I was sitting at one of the small outdoor tables at Pani e Casu, a restaurant near the ancient battlements of Cagliari, Sardinia's capital, high above the city's busy port. The blue waters of the Mediterranean twinkled in the distance. I could smell salt in the air. Surely, I thought, those waters must hold some fish.
Before I visited, I had never thought of Sardinia as an island of shepherds. I had thought of it as an island where fabulously rich people baked in the sun, flitted between stylish restaurants and hotels, and sailed along the pristine coastline in yachts outfitted with discos, hot tubs, and other blingy accoutrements. Which, to a point, is true of the Costa Smeralda, where Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's former prime minister, held his infamous "bunga bunga" parties at a 68-room "retreat" that reportedly has six swimming pools and an artificial volcano.
But that is the northern coast, which, if undeniably beautiful, is also a bit crowded. The southern coast, while hardly undiscovered, is still remote enough to be largely unspoiled. For centuries, most Sardinians lived inland, fortified against potential marauders and subsisting on agriculture and livestock. The resulting mind-set prevails to this day among people like my waiter. On the two-lane roads that led away from the coast, I passed farmers working fields, as they have for generations. The steep switchbacks that twisted through the inland mountains were laced with old vineyards.
I had come to Sardinia's southern coast with my sons, Eddie and George, whose primary agenda was an inspection tour of the area's beaches. We were living in Rome then and had been talking for years about visiting Sardinia. We passed so many coves while spooling along the narrow coastal route that my younger son, Eddie, was kept constantly jabbing at the window. Both boys shouted every time they saw a new beach, each more perfect than the last.
Even more exciting to them than the endless stretches of sand was our resort, Forte Village. Imagine you are 13 or 11, and you find yourself surrounded by a soccer school, countless pools, an outdoor concert venue, and a long beach with guys who fluff your towels and deliver drinks. Yes, they were ecstatic. I was a little dazed. I had thought we might find ourselves roughing it, but Forte Village turned out to be a pocket of luxury in what was otherwise a pretty isolated region. Just outside the front gates, I had driven past a farmer puttering on his tractor, not far from fields of saffron and harvested hay. Flowering bushes and cacti laden with prickly pears lined the roads. One day I walked along the beach, past the boundary of the resort, to a place where trees pressed to the edge of the sand. Italian beaches are often jammed with private swimming clubs, but beyond Forte Village I saw no development.
For the next several days, we went beach-hunting. Eddie likes to quantify things, including happiness, so as we tested different ones, he invariably asked, "Which is your favorite?"
How to choose?
Some were hidden at the ends of little roads, where you would find cars crowded into $5-per-day parking lots. Others were rocky inlets just beneath the coastal road. The biggest had Italianized tiki bars and restaurants dishing out Sardinian cuisine (including some seafood). But rarely did we encounter crowded resorts like those of the Costa Smeralda.
We spent a morning at Chia Beach, a long curl of sand beside water clear enough that I could see my toes in it. A 16th-century stone watch-tower rose from a nearby outcropping, looming above the lines of rainbow-colored umbrellas.
When I stood still at Su Giudeu Beach, not far away, I felt tiny fish begin to slip around my feet. I fretted for all those long-ago generations of Sardinians penned up in the hills, surrounded by this enticing ring of blue water but fearful that slipping down for a dip might mean being impressed into slavery, or worse. Now the biggest hazard anyone faces here during the summer is finding a safe spot to park.
On another day, we went to Tuerredda, near the village of Domus de Maria. Famous for its snorkeling and stunning views, the beach has a broad sandy area where the mostly Italian sunbathers were crowded so tightly together that I found myself stepping between bodies. We worked our way down the rocks at one end of the beach, where we found a tiny cove we could have all to ourselves. Kayakers paddled nearby as we strapped on goggles and snorkels and dove down into the reefs and vegetation on the floor of the sea. Silver, green, and yellow tendrils swayed in the gentle tide, as schools of small fish moved around us, along with a few tuna. Afterward, tired, we walked over to the beachside restaurant and sat in the shade eating plates of gnocchi.
Again, Eddie asked, "Which is your favorite beach?" In southern Sardinia, it seemed, you really couldn't go wrong.
After all the beach-hopping, I wanted a little alone time out of the sun. So I left the boys to their own devices at Forte Village and drove to the city of Cagliari to go exploring. Sardinia's strategic position as a key Mediterranean port made the city a prize for numerous empires throughout history. Originally a Phoenician settlement, Cagliari has been ruled by everyone from the Carthaginians to the Romans, the Vandals to the Byzantines, the Aragonese to the Pisans to the House of Savoy, each wave of conquest pushing more of the island's natives up into the mountains. Today, you can still feel the layers of cultures left behind — the vibe is as Spanish and North African as it is Italian.
D. H. Lawrence was also struck by Cagliari's eclecticism when he came through nearly a century ago. "The city piles up lofty and almost miniature, and makes me think of Jerusalem: without trees, without cover, rising rather bare and proud, remote as if back in history, like a town in a monkish, illuminated missal," he wrote in 1921, in Sea and Sardinia. "One wonders how it ever got there. And it seems like Spain — or Malta: not Italy."
Lawrence's Cagliari was surely more remote and inaccessible than the city I was approaching. I passed a refinery, driving along potholed highways that would feel familiar anywhere in Italy. But soon I turned onto narrower, older streets and continued up the hill described by Lawrence until I reached the Castello, the ancient district that rose centuries ago inside ramparts constructed as a fortification against invaders. I walked into Piazza Palazzo and immediately realized that it is a place where time has stopped.
