Italy offers so much to holidaymakers: food and wine, art and architecture, high peaks and bosomy Tuscan hills, but relatively few Brits come here for sun and sand. To UK tastes, Italy simply doesn’t do seaside very well: beaches are often given over to hotel and bar concessions, with rows of sunbeds differentiated only by the colour of their umbrellas and the trashiness of their euro-pop. Only a corner at the least attractive end will be spiaggia libera – for people who just want to rock up and lie on a towel.
Sardinia isn’t like that: lists of the island’s best beaches run into the hundreds, and there are many more unnamed coves and wedges of white, silver or golden sand around its 1,000km-plus of coastline, peninsulas and islands. Some popular beaches are concessionised – though even these tend to be so spacious that plenty of spiaggia libera remains. There are wild beaches for those prepared to tote their own supplies, but most have a shack selling drinks, ice-creams and snacks.
And if you think Sardinia is expensive, think again. Its image is skewed by the Costa Smeralda, an undeniably beautiful area in the north-east around the town of Porto Cervo, developed by the Aga Khan in the 1960s. Its rash of yachting, golfing, millionaire-style development has spread as far as Palau in the north and south towards Olbia. But elsewhere, from the Catalan-flavoured north-west to the south’s white dunes, from the rocky east to sometimes surfable west, Sardinia’s coast offers space, surprisingly low prices (though accommodation costs jump in August) and a friendly welcome – particularly in these euro-critical times, when fewer Italians can afford a trip. Add budget flights to Alghero, Cagliari and Olbia, ancient villages, nuraghe (neolithic remains) for history buffs, and all the pizza, artisanal gelato and great-value wine you’d expect, and Sardinia is the perfect holiday island. Here are a few coastal favourites, with places to sleep and eat.
East of the island’s capital, Cagliari, beaches suffer from proximity to the city and the SP71 coast road. But an hour’s drive west and south – blue sea on your left, flamingo-dotted lagoons on your right – is ridiculously fortunate Chia. For a little resort to have not one perfect crescent of pale sand but five can only be called greedy. Even better, the beaches are backed by a strip of protected dunes, so there’s barely a building visible from the shore; most holiday homes and hotels cluster on a hillside a mile away.
The central beach, Campana, slopes gently into clear water and has several bars (with sunbeds) plus windsurf and kayak hire, but the most impressive is huge Su Giudeu to the west, on a spit between lagoon and sea, its couple of bar concessions lost in the wide soft sands. My favourite is eastern Su Portu, under the stone watchtower. One end is slightly stony at the water’s edge, but its intimate size and almost circular shape make up for that.
Another hour round the coast, linked by causeway to the “mainland”, is the laid-back island of Sant’Antioco. From the harbour, steep streets lead to the old town and one of Europe’s oldest churches, fifth-century Sant’Antioco. It’s worth paying €5 to tour the Roman, Punic and early Christian catacombs, complete with frescoes, and at a pleasant year-round 18C. Young guide Marco told us how there are catacombs under the whole old town, and one elderly resident uses those below her house as cool summer sleeping quarters – cheaper than aircon.
South of the causeway, Maladroxia beach is justly popular, if narrow by Sardinian standards, but the town of Calasetta, on Sant’Antioco’s northern tip, is almost as well-favoured as Chia, with three white-sand bays in increasing sizes. The one nearest Calasetta, Sottotorre, is a pretty, perfect locals’ beach, with clear water and no concessions – but it’s worth driving a few kilometres to Le Saline and Spiaggia Grande, with their wide sweeps of sand, barely a building in sight, and free parking.
Calasetta’s grid of 18th-century streets is also home to a modern art gallery, the MACC (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Calasetta, via Savoia 2, €3, open 6-9pm only). Nearby, Piazzale Torre has a 1756 watchtower, a great setting for sunset yoga classes (7.30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays), and there are great views towards San Pietro island from the belevedere, where oldsters chat on granite benches still warm from the day’s sun.
Where to eat
The outdoor restaurant at Torre Chia campsite (pizzas from €4, fish mains from €10, +39 070 92 30 054, via del Porto 21, campeggiotorrechia.com) behind Su Portu beach is a good budget choice. Sardinians are less fixated on carb-heavy primi piatti than the mainlanders: it’s normal to leap straight from (substantial) antipasto to the main meat or fish event. A shared fish antipasto of six little plates was €9 and felt like a main meal.
