The azure lure of Northern Sardinia
An Italian island with its own flair and flavours, Northern Sardinia offers a tranquil and luxurious retreat
Sardinia is Italy, but not as you know it. Sardinians have their own dialect and culture and while their food is distinctly Italian in flavour, expect your spaghetti vongole served with a topping of bottarga (dried fish roe) and pesto that’s slightly sweeter than you’re used to, made with Pecorino Sardo from the milk of local sarda sheep.
During our stay in the Gallura region of northern Sardinia, we found locals eager to share their distinctive culture with tourists: never the worldweary welcome you sometimes get in Venice or Florence. What Sardinia lacks in grand Renaissance cities it makes up for in white sandy beaches and jaw-dropping vistas of a sea that’s a dozen hues of blue. Attractive towns dot the coastline and boat trips to the Maddalena Islands provide a chance to visit paradise beaches and spot sea turtles and dolphins. Bronze Age stone structures called nuraghe are dotted all over the island, a remnant of a mysterious early civilisation and one of many that have inhabited Sardinia and left their mark on this remarkable island. A mix of rustic and high-end hotels ensures that guests can experience Sardinian hospitality. Our boltholes were both part of the family-run Delphina Hotel Group whose hotels arc across Sardinia’s north coast and are regularly named Europe’s greenest hotel group at the World Travel Awards, which made me feel virtuous about our indulgent stay at Hotel Valle Dell’Erica. It’s a sizeable resort possessing its own rugged coastline and idyllic sandy beaches. Comprised of two hotels – we stayed in La Licciola, built a decade ago – the accommodation is low-lying to maximise the scenery and spread out in a way that guests never feel crowded.
Although the hotel offers endless diverting activities to keep guests of all ages entertained – kids and teens are invited to canoe, snorkel, play football and beach volleyball or learn to kitesurf – our childfree holiday needs were simpler. We whiled away afternoons on sunbeds pointing towards Corsica, visible across an azure sea, and in the early evening sipped cocktails on La Licciola’s glorious terrace with sea views, while a chanteuse serenaded us with pop tunes. I recommend the margarita with local myrtle liqueur, giving the traditionally sour drink a pleasant, slightly bitter flavour. Dinner was included at numerous excellent on-site restaurants where chefs would fry up the fresh fish or meat of your choice, and we also splurged on a feast at upmarket Li Ciusoni (the name for Sardinian gnocchi) where handmade pasta and roast suckling pig were the stars of the show. Extra excitement arrived in the form of a wild boar eating scraps left by restaurant staff. Our second Sardinia hotel was the exquisite Capo D’Orso Hotel near Palau, which clings to a hillside in lush juniper woods and is overlooked by the famous Bear Rock, an imposing natural formation that more energetic visitors are invited to climb. Each of Capo D’Orso’s simply decorated suites is secreted into a lush nook for maximum privacy, with flower boxes and the most desirable with terraces that overlook the sea – we got a glorious glimpse of the sun rising over the Med each morning.
Breakfast and dinner are served in the magical setting of an olive grove strung with lights, where a harpist creates ethereal music. Sunbeds are situated on docks, floating pontoons and small beaches, inviting guests to relax with a book or take a plunge – our favourite spot was the Cala Capra beach in a small cove, where the limpid waters meant I could spot small sea bream darting between – and sometimes taking a little nip at – my ankles. There’s an outdoor pool, too, and for a therapeutic dip, a complex of three heated Thalasso Therapy saltwater pools for an extra charge. We spent our afternoons checking out charming towns including Santa Teresa Gallura on the island’s northernmost tip, where we soaked up the low-key culture. The pretty coastal enclave is characterised by pastel-hued buildings and a lively square, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele I, lined by cafés and souvenir shops. We enjoyed a stroll down the pedestrianised Via XX Settembre towards the Piazza Libertà at the other end, stopping for a cone of stracciatella at Gelateria G’ala.
Palau is another town that’s more than just a hopping-off point for boat and snorkelling tours. We enjoyed a wander around its harbourfront and marina, where seafood restaurants jostled for our attention – Lo Spizzico offers a friendly welcome and an unbeatable plate of spaghetti cozze with mussels plucked fresh from the sea. Porto Pollo beach, seven kilometres away, is a magnet for kitesurfers and windsurfers. To hang with the jet set for a day, we headed for the blinging Costa Smeralda, a collection of villages turned into a high-end resort by the Aga Khan in the 1960s. They’re less authentically Sardinian than the rest of the region but certainly worth visiting for a chance to see and be seen in Porto Cervo’s central piazza and to observe superyachts bobbing in the marina. I gave my Amex card a small workout in the quaint alleyways that snake off the piazza that are packed full of designer shops including Harry Winston, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and even an outpost of Harrods. Michelin-starred restaurants and high-end accommodation abound, ensuring guests are treated like kings. When we visited the town was thronged with yachting fans – during dummer the town is a hub for numerous sailing regattas, bringing a lively buzz to the social scene.
But my abiding memory of Gallura is that it’s a tranquil haven devoid of mass tourism, edged by a sea of such an intense blue it draws the eye wherever you go. Although high-end hotels and authentic restaurants ensure guests have a luxurious holiday, this Sardinian region feels a million miles from the tourist trail.