Sardinia Travel Tips
Summer 2019 isn’t over yet, but it’s already been quite the trip. I essentially spent my favorite part of the year across Italy, France and Spain – living my best life, and having (as the kids are saying) a #HotGirlSummer.
I covered a lot of ground this summer – Lake Como, Cinque Terre, Nice, to name a few; and the one place that truly blew my mind was…Sardinia!
PSA: Sardinia exists. It’s part of Italy…and it’s not Sicily.
Sardinia isn’t exactly hidden (it’s the second largest island in the Mediterranean), or off the beaten path (it has three airports regularly serviced by major airlines and low cost carriers, alike); but, for some reason not a lot of people know about this magical land of endless beaches, crystal clear water, and…cheese.
Below are the highlights from my trip – a Sardinian sandwich, of sorts: the top, middle and bottom (geographically, speaking). I booked and paid for everything myself, so these are my honest opinions/recommendations – not ads!
Porto Cervo is the billionaires’ playground of Costa Smeralda, established by Aga Khan in the 1960s. It’s still bougie AF – don’t be mistaken. But the village itself is quite beautiful and a nice place to grab some gelato and spend a few thousand euros (don’t forget to get your VAT back!) while watching the sunset over the multimillion-dollar/euro yachts owned by all my future husbands. Le sigh.
If you’re in the mood to be fancy and enjoy an amazing meal with a breathtaking view – this is your place. It’s Relais & Chateaux, so obviously you can’t really go wrong. Everything on the menu is amazing – you’ll want to order it all; and honestly, you should.
An easy drive from the Olbia airport (~30 min), Hotel Abi d’Oru is the perfect home base for exploring the Northeast corner of Sardinia; and, if you’re lazy – the beach here is gorgeous (no shame in spending a day fighting off jet lag with a couple of drinks…). The breakfast buffet is also incredible. Don’t miss the fresh, local ricotta cheese on top of which you can drizzle honey straight from the comb (…and I wonder why I can’t fit into any of my jeans right now…).
You would expect an island’s cuisine to be primarily focused on seafood; but Sardinia’s cuisine is agro-pastoral at its roots (think lots of grains, suckling pig, cheese), expanding over time to take advantage of the bountiful surrounding sea. da Giovannino hits the spot for seafood and pasta if that’s what you’re after.
You can’t leave Sardinia without the agriculturismo experience. There are many of these farmstays that offer shelter and/or food to travellers. It’s actually a pretty good deal (by northern Sardinian standards) at about 40 EUR per person for 10 courses or so…as long as you really, REALLY like cheese. I really like cheese. After travelling for over a month in Europe, I learned to view cheese as a bit of a forgotten vegetable of sorts. That being said, this meal put me over the edge – pecorino slices, ricotta, mozzarella mousse, cheese ravioli, tomatoes covered in cheese, fried cheese ravioli for dessert… You get the idea. It’s an island with a lot of cows and sheep…and I guess when they aren’t eating them, they’re milking them and making a whole bunch of cheese… I’d be remiss in not mentioning the one course of sucking pig and the bottomless homemade wine (NOTE: getting here required driving up a literal mountain, so minimal self-control suggested…additional tips on driving below).
La Maddalena is an archipelago with the most delicious blue waters and secret beaches just waiting to be discovered. Unless your yacht is docked in Porto Cervo and you can sail out there by your own means, I highly suggest taking a day trip out of Palau (~40 minutes from Porto Rotondo). Let someone else drive the boat while you enjoy some of the best beaches I’ve seen in the world (and I am not easily impressed…). I went with Dea del Mare – pasta lunch and wine included for the best day you’ll have all summer.
The only way to get from the top to the bottom, is to go through the middle – plane, train, automobile. I gave myself a day to drive and see what this island had to offer beyond beaches (which, honestly, would’ve been enough).
Sorgenti Su Gologone (Oliena)
Getting here was definitely a situation (see picture of ancient bridge left…), but truly worth it. Most interesting is that despite multiple attempts, explorers/divers haven’t been able to reach the bottom of this spring (last attempt in 2010 was to 135 meters…). Even if you aren’t into natural wonders, you might be interested in the mini restaurant/bar serving ice cream and beer (which might be required to calm your nerves after driving down a few one-lane country roads…).
