While most guidebook authors head to a destination for several months and pen some notes, writer Eliot Stein immersed himself in Sardinian culture by living there for nearly three years. His recently published guidebook to Sardinia is not only one of the most authoritative guides to the island, but it also promotes responsible travel from a true insiders’ perspective. The following are his recommendations of ways tourists can help preserve Sardinia’s unique culture.
Save a Shepherd
It’s no wonder that an island boasting nearly three sheep to every person is a destination for cheese connoisseurs. In fact, 80% of Italy’s pecorino hail from Sardinia (the name of the cheese, in fact, is derived from the word pecora, or sheep). Yet, the island’s shepherds–the enduring symbol of Sardinia’s bucolic traditions–are losing their land to developers eager to turn their pastures into profit. So what’s a tourist to do? For starters, help a shepherd by helping yourself to one of the island’s three DOP pecorino varieties (I especially like fiore sardo). Adventurous travelers can check in to central Sardinia’s classiest hotel, Su Gologone, and sign up to spend the day working with a shepherd while learning about his way of life. See Su Gologone for more info.
As stunning as Sardinia’s craggy creases and shimmering shorelines are, some of its most memorable sights are found underwater. Let local guides lead you through Roman shipwrecks, colorful coral and–my favorite–the largest underwater cave in the Mediterranean, Nereo. A great resource is ScubaTravel.
Unwind at an Agriturismo
A far cry from the siren call of the upscale Costa Smeralda, there is no lodging option truer to the spirit of Sardinia than spending a night in an agriturismo. These working farm inns are part petting zoo, part ethnographic museum, where your owner is always a local and willing to offer you the kind of rural hospitality that has made Sardinia famous throughout Italy.
Most agriturismi are modest affairs. What they lack in, say, satellite TV, they more than make up for in free-range animals lying around. The meals served are almost always made entirely on the farm, so you never have to worry about its freshness. Be warned: come prepared to loosen your belt and put on a few pounds. Sardinia Farm Holidays is a good resource.
Gen-Up on Local Culture
Whip out the notebook and sign up for a crash course in local culture: Motus offers lots of guided nature walks; Stroll and Speak is a great way to learn Italian while burning calories strolling through Alghero’s cobblestone corsi; and Food Wine and Culture will allow you to return home with lots of local recipes to impress your friends.
Marvel at Sardinia’s Mysterious Past
houses,” “giants tombs” and “human-like stones.” The prehistoric relics that dot Sardinia’s landscape may remind you of a bad acid trip, but touring the island’s many archaeological sites offers a fascinating glimpse into its mysterious origins. The most intriguing of all the historical remnants found are Sardinia’s more than 7,000 stone nuraghi towers7,000 stone nuraghi towers7,000 stone nuraghi towers. Built between 1600-1100 A.D., this is the only place on Earth to see these Bronze Age castles. Nuraghe Santu Antine is a must.
Sardinia’s moody topography doesn’t exactly mean you’ll be downshifting into a leisurely pedal while biking. Yet, for the non-faint of heart, cycling through Sardinia is one of the most rewarding ways to experience the island’s natural beauty. I highly recommend Dolce Vita Bike Tours, run by four enthusiastic Sardinians.
Haggle for Handicrafts
Sardinia is a hub for handicrafts, making it a souvenir shopper’s paradise. Look for wooden carnival masks, handmade lace, filigree jewelry, cork, and world famous handmade knives. Ensure your travelers’ checks aren’t being wired to foreign faux designers by looking for signs advertising “Prodotti Tipici Sardi,” or the island-sponsored I.S.O.L.A. co-op stores.
Photos: Eliot Stein