Far off the usual backpacker trail, Sardinia has been more traditionally associated with the likes of Paris Hilton and Victoria Beckham than those on a budget. But with new low-cost flight routes opening up, a weekend beach break – minus the high rises and lager louts which blight many other Med resorts – is now a real possibility.
Of course, you still won’t be able to afford to charter your own yacht to cruise northern Sardinia’s famous Costa Smeralda, but with forest fires blazing and Mariah Carey in town, do you really want to? Down in Villasimius, on the south eastern tip of the island, you can live the life of a billionaire even if you don’t have the bank balance to match.
Less than an hour’s drive from the capital Cagliari, this former fishing village has everything you could want from a beach holiday – sunshine, stunning coastline and invitingly translucent waters.
The town can be crowded in summer, its population swelling from 3000 to over 50,000 in August. However, the Germans, Swiss and Italians who cottoned on to Villasimius’ charms long ago stick largely to resorts, leaving the rest of the region free for the more savvy travellers.
But, as my host, hotelier Giovanni D’Anna explains: You must appreciate Sardinia from the sea”. There are plenty of low-key, affordable cruising options out of Villasimius’ new marina, from learn-to-sail and fishing trips to do-it-yourself arrangements. But the easiest option is to hop aboard one of Ignazio ‘Il Pescatore’ (the fisherman) Scano’s small half-day (€15) or day (€45) tours.
The Protected Marine Area of Capo Carbonara is one of only two marine-only parks in Italy, and it snagged its status largely thanks to the wealth of archaeological treasures beneath the surface. The shoals here have proven too hazardous for almost 100 vessels, so there’s a wealth of wrecks to be explored, ranging from the ancient – a Roman ship dating back to 250BC – to the steamship Egle, which was torpedoed by a Dutch sub in 1943. If you’re not into diving, you can still check out some of the salvaged Roman and Phonecian artefacts at the Museo Archeologico in town.
Divers are spoilt for choice though, with the conservation area also providing a haven for marine flora and fauna. With the excellent visibility, you should have no trouble spotting the likes of sea sponges, lobster, barracuda, black grouper, scorpion fish, octopus and the largest mollusc in the Med – the one metre long Pinna Nobilis, aka the pen shell.
However, it’s an introduced species that garners the most attention. The three metre high statue of the Madonna del Naufrago (‘Virgin Mary of the Shipwrecked’), or La Madonnina to her friends, was stationed 12 metres below the surface off Isola dei Cavoli to watch over sailors. She’s celebrated every July with a festival that includes an underwater blessing, which is led by the scuba diving parish priest of Villasimius.
For those who aren’t into diving, La Madonnina can also be spotted while snorkeling, or on a clear, flat day you should even be able to see her from your boat.
Back on land, but never to far from the water, a decent chunk of Villasimius’ main beaches are taken over by the hotels. However, there are some 35km worth of sparkling white, sandy beaches to be found around town, so you’ll never be short of a patch of sand to spread the towel on.
The centre of town, though small, also has a few interesting diversions to offer. With its Italian connections, it’s hardly surprising that one of the main attractions is the food. From crumbling pecorino cheese to a dazzling array of cured meats, a fantastic representation of the best of Sardinian cuisine can be found at the family-owned Quality Sardegna deli on the main drag (they also supply the vittles for the day cruises). Giancarlo Marongiu and his family have been running the place for over 50 years, and he’s happy to let customers try before they buy, so you can decide whether bottarga di muggine – the sticky local delicacy (and an aphrodisiac) of pressed and dried grey mullet roe – is to your tastes (unlikely).
If you’d prefer to have someone else do the cooking for you, there are also plenty of good restaurants around. Liquid meals are well catered for too – the town centre buzzes on summer nights, with the main street blocked off to traffic and bars staying open as long as there are still people drinking.
Make no mistake, southern Sardinia is on the way up – and just as enchanting as Croatia. Get it while it’s hot.”