Without a doubt, the island of Sardinia is home to some of the very best beaches in the Mediterranean. Crystalline waters of dazzling turquoise, cobalt or emerald lap shores of white or golden sand – variously backed by fragrant pinewoods, plunging rocks or charming small towns. With more than 1,000 kilometres of coastline, a list of the island’s ‘best’ beaches could easily run into the hundreds.
And who can arbitrate on ‘best’ anyway, given that tastes vary so much on what makes a beach perfect?
To some, it’s seclusion and an air of exclusivity – a tiny, private-feeling cove flanked by sculptural rocks and pretty vegetation, with not a sunlounger or snack-bar in sight. To others, it’s a huge expanse of soft, strollable sand with wide views to distant islets and a cute nearby fishing village full of cafés and restaurants. Needless to say, Sardinia offers plenty of beaches like these, and more. You’ll always be spoilt for choice on this island, but here are some ideas on where you might start…
Sinis Peninsula – West Sardinia
Wild, undeveloped, windswept and dramatic, the coastline of the Sinis Peninsula is a protected wonderland of colourful landscapes. There are stubby cliffs, shapely sweeps of low-lying land, sleepy lagoons, reefs, gleaming beaches, miniature deserts of dunes, Greek ruins and even a small, cracked volcano. Uncrowded and entirely unspoilt, this is a wonderful area to bask in the elements, and to surf, cycle or snorkel. Two beaches you should include on your itinerary are San Giovanni di Sinis – a long gentle arc of pale sand overlooked by an old watchtower – and Is Arutas – where the sand is fine pieces of quartz, like shiny multi-coloured grains of rice. The nearby provincial capital, Oristano, is a handsome place and a good base from which to explore the peninsula.
Arcipelago di La Maddalena – Northeastern Tip of Sardinia
The Maddalena archipelago is a protected geomarine National Park comprising seven agonizingly beautiful islands – four of them uninhabited – plus innumerable tiny islets. Entirely unspoilt, it’s an aquatic Eden, with white sand, wind-sculpted rocks and dazzlingly clear water in barely credible shades of blue and green. Among the best beaches are the white-sand Cala Corsara on the isle of Spargi and the pink – yes, pink – Spiaggia Rosa on Budelli. Getting to and around the archipelago requires planning. From mainland Sardinia, you can embark from Santa Teresa di Gallura, Porto Pozzo, Palau or Cannigione. La Maddalena is the largest of the islands and there is some accommodation available in its eponymous town.
Brilliant beaches, colorful culture, dramatic scenery and fascinating history – the Mediterranean has it all. Here’s our pick of the best itineraries for the year ahead.
Viking Ocean Cruises’ brand new ship Viking Sea will leave its native Norwegian waters for an epic Bergen to the Bosphorus trip in July. There are just five ports on the journey to Istanbul – all with included guided tours – so it is perfect for those who love sea days and with the added bonus of a new ship to explore. In the Mediterranean it will stop at Valletta on the garden island of Malta, where UNESCO-listed Grand Master’s Palace of the Knights of St John is remarkable.
Istanbul is one of the most dramatic ports to arrive or depart from, with its ancient walls clearly visible and a forest of minarets soaring into the sky over this incredible city. Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ brand new luxury ship Seven Seas Explorer leaves from Istanbul for Venice after a day enjoying the city then sails to Kusadasi in Turkey where you can visit the ancient Greek ruins of Ephesus or jump on a bus to the nearby beaches. The Greek islands of Rhodes, Santorini, Zakynthos and Corfu offer idyllic taverns, bars and small beaches while there is more sights for sore eyes during the overnight stop in Venice.
