An Explorer's Guide to Sardinia, Italy's Island Paradise

Dos & don'ts, where to eat and stay, and how to best navigate the region's many epic empty cove beaches (spoiler: it's a dinghy)

An Explorer's Guide to Sardinia, Italy's Island Paradise

Author

Mark McInnis

Photographer

Mark McInnis

Camera

Ricoh GR1v, Canon FTb, Nikonos

Film

Kodak Portra 400, Portra 800, Gold 200

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Mark McInnis is an Oregon-based commercial surf photographer. Follow Mark on Instagram, you won't regret it.

For the past decade or so, it has pretty much been impossible for me to get excited about going anywhere that lacks a surfable coastline. After all, I am a surfer by definition and a surf photographer by trade. Of course the last month of quarantine has me longing to go anywhere, but still, the point is, with my passion and career intimately intertwined I’m always on the hunt for a surf. So, traveling across the globe to landlocked regions of the world—or even those with a coastline, but no surf—just isn’t my modus operandi. Then a trip to interior Morocco in 2018 where I didn’t see the ocean for 3 weeks opened up my eyes a bit.

A more recent two week trip to the Mediterranean’s second largest island, Sardinia, I began to believe what people keep telling me—maybe surfing isn’t everything.


Read on a for a detailed trip report, dos & don'ts, and an essential packlist. Please be smart and heed all local and international COVID-related travel restrictions now and into the future.

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A First Timer’s Guide to Exploring Sardinia

The arrival city of Cagliari has some colorful buildings and a nice marina, but we high tailed it out of there in search of more charming locales. Now before I get into it, I have to say that my girlfriend Christina is a trip-planning wizard and had us completely dialed from the time we set foot on the island. Through her research, she learned of San Pantaleo, a rad little town with an exquisite restaurant called Ristorante Giagoni.

This was our first proper meal in Sardinia and we absolutely feasted. Old world wine, oysters, sea bass, fresh salad, pasta, pizza, homemade bread and butter and, of course, a post dinner espresso left us content and thankful. And also caffeinated enough to make it to our destination, the Maddalena Archipelago. 

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For the next few days we savored moments every island Northern Sardinia had to offer. We hired a local skipper to take us around on his sailboat and enjoyed being on the water so much that we decided to do the skipping ourselves, in a customary rental dinghy.

During the day we would anchor our trusty vessel in one of the hundreds of nameless coves, eat store bought lunch under a dorky tourist umbrella and skinny dip, snorkel, and dive off the front of the dinghy until it was either too windy or time for dinner.

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It was a very easy life to ease into, especially because we went home to the cozy Lu Pastruccialeddu Bed and Breakfast in the nearby village of Arzachena every night. If you’re ever in the area and want to feel like you’re staying at your own Sardinian home, look no further (the free breakfast is certainly worth a mention, too). And lastly, if you are in Arzachena and pizza is your jam, don’t miss La Terrazaa. Trust me. 

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"During the day we would anchor in a nameless cove, eat lunch under a dorky tourist umbrella and skinny dip, snorkel, and dive off the front of the dinghy."

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As we left Northern Sardinia to explore more, we really had no plan. We passed through the industrious town of Olbia, took the back roads through the quaint coastal village of Santa Lucia, watched the sunset on a beach by ourselves in Capo Comino and stood awestruck at the hillside architecture in Dorgali as we loomed high above the lush valley below. The crown jewel of the trip, however, was the Gennargentu National Park.

Placed between Cala Gogone to the north and Santa Maria Navarrese to the south, Gennargentu National Park spans roughly 22 miles of untouched, uninhibited, coastline. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but I don’t think anything on that trip can compare to daily dingy missions along this stretch of granite coast, wine, bread and cheese in hand.

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The aforementioned towns that flank the park are both worth a visit as well. They’re quaint, cute, and, despite their popularity, retain the enchanting feel of what I might imagine old-world Sardinia to have felt like. 

Truth be told, Christina and I actually cancelled the next portion of our trip to stay in Sardinia for another week. Obviously, the lack of surf didn’t hinder my trip one bit. Surf isn’t everything. Sometimes. 

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6 Dos and Don’ts for exploring Sardinia and Neighboring Mediterranean Islands

  • DO rent a dinghy. I can’t say enough about the freedom you feel while out on the water, cruising around on your little gray inflatable boat. It takes the complication away. It simplifies everything and is a great way to explore the coast. 

  • DO experience a traditional Sardinian agroturismo. Google it. And show up starving. 

  • DO take the backroads. Sardinia only has a couple main highways, but they all skip the coast. Get a map, or use one that you have downloaded to your phone, to find the back roads. Then put the map away and get lost. 

  • DON’T avoid the carbs. Granted Sardinia isn’t mainland Italy, but their pizza, pasta, and fresh baked bread tastes, feels, and smells like it came straight from Bologna. 

  • DON’T go in peak season. Sardinia gets crowded, but if you go early in the season, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of empty beaches and reservation free dining. 

  • DON’T forget a camera. No explanation needed. 

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5 Items to Pack for a Trip to Sardinia

Topo Designs Wind Jacket, $129 $90
Sardinia is hot in the summer months (we were there the first two weeks of June), but it can be windy and often cools down substantially after sunset. 

Outerknown S.E.A. Shirt, $88
I brought one button up shirt for the whole trip and wore it daily on the dingy and out to fancy dinners. A good button up can go a long way. 

Contax T2 35mm Camera, $500
Or whatever your point-and-shoot of preference may be. This is pretty self explanatory, but I’m mentioning it twice because it’s imperative. 

Patagonia Nine Trails 20L Backpack, $129
This is also a given, but you don’t need to go overboard. Just something to put essentials in like a hat, sunscreen, water, wine, snacks, book, and the camera you didn’t forget. Make sure it can be totally zipped shut, too.

An adventurous spirit
Granted this isn’t a material item, but this will get you a long way. Don’t rely on google maps for everything. Let your spirit be your guide and take a few unexpected turns here and there. You will be handsomely rewarded more often than not.

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Published 04-28-2020

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