It was a lazy morning, and a few tourists loitered outside the Cathedral of Santa Maria, which was built in the 13th century but has been renovated through the eras and now bears an opulence similar to that of the grand Baroque churches in Rome. I dropped a few coins into a donation box and descended the marble steps to the crypts, where relics of the martyrs of Cagliari are kept and members of the House of Savoy are buried. An acquaintance in Rome had warned me that Sardinia could not match Sicily as a repository of history, but I found the opposite to be true in Cagliari, where the lack of tourist foot traffic meant that walking the byways felt more like it must have centuries ago.
It was a cloudless, sunny day, but all I could see was a skinny strip of blue between the rows of old stone buildings pressing in on me. The shops were closed for the midday siesta, save for a grocery that sold fresh vegetables. The languor of the Castello made it easy to forget that this was once a formidable military installation. I climbed the steep steps of the Elephant Tower, the stone structure used by various empires to spot invaders coming into the port. Today, all I could see were tour boats, huge wind turbines in the distance, and the marshes at the edge of the city that are a refuge for flamingos and migratory birds.
Nearby, in Piazza Carlo Alberto, the sun drove a young couple onto a marble bench in the shade, where they devoured gelato and entangled themselves. None of the handful of people sipping cappuccinos outside a coffee bar seemed to pay them any attention, everyone basking in the timelessness of this place where laundry lines stretch above labyrinthine lanes. As much as I wanted to while away the afternoon here, I needed to see whether the boys had rampaged and pillaged Forte Village. When I returned I was relieved to find it still standing.
As I was swimming in the perfect Sardinian water one day, I realized that the electronic key to my rental car was in the back pocket of my trunks. Before it was destroyed by salt corrosion, I managed to drive the boys down to the southwestern tip of the coast, to the island of Sant'Antioco. There, the key died, and the rental company sent a guy named Massimo with a tow truck. He looped heavy straps around the car, hit the gears of his winch crane, and drove off into the sunset. It was early evening on a Saturday. No other rental cars were available anywhere until Monday. Luckily, we wouldn't need one.
In the Byzantine era, Sant'Antioco was surrounded by fortified defense walls, but today its coastline is best known for its picturesque inlets, like the breathtaking Nido dei Passeri, with stony brown cliffs that tumble down to the sea. There are beaches everywhere, including isolated coves like Cala Lunga. And there is the fish. For centuries, the waters around the island have been famous for their tuna. Though over shing has diminished the stock, the annual mattanza, or tuna slaughter, in May and June is still an important local event.
The boys and I wandered the streets of Sant'Antioco at dusk as waiters and barkeeps busily set up outdoor tables and televisions to show that night's Euro Cup soccer match between Italy and Germany. As evening neared, people began to appear, and we found seats at a table in the middle of a street outside a pizza parlor. By the time the match started, so many people were outside, shouting and groaning and laughing and talking, that Sant'Antioco had become a carnival of joy, pain, and anticipation. We were geographically closer to Tunis than to Rome, yet for those hours you could feel the clamor here mingling with the noise from Milan and Florence and Naples.
The next morning, we took a ferry to San Pietro, a small island southwest of Sardinia that got its name because Saint Peter is said to have once visited. We disembarked in Carloforte and joined the other tourists strolling through the outdoor markets where Sardinian artisans sold handmade pocketknives and crockery and air-brushed paintings of Elvis. It was hot, and we ordered sandwiches that came out on flat focaccia bread, according to local custom. Just as I was again imagining myself in another century, in another world, I noticed the background music: "Shake Your Booty," by KC and the Sunshine Band. Oddly, it sounded just fine.
We had spent four days traveling 80 miles along the southern Sardinian coast and had seen so many spectacular beaches that I lost count. The ferry from San Pietro returned us to Sant'Antioco, where a hired driver named Antonello collected us for the trip back to Cagliari. He pulled over to a fruit stand so we could sample the mangoes, then turned onto a winding road we had missed on the trip down. Soon we were hugging the rugged coastline, switching back and forth above secluded coves as Antonello called out the names of still more beaches we had not seen.
In the back seat, my sons were already planning their return. As I took in the scenery, I heard Eddie ask the now-familiar question: "Which beach is your favorite?"
The Details: What to Do in Southern Sardinia
To fly from the United States to Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital, you’ll need to make a connection in a European city like Rome or Madrid. Those already in Italy can take a ferry from the mainland.
Hotels and Restaurants
Faro Capo-Spartivento: This boutique hotel, housed in a 19th-century lighthouse by the Tyrrhenian Sea, has stylish rooms and an infinity pool overlooking the cerulean waters. Domus de Maria; doubles from $1,274.
Forte Village: A luxury resort on a pristine strip of beach. Spread across the manicured grounds are 21 restaurants, a sports academy for kids, and an amphitheater for live entertainment. Santa Margherita di Pula; doubles from $510.
Pani e Casu: Located in the historic Castello district of Cagliari, this restaurant offers Sardinian fare like goat stew and wild boar. 51 Via Santa Croce; 39-070-858-6629; entrées $8–$17.
Castello: Once a stronghold fortified against marauders, this ancient section of Cagliari is now a time capsule of old Sardinia, with narrow, winding streets, sun-drenched piazzas, and stunning views of Cagliari’s port and the waters beyond.