Italy’s best secret: breathtaking Golfo di Orosei, Sardinia

 

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).

 

Crystalline Golfo di Orosei, Sardinia

Crystalline Golfo di Orosei, Sardinia

 

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.

 

On a sober note…

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.

 

The small port of Cala Gonone, Sardinia, Italy

The small port of Cala Gonone

Hotel Nuraghe Arvu restaurant in Cala Gonone, Sardinia

Hotel Nuraghe Arvu’s restaurant

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).

Our "gommone" (rented boat) on the Gulf of Orosei

Our “gommone” (rented boat)

 

*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.

English: cala goloritzè sardinia east coast ge...

Image via Wikipedia

 

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).

 

The otherworldly Cala Goloritze of the Golfo di Orosei, Sardinia, Italy

The otherworldly Cala Goloritze

 

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.

Getting Zen at Cala Goloritze, Sardinia, Italy

Getting Zen at Cala Goloritze

 

Learn more

Looking for other great beach destinations? Explore IWantSun.co.uk’s insider series “I Wish I Was There Instead,” to which we’ve contributed.

More on the Golfo di Orosei

Check out our photo gallery 

Where is the Gulf of Orosei?

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.

Related tweets

  • 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!

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Comments

  1. As a native Sardinian, I have to say that Cala Gonone is one of my absolute favorite “easy” places. It’s pretty close to my hometown and as you have seen, it’s full of lovely sights and great restaurants. My parents hated going to the each there because they tend to favor white sandy aches like Cala Ginepro and Cala Liberotto (also in the Gulf of Orosei), but Cala Gonone is great for a walk by the sea in the evening at any time of the year. In winter a lot of the shops are closed, but I love walking by the harbor and hearing the crashing of the waves and smelling the salty water.

    I guess you can take the girl out of the island, but not the island out of the girl 😉

  2. *beach* and *beaches*

    sorry, my B is sticking!

  3. I am not sure if speaking about a travel secret makes people want to visit…it seems like every corner of the globe has been spoken of, and those which have remained untouristic have a particular reason for doing so. I’ve been blogging about how Zurich is a travel secret for ages and no one really seems to care!

  4. Thinking about it that way definitely eases the moral ambiguity 🙂 Maybe places do have their own intrinsic timeline for change regardless of our intervention. (But a voice in my head asks, what if it’s just that cities are less susceptible to change, since they’re discovered daily by so many people?)

  5. How did you get to Cala Gonone? I can’t find any information on it apart from a long bus journey from Alghero.

    Any help would be appreciated!

  6. Hi Rachel, getting there was almost as great as being there! We rented a very economical car at Alghero airport and drove through the Nuoro region of the island: http://followbenandjenna.com/sardinia-road-trip-through-nuoro-bosa-and-alghero/ Highly recommend it.

  7. Great post! We spent 4 days in this area and really enjoyed the boat cruise as well. These pictures remind me of my time in Sardinia.

  8. I’m so glad you were able to experience it. I know some readers have a tough time believing the colors are real, but now I have your comment as proof!

  9. Showkat says:

    Hi can anyone tell me how long will it take for two of us to go Kayaking from Cala Gonone to Cala Luna please? we are fairly fit but never use Kayak before.

  10. Sorry, we didn’t kayak, but maybe somebody else can answer…

  11. Justina says:

    Thanks for your blog post, without the info on the boat rental our holiday would not have been the same.

    FYI we rented it for 120E + gas consumption from Santa Maria Nawresse port, which is immediately next to Cala Goloritze.

  12. Very glad to have stumbled across your post! Your photos are beautiful. We are going to Sardinia for a long weekend at the end of August. Thank you for the boat hire tips! I wonder if you may be able to offer some advice. We only have 4 days. We fly into Olbia and out of Alghero, but want to spend most of our time around Golfo di Orosei. Would you recommend staying in Santa Maria Navarrese or Cala Gonone? I have seen many people advise the former, but it is a little further away from Olbia. We are into hiking/swimming/boating. Appreciate any advice you have! Many thanks.

  13. Ange, afraid we didn’t spend time in Navarrese so can’t comment. We shared your concerns with distance and appreciated the ease of amenities in Gonone for our short trip. Check out our Sardinia Road Trip post for ideas for your drive back to Alghero. Good luck!

  14. hey, what a great post! you mention the price to hire a boat – do you have to skipper this yourself? what would be the option if you dont have any boat experience – a chartered one? cheers

  15. Hi rhi, apologies for missing this comment. You don’t need boat experience to skipper these boats yourself!

  16. Thanks Jenna! We have now decided to go to Puglia and Sicily instead of Sardinia, but will keep this in mind for our next trip 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] Blog post – Vacation like a millionaire at Gulf of Orosei – I agree with this blog post. The Gulf of Orosei is one of the best kept secrets of Italy and I hope that it’s beauty remains preserved even as more tourists frequent the untouched beaches. […]

  2. […] Maria Navarrese and Tiscali *Hairpin turns through a beautiful canyon Boat from Golfo di Orosei http://followbenandjenna.com/italys-best-secret-breathtaking-golfo-di-orosei-sardinia/ Gola Su Gorropu: Europe's Grand Canyon 10:30 a.m. -3:30 p.m. 5 euro […]

  3. […] We rented a small private boat and boated to the beaches along the gulf. I’m a huge beach fanatic so this remains one of my absolute favorite experiences in Sardinia. For more info on how to explore the beaches of the Golfo di Orosei by boat, check out this article or this article. […]

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