Glamour and tradition mix in sunny Sardinia

Beatrix Clark finds that there is something for everyone on this Mediterranean island

‘How far to the nearest sandy beach per favore?” I enquire, gesticulating in an attempt to indicate distance and sand. Not understanding the woman’s animated response and with the sun rising higher in the sky, we decide to abandon the scenic coastal path in favour of our Fiat Punto.

Since arriving on Sardinia I’ve rapidly learned two things: hardly anyone speaks English and it invariably takes longer to reach places than people tell you it will. As the Mediterranean’s second largest island after Sicily, this is not somewhere you can see in one visit.

We’re staying in the north-east, half an hour south of Olbia Airport and an hour’s drive from Costa Smeralda, a 10km strip of purpose-built luxury created by the Aga Khan in the 1960s.

Our apartment – one of four in a traditional style, terracotta villa – though not quite up to Smeralda standards has glorious views of countryside, sea and mountains, and an attractive, shared pool surrounded by olives trees and pink oleanders. Goats, geckos and a hedgehog residing under our patio add to the rural atmosphere, and 10 minutes’ walk down a dusty road is a secluded, rocky cove with excellent snorkelling.

On the downside, the pillows are distinctly al dente and the linen we’ve paid extra for is hardly Harrods finest, there’s not so much as a bottle of water awaiting us in the fridge, and the pool girl is aghast when our nine-year-old does a running leap onto his lilo.

The first beach we reach is Budoni, a wide, gently shelving stretch of soft, white sand backed by forest, which in June or September must look stunning but in August is predictably heaving.

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Compared with the locals, who are kitted out with their own parasols, tables, chairs and a variety of other paraphernalia, we’re somewhat ill-equipped, but the rock pools are ripe for exploration and the pine trees a perfect source of shade.

Along the coast, we discover many more beaches, some busy, some less so, backed by cliffs, sand dunes, lagoons or sleepy towns, and all with the same wonderfully clear water.

Our teenage daughter is keen on La Cinta, which is billed as a favourite with the “trendy, younger set”, and 10-year-old Oli prefers playing beach football with the locals at the more tranquil La Caletta.

Once our tans are established, it’s time to don the bling and head for Costa Smeralda’s glitzy Porto Cervo, where Leonardo DiCaprio was spotted a few days earlier.

We’re suitably impressed by the smart, gleaming super-yachts and their equally smart owners. The place itself, though, I find disappointing – a manufactured-looking piazza lined with designer shops and over-priced restaurants that could be anywhere in the Med – and not a glimpse of Leonardo.

In the absence of our own super-yacht, a couple of boat trips beckon. Our first is to the islands of Molinara and Tavolara, a huge wedge of rock which rises majestically from the sea and dominates the skyline of Sardinia’s north-east coast. From the water, we witness the true beauty of the coastline and lust after plush-looking villas. On the western side of Tavolara (the east being an inaccessible military zone), we laze in the sun sipping lemon granitas and snorkel en famille amid shoals of luminous fish.

Our second nautical outing, to the Maddalena Archipelago in the north, is even more scenic than the first. The seven-hour trip provides a mere flavour of the dramatic rock formations, Caribbean-style beaches and sparkling, aquamarine water which have rendered this cluster of islands a favourite with sailors. Many of the islands are uninhabited but I could happily spend a week on the largest, Maddalena, with its palm-fringed quayside, cafes and swish-looking, four-star hotel.

Where we’re staying a hire car is essential and best organised from the UK prior to departure. My favourite drive is through the mountainous landscape of the Gennargentu National Park, along a winding road originally hewn from the rock by coal merchants, where we unexpectedly encounter wild pigs. They snuffle at my feet with interest but this doesn’t deter my husband from tucking into the local delicacy of “pordceddu” (suckling pig) for dinner.

Another interesting spot is Posada, a medieval village whose narrow, cobbled streets and numerous steps lead eventually to a ruined, 12th century castle. Climbing its wooden staircase and iron rungs in flip-flops is rather nerve-racking but the view from the top, of the mouth of the Posada River and citrus-covered plains surrounding it, is stunning.

I have high expectations of Sardinia’s culinary delights and I’m not disappointed. In the shops and the local markets, which spring up at dusk, we buy chunks of delicious pecorino cheese, plump, juicy peaches and hazelnut and almond nougat laced with honey.

Barring a ludicrously expensive pizza in Porto Cervo, restaurant food is tasty and good value, from fritto misto and fish soup on the beach to succulent squid and octopus, whole-baked fish Mediterranean style, tender lamb cutlets and the aforementioned suckling pig. The local Vermentino wine slips down a treat and the ice creams, especially a flavour called “chocolate fondente”, are irresistible.

Service, however, can be temperamental and the waiters even more so. When I ask for a little parmesan with my spaghetti vongole, the waiter flings up his hands in horror, informs me that “cheese with clams is not possible” and flounces off to have a laugh with his colleagues at my expense.

On our last evening, popping into Budoni for a final gelati, we stumble upon a procession headed by two oxen, resplendent in head-dresses, pulling a cart bearing an image of Saint Giovanni.

Festivals such as this, dedicated to everything from patron saints to tomatoes, are held frequently throughout Sardinia and it’s uplifting to observe that on an island so often associated with glamour and exclusivity, tradition still plays an integral part.

It’s heartening, too, that, while tourism thrives here, it does so with no high-rise hotels or hordes of sunburnt Brits. Next time I’ll bring a dictionary – and I’ll pass on the parmesan.

o We flew from Gatwick to Olbia with easyJet. For southern Sardinia, fly to Cagliari. Villa Baia Pool Apartments are available to rent through Sardafit; a two-bedroom apartment costs from around �80 per night (low season) to �160 per night (high season). / Two weeks’ car hire with Budget, booked through, cost �325.