniles (bell towers) and sandstone palazzi preside over cobbled streets inside its medieval walls, while the Mediterranean breaks against its seaside bastions on the west side. Yet Alghero developed as a Catalan colony and is arguably the island's least "Sardinian" town. Here, you can peruse the Catalan-inscribed street signs of "Little Barcelona", marvel at Iberian-Gothic architecture, and bite into paella.

Alghero's religious landmark is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria in the Piazza Duomo – a medley of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic styles with four oversized Doric columns that nearly cover its façade. The campanile and portal are from the original 1552 construction and modelled after the cathedral in Barcelona. Duck into the nearby Museo Diocesano d'Arte Sacra (00 39 079 975350; €4) in the Piazza Duomo to see Spanish jewels, a marble statue of the Madonna della Misericordia, and a collection of stamped lithographs of Sardinian Romanesque churches.

Join the locals for an evening passeggiata (walk) through Via Carlo Alberto and Via Roma – the main shopping arteries. Where the roads meet the sea is where you'll find Sardinia's most romantic promenade, the Lungomare.

Cruising the Golfo di Orosei

Sardinia's most spectacular coastline is only accessible by boat. The Golfo di Orosei stretches for 70km, dipping to form a crescent moon along Sardinia's eastern seaboard between Punta Nera in the north and Capo Monte Santu in the south. The 40km stretch south of Cala Gonone is devoid of civilisation and characterised by vertical limestone cliffs plunging into deep grottoes and hidden beaches.

From May to October tour boats cruise the gulf daily, leaving from Cala Gonone and Santa Maria Navarrese. Most run from morning until evening, with lunch on board, and begin at around €40 per person. The boats get crowded in peak season – avoid the less expensive ferry services that pack up to 200 people aboard. Your best bet is with Fuori Rotta Baunei (00 39 339 838 7788; fuorirottabaunei.it; from €40 per person).

South of Cala Gonone, the first stop is the M-shaped double-arched entrance to the Grotte del Bue Marino, named after one of the planet's most endangered mammals, the monk seal, which used to live in the cave's environs but has all but disappeared since the 1980s. The coast's best-known beach, Cala Luna, is a short sail south. While you could easily pass a day lounging on its pebbly shoreline and exploring its six caverns, the beach's most striking aspect is behind the shore, where flowering oleander bushes shelter a stream forming a tranquil escape from the throngs of sun worshippers. Look for one of the last nesting spots of the elusive Eleonora falcon between Cala Luna and Cala Sisine, backed by mountain walls and holm oak.

Arguably the gulf's most gorgeous beach, Cala Mariolu is divided in two by a rocky outcrop that doubles as a high dive platform. Polished limestone pebbles meet limpid, sapphire water here. Don't leave without swimming into the cave and feeling the silky smooth limestone walls. Cala Goloritze is the gulf's southernmost beach, where a sharp 140-metre rock soars like a totem pole above a natural limestone arch stepping into the sea.

Eat like a local

Sardinia's isolation has worked to preserve the most distinct regional cuisine in Italy. Highlights include paper-thin "music sheet" bread, saffron-hinted dumplings, suckling pig wrapped in aromatic leaves and slow-roasted in underground ovens, and a digestif made from myrtle berries, to name a few.

For a hint of the island's rustic cooking in Cagliari, head to Sa Domu Sarda (00 39 070 92 53 298; sadomusarda.it), where the culurgiones (ravioli dumplings laced with olive oil and crushed walnuts) and the fregola pasta with porcini mushrooms are sensational. Wash it all down with a splash of mirto (myrtle liqueur, right), afterwards. Around €50 per person with wine.

On the western coast, Oristano presides over Europe's largest marsh and the island's gold: bottarga (mullet roe). Nowhere is it better than at Trattoria Gino (00 39 0783 7 14 28), where it is served atop angel-hair pasta. Don't leave without sampling the sea urchin. Around €45 per person with wine.

If you can't stay the night at Su Gologone (00 39 0784 287 512; sugologone.it) in Oliena, you should at least stop for dinner – a medley of classic dishes including suckling pig slow-roasted above ilex logs. Around €70 per person with wine.

Alghero reveals its Catalan roots at Al Refettorio (00 39 079 9731 126; alrefettorio.it), whose paella algherese is made with fregola pasta, and at Al Tuguri (00 39 079 976 772; altuguri.it), where seafood is served Catalan-style. Around €60 per person with wine.

Getting there and getting around

Sardinia has three international airports. Cagliari on the south coast, is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) from Stansted. On the west coast, there's Alghero, which you can reach from Stansted with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair. com), or from East Midlands with Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com). And Olbia, on the north-east coast, is served by easyJet from Gatwick and Bristol and by Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Edinburgh and Leeds/Bradford.

Hiring a car in Sardinia is recommended if you plan to leave the town or city where you're staying. Sardinia's roads, when paved, are generally in good condition. Bear in mind though that because of the island's mountainous topography, few roads are straight and flat. Lanes are narrow and many roads are not lit at night and can be extremely dark. The least expensive option throughout Sardinia is Italy by Car ( italybycar.it).

Specialist operator Just Sardinia offers a wealth of walking and cycling excursions, as well as yacht charters and rural retreats (01202 484858; justsardinia.co.uk). Meanwhile, Sardinian Places has over 70 different villas, hotels and apartments throughout the island, and can also arrange packages with flights and activities such as horseriding and cycling (0845 330 2049; sardinianplaces.co.uk).Citalia specialises in holidays in upmarket family-friendly hotels (0844 415 1987; citalia.com). In the island's interior, the English-speaking guides at Coop Ghivine lead some of the most interesting hiking excursions and archaeological tours around (00 39 338 8341618; ghivine.com) starting at €40 per person, with a packed lunch provided.

Adventurous travellers should pack a copy of DH Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia and pierce the island's mountainous backbone aboard the Trenino Verde, the "green train" (00 39 070 580 246; treninoverde.com) as it twists through some of the island's least explored and most stunning landscapes. Round-trip tickets cost €22.