With the dark days of winter starting to recede thoughts at this time of the year invariably turn to the sun-kissed beach holidays of summer.
And the islands dotted within the Mediterranean Sea that have been attracting visitors for centuries have proved equally popular with the modern Irish holiday makers and every year the crowds head off to the Greek islands, Sicily, Rhodes and Malta.
I’ve spent the last couple of summers island-hopping across the Med, skipping from one to another to sample the very contrasting tastes of each, and one of my first stops was Sardinia, the second largest island in the Med (after its Italian rival Sicily).
There is no getting away from the fact that the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), a 20km stretch of beach and bay located on the island’s north east coast is the big draw in Sardinia.
Frequented by the Italian jet set led by Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, who hosted some of his infamous bunga bunga parties in an opulent palace here, the Costa is where the millionaire playboys arrive each summer in their superyachts.
It is no big mystery why it is one of the most popular places to spend a holiday in Sardinia with its enviable beaches among some of the best in the Mediterranean but if, like me, your holiday can be ruined through yacht envy it is probably worth skipping in favour of the more laid back and arguably more authentic Sardinia.
With that in mind our first port of call was the airport at Alghero, where we landed late one autumn evening.
Ryanair had been operating a direct flight into the city, which is located in the western part of the island, but this has been axed. In its place Italy.ie will be running flights into the city from June.
A winding coastal road in Sardinia
The city is a major attraction itself as the busy university town has some important archaeological sites dotted around its outskirts and miles of beaches running along the bay which lends it its name.
Just off the beach the attractive old town boasts cobbled streets surrounded by ancient fortifications. However, we had our sights on points further south, on the less visited coast outside the island’s capital city of Cagliari, located 250km away.
There are no motorways as such but the island is served by a good network of dual carriageways, and, with two little ones in tow, we had hoped to make the most of the car journey with them fast asleep in the back seat.
But, unfortunately, in our haste to get going, the fact that it was late and relying on a dodgy sat nav, we set off on one of the smaller roads from the airport instead of hitting the most direct route south along the faster E25.
As a result, what should have been a quick and relatively painless two-and-a-half-hour spin down the dual carriageway, turned into a strenuous drive along twisting little roads that followed the contours of the coast.
At first, we marvelled at the stunning beauty of the night-time drive with the moon’s white light sparkling on the waves in the sea far below, but after navigating our way through the umpteenth tiny little town the novelty had well worn off.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Cagliari over four hours later and with the two in the back starting to stir we were starting to reconsider our decision to eschew the usual tourist hotspots for our off the beaten track option on the far side of town.
We headed west out of Cagliari and along the coast to Capo Spartivento where we promptly got lost. Eventually our patience gave out and with tiredness slowly overwhelming our senses we flagged down a local police car and asked for help.
With the aid of Google Translate we managed to convince the kind carabinieri to escort us to our remote lodgings.
The lighthouse at Capo Spartivento
By the time we arrived we were far too tired to take in much of our surroundings and with the sun now breaking over the sea below the house we retired to bed to rest after our long nocturnal adventures.
Waking later that morning we were rewarded with our first full view over the sea with its slew of tiny islands sparkling in the distance.
The Airbnb house we had found online for a decent price turned out to be real gem, and, unusually, was even better in reality than it had looked on the internet. As we took in our surroundings we were delighted to discover a flight of steps leading down to the house’s own private little beach under the cliff.
Now the house itself was a little bit ramshackle and would probably not make the grade among the palaces on the Costa Esmeralda but it was quite and relaxing.
For the first few days we didn’t stray far as we bathed in the waters of our own little beach that proved to be a well-positioned suntrap throughout the long Italian day. But soon we were venturing around Capo Spartivento with its lighthouse perched at its peak.
The Pula peninsula
Eventually though, as is the case on some sun holidays, a certain restlessness crept in after a few days and it was time to hop in the car for some exploring. This part of the coast is exceptionally remote so initially it proved to be a bit of a mission to find any of the local shops open in the few tiny villages dotted among the hills above the coast.
Eventually we tracked down a local bakery and even bought fresh fish from the fishermen landing their catch in a tiny harbour in the next bay and soon we settled into the slower pace of life here.
As it has escaped the mass tourism further north we found we had the roads here pretty much to ourselves and it was brilliant fun spinning around in the mountains while stopping off along the way to admire the picture-postcard views of the tiny bays far below.
Not far from Capo Spartivento lie the ancient Roman ruins at the scenic city of Nora on the Pula peninsula. It is a stunning location, situated as it is on the capo di Pula, squeezed between two hills, the Sa Punta and Su Coloru and Coltellazzo with its Spanish lookout tower.
The ancient ruins of Nora.
On the day we visited we skipped the option of a guided tour which was a bit of a pity as it is difficult to appreciate the significance of the various ruins but with the sun rising steadily in the sky our two kids, seemingly not as impressed as we were by a few dusty stones, started to complain.
However, after a long, hot and dusty day it was sheer bliss to strip off and jump into the cool, clear waters that wash up along the bottom of the site.
As our holiday wound down we embarked on another little road trip back to the capital of Cagliari to check out what DH Lawrence in his 1921 book ‘Sea and Sardinia’ described as a “strange and rather wonderful city, not a bit like Italy”.
He is right, as this ancient city, sprawling over and around the limestone hills overlooking the Golfo degli Angeli (Bay of Angels) is quite unlike many other Italian cities and more resembles a “white Jerusalem” as he called it.
From the port area downtown, the city makes for some strenuous walking as you scale the streets up into the old medieval town, but the views from the Castello, “the upper castle” over the city are well worth the haul to get up there.
As the evening drew in it was tempting to stay the night in one of the many welcoming pensioni dotted around the old city but as they sun set we decided to hit the road again and make our way back to our own private corner of Sardinia.
It may have been on the quiet side, located as it is far away from the glam and glitz of the Emerald Coast, but watching the moon rise on our last night from the patio of our beach house we were happy that we had found our own little corner of Sardinian paradise.