Spectacular Sardinia: an underrated Italian gem

The coast of Sardinia near Hotel Cervo, on the Costa Smeralda.


The coast of Sardinia near Hotel Cervo, on the Costa Smeralda.

SARDINIA – I’ve only been on the island an hour or two. But my friend Mans Hallqvist wants to show me some cool parts of his adopted city of Cagliari, so I find myself climbing a dry, dusty but beautiful hill on the outskirts of town.

The deep blue waters of the Mediterranean are off to our right as we head up the hill. Mans points out wild asparagus plants and we pass brilliant pink oleander as we skip past the ancient rocks. Suddenly we find ourselves gazing down at a fine marina and the 12-km-long beach that runs on Cagliari’s east side.

It’s a stunning view, with the island’s rugged mountains rising in the distance and white boats bobbing in the water below. We skim along some cliffs and come to a valley formation called The Devil’s Saddle. There’s a huge limestone formation jutting up into the impossibly blue sky and we can see the remains of an old Spanish fort that looks ready to crumble into the sea.

Mans, a native of Sweden who moved to Sardinia and married a local woman more than two decades ago and runs a tourism/travel biz , also shows me the ruins of a Catholic church that was built on the site of a former Phoenician temple. At least I think that’s what he said. I was too enthralled with the beauty around me to pay as much attention as I should. And, to be honest, I was just happy to be back in the company of Mans, an old friend I hadn’t seen in 32 long years.

“There’s so much history in Cagliari and nobody ever writes about it,” my friend explains. “It’s a great city.”

We later sipped a coffee at the fine patio at the Hotel Calamosca and then went for a swim, Mans reminding me that I had to the “towel around my waist” shimmy to change clothes on the beach. It was awkward at first but I got the hang of it (a little) over the following few days, when we made frequent dips into some of the most beautiful water on the planet.

Over the course of the next few days, I sip a fine (and cheap, about $1.75) cappuccino in the shadow of a lovely Dominican monastery in central Cagliari, watch kids dressed all in white heading to their Confirmation, walk along lovely shopping streets under a canopy of flaming blue/violet jacaranda trees and admire the stunning views out over the city from the top of the old town.

Alfresco dining with a view of Cagliari.


Alfresco dining with a view of Cagliari.

We stroll through the covered arcades on the Via Roma and pass young girls hanging around in the park outside the train station, dressed in short shorts and tops their fathers would likely not approve of. We also walk the ancient streets and watch the locals go about their business; hanging laundry and putting out silverware at small, alleyway cafes that looked like the perfect place for a plate of pasta and glass of Sardinian wine.

I didn’t get out for any meals, owing to the fact my friend and his lovely wife Stefania and family did the cooking. But I had a brief tour of the San Benedetto market in Cagliari, a stunning marble facility where you’ll find artfully arranged shrimps and local Orate fish and deep red tuna, as well as a small, pencil like creature I’d never seen before called a Knife Clam. Some of the fish looked positively primordial, with bulbous heads and odd shapes. Very cool.

Upstairs they sell glorious meats and local cheeses, including a salty Pecorino I take home to make Pasta Amatriciana with. The strawberries are as red as the maple leaf on the Canada Flag and perfectly ripe, and they have small peaches that look to me like flattened versions of what we see at home (kind of like a large mushroom caps) and have a delicious, sweet flavour.

We took a day and toured the south coast of the island on mopeds, which was a blast and a half. It was hot and sunny, as per usual in these parts, at least in summer, and we stopped several times for swims in the glorious water.

The coastline is an absolute killer, with roads that wind up and curve around forested hillsides and past small villages and along rugged cliffs. You could pull over every 100 yards or so and find marvellous views of the aquamarine and deep blue water and the cliffs and the olive trees and the dusty towns.

It’s a great way to see the sights, and it only cost about $40 for eight hours of riding, including gas.

I loved the authenticity of Cagliari and thought the south coast drive was tremendous. But most tourists who head to Sardinia skip these areas in favour of the great resorts on the Costa Smeralda, where the Aga Khan decided to start a tourist village 50-odd years ago. The Hotel Cervo was the flagship hotel in the area, and remains at the heart of the Porto Cervo village.

It’s a tad posh for me, with lots of shops selling Prada and Versace and other designer labels I couldn’t give a hoot about. But the views of the bay and the craggy hills and villas surrounded by brilliant red and purple bougainvillea and the massive yachts at rest more than made up for fancy shops. One yacht I spotted looked like it had four levels, and there was a helicopter pad on top with a gleaming chopper just ready to ferry some rich Frenchman or Russian business person to their next appointment.

A view of the bay outside the Hotel Cervo on the Costa Smeralda. Hotel Cervo is one of four fabulous Starwood properties in the area.


A view of the bay outside the Hotel Cervo on the Costa Smeralda. Hotel Cervo is one of four fabulous Starwood properties in the area.

