Of course Sardinia is a good place for a beach holiday. A very good place for that matter, one that features spectacular beaches. But the island also has many other treasures worth discovering. Towns, villages, mountains and landmarks: Sardinia is a richly diverse island!

For all those travellers whose idea of a holiday is to not spend it inside a hotel compound (though there are hotels in Sardinia where such is unquestionably and pleasantly feasible), a rental car is an absolute must-have. Our trip starts in Olbia, which is the gateway to the famous Costa Smeralda. We will travel to the island capital of Cagliari, then onwards to Pula on the southern coast and back to Olbia via the inland. I have my family in tow. That includes two children of primary school age.

After a coffee down at the old port of Olbia we take off for a short tour of the city. We keep the children happy with an ice cream purchased at the first gelateria we spot. They love the “Puffo” flavour, which means “smurf” and is basically just blue-coloured ice cream. We stroll through the streets of this pretty town and visit the “Basilica di San Simplicio”. My daughter forgot to bring her sunglasses. Not a problem as there are dozens of street vendors selling eyewear (which makes me wonder why none of them think of selling something else. Just a thought...).

Photos: Sandra Casalini

Costa Smeralda: the magical allure of Sardinia’s Emerald Coast

We drive north along the coast in our small rental car and stop for lunch in Golfo Aranci. This insider tip of a place is off the main road to Porto Cervo and, thus, usually “bypassed”. But the detour is definitely worth it: the beaches feature gleaming white sand and the sea dazzles in every imaginable hue of blue. The “Blu” restaurant looks superb from the outside but sadly is booked for a wedding party. We end up in the restaurant “La Spigola” where lunch is served right on the beach. The tuna fish tastes fantastic, and the children have nothing but praise for their pasta.

After lunch, we journey on to Porto Cervo where we will stay in the Hotel Balocco. The hotel is majestically set on a hilltop overlooking the sea and offers spectacular views of the area. An afternoon at the pool in the warm sunshine is a very tempting option. But we are even keener to visit the chic village of Porto Cervo – as this Sardinian retreat for the rich and the beautiful should be considered a once in a lifetime “must-see”. The marina, streets and squares are lined with luxury boutiques and cafés. Tourists press their noses against boutique windows to admire brands, such as Cavalli, Louis Vuitton and Miu Miu, and queue for ice creams at the gelaterias. Mothers pushing their groomed and styled offspring in prams, and dog owners doing the same with their just as groomed and styled four-legged friends: the epitome of seeing and being seen!

The next day is dedicated to culture. The nuraghi are important witnesses to Sardinian history. Over the course of history, Sardinia was occupied many times by various civilisations, including the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Catalans who left their mark on the island. The nuraghi were built during a rare period when Sardinia was not occupied. These pre-historic towers stem from the Bonnanaro culture around 1600 to 400 BC. It is assumed that they were used as places of worship, as fortresses or as meeting places. The “Nuraghe La Prisgiona” settlement is situated in Arzachena, in the hinterland of the Costa Smeralda. It is fairly small. One of the largest and best preserved nuraghe settlements, the “Su Nuraxi”, is near Barumini, in the south of the island. “La Prisigiona” is impressive nonetheless, especially considering that the only tools available at the time to erect the several metres high towers were the builders’ bare hands. “Coddu Vecchiu” is located right next to La Prisgiona and one of Sardinia’s famous Giants’ graves. The communal grave from the nuraghic period features entrances that are several metres high – thus the name.

Cagliari: the city on seven hills

We resume our journey and travel seawards from Arzachena. Baja Sardinia is a beautiful place situated on the shores of the azure-blue sea. Sadly, we only have time for a quick coffee, as we want to travel further southwards. The car drive from Olbia in the north to the Sardinian capital of Cagliari in the south takes a good three hours – via the dual carriageway. There are no motorways on the island. But the only difference really is in the name, and the fact that dual carriageways are toll-free. Anyone who has time should, however, not miss the chance to travel part of the stretch along the coast. The villages and beaches are as varied as they are stunningly beautiful. La Conia, for instance, which is situated north of Olbia and boasts the finest golden-coloured beach and deep blue water, or Porto Rotondo, the “little sister” of Porto Cervo, featuring impressive yachts berthed in the circular-shaped harbour. Situated south of Olbia are San Teodoro and Porto Ottiolu, with white sandy beaches and views of the islands off the coast. Truth to tell, basically every place is worth stopping at, for a glass of local Vermentino wine or an espresso in a restaurant by the sea whilst relishing the beguilingly beautiful views.