Mooring in the center of Seville in the River Guadalquivir is a highlight on Swan Hellenic’s A Maritime History of Iberia cruise. Included excursions such as the Seville City Tour will take you to the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, which houses Christopher Columbus’ tomb, and the stunning Alcázar Palace, where the gardens are like an oasis (Game of Thrones was filmed here). From Seville there is also an included excursion to Cordoba, once a Moorish capital where the 8th century Mezquita – a former mosque – is unforgettable. Http://swanhellenic.com
Tunisia’s capital is a rare highlight of Mediterranean Getaway, Viking Ocean Cruises’ eight-day exploration of classic Mediterranean cities such as Rome, Naples and Barcelona onboard Viking Sky. More unusual is Trapani on Sicily’s rugged coast, home of the fortified wine Marsala – as well as a timeless Mediterranean mix of Greek, Gothic and Medieval architecture. http://vikingcruises.co.uk
Norwegian Jade, which will homeport in Southampton in 2017, is in the Mediterranean this summer and has a fabulous Adriatic and Greece round trip from Venice that will suit lotus eaters as much as culture vultures. The Greek islands of Corfu, Santorini and Mykonos offer sunny beaches with the ancient ruins of Olympia accessible from Katakolon and Athens’ ancient ruins near its port of Piraeus. Medieval Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia have both beaches and medieval streets. http://ncl.co.uk
There are maiden calls to the Greek fortress town of Monemvasia and Croatia’s Rijeka on Voyages of Discovery’s Dalmatian, Venetian & Greek Wonders cruise. Starting with an overnight in Dubrovnik, Voyager sails along the Croatian coast to Split and Rejika, where the Austro-Hungarian Empire architecture dominates. Kopor in Slovenia is a charming terracotta roofed historic town, while Monemvasia is a rock-like island with a medieval village enclosed within the castle walls. http://voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk
Viking Ocean Cruises’ Secrets of the Southern Mediterranean not only takes you to Tunisia, where you can see the ruins of Carthage just outside Tunis, but also to Algeria for a day in the North African country’s Algiers. Both are former French colonies and the French influence remains, for instance at Algiers’ Notre Dame d’Afrique Catholic basilica. Also on the itinerary is Valencia in Spain, which boasts one of Spain’s most modern City of Arts and Sciences complexes. http://vikingcruises.co.uk
There are few places more romantic than Italy’s Amalfi coast, and Azamara Club Cruises’ Sicily & Malta Voyage on Azamara Journey offers the very unusual opportunity to be moored off the beautiful town of Sorrento in the Bay of Naples for two full days. That gives you time to drink limoncello in the stylish bars of Capri, like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton once did, as well as visit Sophia Loren’s Naples, pop into Pompeii or explore pastel-coloured fishing villages along the Sorrentine Peninsula. http://azamaraclubcruises.co.uk
Get the best of the Caribbean and Mediterranean with this Atlantic crossing from Puerto Rico to Barcelona. There’s a day in the Caribbean’s St Martin, where you can explore the Dutch capital Philipsburg, or cross the island to the French capital Marigot, then you can enjoy the luxury of six days at sea with nothing to do but relax and enjoy the onboard facilities. The first European landing is Madeira, then there is a day in Morocco’s Casablanca before visiting the old naval city of Cadiz and on to Valencia before arriving in Barcelona. http://vikingcruises.co.uk
A ‘refreshed’ Norwegian Epic has a Western Mediterranean mini cruise from Barcelona to Rome (Civitavecchia), which would be a great taster cruise for anybody wanting to experience a classic Mediterranean sailing in the relative calm of spring. During the stop in Naples you can see its palaces and museums, take the train to Pompeii or a boat trip to Capri off the romantic Amalfi Coast. http://ncl.co.uk).
The great composer Gioacchino Rossini was so fond of his hometown, Pesaro, that he left an ample fortune to the municipality, which honored him by establishing a Rossini Foundation. From this grew the annual Rossini Opera Festival, devoted exclusively to his work (die rarely performed ones as well as the famous) and now one of Italy’s most popular summer music festivals, a favorite among purists since it was founded in 1980.
Even when the festival is not in town, life centers around—where else?— the animated Via Rossini. Pesaro is a popular, attractive seaside resort, and its piazzas and cafes are always full. For the quintessential festival experience, stay at the handsomely refurbished but still old-world waterfront Hotel Vittoria, the meeting place for the stars of the festival.
Check out the culinary’ genius of Otello Renzi, a genuine scholar of food and wine whose restaurant, Da Teresa, is named after his mother, who oversees the kitchen. The house specialties of fresh pasta and fish draw the festival’s performing artists annually.