We had a lovely room with mostly white walls and a beautiful terrace with bamboo covering for shade and a pretty garden, just steps from the pool. The lobby area is bright and sunny with gorgeous flowers and they have a series of great bars and outdoor patios for dining or drinking or catching the World Cup. Breakfast was served in a lovely room with cool pastel colours and nice views of the bay and included a massive variety of great food: local bresaola, prosciutto and salami, several types of cheese, a luscious strawberry tart glistening with ripe fruit, gluten-free cakes, eggs and bacon, yogurt, breads, muffins, croissants, great jams and perfect orange juice. Definitely one of the top breakfast spots I’ve ever been to.

There’s plenty of privacy if you want to hang out on your terrace or sit by the pool. But the bars and restaurants and the sidewalk spots outside the gelato place also offer the opportunity to socialize and people watch, which is a highly rewarding activity in these parts given the pretty people who flock here in summer.

The hotel offers a free, 10-minute boat ride to a private beach they operate down the coast a bit. It’s a fine beach with gorgeous views and lounge chairs and straw umbrellas to keep the hot Mediterranean sun from turning you as red as a Sardinian strawberry. But we opt for a short, 20-minute hike over the hill to an even finer beach, with gorgeous rock formations and calm, aquamarine water that was as fine as any I’ve seen on the planet. Gorgeous.

Being a Sheraton property (but looking more like a high-end Westin to me), the Hotel Cervo belongs to the Starwood group. In addition to the Hotel Cervo, Starwood offers three other properties in the area: the Pitrizza (small villas and gardens on a beautiful point of land)), the Hotel Romazzino (done up mostly in white, on a dazzling beach) and Cala di Volpe, a high end resort that looks like a romantic (and upscale) fishing village. The latter was voted the best hotel in the world in 2005.

We don’t get a lot of Sardinian wines here in Ontario, at least not that I’ve seen. But I tasted some gems, both at wineries using local grapes with a ton of (justifiable) pride.

In the village of Cabras, in southwest Sardinia, Mans guides me to a gem of a winery called Contini , which dates back to 1898. They’ve won a bevy of awards and it’s a wonderful, family run place with several generations of workers.

Tasting wines at Contini vineyards. Great folks to talk with here!


Tasting wines at Contini vineyards. Great folks to talk with here!

Vernaccia, a crisp white wine that can be grown in any number of ways, is the main attraction here. They also grow Cannonau, which is known elsewhere as Grenache or Garnacha, and achieves a lush level of ripeness here that makes it taste more like a fruity Cabernet-Shiraz blend than the typical Grenache I’ve had.

Another big grape for them is a local one called Nieddera, which makes a fine red.

As I said, however, the main thing here is Vernaccia. We taste a very good sparkling wine made with Vernaccia grapes and also one version picked young in September and a fuller version from grapes pickd in October. They age some of their white wines for 12 or 30 years, and we also get to taste an 80-year-old version straight from the barrel; with notes of honeysuckle and wood and even a trace of smoke to my uneducated palate.

They also make wines with zero sulfites, a nice bonus for some folks. And they make an excellent rose that sells for less than $10.

We make our way up the coast and pass the village of San Salvatore, a small and dusty spot used by Sergio Leone to make some of his so-called Spaghetti Westerns. It looks dirty and unkempt and could easily pass for a small town in Mexico or the U.S. Southwest. Some folks still keep weekend “cottages” in the town and there’s a small trattoria on site. But the place feels abandoned and gives off a slightly spooky, ethereal air to me. Very cool.

Mans then guides us out to the Roman ruins at Thassos, where you’ll find foundations of Roman homes with fresh water and sewage treatment pipes. The sun-bleached rock sits among brilliant purple flowers on a small bluff above the blue-green ocean. It’s on a point of land where the waves crash with resounding authority onto a windy beach on the windward side. Just a few feet away, over a small hill, we laze on the sand in perfectly calm conditions and swim in gorgeous, clear and calm water.

There’s an old Spanish Tower you can climb for awesome views, or you can pay a few bucks and get a tour of the ruins.

Back up near the Hotel Cervo, we navigate our way inland and roll down a steep hill to the Capichera winery. They don’t usually do tours or tastings but they know Mans and give us the green light to stop by.

We wander about the vineyards and learn about the granite soil that imparts a wonderful level of minerality to their wines. They’re known for their pioneering work with Vermentino, a white grape that can taste like a stony-flavoured Chardonnay or even a bit like a dry Pinot Gris to my way of thinking. They do a “regular” Vermentino but also a late harvest version that isn’t at all sweet.

Emanuele Ragnedda, part of the wine-growing family that owns the winery, tells us the salt air in the region also helps define his winery’s grapes.

In addition to Vermentino, they’re doing some wonderful things with Syrah and an extra fine rose using Carignano grapes. It’s pale and pink and summery and delicious.

“Some resorts around here have Capichera wine lists. So you don’t need to change wineries to get a variety of wines. And often the wine all comes from the same grape.”

If you’ve never been to Sardinia, you’re missing something special.

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