The man at Alghero tourist information office is a blur of animated gestures, oversized maps and sightseeing solutions.
“Your first stop should be Maria Pia. The beach is OK but it’s not spagerdelplozza.”
My knowledge of Italian is limited to six words and two of those are “mamma mia”. I nod and ask for directions in English. The stretch of municipal sand turns out to be choked in seaweed and lined with expensive sunbeds. Three out of 10.
Alghero gets far higher marks. The medieval town, in northwestern Sardinia, spent four centuries as a Catalan colony and retains a distinctly Spanish air. Best appreciated on foot, the piazzas, churches, sturdy sea walls and squat defensive towers are architecturally more Iberian than Italian.
A flurry of morning activity subsides as the ancient alleyways empty for lunch. That most Spanish of traditions, the siesta, is observed in Alghero but Sardinians prefer to use their afternoon break more constructively.
“We don’t sleep like they do in Spain,” a customer in a crowded trattoria explains. “People stay awake and keep eating.”
By 5pm the streets of Barceloneta (little Barcelona) have been replenished with Algherans comparing fashions and tourists comparing suntans. Everyone keeps an eye out for impatient motorists who manoeuvre their cars at breakneck speed along the narrow cobbled lanes.
They seem to think they’re making a Fiat commercial even if no one else does.
Soon it’s mealtime again. Diners gather at restaurants atop the biscuit-coloured ramparts as the sun paints the sky a ruddy scarlet. Catalan is still spoken in the town and appears on menus in some establishments.
French also fills the pine-scented air wherever groups of Gallic holidaymakers from neighbouring Corsica congregate.
Sardinia is the second-largest Mediterranean island, after Sicily, and public transport can be sporadic, particularly on long-distance routes. Fortunately, there’s plenty to see without straying too far from Alghero.
The mountainous coastal road to Bosa takes less than an hour and travelling by bus enables passengers to appreciate every precipitously twisting switchback and seductive crescent of sand.
The highway is popular with touring motorcyclists but the gorgeous vistas have lured more than a few distracted bikers over the edge to their deaths. Thankfully, our bus driver only has eyes for the road, which leaves us free to keep ours on the scenery.
Bosa is an affluent-looking town where no one seems to do much work. Sharply dressed pensioners – this is Italy after all – idle over microscopic cups of coffee. Teens on scooters cruise aimlessly and shops open just in time to close for lunch.
Situated on a bend of the Temo river and dominated by a 12th-century castle, postcard-pretty Bosa would draw visitors even if it didn’t feel like the set of a pre-school television show.
“The government pays for the paint, we decorate our houses, then tourists come and take photos,” states a waitress matter-of-factly. It’s the most childishly simple moneymaking idea since some Scottish villagers claimed to have seen a monster in their local loch. A path to prosperity based on a coat or two of emulsion. Ingenious.
Back at sea level, in Alghero, and slightly unsettled by the tales of two-wheeled clifftop tragedy, I opt for pedals, rather than petrol. Overestimating my levels of endurance, the bicycle-shop owner points an oilstained finger towards the distant horizon.
“You could try Lazzaretto beach; it’s where the locals go. It’s not spagerdelplozza but it is very beautiful.”
Once again, I’m reluctant to reveal my linguistic limitations and decide against asking for a translation. I set off, spurred on by the words “where the locals go”; travellers’ shorthand for any beach, restaurant or secret spot that savvy inhabitants keep to themselves.
The dirt road threads past verdant vineyards and groves of olive trees as knobbly as the tyres on my hired mountain bike. Wild flowers shrivel in the fierce June sunshine and farmers’ fields are the colour of caramel.
Lazzaretto beach is a tourist brochure come to life – without any tourists. The washing-powder-white sand and translucent turquoise water are more Caribbean than Mediterranean. A single cafe caters to a handful of in-the-know sunbathers and, mercifully, the Italian practice of charging beachgoers an admission fee has not reached this corner of Sardinia.
It’s tempting to spend days lazing on the squeaky sand, lingering over fregola con frutti di mare (seafood pasta) and gelato alla stracciatella (chocolate-chip ice cream) but in Sardinia there’s always more to explore.
After much deliberation, I’ve crossed the glamorous Costa Smeralda off the itinerary due to budgetary constraints.
The exclusive enclave plays host to a galaxy of film stars, minted footballers and media moguls. You can ogle at the oligarchs; track down Silvio Berlusconi’s lavish “bunga bunga” villa or see where Princess Diana spent her final days before leaving for Paris. You’ll need your Mark Six numbers to come up first, though.
North of Alghero lies sun-dried Stintino, a former tuna fishing village that now attracts the yachting fraternity with stylish restaurants, nautical stores and two marinas.
It’s an attractive settlement full of leathery faced sailors but, like a man at the golf course who doesn’t own a set of clubs, I feel rather left out and decide not to drop anchor.
“Spagerdelplozza is only 10 minutes away; why don’t you go there?” The girl at Stintino Informazione proffers a toothpaste-coloured pamphlet with Spiaggia della Pelosa written on the front in bold letters. The glossy pages are filled with photographs of frosty white sand fringed by electric-blue seas. Mystery solved at last.
The spiaggia (beach) is like a 3D screensaver with colours so swimming pool-like that you can almost smell chlorine. Even the house painters of Bosa couldn’t improve on nature’s palette here. I stop searching for superlatives, grab my camera and attempt to take a picture worth a thousand words.
Given the number of budget flights and ferries to Sardinia from mainland Europe, Paradise is relatively uncrowded. Word has it that the sands can get busy during school holidays but at other times there’s plenty of space.
I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies daily from the Italian capital’s Ciampino airport to Alghero.