The old-world hotel where Ernest Hemingway’s tragic WW I hero Frederic Henry trysted with his goddess, Catherine Barkley, in A Farewell to Arms still dominates the banks of Lake Maggiore, in a setting that only grows more gorgeous with age.
The enormous 19th-century Grand Hotel et des Iles Borromees is as romantic and princely as in the days of the young American soldier, and the lobby bar still serves a stiff Hemingway martini to help guests slip into that mood of being “faint with love.”
The views alone are enough to warrant a certain lightheadedness: ask for any of the lakeside rooms for a priceless view over the 40-mile sweep of water toward the snow-dusted Swiss Alps and a glimpse of the four Borromean Islands.
The tiny but fabled Borromeans are named after the aristocratic Lombard family that has owned them since the 12th century. They consist of two Baroque palaces, a tiny fishing village, and two lavish gardens, whose springtime display of rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, resident peacocks, and golden pheasants is world renowned.
“What can one say of Lake Maggiore, and of the Borromean Islands,” wrote Stendhal, “except to pity people who do not go mad over them?”
Wait till the afternoon crowds thin, then cross the drawbridge to this fairy-tale castello almost entirely surrounded by the deep blue water of Lake Garda. All towers and fancy battlements, the 13th-century castle was built by the powerful della Scala (or Scaligeri) princes of nearby Verona, 2 miles out into the lake. Garda is the largest in Italy and considered by many to be the most beautiful in the Lake District.
Just as Bellagio is known as Como’s Pearl of the Lake, fans of Garda call Sirmione the Jewel of the Lake. Beyond the castle are the narrow streets of the boutique- and cafe-lined Old Town, a pedestrian island still redolent of medieval times. In ancient times, the Lake District served as the cool summertime destination of Rome’s VIPs, in particular the hedonist poet Catullus, who was drawn to Sirmione as much for its natural sulfur baths as for the lovely setting. The panoramic Grotte di Catullo is said to be the ruins of his villa.
By comparison the 19th-century Villa Cortine Palace Hotel seems downright modern. Palatial, colonnaded, formidably decorative, and just this side of over-the-top, it is the area’s finest hotel, with impeccable gardens, lapped by the lake’s edge.
Where else can you tell a taxicab driver the name of a painting as your destination, and expect to get there? Every self-respecting Milanese, cabbie or not, knows the location of Leonardo da Vinci’s II Cenacolo (The Last Supper), one of the world’s most famous images, tucked away in the Gothic church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The entire country closely followed the painstaking twenty-year restoration that was completed in 1999. On a wall in what once was the refectory of the church’s adjacent convent, Leonardo created this powerful 28-foot mural.
Capturing the emotion-packed moment of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, it began to deteriorate almost immediately following its completion in 1495. Its recent restoration was as controversial as that of the Sistine Chapel, with some historians claiming that precious little has survived of the original painting or coloring, having been re- (and mis-) interpreted a little too zealously over time by countless restorers (there have been seven restorations since 1726); others herald it as a milestone of patience and craftmanship.
There is no dismissing that it is one of Leonardo’s finest works, one whose every brushstroke revealed the “intentions of the soul.” He searched for years among the city’s criminals for Judas’s face; the result, art historian Giorgio Vasari declared, was “the very embodiment of treachery and inhumanity.”
For sheer size and shock value, few buildings surpass Milan’s Duomo. It is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral (the only larger cathedral in any style is St. Peter’s in Rome), begun in 1386 under the Viscontis and not completed until 100 years ago.
Its 135 marble spires and 2,245 marble statues could keep you busy looking at it for days, though well- heeled Milanese women, Zegna-suited gents, and too-cool teens pass through the spacious piazza without giving this mad wedding-cake confection so much as a fare-thee-well.
An elevator to the roof offers the chance to stroll amid the fanciful forest of white marble pinnacles (which take on a rose tinge if the light is right) and to study the flying buttresses up close. There are stunning views over Italy’s most frenetic city, while a glimpse of the Swiss Alps 50 miles away can be had when the notorious Milanese fog and pollution aren’t obliterating the view.
