Travel: Sardinia

La Licciola beach from the air. Picture: Contributed
La Licciola beach from the air. Picture: Contributed
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The clean air, slow pace of life and good local wine result in Sardinians being three times as likely as the average Westerner to live to be 100, discovers Natalie Walker

When I was living in New Zealand the former US president Bill Clinton came to visit – and speaking at a press conference he thrilled the Kiwis by describing their country as “like the magical place you dream of as a kid that when you get older you never think exists.” I agree with him. But New Zealand is a long way from Scotland.

On a much smaller scale – and a lot closer to home – I found Mr Clinton’s remarks coming back to me as I travelled around the north of Sardinia. Every time the group I was with hopped into our bus to head along the coast we found ourselves “oo-ing” and “ah-ing” at the scenery. Everywhere we went took twice as long as expected, due to the vast amount of photo stops. The coastline of this Italian island is remarkable; I had never seen so many different shades of blue. We couldn’t help gazing endlessly at the glistening Mediterranean.

The azure waters are as inviting as anything you’ll find in the Caribbean or Western Australia (damn, even New Zealand). We spent half a day lazing on Porto Pollo beach (literally meaning ‘chicken port’) a feast for the eyes, offering spectacular views out onto nearby Corsica’s chalky cliffs. With a plethora of decent food outlets and a laid-back bohemian atmosphere, it was the perfect place to chill and watch the windsurfers for a few hours.

From virgin-white coastal sands to the brawny beauty of its granitic interior, the northern portion of Sardinia offers up eye candy far beyond the flashy and better known 20km stretch of Costa Smerelda, eye-poppingly glitzy with designer shops, fancy golf clubs and private helicopter landing strips. Porto Cervo, the heart of that ritzy undertaking, remains a pleasantly vivacious vision of the Eurotrash good life, complete with dinky boutiques and remarkably un-gaudy architecture.

On another day we took a private charter yacht to the uninhabited Spargi, whose crystal clear waters and deserted coves take limpid to new levels of loveliness. The brave among the group disrobed and jumped in and joked about feeling like an extra in the film Blue Lagoon. Again, we insisted we stayed much longer than planned, simply because it was too beautiful to leave. Anchored next to us was a huge yacht flying the Russian flag. On deck was a row of oiled-up bodies (their gold jewellery twinkling under the endless sunshine) and the only noise to be heard all around was that of champagne corks popping.

Then there was La Maddalena – accessible via ferry from the Sardinian port of Palau. It is an enchanting settlement which, like many mainland Italian towns, boasts an ice cream parlour for every inhabitant. Gelatos in hand we meandered through the rustic streets, each of which seemed to end with a beautiful square packed with cosy cafes and mouth-watering delis. During all the Napoleonic Wars, Admiral Nelson used the archipelago of La Maddalena as a base for his fleet in actions against the French. It was while an elderly local man recounted tales of Nelson’s love affair with the island that we learned Sardinians are three times as likely as the average Westerner to live for an entire century. Right, that did it the group said in unison, we were sold. The old man said the reason he was most likely to become a centenarian was down to the clean air, slow pace of life, good local wine (absolutely true) and the fresh vegetable and olive oil-rich Sardinian diet.

The food was, of course, one of the trip’s many highlights. It’s Italian, obviously, but the Sardinians like to add their own unique twists where possible. We sampled most of our meals at resorts owned by Delphina, the family-run Sardinian-based chain hosting our trip. They grow their own herbs at every resort and the bar staff even shook up a few cocktails incorporating the local flora.

For eats there were the Italian staples of pizza, pasta, risotto, fresh meats and fish. But the Sardinians seem to splash on more sauce, add more spice and use fewer tomatoes than their mainland counterparts. One of the tastiest discoveries was pane carasau, a traditional Sardinian flat bread, unmistakable for its thin, crispy sheets. Its long shelf life meant it was a staple among sheep-herders during the long periods they spent away from home. It is incredibly simple, yet so delicious.

Then there is the wine. Before I headed on holiday colleagues joked that I should take my own supplies, as the local stuff would be so bad. Not so. After a visit to Vigne Surrau – super stylish glass-fronted wine tasting rooms, featuring cork and bottle-inspired artwork – I believe that Sardinian longevity is all down to being pickled on the exquisite local vino.

We stayed at and dined at a number of Delphina resorts in the north of the island. All of them were different and yet they were all stunning in their own way. If you stay at a Delphina resort you can dine at a sister venue – which we did – meaning you get to enjoy more of the island. I have rarely been made to feel as welcome as I was at the various hotels. It was my birthday while I was away and I was showered with cakes, gifts and kisses (well it is an Italian island) galore. Delphina’s motto is that they “offer authentic Mediterranean hospitality in unique places”. And I can vouch for that. They were among the best hotels I have ever stayed in. The views were stunning, the rooms were spotless and the staff were super friendly.

We were based at Resort Valle dell’Erica Thalasso and Spa. My room was spacious, bright and looked onto the crystal blue waters. The shower area was huge and there was a Moor-ish feel to the decor. Watching the sun go down every night with a glass of chilled prosecco was the icing on the cake. And speaking of cake, we had a chat with staff at the hotel who run holidays for people participating in the Dukan diet regime.

Known for its simple, protein-rich natural foodstuffs, participants endure a one-week stay which also incorporates indulgent bouts of Sardinian thalassotherapy. That’s the practice of using sea water at various temperatures, to health-promoting, beautifying effect. Sadly the Sardinian wine and Parmesan-laden pasta were too tasty for me to give up… maybe next time.

Flights to Olbia in northeastern Sardinia from London Gatwick with easyJet (www.easyjet.com) start from £29.99 per person.

Rooms at Resort Valle dell’Erica Thalasso and Spa start from £108 a night (the resort is open from 24 May-20 Sept) and at Hotel Capo D’Orso from £117 a night (the hotel is open from 24 May-27 Sept).

For more information about Delphina Hotels and Resorts, visit www.delphina.it