On reaching the south, we make our way to the centre of Cagliari, the island capital. The “T Hotel” is ideally located for a city trip: very central, yet still fairly quiet and just around the corner from the largest market on the island, the “Mercato San Benedetto”. As I take off to explore the city in the early morning, my family is still fast asleep. I love this time of day, when everything starts to come alive. And I love it twice, if not three times as much in Italy. The clattering sound of coffee cups, the loud chatter and the scent of coffee and brioches coming from the bars, the shopkeepers opening their stores, and the noisy and laughing children on their way to school. A little later on, we explore the city together. A 3D city map would be useful in Cagliari as, just like Rome, it was built on seven hills. As a result, besides roads and alleyways, various lifts carry people up the hills of the island capital. Of course there are steps, too, but we prefer to take the elevator to the Bastion of Saint Remy. The view from there, of the city, the harbour and the sea, is simply breathtaking! Cagliari Cathedral is just a few steps away, which my daughter and I piously visit (clad in shorts, my husband and son have to wait outside with an ice cream, which does not seem to bother them one bit). After an Apéro in the harbour district (the restaurant/bar “75” has one of the world’s nicest waitresses who makes a real effort to teach tourists the Sardinian dialect), we journey on south.

The Supramonte mountain range: mirage-like

Situated right outside of Cagliari, the saline waters are home to swarms of flamingos. Driving past them feels a bit like being on safari. The birds are not bothered in the slightest by the passing traffic. A good fifty-minute drive onwards, and we have arrived in paradise: the “Forte Village” in Santa Margherita di Pula has everything the heart desires – for children and adults alike. The holiday resort is located right by the beach and has 700 rooms and holiday bungalows in every price category, ranging from the simplest accommodation to villas with private infinity pools. Some of Europe’s best restaurants are located here, including gourmet temples of star chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Alfons Schuhbeck. There is a huge area for children, where they (and grown-ups) can have fun go-kart riding, bowling, playing tennis or soccer, and much more. The sea is notably warmer than in the north of the island, and I happily plunge into it from the resort’s private beach. My children prefer to splash around in the various pools. Other choice pastimes are soccer games followed by table tennis. By bedtime, they are exhausted and literally fall into their beds in our bungalow.

When it’s time to leave this heavenly place, our mood is very subdued. We travel north again on the dual carriageway, inland this time, passing through the small town of Nuoro at the foot of the Monte Ortobene at 600 metres above sea level. “Su Gologone”, our destination, is just after Oliena – a true gem on the northern slope of the Supramonte mountain range that rises up to 1400 metres. A mirage-like sight: in the heart of the mountains facing the gigantic limestone rocks is a pretty hotel with a heated pool, a miniature golf course and one of the best Sardinian restaurants on the island. The bar is set amongst huge cacti, nestling on rock faces, embedded in wild nature. By contrast, the drinks list features the finest champagnes, ranging from Roederer, through Krug, to Dom Pérignon. Works of art are displayed everywhere in the hotel and are available for purchase. The guest rooms are also small works of art. Important note to anyone considering a trip to the interior of the island: go for it!

Sadly, our time on the island of Sardinia is about to come to an end. So we make our way back to Olbia. This stunning Mediterranean island has won our hearts. With its white and golden sand beaches. With its deep blue, turquoise and azure blue sea. With its green hills and chalky white mountain ranges. With its vineyards, olive groves and citrus plantations. With its cultural gems, small villages and exciting towns. With its fantastic wines. With its tasty pasta and meat dishes (an estimated weight gain of four pounds per person seems about right). And, above all, with its friendly and helpful people. The island still offers so much more to discover. We will be back. Because we have fallen hopelessly in love with this wonderful island.

Four tips for Sardinia

Southern Sardinia - Forte Village Resort: The ultimate holiday experience in southern Sardinia. The Fort Village Resort is a good fifty-minute drive from Cagliari Airport. Situated right by the beach, it offers everything the heart desires, for people of all ages, from sports and fun, through top cuisine, to pure luxury. (Strada Statale 195, Sulcitana, 09010 Santa Margherita di Pula CA, Italy, www.fortevillageresort.com)

Costa Smeralda - Hotel Balocco: Set high above the chic Porto Cervo, fabulous vistas of the hills, villages and sea are to be had from the pool, restaurant and hotel rooms. Whether enjoying boat trips, relaxing on one of the lovely beaches or exploring the hinterland –the famous Costa Smeralda on Sardinia’s northeast coast has far more to offer than “see and be seen”. (07021 Porto Cervo, Olbia-Tempio, Italy, www.hotelbalocco.it/de)

In the hinterland - Su Gologone: A charming hotel in the heart of the Supramonte mountain range near the town of Nuoro and a good hour’s drive from Olbia Airport. Visitors can dip in the pool while relishing the views of the green hills, savour a drink under cacti, enjoy authentic Sardinian food in the hotel restaurant and admire oodles of art. A trip to the interior of the island is definitely worth it. (Località su Gologone, 08025 Oliena NU, Italy, www.sugologone.it/de)

Bookings: Whether a family vacation, a beach holiday or an island tour: the Italy specialist “Smeraldo Tours” had the right offer to suit every wish and want. Competent German-speaking staff are on site to look after the guests. (Grindelstr. 6, 8304 Wallisellen, Switzerland, Tel. 044 908 50 10, Email: info@smeraldo-tours.ch, www.smeraldo-tours.ch)

Text: Sandra Casalini