This is about Italy’s secret coast—the other Sardinia. Not the Sardinia of the Aga Khan, yachts, celebrities, oligarchs, and tycoons. Not, in other words, Porto Rotondo, where Italy’s Caviar Left came every summer to populate a brand-new colony built to its high-flying specifications. That vociferous, in-your-face Sardinia reminds me of the film Swept Away, whose director, Lina Wertmüller, was inspired by my aunt, the designer Mariuccia Mandelli, who founded Krizia; her even more formidable sister Giancarla; and their court of influential intellectuals and entrepreneurs. Lying topless in the sun—it was part of the liberation of forceful women nurtured in a traditional society—they conducted lively conversations, mostly about politics, that anyone might have mistaken for fights and that resounded across the wild Mediterranean maquis.
But the Sardinia I go to now is the part of the island down by the capital, Cagliari, that is being sustainably and exquisitely developed by the Sardinians themselves. The southern and southeastern coast, from the pale blue waters of Cala Sinzias, reached through a thicket of eucalyptus, to Capo Teulada, has the same blue sea, and gorgeous maquis. In between is Pula’s long sandy coast, the tender archaeological site of Nora—what remains of a Roman and pre-Roman town—Villasimius’s granite rocks, 20 miles of white-sand beaches, the towns of Chia and Domus de Maria, Capo Carbonara’s protected marine area, and swimming among rocks in Tuerredda. The bays are no less dazzling, though there are far fewer yachts crowding their waters, and any construction, such as the hotel at Cala Caterina, is so well integrated into the landscape as to have become almost invisible. Sardinian cuisine is here, too—probably the subtlest Italy has to offer: I am thinking of lasagnette, thin sheets of pasta, over a clump of thin wild asparagus, and extraordinary pecorino. But most of all, what you see is the sea, beguiling and seductive, playing the lead in this unspoiled masterpiece of nature, the other side of Sardinia.
Gini Alhadeff is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
The island’s largest city sits on the shores of a wide gulf, its historic center extending up from the seaside Via Roma to the hilltop Castello quarter. With Baroque churches, stone palazzi, top-flight restaurants, and pristine beaches, Cagliari is the ideal jumping-off point for exploring the southern coast.
A playful pastiche of styles, the Hotel Miramare ($$) is housed in Palazzo Devoto, one of the few structures in town to have survived World War II unscathed. The 18 brightly colored rooms and suites mix late-19th- and mid-20th-century antiques and contemporary art collected by the hotel’s charismatic owner.
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During aperitivo, head to Bastione di San Remy, the citadel at the top of the Castello district. Order an Aperol Spritz at Caffè degli Spiriti ($$$), a quartet of glass-enclosed pavilions surrounded by umbrella-shaded tables that draw sophisticated locals.
If the weather isn’t cooperating, the Antico Caffè ($$$) is an old-world haunt with vaulted ceilings, black and white tiled floors, and cozy leather banquettes. Or try the year-old Cucina.eat ($$), a chic gourmet shop that doubles as a bar and restaurant come nighttime.
The 76-year-old Trattoria Lillicu (78 Via Sardegna; 39-070/652-970; $$$) specializes in simply prepared seafood and vegetable plates (fried calamari; eggplant parmigiana topped with sprigs of fresh basil).
At Is Fradis ($$), chef Matteo Serreli serves elevated Sardinian classics in an airy dining room with whitewashed tables. Try the crème brûlée of pecorino cheese and pear preserves.
A series of warmly lit rooms, Luigi Pomata ($$$) showcases the ingenuity of its eponymous celebrity chef with dishes such as grilled shrimp with cauliflower cream, beet greens, and crisp pancetta.
The seasonal menu at the elegant Dal Corsaro ($$$) incorporates influences from across Italy and beyond—a Roman-style carbonara, say, or British-inspired fish-and-chips.
