Food, wine, and stunning natural beauty make this island a must-visit
If, like me, you love islands as well as Mediterranean food and culture, you owe it to yourself to visit Sardinia.
Sardinia sees almost daily cruise ship visits from the biggest to the smallest cruise companies. Given all Sardinia has to offer, though, I strongly recommend planning a post- or pre-cruise visit to explore the unique culture of this beautiful place more fully.
You may, as I did, find your preconceptions about this second-largest of the Mediterranean islands entirely wrong. You’ll find that Sardinian language, food, culture, and people are distinct – influenced by Italy, yet not completely Italian.
My family (consisting of me, my husband Alex, our 5-year old son, and my 77-year old father) travels to experience natural beauty and to enjoy different cuisines. Sardinia perfectly suits our style of travel.
If your ship docks here
If your cruise ship visits Sardinia, you’ll likely dock at dock in Cagliari, the island’s capital, located in the far south. I recommend renting a car for a few hours to head out into the countryside. Have lunch or dinner at an agriturismo. Find a secluded beach (there’s almost 1,200 miles of coastline) and enjoy a swim, but make sure to see some of the magnificent sights mother nature provides us with on Sardinia.
If you come for a longer visit, you have several options. Sardinia is large enough to host three international airports. Cagliari has many regular and many charter flights to to tourist resorts in the southern half of the island. Many flights from Europe fly into Olbia in the in the north. To the northwest, the charter airport in Alghero feeds the big hotel complexes. Given the island’s size and location, there are also a number of ferry connections to the Italian mainland, Corsica and other European destinations.
Traveling through the landscape is truly the best way to experience Sardinia. There is a freeway from Cagliari north toward Olbia with ab branch west to Sassari and Alghero. The other roads are fairly narrow and curvy as they wind through the terrain. Sat-navs work reliably. If you’re an avid “ferrosexual,” or just prefer trains to driving, Sardinia also has a fairly large rail network, and some trains take you through spectacular terrain.
Glorious (and abundant) food
The Sardinian culture is of course Italian-influenced, but very distinct and unique, hardly a surprise given the island’s history. To eat plenty of good food is one of the things you can expect. My best tip when you travel in Italy is to try what they call “agriturismo”, i.e. agricultural tourism. These farms offer comfortable (although not luxurious) lodging, as well as excellent food.
As an agriturismo guest, you’re typically served both dinner and breakfast. Not a la carte, but just what the kitchen serves, very Italian, with antipasti, followed by first course of pasta, a secondo of meat, potato, vegetables, and concluding with dolce.
In one of the places we ate, we were served no less than thirteen different antipasti in enormous quantities, some hot, some cold, followed by three different pasta dishes, all before the main course, roasted piglet, was brought out, served with potatoes and vegetables. To say we were stuffed by the time we left would be an understatement.
You also get plenty of local red wine, and water to drink. With your coffee, don’t forget to try a glass of mirto, a liquor made on the basis of grappa, but flavored with myrtle. Slightly sweet, tart and delicious.
Eating at an agriturismo is frugal as well as filling and delicious. Our entire meal came at thirty-three euros per person, all drinks included. (They didn’t even charge us for our son’s meal.)
There are certain typical Sardinian dishes you don’t find elsewhere, such as Fregula Sarda, a pea-shaped pasta, which is roasted in the drying process, imparting a particular rich, nutty flavor. Another pasta shapes, and that is unique to Sardinia is maloreddus which resemble gnocchi, but made with semolina flour. I highly recommend the Sardinian dish mazza frissa, made from sheep’s cream, flour and honey, usually served as an appetizer with bread.
A typical Sardinian speciality is bottarga, salted, cured fish roe, often served with pasta. It’s considered a delicacy, sometimes called “Sardinian caviar.” It is quite expensive, but a bit of an acquired taste, due to its fishy smell. Also don’t forget to try typical Sardinian bread, pane carasau, a wafer thin dried bread, or pardulas, a ricotta-based tart. I could go on forever, but I’ll stop here. You’ll find a lot more to discover in Sardinia!
Let me say a word or two about Sardinian wines. One of my absolute favorites is the Terre Brune from Cantina Santadi, one of my all time favorite reds. It is a full-bodied, amazing bottle of red, made mainly from a local grape variety called carignano del sulcis.
