Saturday 24 February 2018

Sardinia: Shabby island chic

Sardinia may lack Corsica's glamour but it has serious charm

Laid-back vibe: The port town of Alghero on Sardinia
Laid-back vibe: The port town of Alghero on Sardinia

Joe O'Shea

Two sister islands in the Mediterranean. One speaks French and has the glamour and money, the other Italian and an air of shabby chic. You can actually see Corsica from the northern coast of Sardinia. But in terms of landscape, atmosphere and amenities, the two islands that are both washed by the Tyrrhenian Sea on their eastern coasts, are very different.

Our two-week jaunt around the Italian island was full of pleasant surprises and accidental stumbling on little gems. But there are few "Wow!" moments on Sardinia. It's not that kind of destination.

The Italian island is also not a very popular port of call for Irish holiday-makers. It's never really been on the radar for Irish people who tend to be drawn to the Spanish islands or the mainland coasts of Spain and France.

Ryanair do fly direct from Dublin to Alghero in northern Sardinia once a week and there are plenty of ferry links from Italy and France (a popular ferry route is from Marsiglia near Toulon to Porto Torres).

So why go to Sardinia? Well, in our case, it was a relatively last-minute destination that was decided by a pretty tight budget. We wanted to go somewhere we hadn't been before, where the flights and accommodation would not break the bank and where we could rent a car relatively cheaply and tootle around looking for great beaches, good food and great places to stay.

All we did know about the island and the only information we could get from the one friend who had been there several years ago was that the beaches and the water in particular were fantastic. "Best beaches I have been on in the Med, you won't believe how clear the water is," was the enthusiastic recommendation we received from that one intrepid traveller.

Having been to Corsica before, we were expecting a similar experience. But what we got was very different. For a start, you don't really get the sense of glamour and money that you get in most of Corsica, in the carefully restored back-streets of L'Ile Rousse (lined with expensive stores) or the picture-postcard walled harbour-town of Calvi.

Lots of Sardinia does look, to be honest, like it could do with a lick of paint. The main towns such as Alghero and Sassari (we decided to only do the northern half of the island) are typical of many old Italian towns in less affluent regions, pretty nondescript on the outskirts, with the ring of 1970s tower blocks eventually giving way to a central old town.

Sardinia has a very southern-Italian feel. You get the impression it has been very poor for a very long time and not much has happened there since the 16th Century.

The first town we stayed in, the slightly shabby but charming old port of Bosa, with its pastel-coloured terraces of townhouses huddled under a cliff-top castle, was so laid-back as to be almost horizontal.

We found a slightly ramshackle but fun townhouse on Airbnb.com (over three cramped floors but with a lovely roof terrace looking out over the castle and town) and on the first day we drove south to look for beaches.

And that's when the real joy of Sardinia was revealed. Drive down any dusty road towards the sea (follow any sign that says 'Spiaggia' or beach) and you are likely to find one of the best beaches you will see anywhere in the Med.

We followed a local tip and scrambled down over a path through scrub and over rocks to a small, sandy cove surrounded by cliff walls and it was spectacular, almost a movie set (Compultito beach near Bosa, it's not even sign-posted).

And this was repeated in Cala Gonone on the other side of the island and on the northern tip at Stintino, one of the premier destinations that has a ridiculously crowded beach in its centre but miles of white-pebble strands just outside to the south.

We finished up in the shabby but fun port of Alghero, with the best seafood meal either of us had ever eaten, a set-menu of multi-course loveliness in the tiny but jammed Mabrouk restaurant in an old cellar under the sea walls.

It was Sardinia in a nutshell, not too glam, not too expensive, just unfussy fun and with fab surprises and real quality as long as you are prepared to look for it.

Need to know

* Ryanair flies direct from Dublin to Alghero. You can also fly to Olbia and Cagliari but will have to make at least one stop. The island has a lot of ferry routes to France and Italy.

* Car hire is competitive – we paid €410 for two weeks with a compact. But Alghero Airport is tiny and allow for at least an hour on each side of the pick-up/drop-off.

* It's a short season, late May to early September as far as beaches and sun are concerned. And the most popular locations can get very, very busy in July-August.

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