At a time when "one of a kind" artisanal goods are just a click away on eBay, a search for old-world authenticity can seem like a fool's errand. More than anything, that explains the thrill of discovery I experienced on a recent (and for me, maiden) visit to Sardinia. Long considered a beach haven for jet-set Europeans, this enchanting Italian island—the second largest in the Mediterranean after Sicily—possesses a truly distinctive mix of ancient ruins, unspoiled topography and tradition-steeped cuisine.
As I motored across the island, the springtime countryside unfolded in a succession of inland savannahs, craggy foothills and coastal cliffs flecked with burnt orange and pale green hues. The hillsides and plains are dotted by more than seven thousand nuraghi, truncated cone-shaped towers of rough stone left by a Bronze Age civilization that flourished in Sardinia some three thousand years ago.
With such a rich cultural landscape to explore, golf might strike one as an afterthought, as it momentarily did me. But true to Sardinia's more recent heritage as a prime summer vacation spot, the island is home to three championship courses—Is Molas Golf Club, Pevero Golf Club and Is Arenas Golf & Country Club—none of which should be missed.
And then, of course, there is the food and wine. As with mainland Italians, eating and drinking transcends mere sustenance for the Sardinians. Much of the island's cuisine may seem typically Italian, but it also features distinctive native dishes, such as fregola, a granular, nutty-flavored pasta made from coarsely ground semolina and often served with clams. It's one of many splendid discoveries to be made here.
Trip Planner: Sardinia
PLAYING A four-time host of the Italian Open, Is Molas Golf Club (011-39/0709-241-006, ismolas.it) has twenty-seven holes (eighteen designed by the English firm of Cotton/Pennink and nine by Italian Franco Piras) set in a lush plain an hour southwest of the capital city of Cagliari. Gary Player is designing an additional eighteen. Also play Pevero Golf Club (011-39/078-996-072), a Robert Trent Jones Sr. classic along the Costa Smeralda in the island's northeast. Perched on steep, rocky terrain, the course is famous for its views and exacting uphill approaches. On the west coast, north of Oristano, lies Is Arenas Golf & Country Club (011-39/078-352-235, isarenas.it), a modern Robert von Hagge design. The air here carries a whiff of the sea, which lurks just out of sight until it bursts into view as you clamber up to the seventeenth tee.
STAYING Forte Village (011-39/070-2171, fortevillageresort.com) is the embodiment of Mediterranean luxury, a "holiday village" on the southern coast, fifty minutes from Cagliari and ten minutes from Is Molas Golf Club. Choose from seven hotels and a panoply of restaurants. The resort's thermal spa offers seawater baths at six temperatures and time-tested treatments with sea oil and aloe.
DINING Try Grazia Deledda (011-39/078-998-990), overlooking the Costa Smeralda in Arzachena. Open only during the high season of April through October, it offers a sophisticated take on the local fare.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS There are countless spots on Sardinia for sunbathing and water sports, but a couple stand out: Isola di San Pietro, an island off the southwest coast known for its craggy shoreline, sandy beaches and salt flats with flocks of migratory birds; and Baia Chia, a beach with silky white sand twelve miles southwest of Is Molas. In the capital, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari is a walk-through timeline of Sardinia's long, varied history.
GETTING THERE Sardinia-based airline Meridiana (meridiana.it) offers daily nonstop flights from Rome and Milan to both Cagliari and Olbia, as well as more limited or seasonal service from other Italian cities, including Florence, Naples and Bologna. During the summer, you can also take a ferry to Sardinia from various ports on the mainland.