Inland from the sparkling shores and spangling yachts of northern Sardinia’s glitzy Emerald Coast are mountains fragrant with wild herbs and kitchens serving deep-fried cheese ravioli and succulent suckling pig
Planning a Sardinia holiday? Read our guide to some of the best bars, restaurants and places to stay in Sardinia, Italy. From small plates of antipasti to large plates of charcuterie and cheeses, and, big bowls of homemade pasta and bubbly bellinis. Here are to some of the best places for Sardinian food and drink in Sardinia.
The sky is a bleached-denim blue, the sun as dazzling as a playboy’s medallion as we flip-flop along the jetty to our boat. The Relais Villa del Golfo’s luxury sailing yacht, along with its chino-clad captain, is ours for the day – so far, so chi-chi.
The north coast of Sardinia is famously flashy. This is not the low-key luxury of private hideaway-peppered Italian islands such as Pantelleria and Panarea. Ever since the Aga Khan spotted the potential of this wild, untrammelled stretch of coastline from his yacht in the late 1950s, and went on a monumental building spree, bling has been king. Among its rocky coves, sugary sand and languorous seas Prince Karim Aga Khan IV created an exclusive playground and renamed this jewel-like enclave the Costa Smeralda, or Emerald Coast.
Its hub, Porto Cervo, a pseudo terracotta-trimmed fishing village, is a kind of Sardinian Bicester-on-Sea. Pedestrianised streets form a necklace strung with wallet-draining restaurants and designer boutiques – Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada – while its marina is packed like sardines in a tin with gaudy super-yachts. Princess Margaret, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Peter Sellers once partied here. Today, you might still glimpse Hollywood A-listers, icons of Formula One, ageing rock stars and a Russian oligarch or two.
The Costa Smeralda slinks seductively along the shore for a mere 34 miles, however. Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily (read our guide to the best places to eat and drink in Sicily, here). Dip inland, or wind your way further around the coast, and you’ll find another, more authentic, side to the island. In the region of Gallura, around Arzachena, a sprawling archaeological park is littered with Neolithic remains and Bronze-Age Nuragic settlements.
A world away from Porto Cervo, the landscape here has been sculpted by the elements, dramatic granite rock formations dubbed the Dolomites of Sardinia whipped into shape by wild winds. Olive trees prick the stony ground, along with ragged myrtle (used to make the syrupy Sardinian digestif mirto). The scrubby vegetation or macchi a (maquis) is a fragrant mix of Mediterranean herbs, a tangle of rosemary, thyme, mint and oregano. There are twice as many sheep as people. And row upon row of vines.
For now, however, we are living the high life, lounging on deck as we scud across the waves to explore the Maddalena Archipelago, a cluster of Instagram-ready islands in the Bonifacio Strait, which separates Sardinia from Corsica.
Our skipper, Andrew, tells us that every type of fish in the Mediterranean swims through this channel, from John Dory to grouper, gilt-head bream to the majestic tuna. He has sailed these waters since 1976, once working on Norfolk turkey baron Bernard Matthews’s yacht. Dropping anchor just off Budelli Island for lunch, we slip into the sea for a swim, the water a vivid turquoise, shoals of shimmering sea bream swirling around us.
“Sometimes I drop a hook and line over the side while guests are swimming,” he tells us. “Then I dig up a couple of potatoes and pick the salad from my garden, and that’s dinner sorted.”
Andrew barters fish for cheese with local farmers. Ittico Sarda, in Arzachena, is the best fish market, he tells us. The best restaurant for fish? La Gritta in Palau. All the local villages have fresh produce markets, stalls piled high with wonky, garden-grown, pesticide-free fruit and veg. You don’t need to scratch too far beneath the surface to find Sardinia’s rustic roots and farm (or sea)-to-fork ethos.
Our hotel, the Relais Villa del Golfo & Spa, a cluster of pretty adobe-style buildings linked by cactus- and oleander-fringed paths, tumbles across a hillside above the sea in Cannigione. It has a Santa Fe New Mexico feel about it – and a focus on food. The open-air MiraLuna restaurant, overlooking the Gulf of Arzachena, dishes up starters such as shrimp with potato purée and mint and almond foam followed by pan-seared sea bass with pea and sea urchin purée. The hotel also has an organic agriturismo venture and farmhouse restaurant nearby, La Colti, which specialises in local Gallurese cuisine.
Everything at La Colti is produced on its own 120-hectare farm, where they breed pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and rabbits, and keep chickens and bees. As well as producing their own honey, they grow all their own vegetables. Arriving as the light starts to fade, the farmhouse courtyard is floodlit. Rustic-chic communal tables are dotted under the trees. As soon as you sit down the antipasti start to arrive, large plates of charcuterie and cheeses: ricotta, pecorino, goat’s cheese and spicy farmhouse salami, bowls of fava beans, homemade pasta and zuppa cuata – a meaty sheep’s broth packed with cheese, aromatic herbs and bread.