You can dine on fish with your feet almost in the sand at Calasetta’s La Caletta (mains from €15, Via Sotto Torre 22, +39 345 253 3184), but we also enjoyed an evening in the hubbub of the central square. A few streets back on aptly named Piazza Belly, portions at Il Pirata (+39 078 188 025) were huge, service chaotic but friendly, and dinner for two with wine under €50. Try fregola sarda (pasta balls) with seafood sauce, and mussels with fresh tomato.
Where to stay
In Chia, Hotel Spartivento (doubles from €130 B&B, hotelspartivento.it) is a little hard to find (turn right past the town’s only big hotel, the sprawling Laguna) but worth the effort. Low-rise buildings sit on a green slope with views over fields to Su Giudeu beach. Bedrooms are delved into the hillside, and some have little stone terraces with handy rosemary bushes for drying your swimwear. The outdoor dining room overlooks lawns dotted with trees, and a pool edged with rocks and driftwood. A free shuttle bus means guests can avoid paying (from €4 a day) to park down by the beach.
In a quiet residential area west of town, Calasetta’s newest hotel is two-storey Le Sabbie (from €64 B&B, lesabbie.com) with super-friendly staff and 30 doubles. There’s no pool, but a short walk takes you to Sottotorre beach; the town centre is a short walk in the other direction.
An hour’s drive north-west from Cagliari is the elegant provincial capital of Oristano, and some of the west’s best beaches are on the nearby Sinis peninsula, which is quiet, flat, and perfect for exploring by bike. At its edge, Torre Grande has 3km of south-facing beach, backed by pinewoods and low grassy dunes. This is a good base for older families (the sand shelves steeply under the water – not ideal for toddlers). The low-rise town is nicely buzzy, with lots of cafes, a long traffic-free seafront full of cyclists and skateboarders, and teenagers playing football by the “big tower”.
Wild beach beauty is a short drive away. San Giovanni di Sinis at the far south of the peninsula is a gentle arc of fine sand backed by low, fossil-laden cliffs: perfect for snorkelling, it also has impressive Greek ruins. Further north, Is Arutas glistens white between ochre-coloured rocks, the “sand” actually tiny quartz pebbles like so much risotto rice. It’s very pretty, comfy to lie on and doesn’t get everywhere, unlike sand – no good for sandcastles, though. Parking is free and plentiful. The peninsula’s west-facing beaches are also, in spring and autumn, one of Italy’s few surf spots.
In northern Sinis, try parking almost anywhere on the Su Pallosu road and pick a footpath down to the shore. The corrugated headland hides myriad tiny sandy bays: follow the locals.
Where to eat
Unpretentious beach restaurants are the norm in Sinis: at Turroi in San Giovanni (via Lungomare, +39 334 302 9630) a marinated mullet antipasto was delicious and the pizza the best I’ve had in years (dinner for two with wine €50 including tip). Stella del Mare in Putzu Idu (via Benedetto Sanna, +39 342 311 8005) was similar – hectic but smiley, with great prawns and calamari. Ring ahead to bag a table on the sea-view terrace.
Where to stay
A lovely walk through pinewoods from the beach, Hotel Gran Torre (doubles from €60 B&B, hotelgrantorre.it), near Torre Grande, is pleasantly fuss-free, with blue-and-white rooms and a pool. In Putzu Idu, 25km north of Oristano, slightly posher Hotel Raffael (doubles from €95 B&B, hotelraffael.com) has a pool and beautiful grounds. Putzu Idu’s white beach is minutes away, or hire bikes (€3 an hour, €10 a day) and explore sandy tracks inland, between wheatfields and vineyards edged with palm trees.
Good road links to Oristano mean it’s possible to see a different Sardinia by staying a little way inland and visiting beaches by car. For atmosphere and setting Santu Lussurgiu, a 1,000-year-old village built into the caldera of a long-extinct volcano 35km from the coast, is hard to beat. Hotel Sas Benas, (doubles from €110, sasbenas.it) in its medieval centre, was converted in 2012 from several townhouses. Having to abandon the car and find it on foot when the satnav gave up in tiny streets was part of the fun. And its restaurant, on a nearby square, is excellent.
Active families would enjoy Sa Mola (doubles from €80 B&B, bungalow sleeping four from €110 B&B, on ) in nearby Bonarcado at the foot of the Montiferru hills, which is gearing up to add horse riding to its walking and mountain biking activities (there’s no pool). Half-board deals are good value (€630 for a week for two in September) and food is very Sardinian – malloreddus pasta (like fat white grubs) and mint and rosemary flavourings, rather than the usual basil.
