Really Old Stuff In Cagliari’s historic Castello quarter, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (tel. 011-39-070-655-911) houses Sardinia’s leading collection of Neolithic pottery, Bronze Age statues, Phoenician ceramic pots, and Carthaginian necklaces. Of the 7,000 mysterious Bronze Age towers (nuraghi) scattered throughout Sardinia, Nuraghe Arrubiu is one of the largest. It’s also the island’s last remaining complex of its kind, consisting of a central tower surrounded by five towers. Head three miles southeast of Orroli, in south-central Sardinia. (Note: It’s great at sunset.) Built with limestone and basalt blocks in the 12th century, the elaborately frescoed Santissima Trinit¿ di Saccargia (Church of the Trinity of the Spotted Cow) in Sassari is one of the island’s most famous Romanesque shrines. According to local legend, a cow used to kneel as if in prayer on the spot where the church was built, hence its name. While you’re in the area, drop by Chiesa di San Michele di Salv¿nero, another impressive 900-year-old church.
Going Coastal East: Take a boat from Orosei, Cala Gonone, or Santa Maria Navarrese to any of several empty beaches dotting the lovely Gulf of Orosei. Four miles south of Cala Gonone is Cala Luna; the small bay edged with high cliffs, green woods, and pink oleanders is one of the Mediterranean’s blue-ribbon strands. North: Fill your wallet and venture to the Costa Smeralda, a ritzy realm of resorts and yachts. Check out Capriccioli and Romazzino beaches, on a beautiful pair of sandy bays near the base of Porto Cervo. With its jagged rock and intermittent pockets of sand, the aptly named Costa Paradiso, between Santa Teresa and Castelsardo, is one of Sardinia’s most rugged and gorgeous stretches. Windsurfers head to Plata Mona (at Badesi), a sandy five-mile stretch with stunning sunsets and strong mistral winds. Nearby Isola Rossa has a seafront promenade. Pelosa Beach, near Stintino, is one of the island’s most beautiful places. West: Getting to the Costa Verde requires some adventurous driving along the ridge of Montevecchio. The payoff: a coastal wilderness of dunes and rocky inlets, and a smattering of lovely beaches with very few umbrellas in sight. The vast dunes around Piscinas and Torre dei Corsari are some of Europe’s largest.
Road Rules Lots of taxis in the cities and few in the countryside. A compact Fiat Punta costs about $75 per day, including insurance. The roads are generally good but twisty, owing to Sardinia’s rugged topography. Unless you’re on the island’s one main north-south route, don’t expect to drive in a straight line for long. Mind the switchbacks, the sheep crossings, and the aggressive local driving habits while surveying the landscape. Gas stations can be scarce in the countryside.
Happy Meals Sardinian cuisine tends to be hearty, simple, and served in large portions. The best (and often only) seafood is on the coast – local specialties include spiny lobster and orziadas (fried tentacles of sea anemone). Inland menus revolve mostly around lamb, goat, pasta, flat breads, and the outstanding local cheeses – occasionally all in one sitting. In Cagliari, the cozy La Barrique serves such dishes as homemade penne with fresh cherry tomatoes, basil, and ricotta cheese; fagotto di gamberi, a delicious quesadilla-style shrimp dish on Sardinian flat bread; and a naughty dessert called “the priest’s hat”…. The cheese ravioli and grilled baby sea bass at Hotel Mediterraneo in Santa Maria Navarrese are definite winners…. Finding a good restaurant in Sardinia’s small inland towns is usually as simple as checking into a hotel. Rooms at the homey Hotel Castello in Aritzo can include a prima colazione (traditional breakfast) and a royal feast of goat ribs, braised wild boar, and more.
Room Key Options: A wide range of hotels, luxury resorts (especially along the Costa Smeralda), rental flats, country B and Bs, and increasingly popular agritourism farms. What we liked: In Cagliari, Caesar’s Hotel is a modern, midsize place with two restaurants and comfortable rooms ($150; 011-39-070-340-750)…. In Aritzo, the four-star Sa Muvara has three restaurants, gorgeous views, and a warm, familial staff who can arrange hikes, paddles, horseback rides, and jeep tours in the Barbagia ($130; 011-39-0784-629-336, www.samuvarahotel.com)…. Hotel Cualbu is a large, handsome property in the mountain town of Fonni, close to the famous Orgosolo murals and several nuraghe sites ($82; 011-39-0784-57054, www.hotelcualbu.com)…. The village of Cala Gonone is one of the prettier bases on the Gulf of Orosei, and Hotel Cala Luna is a wonderful, inexpensive choice right on the water ($55; 011-39-0784-93133).
Good Reads Insight Guide Sardinia (Apa Publications, 2001). Solid and reliable coverage edited by Clare Griffiths. Reeds in the Wind (Italica Press Inc., 1998). Like other Sardinia-based novels by Nobel Laureate Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), this one, translated by Martha King, offers honest glimpses into traditional life on the island. Sea and Sardinia (Penguin USA, 1999). D. H. Lawrence’s observations about Sardinia (“It is strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy”), gleaned from a short visit in 1921.