The main event, however, is the porcetto or suckling pig, a Sardinian speciality. In an open-sided barn a huge fire crackles. Splayed out and sizzling on racks is the porcetto. The roasted pork is chopped into rough chunks, the meat soft and succulent, the skin crisp and coated in sweet fat. For dessert, another local speciality: seadas – deep-fried ravioli stuffed with a mild cheese and soaked in hot honey. Heavenly.
The hotel offers cookery classes where you can learn how to make homemade pasta and dishes such as chiusoni Galluresi (Sardinian dumplings in a rich tomato and sausage ragout), ravioli Galluresi (pasta stuffed with ricotta and lemon) and seadas. It also organises private tours to an off-the-beaten-track winery not generally open to the public.
Near the medieval village of Luogosanto, the Siddura Vineyard is cradled by craggy hills. It’s a bucolic location, with 22 hectares of the 200-hectare estate planted with vines and harvested by hand. The subterranean state-of-the-art winery has architectural wow factor, half-burrowed into the hillside.
After wandering through the vineyard we take a seat in the ancient tasting room (now decked out with striking modern art) where a handful of bottles are lined up. The first, Spèra, is a vermentino, the most famous of the region’s grape varieties that thrives on the granite terroir. The second, Maìa, won a Decanter award. It’s also a Vermentina di Gallura but is more full bodied. It’s one of the reds that I fall for, however: Bàcco is made from the cagnulari grape. It’s intensely ruby red, smooth and velvety but almost medicinal on the nose – think Fisherman’s Friend with a hint of farmyard.
We’re venturing further off the beaten track for the next few days, winding into the Barbagia mountains to the Hotel Su Gologone. Just a two-hour drive from the Costa Smeralda this is more bandit than paparazzi territory – probably one of the reasons Madonna hid out here, although she could have been swayed by the hotel’s gob-smacking beauty, hippy chic vibe and gourmet credentials.
Food is at the heart of Su Gologone, which started life as a restaurant in the 1960s. Today, it might be a chic, art-themed hotel – a pretty huddle of whitewashed buildings laced with vivid purple bougainvillea and bedded into the mountainside – but it’s still famous for its food. And the family’s matriarch, Mrs Pasqua, is still there every night, although her daughter, artist Giovanna, now runs the hotel.
Giovanna’s vibrant artworks pepper the bedrooms’ walls while the corridors are hung with traditional embroidered skirts and shawls. Secret alcoves are dotted around the gardens, there’s an open-air cinema and pool, a small spa, rooftop lounging areas for stargazing and a fabulous bar– whitewashed, open-air, scattered with white cushions and teetering above the valley. Sip a frothy bellini here, as the sun sinks, soaking up the Ibiza vibe and jaw-dropping views.
What you’re gazing at is the Supramonte Massif, a 35,000-hectare protected site, riven with deep gorges, cliffs and canyons, and laced with mountain trails lined with wild rosemary and juniper bushes. Scrabbling up a dirt track during our stay we explore Bronze Age remains and a Nuragic village, and plunge into deep limestone caves where shepherds once brought their sheep to drink from the icy pools inside. Wild sheep and wild boar roam the woods of holm oak here and golden eagles soar overhead.
It’s a good idea to work up an appetite. The natural larder in this remote region is overflowing. Nearby Oliena is famous for its olive oil and wine. Su Gologone buys its sheep’s cheese and lamb here. “It’s important for us to have a low carbon footprint,” Mrs Pasqua explains. They make their own bread and handmade sweets using local almonds. The hotel has a farm and organic kitchen garden, and in the nido del pane (bread nest) local women dressed in traditional costume give guests breadmaking demonstrations, including the local pane carasau, a crisp, wafer-thin flatbread baked in a brick oven.
At the hotel’s open-air restaurant, with its brightly painted tables and chairs, and sweeping views, one of the dishes is filindeu, a sheep’s broth with a bird’s nest of pasta. Originally eaten by the poor, the handmade pasta contains no eggs – just semolina wheat, salt and water, dried into laces in the sun – and it’s now a local delicacy.
I gorge myself on homemade fennel and gnochetti ravioli with an earthy wild boar sauce. The star of the show has been cooking all day, however. In two giant open-air fireplaces racks of porceddu allo spiedo are slowly turned. Su Gologone is famous for its suckling pig – bred on the family farm, cooked over an open fire and dished up to raucous, chattering tables of hungry diners. Su Gologone is not fancy but the hearty, field-to-fork food is fabulous.
WHERE TO STAY IN SARDINIA AND HOW TO GET THERE
Citalia offers seven-night holidays to Sardinia from £1,235 per person, including four nights’ b&b at the Hotel Relais Villa del Golfo & Spa, three nights’ half board at Su Gologone, car hire and return flights from London Gatwick to Olbia with easyJet (citalia.com).