Whether you stay in a luxury hotel, on a million-dollar yacht or in a tent, if you go to the trouble to visit Sardinia, you must not leave without negotiating the narrow, windy, hilly road that curves alongside this most picturesque coastline. You will be rewarded with shimmering turquoise waters, wind-sculpted sandstone formations, beautifully camouflaged resort homes and brightly-hued fishing villages where minuscule boutiques sell the most expensive, most elegant casual attire in the universe. It costs the earth, in August it's crowded, it's impossible to find a place to stay, but we dare you to find anyone who regrets having gone there.
If you fly into Olbia, rent a car at the airport. Or take your car on the ferry to Golfo Aranci. Sardinia is a place for drivers: the public transportation is dismal, unreliable and SLOW. However you get to the island, have a car and drive it north, following the frequent signs marked "Costa Smeralda."
Unlike many parts of Italy, the main attractions here are not jewel-like towns or world-class museums. What you've come to see is right outside your car window, every minute of the day. Keep bathing suits, towels and snorkeling gear at hand always, because you will find dozens of places to stop and take a swim. And if you're traveling in summer, keep your windows down so the butterscotch-like scent of golden St. John's wort flowers can fill the air.
The first stretch of the provincial road is tortuous, alternating twenty-foot high boulders with breathtaking views of tiny coves nestled directly below the road. Meander north, stopping in Porto Rotondo, then in Porto Cervo, to stroll through the narrow streets, people-watch at a cafe, inspect the glamorous yachts and sailboats and look for bargains in the boutiques.
After Porto Cervo, the vistas open up as you drive past Liscia di Vacca, surely one of the world's most memorable bays, and on past the Gulf of Arzachena. Soon you'll come to the bustling seaport of Palau, where more signs are in English than Italian, because of the nearby US nuclear submarine base. This is the departure point for a 20-minute ferry trip to the dramatic island of La Maddalena. Garibaldi buffs will want to drive across the causeway that links La Maddalena to Caprera, where Italy's closest equivalent to George Washington is buried.
on the main island, continue north to windswept Santa Teresa di Gallura. Plan to spend some time on the beach wandering amongst the huge sandstone "animals," natural formations that closely resemble elephants, rhinos, hippos and water buffalo. This is the official boundary of the Costa Smeralda, and it's a great place to settle in for a good night's rest. The next morning, adventurers will want to push on along the Costa Paradiso, to the town of Castelsardo. Here you can visit the ancient towers and ramparts, the Doria Castle, and the 12th-century church of Santa Maria di Tergu. More miles of breathtaking coast lead to Porto Torres, where the 11th-century Romanesque church of San Gavino is well worth a pause, and then on to Stintino, the northwestern tip of Sardinia facing the former penal island of Asinara. Be sure to have plenty of film for your camera, and pat yourself on the back for having completed this gorgeous, if somewhat arduous, itinerary.
Ferries leave for La Maddalena from Piazza del Molo in Palau several times a day, although you may have to wait for a second one in August. One ferry a day leaves from Via Porto in S. Teresa di Gallura, where you can also catch a ferry for Corsica.
Garibaldi's Home and Museum (Compendio e museo garibaldino, Caprera) is open Tuesday-Sunday, 9-1:30.
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