The interior is spartan and almost always virtually empty despite the potential seating for 40,000—whom were they expecting? Shelley swore this was the best place anywhere to read Dante as it remains naturally cool even during the hottest of afternoons. True, if you can ignore the gruesome statue of St. Bartolomeo who, flayed alive, is depicted holding his own skin.
A must-see for shopaholics, the incomparable Via Montenapoleone and its offshoots are at the heart of the single most fashionable retail acre in the world. Shopping this exclusive “golden triangle” of showcase-studded streets is heaven for those with deep pockets and purgatory for those reduced to windowshopping.
The city’s tireless preoccupation with fashion, interior design, architecture, and food is showcased in this chic neighborhood—from the sleek boutiques of the high priests and priestesses of la moda italiana to landmark 19th-century tearooms and gourmet food stores.
Window displays are either over- the-top extravagant or Zen-like in their simplicity, ditto the stores’ interiors—everything is up to the nanosecond in this city that sets the trends and blazes the trail.
Whether you’re laden down with designer-labeled acquisitions or just plain exhausted by the day’s visual overkill, the only place to park your bags is at Milan’s Four Seasons Hotel, a quiet oasis at the very hub of Montenapoleone’s shopping strip.
The order of nuns that established this former convent in 1450 did not take leave until the late 18th century. The cloistered villa has been transformed into a top-class 21st-century hotel—a unique space both calming and luxurious.
This means fragments of exposed frescoes, ancient columns, and vaulted ceilings, but also exquisite guest rooms with spacious marbled baths and heated floors, acclaimed restaurants, and the casually elegant lobby (the convent’s former chapel) that attracts local Milanesi and hotel guests alike—both a mirror of the city and a haven from it.
Top off a stylish day with dinner at the delightful Aimo e Nadia, located in a nondescript comer of the city. The well-known husband-and-wife owners have been together since their childhood in a village near Tuscany’s Lucca, and today they share the cooking and tending of the garden that provides the kitchen’s wonderfully fresh and savory ingredients.
Much of the daily-changing menu hints of their Tuscan roots, but to dine here is to experience Italian cuisine at its purest and dishes that keep the house full of loyal patrons.
Mantua is a city locked in its past, richly endowed with art and historical memories of the 400 years when it flourished under the patronage of the powerful Gonzaga family, who were to Mantua what the Medicis were to Florence.
Their 500-room, fifteen-courtyard Palazzo Ducale, built between the 13th and 18th centuries, is so sumptuously decorated that an afternoon’s visit can induce a magnificent stupor. Vast gilded halls and huge galleries are filled with vibrant canvases by Renaissance masters, most notably Andrea Mantegna, whose fanciful Camera delgi Sposi (Bridal Chamber, 1472—1474) is the fortress-cum-palazzo’s highlight.
A watershed in Renaissance imagination, it is Mantegna’s masterpiece and his only remaining fresco cycle, an important part of the unrivaled legacy of art left by the Gonzaga dynasty.
After stumbling out of the splendor of the Palazzo Ducale, how to match the experience? You can eat like the dukes of Mantua beneath the frescoed ceilings of Trattoria II Cigno, where recipes from the personal cookbook of the Gonzagas’ court chef hold diners enthralled centuries later.
Originally a cardinal’s private pleasure palace, now operating as a grand hotel from which all others take their inspiration, the Villa d’Este is unrivaled for its regal decor as well as its majestic position on the verdant banks of Lake Como.
Crystal-dripping chandeliers and exquisite silk draperies and upholsteries made in the nearby town of Como are soothing and inviting, grand but never overpowering. Lakeside rooms have the added luxury of seductive views of the glacier-sculpted lake and its profusion of elegant villas.
Marble-statued terraces and gardens drenched in flowers cascade down to the water and can only be viewed by boat—that is, if you ever choose to leave the hotel grounds. There are 10 acres of gardens, shady waterside terraces for sipping cool Bellinis, and the exceptional Veranda Restaurant, whose glass walls bring the lake to your dinner table.
A freshwater outdoor pool offers views of the mountains from its spot at the edge of Lake Como. It is suspended on a floating redwood deck, gently rocked by the waves created by the lake’s lazy buzz of activity.