Tour the historic center’s Baroque limestone churches—Sant’Anna (Via Domenico Alberto Azuni) has a particularly lovely and recently restored façade—then venture underneath the cathedrals of Santa Restituta and Sant’Efisio (both on Via Sant’Efisio) to the cavelike early Christian chapels.
The Palazzo Vicaregio is worth a stop for its decorative interiors (gilded mirrors; fresco-adorned ceilings; damask-covered walls). Afterward, head to the Cittadella dei Musei (Piazza Arsenale) to see the Pinacoteca gallery and National Archaeological Museum, which displays artifacts from Sardinia’s pre-Roman nuraghic civilization.
Within the stone-and-brick walls of Soha, owners Giovanni Pisu and André Baradat re-spin Sardinian filigree to create contemporary gold and silver jewelry.
An ever-changing selection of coveted women’s clothing and accessories, Donne carries both well-known and emerging labels (Fendi, Chloé, and MSGM, to name a few).
The bookshelves at La Libreria di via Sulis are stocked with art, design, and photography books from the likes of Rizzoli, Taschen, and others.
On Largo Carlo Felice, Bonu is a one-stop shop for regional wines and edibles such as crisp white Vermentino and nut-studded nougat.
For high-end Sardinian souvenirs, swing by I.S.O.L.A., where you’ll find objets décoratifs by local artists. A highlight: iron sculptural works by Roberto Ziranu.
This colorful village east of Cagliari is the nexus of summertime activity. Here, the broad Via Umberto I gives way to beaches, resorts, and a marina, all fronting a protected marine reserve.
A 10-minute drive from town, the pink-stucco Hotel Cala Caterina ($$$$) has 50 pastel-hued rooms surrounding a mosaic-tiled pool. Rather go for a dip in the sea? There’s a small rock-and-sand beach just a short stroll away.
At Hotel Stella Maris ($$$$), rooms are decorated with one-of-a-kind ceramic lanterns and handcrafted metal sculptures—and almost all overlook the water.
If you’re with a large group, consider renting a villa through the Sardinia travel specialists Charming Sardinia.
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Start the evening at Baccusardus ($$), a food and wine store that turns into a lively bar around 7 p.m. Order a glass of the house red, Monica di Amabile, from its private label.
In town, the glass-walled Sa Tankitta (240 Via Umberto I; 39-070/791-338; $$$) serves traditional fregula, a large-grained Sardinian couscous, topped with shrimp and octopus.
At Su Forredu (2 Viale dei Cipressi; 39-070/790-001; $$$), the waitstaff flutters around a rustic dining room recommending off-menu daily catches, such as thin slices of tuna.
By the beach, there’s Bar Ristorante Il Miraggio ($$$), with tables that spill out onto the sand. You can’t beat the gnocchi malloreddus with tomato, sausage, and saffron.
The area’s best restaurant, despite the lack of a view, is Da Barbara (Strada Provinciale; 39-070/750-630; $$$), a family-run trattoria in nearby Solanas. Order the hearty capone (scorpion-fish stew).
Don’t miss the all-natural gelato at the gelateria Chiccheria, back in Villasimius. The black-mulberry granita and vanilla almond are standouts.
The beaches closest to town are the wide, pristine Simius and Notteri, and the family-friendly Porto Giunco, where the Delfino Club rents Jet Skis and Windsurfers.
Charter a vintage sailing yacht from Maby Mare (from $100 per person) to explore the islands of Isola di Serpentara and Isola dei Càvoli.
The region has great diving, thanks to its location on the marine reserve. Learn the ropes with a lesson from Subaqua.
Villasimius isn’t known for its shopping. Two exceptions: Rey (76 Via Umberto I), for woven leather clutches and hobo bags, and Anna Segreto, which specializes in pibiones—hand-embroidered Sardinian wool rugs—and tablecloths in cotton and linen.
In this tiny, largely residential seaside town, private villas cling to the hills and only a few restaurants and hotels distract from the action at the shore.
