Authentic Italian hospitality, wildlife, some of the most unspoilt beaches in Italy and a glimpse into the lives of the ancients - all this packed into a western corner of sun-drenched Sardinia.
A starting point is Is Benas Country Lodge; fifteen minutes’ drive from the charming town of Oristano, it offers the perfect base for your Sardinian sojourn. This four-star hotel is set in a peaceful garden oasis with a pool, and courts for tennis and boules. The eighteen rooms (from 85 euros per night) are straightforward but comfortably furnished and spotlessly clean, while those on the ground floor (superior rooms at a supplement of between 15 and 25 euros per night depending on season) have small patios or garden areas. The staff here are uniformly delightful. Led by their smiley manageress who greets visitors at the door on arrival, nothing is too much trouble. Stay on a bed-and-breakfast basis to allow you the flexibility of long days out but book in for an evening meal or two during your stay. The food is fresh, tasty and served on a candle-lit terrace in summer.
Arrange car hire before you arrive. Avis and Hertz both have bases here and you’ll often find a deal can be bundled in with accommodation through a tour operator such as Sardatur (0208 940 8399 or www.sardatur-holidays.co.uk). When you arrive (Cagliari airport is nearest) nominate a strong body from your party to hover by the conveyor-belt for the luggage while someone else collects the car keys to beat the inevitable queues.
The pristine beaches are a huge draw here and throng with Italian tourists in the summer, but it’s not hard to find a tucked away spot for soaking up the picture-perfect scenery or losing yourself in a book. Buy your parking voucher from the kiosks as you enter the beach car parks and, since most visitors seem to plonk their cars and themselves on the main drag, drive to the furthest reach of the parking area. A short walk over the dunes will reveal secluded coves. Is Arutas and Mari Ermi are both vast stretches of sparkling smooth pink and white quartz grains with backdrops of pine trees, and the coast here is ideal for surfing – whether you fancy having a go yourself or simply lazing and gazing.
Exploring the Coast:
At the southern-most tip of the Sinis peninsular lies the wonderfully evocative archaeological site of Tharros, the ruins of a once-important Phoenician coastal town founded in the 8th century BC. Pottering among the remains, almost surrounded by azure sea, you’ll walk ancient roads, uncovering layers of history from the time of the Roman occupation, the Punic Era and the Bronze Age. The peninsular is bordered by beaches so buy a voucher before parking (it can be a hot and dusty trek back otherwise) and then climb the sandy hill beyond the cars - Tharros will appear before you. On a hot day, take a large hat and bottles of water as there is no shelter from the dazzling sun. You can re-hydrate or sip a beer and linger over a relaxing lunch at the simple, friendly café perched at the entrance to the site where the breezes drift through and the views are painted in vivid blues and gold.
Another day, head north up the spectacular turquoise-edged coastline of cliff-hemmed coves to Bosa Marina. Here, the sheltered beach has dark-coloured sand due to its high iron content. Don’t forget the flip-flops as any attempt at a barefoot stroll with leave you with burnt soles at the height of summer. It is lined with bars and cafés and shops for hiring water-sports equipment, and yet retains an unspoilt, un-touristy feel. An attractive jetty links the mainland to the Aragonese tower on Isola Rossa, affording views across the Mediterranean and over the beach – a medal-winning ‘cleanest beach in Italy’.
Just over a mile inland, on the Temo River, lies the pretty town of Bosa. There’s not a great deal to do here so linger over a relaxed lunch at the Verde Fiume restaurant (via Lungo Temo 51/53, www.verdefiume.com) with tables by the river overlooking the charmingly dilapidated old tanneries. Order plates of antipasti at around €9 each (the trio of bruschette is tasty and filling and a selection of local cheeses and salamis will leave little space for dessert), and quaff a bottle of local wine, such as the fruity Vernaccia di Oristano.
A lively stop-off for an evening meal on your way back down the coast is S'Archittu, with its many informal beach-side bars and restaurants. Saunter along the cliff-top path away from the town to view the striking bridge in the cliff-face formed by coastal erosion. It’s spell-binding in the setting sun.
For wildlife enthusiasts, this cliffy corner of Sardinia is home to numerous bird species, including the peregrine falcon and the griffon vulture, particularly on the promontory of Capo Caccia. The marshlands on the Sinis peninsula, especially the Sale Porcus Reserve between Putzu Idu and San Vero Milis, are flocked with elegant pink flamingos. These wetland areas, teeming with birdlife, are best visited on horseback. Contact ENGEA Sardegna (email@example.com) for comprehensive information or ask at Is Benas for them to arrange it or, if you prefer, rent you bicycles.
Anyone interested in horse-racing as an extreme observer sport should time their stay to straddle July 6th and 7th when the S’Ardia horserace takes place in Sedilo as part of festivities commemorating Constantine’s vanquishing of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. The race has its origins with the youths who trained their horses to run at high speed through the narrow streets at times of Moorish invasion and, while undoubtedly exhilarating, results in casualties amongst the one hundred riders and the 30,000 or so spectators each year.
Almost as exciting is a drive along the forested hairpin bends of the mountain road inland to San Leonardo de Siete Fuentes, near Santu Lussurgiu. Bring your heart-rate back down in peaceful woodland here, a shady haven on scorching Sardinian mid-summer days with pleasant walks and the seven thermal fountains that give the place its name. Popular for family picnics, you’ll often see huge trestle-tables set up and loaded with home-prepared fare and crowded with several generations of family and friends.
Bronze Age Sardinia was home to the enigmatic nuraghic civilisation whose distinctive fortresses, with their truncated cones, pepper the landscape. To delve into this ancient past, visit the Losa Nuraghe archeological site outside Abbasanta, just off the SS131 towards Cagliari (the 123 kilometre sign marks the site’s entrance). Give your imagination free rein among the massive basalt boulders of the central keep, dating from the second millennium BC. An exhibition space provides the detail to bring the site alive and a bar with a small terrace provides respite when you’re overwhelmed.
Nearby, the nuraghic village of Santa Cristina, outside Paulilàtino, is a magical, mysterious spot of evocative ruins, olive trees and dappled light. At a perfectly preserved well-temple dating from the 1st millennium BC the ‘cult of the water’ was worshipped and the religious significance continues in the tiny church dedicated to Santa Cristina that brings pilgrims every year.
If the dwellings of the ancients have captured your imagination and you have a mid-day (or later) flight home, make an early start for the airport and squeeze in a visit to the impressive nuraghic fortress of Su Nuraxi, a short detour up the SS197 (off the SS131 to Cagliari). A UNESCO World Heritage Site this is the most complete and complex example of nuraghic architecture. Carbon-dated to 1478 BC, the three-storey central tower of enormous mortar-less stone slabs stands guard over a labyrinthine village of some two hundred homes, a bakery, a mill, wells, courtyards, and assembly halls. Tours, which are obligatory but run by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff, begin every half hour and an early arrival may well secure you a private guide and tantalising insights into another civilisation before you head home to your own.