All that most people know of Italy’s island of Sardinia is the fabled Costa Smeralda, named for its clear blue-green waters and famed as a playground for the very, very rich. It’s true the secluded (and now mostly private) cove beaches of this northeast coast are beautiful, but most of the island is surrounded by beautiful beaches, so you have a lot of choices for a sun-and-sand family vacation there.
It would be a shame, though, to travel to this unusual and fascinating island and not see at least a few of its natural and historic wonders. But first, the beaches.
Southwest of Sardinia’s capital of Cagliari, the coast offers small, white-sand beaches that lie in coves between headlands and longer ones, like Porto Campana, with three miles of uninterrupted sand. That’s enough so you can find your own remote spot or stay where there are food kiosks and the kids can learn kiteboarding or paddleboarding in the clear waters. West of Cagliari the coast seems to be a solid line of white sand, with miles of beach, some of Europe’s highest dunes and few people. There are fewer tourist facilities here, but you’ll have no trouble finding space on some of the island’s most perfect beaches.
Close to the Costa Smeralda, in the northeast, you can swim in the same turquoise waters and bask on the same pink-sand beaches, but without the cost of a luxury resort, on the Maddalena Islands, just offshore. Car and passenger ferries leave the little port of Palau regularly for the half-hour trip to the little town of La Maddalena. From there you can walk or drive to pristine beaches or take a little local boat to a secluded island beach of your own.
Explore Prehistoric Castles
What kid could resist following spooky passages inside a stone tower built 5,000 years ago? Sardinia’s landscape is dotted with these enigmatic towers, called nuraghe, some rising three stories high and as big as 60 feet in diameter. You can go inside, climb the stone stairs that spiral inside them and explore the stone passages. Part of the fascination is these early Bronze Age towers and the few artifacts found in them are all we know of the prehistoric people who built them. For kids, these are places to discover the story of civilization firsthand. Bring flashlights. Nuraghe su Nuraxe in Barumini, north of Cagliari, is the best preserved of these, but Nuraghe Losa and the smaller Santa Cristina Nuraghe are also some of the best to visit, and there are other prehistoric sites in the hills above the Costa Smeralda. After they’ve explored one of these, you can be sure the kids will want to stop whenever you see one by the roadside.
Sail to a Sea Cave
The Grotta di Nettuno, Neptune’s Cave, was carved by the sea, into the 1,000-foot cliffs at the tip of Capo Caccia, on Sardinia’s west coast. The entrance to the cave is at sea level, at the base of these cliffs, and the easiest — and most dramatic — way to approach the cave is by boat from the harbor in nearby Alghero. Inside, the cave fairly bristles with stalagmites and stalactites and the dazzling effect is multiplied by reflections in an underground lake. You can also drive to Capo Caccia and descend to the cave entrance down the 656 steps of the Escala del Cabirol. While these steps carved into the face of the cliff are an exciting experience, there’s no way back up except by climbing them — a good way for kids to burn off some energy.
See Sardinia in Miniature
One manmade attraction younger kids will enjoy is Parco Sardegna in Miniatura, near the Nuraghe Su Nuraxi in Barumini. Scale replicas of the island’s landmark buildings sit along the park’s winding paths, and there is a reproduction of a Nuraghic village, a rare chance to see what the buildings and surrounding houses would have looked like. The park is large, and also has a planetarium, astronomical museum and riverboat rides for children.