IF you thought Sardinia was just about sun, sea and sand, think again. It’s got all those glorious holiday basics, of course, but this Mediterranean island has plenty more to boot.
It’s part of Italy, after all, so it was certain to have layers of history beneath its shiny surface, but it can also boast enough extraordinary geography and geology to keep even the most fidgety of visitors enthralled.
Sardinia has a curious and unique culture, too, an intriguing blend of Italian and Catalan, a legacy of its 14th century conquest by the Aragonese. While its character and language are primarily Italian, in some parts only Catalan is spoken while elsewhere it is typically rapid-fire Italian with a pithy local dialect.
I spent a week there in late May and early June, based mainly in the small town of Alghero on the north-west coast. It is a beautiful spot, with a wealth of excellent independent restaurants, a lively harbour, the bluest sea imaginable and a colourful old town area.
Few of the international flights into Sardinia come into the local airport – most, like mine, go to Olbia in the north-east or the capital Cagliari in the south – so Alghero has to fight for its share of the tourist pound, euro and dollar.
But it has a formidable armoury, not the least of which is its proximity to its French neighbour Corsica, a few miles north. I took a ferry over to the little town of Bonifacio, which, unsurprisingly given its proximity, was a mirror image of Sardinia but with the chatter and the street signs in French.
Sardinia’s long-extinct volcanoes have left their imprint all over the island, and the landscape is marked by huge outcrops of granite, basalt and numerous other rocks. Many have been sculpted into extraordinary shapes by the winds that often blast the island – on the day of my arrival, the last fierce breath of the mistral was just leaving.
Weather-wise it had been an unusually tough spring and the island’s wine and olive producers have been hard hit. The climate is normally reliable – roasting in high season, bitterly cold in winter, and gloriously perfect in the year’s ‘shoulders’ – but recent years have proved to be the most challenging and unpredictable in living memory.
For holidaymakers Sardinia is famed for its spectacular Costa Smeralda but those who like to explore will find ancient ruins from Roman and Phoenician civilisations among others, and thousands of extraordinary round fortresses left by the mysterious Nuraghi people 3,000 years ago.
I found Sardinia beautiful, friendly, typically Italian but with its own unique flavour. The economy is highly dependent on tourism but the island has all the attributes necessary to keep the visitors coming.
Pictured: Small boats in the port at Alghero; the Costa Smeralda, glorious scenery and a playground for the super-rich; one of the many ancient forts left by the mysterious Nuraghi civilisation; Roman ruins at Tharros; a weird elephant-shaped chunk of ancient rock that has become a tourist attraction.