23 October 2016

The beaches of Chia are favoured by Italian families
La Dolce Vita on a Sardinian road trip…
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any of us have heard of Sardinia's glitzy Emerald Coast, where the sea is more brilliant green than blue, the beaches as good as the Caribbean's and the yachts on a par with those in the South of France. But what about the rest of this Italian island? On a road trip, taking a wiggly route from south to north, we find it full of wonderfully varied landscape and attractive villages bedecked with bunting as if awaiting a party. We begin in Chia, in the south, with its stretches of beaches, popular among Italian families. These are an easy drive from the capital, Cagliari. There are so many stretches of sand from which to choose, you could spend a week picking your favourite.
The very popular Relais Villa del Golfo in Cannigione
Limestone cliffs, hidden caves and secluded beaches
Tuerredda is full of life – trinket sellers, a family catching squid for supper, pedalos and an island to circumnavigate. But we like the rocky grey coves beyond. We are staying inland, at Villa Del Borgo, which has prettily landscaped grounds and feels remote, though it's only two miles from the nearest town, Pula. Pula's draw (for me at least) is its lovely Palladian-style villa, frustratingly closed to the public, inexpensive leather handbags (around £40) and gelato.

Sardinian food is fuss-free and generous, with roast pork a speciality – this pleases my boyfriend, Rob. Fine dining doesn't seem to be a big deal here, so he is sceptical when I suggest a tasting menu offering a modern take on Sardinian cuisine, down the road in Nora. But Fradis Minoris, on a spit between the sea and a lagoon, is a special spot, even if the menu is rather foamy. And Nora itself is interesting. It's a Roman site where temple columns still stand and mosaics decorate dusty floors. Before venturing into the middle of the island we spend a rainy few hours in Cagliari.
The old town is easy to navigate and you can get an overview from the 14th-century Tower of the Elephant. It was once a prison and is still daunting. At the top of the old town is Piazza Arsenale and the archaeological museum, full of mystifying descriptions of Nuraghi, statues found at the island's pre-historic sites.

Nuraghi is also the name given to the sites in the centre of the island, one of which, Su Nuraxi, is Unesco rated. It is a wonder. And squeezing through dark tunnels into gloomy stone rooms may turn children's heads to history. It's a twisting journey to our next stop and the scenery – olive tree patterned slopes, neat fields and ponderous dogs, is sparsely beautiful.
"The Emerald Coast is every bit as glamorous as Amalfi, but with better beaches."
An aerial view of Sardinia's intriguing and historic past at Su Nuraxi
Hotel Su Gologone
Pula's Palladian-style villa
D.H. Lawrence said Sardinia was uncaptured by civilisation, and here that rings true. Hotel Su Gologone is a bright, bohemian love-in, set in a national park where you can climb into vast limestone caves filled with cool air and knobbly stalactites. We also trek, following cairns into the mountains, and marvel at the views of the valley corridor. Except for a convoy of the German Land Rover club, we don't see another soul. Were we staying longer, I'd have got stuck into the paints in our art studio room, but it's onwards and upwards to Sardinia's honey-pot north shore.

The Emerald Coast is every bit as glamorous as Amalfi, but with better beaches. The Italians cheerfully park at the edge of our towels. But there is room for everyone – whether you want a giant sandy stretch with flicking wind (Cala di Volpe), a view of super yachts (Golfo Pevero) or boulder-strewn coves on La Maddalena and Caprera, islands in the archipelago, a 20-minute ferry from Palau. The smart Relais Villa del Golfo & Spa, in Cannigione, where return visitors settle in for a pampering, overlooks the sea, and its poolside terrace is just the spot for an aperitif. You can easily wander into Cannigione.

On our last night we find a low-key place, Tavola Azzurra, and take a table next to a couple of old men cheerily eating plates of tomatoes. Heaps of seafood pasta and calamari slapped on plastic plates, jam-packed tables and a noisy Italian crowd – all for under £40. We love it.

Original article published in July 2016. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
Jenny Coad and her boyfriend, Rob, step away from the tourist trail and discover another side to Sardinia
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