A Google search for “best European beaches” is what sparked my interest in Sardinia, an Italian island that up until that point I had encountered only on the back of wine bottles.
Turns out that compared to most of Western Europe, the island attracts relatively few tourists. Sure enough, for our first few days in Sardinia, we heard hardly a word of English except from our friendly hosts, and often felt like the only non-Italian tourists in whatever village we pulled up in for the night. We knew that the rest of our honeymoon would keep us busy exploring cities and mountains, and so our goal for Sardinia was to soak up as much sea and sun as possible. (FYI: it’s close enough, and cheap enough, to mainland Italy to make for a viable excursion…)
We rented a car and drove the windy scenic roads around the southern half of the island and crossing the mountainous center. It’s worth noting that this drive is not for the faint of heart; but we tried to appreciate that the absence of any guard rails left us with an unobstructed view of the landscape and its dramatic cliffs.
Whenever the road was near the coast, there were plenty of opportunities to swim – just a simple matter of pulling over when a another stretch of empty sand revealed itself. Other highlights? Almost too numerous…the charming town of Pula, the ruins to explore near Cabras, the city of Nuoro with its impressive street art scene…
And the beaches…ah, the beaches. The island is ringed with gorgeous, largely empty beaches, many of which rest under the gaze of 500-year-old watch tower ruins. These haunting cylinders remain from the days when the Spanish were guarding against invasion by the Ottoman Empire. Today, they provide a stunning focal point to peer up at while floating in the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
But the beaches we drove by paled in comparison to the beaches on the Ogliastra Coast.
We had read about this remarkable stretch of eastern Sardinia—dotted with beaches that are not only pristine, but also inaccessible by car. Locals and those fortunate enough to be traveling the Mediterranean on-board their own vessel can moor at any of the dozen or so beaches and coves and swim to shore.
I did a little digging online and discovered that there was a way to explore the coast on your own, even for those of us likely to never afford a yacht. The marina in Santa Maria Navarrese has a few small stands offering daily zodiac rentals. No previous boating experience necessary—just a quick tutorial, a little over €100, and you’re on your way, under the power of a 40-HP engine. (Too much effort? Check out this small group sailing tour through Sardinia.)
I was nervous about taking a boat out on open water for the first time. I worried about hidden rocks, stuck anchors, mechanical issues, and just about anything and everything else. But once we were out on the water with the red cliffs rising on one side of us and the horizon on the other, I quickly relaxed and realized I was about to have one the most remarkable days of my life.
Except for losing our sunscreen overboard in the first 20 minutes and having to drape ourselves with towels all day to avoid sunburn, that day on the Ogliastra Coast was nothing short of perfect. We had read about the famous beaches of Goloritze, with its towering rock formations and Cala Mariolu, known for the small baby pink stones that make up its beach. While we did visit these more famous corners of the coast and enjoyed bobbing offshore with the many boats that congregate at these striking natural altars of the Mediterranean, we found that it was also surprisingly easy to find privacy on the coast. We stumbled upon empty coves, pulled our boat up, and snorkeled around these crevices, feeling completely alone with the dramatic coastline and the fish that swim at its base.
Renting our own boat to explore the coast was one of the more extravagant things we did; it felt especially decadent after days of swimming in exquisite waters, amidst stunning landscapes. But there are some places you encounter when traveling that have their own particular magic, something beyond beauty that is felt deeply in your bones.
As we were cutting through the water our way back from an already perfect day, I sarcastically complained about the only thing missing, “What? No dolphins?” Not a minute passed before I saw the smooth slick grey of a fin move past the side of the boat and curl through the air for a moment before disappearing.
Do you want an Italian nautical adventure of your own? Check out this 8-day sailing adventure in Sardinia and Corsica.
Image Credits (top to bottom): iStock x2, Intrepid Travel x2