The just-opened Hotel La Villa del Re ($$$) is both beachy and Baroque, mixing overstuffed cream-colored couches and glass hurricane lanterns with ornately carved wooden headboards and cabriolet-legged tables.
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For a casual alfresco lunch—a simply-grilled skate, for example—the low-key beach shack Chaplin ($$$) is a winner.
At the stone-walled Su Nuraxi (47 Via Ichnusa; 39-070/991-9020; $$$), the large menu includes pizzas to suit every palate, plus pasta dishes such as spaghetti with clams, sea urchin, and bottarga (salted fish roe).
Among Costa Rei’s top beaches is the golden-hued Cala Sinzias, where the club Maklas has slick, white-cushioned chaises and a buzzy cocktail scene.
Spend an afternoon lounging on the light-gray shore of the Cala Pira cove, flanked by a cliff and a centuries-old tower.
The main coastal town west of Cagliari, Pula is full of authentic one-off boutiques and alfresco restaurants. On summer nights locals gather in the Piazza del Popolo to hear live concerts.
Just beyond the historic center, the bougainvillea-covered Nora Club Hotel & Spa ($$) has 19th-century antiques, and rooms look out onto a tropical garden. Unwind with a citrus mud scrub at the new spa.
The all-inclusive Forte Village ($$$) spreads out across
116 beachfront acres bordered by lush forest. There is no shortage of diversions here, from a shopping piazza with upscale clothing boutiques (Missoni; Zegna; Lanvin) to a 27-hole golf course and a cooking school.
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Sardinians flock to Fradis Minoris (Laguna di Nora; 39-070/920-9544; $$$) for the fresh-caught fish. Let the chef guide you through the daily tasting menu, which may include barracuda with squid-ink sauce.
At Cucina Machrì ($$$), a white-on-white dining room provides the backdrop for innovative seafood dishes such as nutty flavored black rice with sweet red shrimp, followed by monkfish confit.
The low-lit Su Furriadroxu ($$) serves hearty staples in a quiet courtyard shaded by palm trees. Order the spit-roasted suckling pig, a Sardinian specialty.
Take a guided tour of the nearby ancient port city of Nora, stopping by the medieval Chiesa di Sant’Efisio.
Davide Sessa creates custom leather sandals, along with wide-brimmed hats and belts made from local cork.
For regional crafts such as colorful ceramic dishware and handwoven baskets, head to Arte Sarda di Sollai.
Chia has some of the most stunning beaches in Sardinia, curving arcs of pale gold, powdery sand set off by turquoise lagoons where pink flamingos flock in early summer.
Arguably the region’s most exclusive retreat, Faro Capo Spartivento ($$$$) occupies a working lighthouse on a rocky promontory. Owner Alessio Raggio has spent 20 years perfecting the place: beyond the cliff-top pool, the six barrel-vaulted guest suites have Murano-glass chandeliers, some with circular beds facing the sea.
Sandwiched between two lagoons, the 41-room Aquadulci ($$), near Su Giudeu beach, is all about relaxing—the Zen-like interiors are decorated in earth tones, pale wood, glass, and stone.
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With their billowy sheets and glowing lanterns, the outdoor pavilions at Cadadie ($$) make an atmospheric setting for drinks.
The laid-back Trattoria da Angelo (Domus de Maria, 39-070/923-6363; $$$) sits inland, but it’s worth the short drive for a taste of the seafood risotto prepared by Angelo’s wife.
Try the wood-beamed Mirage ($$$) for crowd-pleasers such as salmon with wild fennel. Caveat: tables fill up quickly, so arrive early.
There’s little to do in Chia but go to the beach—and no one’s complaining. The S-shaped Tuerredda is, for many, the holy grail in the region, with its club Poseidon.
—Reported by Andrew Sessa
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Appeared as "Simply Sardinia" in T+L Magazine