Su Nuraxi di Barumini
Sardinia has over 7,000 nuraghe – prehistoric rock fortresses. Barumini is a UNESCO site that has one of the largest. I am not going to give you a history lesson (you can get that from the link above); but something you might care about before you drive hours into the middle of nowhere is that you cannot access the site without a tour. If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive close to when one is starting (ideally, in your language); otherwise, there’s no shame in pretending you know how to speak Italian (that’s what the internet and gift store books are for). Seriously, though. It’s hot in the summer especially with no breeze from the sea in the middle of the island (110 degrees F when I was there) – join the first available tour, see the rocks, retreat back to your air-conditioned vehicle. You’ll thank me later.
Cagliari itself wasn’t my favorite city (it’s the capital and I felt it was lacking the charm I felt throughout the rest of the island), but this hotel was beautiful and well located to explore the surrounding area on foot (since parking is a bit of a nightmare). My only issue with this hotel was that there was no onsite parking, and so every night I had the pleasure of trying to relearn how to parallel park…
I try and drink the local wine wherever I go. Italy has amazing wine and it’s usually cheaper than the water – so, it’s a bit of a no-brainer. Sardinia has a number of vineyards around Oliena, but one closer to the south (and only 30 minutes from Cagliari) is Audarya. The wine is great and the packaging is even cuter – featuring characters that give the brand a bit of modern whimsy with a nod to the past. Contact them ahead of time to arrange a visit – I was lucky enough to have a private tour.
The vibe in Chia is much more local than the north – and I am totally living for it. The beaches in Chia are AMAZING – sugary, white sand and water so clear you’ll want to drink it. Drive down the road to the beach and stop at a fruit stand selling fresh figs and other local produce – it’s dirt cheap and probably the best you’ll ever have. Seriously, skip Cagliari – drive another 30 minutes south and stay in Chia or one of the smaller surrounding towns (Pula, etc.).
Set on the main square in Pula, Solaria was one of my favorite meals in Sardinia. Fresh, locally sourced food. Outdoor seating only – definitely call ahead for a reservation. It’s important to note that the streets of Pula close to traffic between 9pm and 3am. Make sure to double check where you park, otherwise you’ll be stuck… I unfortunately didn’t realize this, gave my keys to a local to drive my car around a crowd of people…and will likely end up with a ticket in the mail in a few months. Never a dull moment!
DO: Give yourself enough time to appreciate the island.
I only spent 10 days on the island, which barely gave me enough time to scratch the surface in the Northeast (Olbia, Porto Rotondo, Porto Cervo, La Maddalena) and South (Cagliari, Chia, Pula). You could easily spend 2 weeks exploring the beaches up and down the coasts; the wineries, farms and nuraghe in the center; and then there’s Alghero in the Northwest that I missed altogether. Only have a week or less? Fly into Olbia and get yourself out to La Maddalena (even just for the day) – you won’t be disappointed.
DO: Rent a car.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but Sardinia is really big. And unless your plan is to sit on the same hotel beach every day and eat the same hotel food for every meal (…which would honestly be so tragic), then you’re going to need reliable transportation. There’s really no public transportation here (people with multimillion dollar/euro yachts don’t usually take the bus…), and the taxi situation outside of the airport didn’t seem ideal (pricey and prior reservations required when you need to get picked up in the middle of nowhere…which was more often than not). As someone who’s main priorities on vacation include eating and drinking copious amounts of wine, I wouldn’t endorse driving if it wasn’t absolutely necessary; so, get yourself to AAA, pay the $25 fee and get your international driver’s license.
DO: Get the extra insurance.
Fact: extra insurance can be expensive. You know what’s also expensive? Paying to have your rental car repaired after you sideswipe both sets of doors while driving over an ancient bridge that Google thought was a real road. How much do you trust the internet’s directions and/or your driving? Truthfully, I inflicted more visible damage on the rental while parallel parking (am I the only person who hasn’t parallel parked since their driving test?!); but, this bridge is not an anomaly and the best sites aren’t going to be right off the main highway. You’ve been warned.
DON’T: Drive like an asshole.
For a country that seems to hate rules and order/organization, Italy sure does love traffic and driving regulations. Everyone drives like an asshole here – even when you’re speeding, someone is in your trunk trying to pass you because they want to go another 10+ km/h faster. My advice: let them. There are speed trap cameras on almost every main road and they seem to come out of nowhere. The worst part? You don’t even know if you got a ticket until you get a surprise in the mail. Needless to say – cruise control is your best friend.