Rent a small boat to explore the staggeringly beautiful and isolated Golfo di Orosei in Sardinia, and you will truly be accessing what was previously reserved for millionaires in yachts (and occasional fishermen).
It’s almost too good to be true. (No, these photos are not doctored.) In fact, when it comes to hidden European destinations, this is one of the great places of Italy. It is breathtaking and utterly incomparable, and it’s high on my list of the best places to visit in Europe for its ideal conditions:
- 20 miles of beaches and grottos backed by steep cliffs and a nature reserve which make land access impossible except at a couple of beaches.
- Transparent, vividly-hued water, exactly like what is found further north at the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), a haven of glitterati and a “must stop” on the Mediterranean yacht circuit. (Famous stoppers in the main town of Puerto Cervo, once partially owned by the Aga Khan, have included Jackie Onassis and Denzel Washington, and it even hosted the honeymoon of Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly.)
- Located in Italy, with all of its mouthwatering food and wine, sunny weather and dolce vita.
- One of the few places in the Mediterranean that hasn’t been desecrated by construction and mass tourism.
This last point caused me weeks of deliberation about whether or not to write this article. After all, this is a location that could easily be Italy’s best-kept secret. And we all know what happens when secrets get out….
Strange words from a travel writer? For over twenty years, I’ve searched out great travel secrets from New Zealand to Sicily, India to Mexico. But most of my favorite hideaways have since been “discovered” and are now irreparably changed: economically more prosperous, but subject to overbuilding, environmental degradation, and a dilution (or worse, a caricaturization) of the local culture. Every article written, every tip whispered in a hostal, risks setting those wheels in motion.
However, modernization is inevitable with the passage of time, and since everything in my nature compels me to share the wealth when it comes to singular travel experiences, I will post this article along with a prayer to Saint Ephisius, the patron saint of Sardinia, for a government that reacts cautiously to the spread of tourism and for tourists that make respectful choices, electing small hotels over large; being vigilant about trash, pollution, and energy consumption; and searching out local establishments offering typical food rather than succumbing to something more familiar. Service providers will adapt to the demands of their clients (when you see a string of fish and chips joints on Portugal’s Algarve Coast, it’s because that’s what the tourists are ordering), so please vote responsibly with your euro.
These are our tips for getting around the Gulf of Orosei:
Where to stay and eat:
Stay at the small port of Cala Gonone or the smaller Santa Maria Navarrese at the far reaches of the remote Nuoro and Ogliastra provinces of Sardinia. Neither one has escaped the effects of tourism; Cala Gonone has more tourist shops, but also offers more variety. We had our best meal in Sardinia at the restaurant of the Nuraghe hotel, where I ate a traditional dish called angellotos (a sort of overstuffed ravioli/dumpling filled with ricotta and fresh mint and covered in a butter-sage sauce) that began to melt as soon as it touched my tongue.
If you’re willing to stay outside of town, there is a campground and several agriturismos, working farms offering accommodation and full- or half-board options, where you can get off the beaten track and enjoy slow-food freshness.
*Tip: Stop for liquids and sandwiches at a cart by the docks before you head out to sea. Otherwise, you can stop at the restaurant / bar of the largest beach, Cala Sisine.
What to do:
Boat rental in the Golfo di Orosei is easy. So easy that I wish it were more common elsewhere! Ask your hotel to arrange it for you, or stroll down to the port and negotiate with a multitude of vendors who are lined up in ticket-type booths. Depending on the season, you can find something basic for 70 euro (the lowest price I’ve seen reported) or a more elaborate option, with a shade canopy, ice chest and beach umbrellas, for 280 euro (mid-August retail price).
*Tip: You’ll be expected to pay for fuel when you return. Be sure to watch the gas pump closely so you can ensure you aren’t being overcharged.
You might be advised to take a ferry (the least expensive option) or an open-bar day cruise (second least expensive). Don’t do it! This is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you will end up missing some of the best beaches while shackling yourself with time constraints.
The boats (or “gommone”) are Zodiac-style, hard-shell motor boats. They’re quick, reliable, and so simple to captain that you don’t have to worry about a boat license. Neither Ben nor I have a license, but easily got the hang of navigating with just a five-minute instructional overview.
*Tip: Make a close inspection of your boat before setting out, and don’t hesitate to take pictures of nicks and scrapes, especially on the propeller. Like rental cars, you’ll be expected to pay for any “new” damage.
What to expect:
Paradise. Rugged, virgin hillsides and startling rock formations plunge into a placid, clear sea. Time moves more slowly. It’s quiet: You hear wind, gulls, and water lapping against rocks. The sun scorches and as you stare into the cool water you see every detail of the boulders and sand below. You assume the water must be shallow – you even question whether the bottom of the boat will get scratched – but as you dive down below the surface and swim ten times deeper than believed possible, you realize you don’t come near to touching the bottom. It is superlative beyond every possible gushing description. It is heaven.
Along the coast you’ll pass grottos, coves, beaches, and every type of Blue Lagoon setting you could dream up. The boat owner at Cala Gonone asked us not to venture past Cala Goloritze, arguably the most stunning gem in the crown, and suggested we begin there and head back, since the southern coves are the first to get covered in shade (I’ll always wonder whether this is true or if it was merely a ruse to get us back by the 6 p.m. cutoff).
Like the sailboats and yachts anchored offshore, you’ll be expected to drop anchor and swim into the beaches. You can pull up to the sand in designated areas to drop off umbrellas and supplies beforehand. This is the only place where a tiny bit of skill is required, because there’s a tendency for the waves to push your boat horizontally into shallow water where it’s impossible to use the motor without damaging the propeller blades. I found this out the hard way! Make sure you have someone on land who can swing the boat around if this happens, or continually reverse and move forward so that you can steer and keep the blades protected.
As we’ve mentioned before in our post on Taormina, Sicily, beaches in Italy are usually covered in lounge chairs. Not here. Get ready for pristine, unspoilt white sand. From south to north, the beaches flow in this order: Cala Goloritze, Cala dei Gabbiani, Cala Mariolu, Cala Biriola, Cala Sisine, Cala Luna, Grotte del Bue Marino, Cala Gonone. Each seems more beautiful than the next, but Cala Goloritze, with its primitive rock formations, rock bridges, and smooth white boulders is somehow different, even transcendent.
The Golfo di Orosei is in the eastern Nuoro region of Sardinia, an Italian island sitting west of the mainland. You can reach it by driving or bussing to the access points of Cala Gonone or Santa Maria Navarrese after ferrying into the city of Arbatax (from several ports in Italy) or flying into Cagliari, Olbia or Alghero.
- Still amazed by Sardinia. Water-access-only beaches not just for yachts anymore: As @tferriss would say, you CAN live like a millionaire
- Two things expected but not seen in Sicily or Sardinia: PDAs or topless sunbathers. What’s up with that, Italy?
- Truly magical day exploring miles of secluded turquoise grottos and coves along Golfo di Orosei, Sardinia. Bucket list must!
- Cala Gonone, Sardinia, is touristy x 2, but we’re here to explore the breathtaking Gulf of Orosei (reserved a Zodiac for tomorrow).
- We finally found sunscreen over spf 10! Guess it’s not popular with vacationing Italians (the brownest white people I’ve seen)
- Buona sera from Sardenya! Back in the land of big fat happy vowel sounds!