We’re staring a giant in the face. The six-foot stone colossus hasn’t yet made a monstrous lurch for us, although for all of his thousands of years of age, he looks perfectly capable. Ella eyeballs him suspiciously. “Do you think he used to rule the earth,” she says, with the sort of nonchalance that only an eight-year-old can muster. “I think he still could. He looks like the gold one from Star Wars.”
She’s not wrong — or at least not about the C-3PO part. The giant’s eyes are unearthly: sharp geometric circles, fearsomely futuristic. But these mysterious statues — sandstone archers, wrestlers and boxers — are, in fact, the ancient guardians of Nuragic tombs, the civilisation that flourished on Sardinia for two millennia until the second century AD. They may not rule the earth now but they are commanding some excitable attention, recently unveiled at the Archaeological Museum after being under wraps since they were found in a farmer’s field in the 1970s.
Along with these ‘gigantes’, there’s much to recommend Cagliari to families. Sardinia’s capital has Phoenician foundations, towering Roman walls and a whole heap of port-town character. Even in the height of summer, it’s really worth pausing here for a few days before breaking for the beach.
From our little rental apartment in the blissfully breezy old Castello hilltop district, we make visits to the cathedral’s eerie catacombs and watch huge ferries disgorge passengers from the Italian mainland in the harbour below. In the evening, we ride Castello’s jolly glass elevators down the hillside to scout the marina neighbourhood for wafer-thin pizza, fishy pasta and some of the best gelato I’ve ever eaten (at Stefino, on Via Giovanni Maria Dettori).
But the beach, eventually, calls. And which to choose? Stick a pin in a map of Sardinia’s coast and you’re guaranteed to land on a postcard perfect stretch of white sand, undeveloped and home to no more than a scattering of beach towels. Where British travellers traditionally hit the beaches of Sardinia’s north, Italians go east to the private villas and smart resorts of Villasimius and Costa Rei. And they know best.
The map waiting for us at Villa Cicas, a private apartment set on a hill outside Villasimius, details 12 beaches within a couple of miles. And these are just the ones noted by the local tourist office. The sand-dusted cobbled backstreets leading from our villa leads to a string of ‘secret’ sandy coves. Tide permitting, these are perfect for rock-hopping and snorkelling or languishing on the sand, watching the kids splash about in turquoise waters that remain shallow for yards out to sea.
Ella spends so much time upside down in the waves we re-christen her ‘the otter’. She only surfaces for air and to say “boo” to Dylan, the two-year-old member of our party who also takes to the water as if he has fins. Beyond trips to Villasimius’ excellent fish shops, we barely start up the hire car. Instead, we pad barefoot from beach to local pizza restaurant, or back to our sea-view garden to grill calamari and drink chilled glasses of local Vermentino. The kids, meanwhile, adopt local cats and (not a favourite with the felines) spray each other with the outdoor shower. Secluded by overhanging rocks and fig trees, backed by the sea, this resembles something out of a Botticelli painting, albeit with feral children not cherubs.
Well worth a break from the beach is Officina Equestre, a new family-run riding school in Quartu Sant’Elena, an hour south along the snaking coast. Here, Ella quickly befriends the horses and the family’s two lively boys, Leonardo (eight) and Jamie (five). Cutting a dash in a cowboy hat, Leo teaches Ella to groom her mini charge, Twyla, before his mum, Alba, helps her into the saddle. Ella rides across the farm, the boys trotting alongside her, as they point out almond trees and admonish their hulking dog, Sapira who stands at almost pony height.
Surrounded by animals and the ever-attentive Leo, Ella is reluctant to leave, but the sea, burning blue on the horizon, is calling. Alba hand-draws us a map of her favourite local beaches, and we’re off again towards the water.
Where to stay: Accommodation review
This is the full frills self-catering option. A smörgåsbord of local specialties welcomes us on the kitchen table: a bottle of local Cannonau wine, smoked ricotta and distinctive cracker-like pane carasau bread; the cupboards stocked with everything from pasta to pastries.
The space is bijou: it’s essentially one room, the bedroom a mezzanine, but it’s well laid out. The courtyard comes with garden chairs and a washing machine; the shower and air-con are powerful; the kitchen impeccably equipped; and the beds, including the pull-out sofa, are comfy.
The setting, in the cobbled heart of the Castello hilltop district, a one-minute stroll from the cathedral, puts you in the company of locals (there are few hotels in this area), and owners (Rocco and Carlotta Zinnarosu) are on hand with everything from guidebooks and restaurant recommendations to fresh beach towels and lifts from the airport.
How to do it: From £57 a night. housetrip.com/en/rentals/146003
The beach rental: Villa Circa costs from €1,400 (£1,106) per week (sleeps four) booked with italianrentals4u.com
Pony riding: Officina Equestre offers half-hour sunset pony treks from €15 (£12)
Need to know: The newly launched Sardinia Pass offers savings on local attractions and activities, including scuba diving, snorkelling and boat trips to secluded beaches. From €5 (£4)
More info: sardegnaturismo.it
Published in the Spring 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family