A good option in cooler weather is Antiche Terme di Sardara (from €81 a head full-board if you stay three days, termedisardara.it), inland and half an hour south of Oristano. A spa in the grand old European sense, it has two outdoor pools at a natural 38C – perfect for a warming dip after seaside walks. Stays here are quite a retro experience: the dining hall serves good but slightly institutional food, fussed over by a white-jacketed maitre d’. Treatments in the brand new wellness centre start at €16.
Across the north from the Costa Smeralda, Alghero is the choice of ordinary Italian families. The city’s beaches are a little gritty and noisy, but to the north, near the surprisingly appealing fascist-era town of Fertilia, Lazzaretto and Bombarde beaches offer kayaks and windsurfing for those who want them, plus expanses of silvery sand. Bombarde does have an ugly hotel at one end, but turn left and it grows quite wild, with low rocks enclosing little sandy “rooms”. For a romantic evening, park at Baratz lake, 10km to the north, and walk through woods (or drive in a 4WD) to wild, golden, west-facing Porto Ferro beach. You may well have the sunset to yourselves.
The area’s famous beach is La Pelosa, at the northern tip, but its white sand perfection and proximity to the Porto Torres ferry terminal mean it gets busy, and parking is expensive. The nearby town of Stintino, however, is a delight, squeezed between two harbours; south of it, follow signposts to several fine shingle beaches, including one called Coscia di Donna (Lady’s Thigh).
Where to eat
Family-owned restaurant Il Paguro (via Zara 13, +39 079 930260) sits on a residential street in Fertilia. Its seafood spaghetti (€16) is excellent, and a starter of “roasted Sardinian pecorino” (€4) is a wicked bowl of runny cheese, with flatbread hot from the pizza oven.
Where to stay
Keep life simple with a stay at Hotel Domominore (doubles from €100, hoteldomominore.it). In a rural setting with nice pool and lovely breakfast, it’s just 10 minutes from the airport (with very little plane noise) and 20 from the buzz of Alghero.
South from Olbia you are soon in mountains. After Orosei, the coast is so steep that beach access becomes an issue – unless you take to the water. Every morning from the town of Cala Gonone, boats depart for the beaches around the gulf, including Cala Goloritzé, one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 beaches in Europe. Returns cost €10-€28pp though, and run to strict timetables: a fun alternative is to hire an inflatable (gommone) with outboard motor (from €80 a day, max 12 people) and cove-hop at will.
South again is the Costa Rei, an area said to rival the Costa Smeralda for beauty, but which beats it for unspoiled charm. Just to the north is one of my favourite beaches – wide Colostrai, backed by a nature reserve, with golden sand sloping into water kept warm by a sandbar just offshore.
It was near here that we found our private paradise. Just before Capo Ferrato village on the SP97, red-and-white panels mark a footpath between an olive grove and a wheatfield, leading to the multi-hued sea and white sand of Porto Pirastu. Seaweed washes ashore at its northern end, but we turned right over some rocks and had the fine beach, with views down the whole Costa Rei, to ourselves on a July afternoon.
Where to eat
Feast on excellent culurgiones (Sardinian ravioli) with cured tuna roe at Sa Serbidora in Arbatax town (Piazza Sindaco Porrà 5, +39 328 337 4338). Carnivores will love the typical cena sarda at Torre Salinas’ on-site restaurant: a ham, salami and cheese antipasto, followed by speciality pasta, wood-roast suckling pig and/or braised goat, and a seadas pastry costs €30 a head with wine, coffee and liqueur.
Where to stay
Spending a few nights at Monte Turri Hotel (doubles from €120, monteturri.com) south of the Orosei gulf, is a treat. The hotel is part of a development that covers a rocky headland near the port of Arbatax. A lift takes guests down cliffs to a private swimming spot, and there’s a huge spa and a nature park with native animals. The views rival anything on the Amalfi coast.
For a simpler stay, try a beachside campsite. Torre Salinas (one-bedroom cottage sleeping two adults and two children from €55, campingvillagetorresalinas.it) near Muravera, north of the Costa Rei, is a peaceful spot overlooking a lagoon.
Villas Direct still has summer availability in several properties on the Costa Rei. Adele (from €451 a week, sleeps 6, villasdirect.com) is 200 metres from the sea.
• The trip was arranged by Sardinia destination specialist Tiziana Tirelli (twitter.com/tiztire), with accommodation provided by the hotels mentioned. Car hire was provided by Villas Direct (villasdirect.com), which has more than 100 properties in Sardinia