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August 17, 2018, Sardinia, Italy

A DRIVE to remember

Wu Shangyuan discovers Sardinia’s many delights on a road trip

Wu Shangyuan

THE Italian island of Sardinia lies amid the crystal-clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.

Hordes of sun-loving Europeans descend upon it every summer, revelling in its cultural offerings and natural escapes.

The island has seen rich history unfold — from the prehistoric settlements of the Nuragic people to conquests by foreign powers including the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines and Aragonese from the 8th century BC, and its inclusion as an autonomous region in Italy in 1948.

Remnants of its colourful past are still visible around the island, which is best explored by car.

After spending a day in the capital Cagliari, my travel companion and I spent seven days driving about 700km to explore the white sandy beaches and old towns of the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, which is more than 30 times the size of Singapore.

Day 1: Cagliari

We strolled through Cagliari’s old town with its quaint streets, town squares and the landmark 13th-century Cagliari Cathedral.

Cagliari’s Sardinian name, Casteddu, means “castle” — an apt description since it was the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia from the 14th to the 19th century.

In the evening, after a romp through the shopping street Via Giuseppe Manno, we had pizza and pasta for dinner at Piazza Yenne, which is packed with restaurants that have outdoor patios — ideal for people-watching.

Day 2: Cagliari to Oristano

We rented a small and compact car that was perfect for parking in coastal hot spots and traversing narrow mountain roads.

While heading north to Oristano, we passed the beautiful beach of Piscinas, with its sand dunes facing the sea. At Oristano, we drove to the nearby Sinai Peninsula, a magnificent stretch of land extending from the shoreline.

Here, at the edge of the water, stood the archaeological site of Tharros, the remains of Phoenician civilisation from the 8th century BC.

We admired the ruins of the residential and religious complex, taking in the sea breeze and expansive natural landscape.

There were signs of another historical period amid the greenery, in the form of cylindrical-shaped stone towers that Spanish conquerors had built for protection against pirate raids in the 16th century.

Days 3 and 4: Oristano to Alghero

En route to Alghero, we stopped at the picturesque town of Bosa with colourful houses lining its waterway, and a castle at the top of a hill.

At the top, we found ourselves looking down at a spectacular view of red-roofed houses bounded by green mountains and winding rivers.

At Alghero the next morning, we walked down a meticulously cut path along the edge of cliffs, descending 600 steps past dramatic views of rock and sea to Grotta di Nettuno. The caves were formed some two million years ago and extend 4km deep.

Our first gasp-worthy moment came when we saw a perfectly still lake within a tall cavern overhanging with stalactites. Lit a mysterious orange, the scene seemed otherworldly.

That afternoon, we drove to La Pelosa beach, noticing from a distance the dual-coloured water, with shades of dark blue splitting dramatically into pale turquoise.

This is one of Sardinia’s most beautiful beaches, with shallow waters and a Spanish tower on a rocky outcrop.

In the evening, a stroll through the pretty cobblestoned streets of Alghero old town took us to Piazza Civica, where we indulged in our favourite capricciosa pizza with prosciutto ham, mushrooms, olives and artichokes.

Day 5: Alghero to Palau

At Palau port, we booked a boat tour to the islands of La Maddalena, home to some of Sardinia’s most pristine beaches.

At Spargi, we disembarked and walked past the first beach to find a second quieter enclave of sand. We lazed on the beach and waded in the water, a process we gladly repeated on the islands of Budelli and Santa Maria, before ending up at the bustling seaside town of La Maddalena.

Days 6 and 7: Palau to Nuoro

From Palau, at the north-eastern tip of Sardinia, we made our way back down the island to Olbia, where we stayed the night.

The next 100km or so were a driver’s dream. We first journeyed through beautiful mountainous terrain to Spiaggia Cartoe, with its soft, white sand and blue waters.

From there to the town of Cala Gonone, our car descended a steep slope with hairpin curves, sometimes without a semblance of a barricade to separate us from the sharp drop beyond.

My friend, who was at the wheel, was ecstatic — the drive was as thrilling as it was scenic, offering a breathtaking look at the coastal mountains and the towns they hugged.

That night, we rested in the mountain city of Nuoro, before continuing our journey on a spectacular road with panoramic views.

Day 8: Nuoro to Villasimius

Our final stop was Villasimius on the south-eastern coast.

Porto Turistico offers an expansive view of the marina set against a rocky coast and mountains, and Spiaggia di Capo Carbonara features a cute stretch of beach alongside an area where visitors have created hundreds of stacks of perfectly balanced stones.

At Porto Guinco a short drive away, we luxuriated on a band of soft sand between two bodies of water, one a quiet lagoon and another the sea with magnificent rolling waves.

By the time we returned to Cagliari the next day, we knew we had chosen one of the best places to go on a road-trip adventure.

GUIDELINES

- We flew to Sardinia from mainland Europe on Alitalia.

- The best time to visit is May and June, before Sardinia becomes packed with tourists.

- Pre-book your rental car online to get a good rate. Go small — the bigger your car, the more difficulty you will have on the mountain roads.

- Sun protection is vital — Mediterranean temperatures can go up to 35 deg C or higher in the summer.

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