Sardinia is relatively dry, and the grapes get lots of sun. The wines are therefore on the heavier side, and the wine makers push the envelope of many bottles to move 15% alcohol. I’m no sommelier, so don’t expect me to go on about berries and chocolate, but if you like great wines, Sardinia will definitely have something for you.
Speaking of wine, Sardinia produces cork, not as much as Portugal, but you’ll find cork oaks everywhere. Stop, have a look. It’s definitely worth seeing where those brown bottle stoppers come from.
The island boasts a wide variety of different landscapes. In the north, you’ll find the famous Costa Smeralda, Europe’s most expensive coastline, named after the emerald-colored waters. Here you have villages with large exclusive villas and yacht harbors that will make you wonder where exactly your career path took a “wrong turn”… The landscape is spectacular.
Given the particular history of this island, you’ll be able to see unexpected things like the world’s oldest olive tree. It is a humbling experience. Not easy to find, located on the far side of a lake near Sant’Antonio di Gallura, but absolutely worth the trip. The oldest of the olive trees dates back roughly 4,000 years. Let that sink in. Imagine for a minute all the historic events this tree has “witnessed”: the rise of the ancient European civilizations, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Carthage, the end of them all, the dark ages, the Renaissance, countless European and global wars.
Grotte di Nettuno
One of our best excursions took us to the Grotte di Nettuno, on the far north-west side of the island, two bays across from Alghero. You climb several hundred steps down to the ocean and get to see some pretty spectacular caves. Yes, it’s arduous, but totally worth it.
There are also boat tours from Alghero if you’d rather not climb those steps, because remember: if you go down, you must come back up… My dad, aged 77, almost killed me afterward because he had somehow missed (blocked out?) that particular detail. On the other hand, there’s a small cafe at the top, serving good food and ice cold Ichnusa, a local lager.
The furthest south we ventured was to the beautiful town of Bosa on the west coast. It is beautifully situated on the banks of a river a couple of kilometers inland. The town boasts lots of architecture, old town houses, cobble streets and magnificent sunsets.
One of the favorite things we did were drives along the coastline. The Costa Smeralda is spectacularly beautiful, and the views across the strait to Corsica with its snowcapped peaks was impressive.
During our drives through the countryside, Sascha kept busy with his iPad. But we also made sure to look out for horses, cattle and sheep along the way, stopping frequently to stretch our legs and look at things we saw along the road, from special plants and trees. Helping children discover things, like e.g. cork oaks, have them touch the cork bark (a first even for us adults) and then show him the final product at lunch was fun and educational.
The visits to farms was also a great idea, as kids love to pet a horse or a pony, count cows on a meadow etc. Further south on the island are amusement parks and water parks, but we never made it that far. Also, it was at the beginning of the tourist season, and this spring was unusually cold across Southern Europe. Swimming was not on the menu, despite the beautiful pool at our hotel.
Since we live on an island off the west coast of Sweden, taking ferries, boats and ships is nothing new for our son. He loved taking a car ferry across a small straight to the island of La Maddalena, a national park, but also an inhabited island with an old city and lots of great beaches. Although we visited too early in the season to swim, Sascha still enjoyed walking along the beach, throwing stones and looking for sea treasures.
Sardinia is part of the Schengen area, uses the Euro and EU citizens get to freely use their phones to surf and find whatever information they need. Credit cards are widely accepted, but for smaller purchases, it’s good to have some cash on hand. Italy has always been a country where small change is hard to come by, and oddly, this is still a bit of an issue in some kiosks or small shops. Be ready, pay with small bills, and keep all the change you get. You never know when someone is fresh out of coins.
The pervasive influence of Catholicism makes Italy relatively conservative. Alex and I have traveled a lot in Italy and never once experienced any negative reactions. (Then again, we’re not big on PDAs, which probably helps.). I’ve read Sassari and Alghero on the north side of Sardinia both host pride celebrations in July.
About the author
Hans M Hirschi still considers himself a fairly recent “cruise convert” with six cruises under his belt, all with his husband Alex and their son Sascha on Norwegian Cruise Line ships. Hirschi is the author of contemporary LGBT fiction and a Stonewall Awards nominee. His most recent novel, Return to the Land of the Morning Calm, is a feel-good story about a Korean War Veteran. His travel and cruise experiences tend to find their way into his writing. He lives with his family on a small island off the Swedish West coast in Gothenburg. Their next cruises will take them back to Hawai’i aboard the Pride of America and later this year down to the Caribbean from New York on the Norwegian Gem.