Despite its proximity to the mainland, Sardinia, the Mediterranean's second largest island next to Sicily, has only been a part of Italy proper for just over 150 years. And even though most Sardinians communicate in Italian today, the island's inhabitants maintain their own distinct culture and language – and especially their cuisine, which combines flavors from the Catalans, Moors, Romans, and Arabs. Sardinians themselves are renowned for their sardonic, mercurial, and rebellious personality traits. Perhaps such ingrained feistiness has been passed down from the island's pre-Roman civilization, which over the millennia has repulsed countless European foes hoping to seize the gorgeous isle's scenic, jagged granite mountains and pristine beaches.
You can never go wrong with food on Sardinia, and the tony Costa Smerelda ("Emerald Coast") on the north end boasts luxurious Starwood hotels as well as five-star restaurants, which for us means an immediate about-face. We head instead in search of the island's hallmark agriturismi – essentially, tourist farms, which often advertise their existence by little signs on the sides of the island's perilous, twisting roads. The farms' menu-less restaurants serve long (especially to Americans), often-unforgettable dinners composed from the native, farm-fresh foods. A typical family-style meal might include rich goat cheese, pecorino, pane carasau (the island's iconic flatbread), spit-roasted pig, and fried ravioli drizzled in honey, perhaps infused with mirto, the island's popular myrtle-berry liqueur.
That said, we're not huge proponents of the other half of agritourism, spending a night in the Spartan – and inevitably odorous – accommodations. Which is why we recommend an upgrade on the island's traditional country lodging stay: Su Gologone.
A whitewashed villa equipped with the type of plush beds that befit the modern, proudly overfed tourist, Su Gologone also houses an agriturismo-style restaurant that does justice to the aforementioned culinary feats. It's set in the island's mountainous Supramonte countryside, no more than a 20-minute drive inland from secluded beaches on the white-quartz Cala Gonone coast (the site, incidentally, for both versions of 'Swept Away'). And this is no corporate luxury hotel: It's an eminently personal 68-room, wood-beamed house framed by olive and juniper trees on an estate with tennis courts as well as a large swimming pool. When you stay at Su Gologone, you feel as if you own your own Sardinian mansion, assuming you could afford employees to feed you and clean the place.
On days when the sweet villa life and beach have become too routine, there's a nice trek up into the villages of the Nuoro mountain region, where a community of centenarians live. If you follow our advice and end up in one of these towns, you may very well meet a friendly local who tells stories of the island's many historical invasions and the legitimately spooky "Barbagia" region, known for kidnappings, and where it's still custom for men to carry a knife hidden in their boots. For as much beauty as Sardinia provides it's also rife with mystery, and much of the local graffiti defiantly states that the island is not Italian. D.H. Lawrence, who wrote a book about his time on Sardinia, called the place "Another thing, like liberty itself." Escaping the island's tourist traps and living like a local gave us a similar perspective on the land. Sicily is Italy. Sardinia is freedom. [From €140 ($176); sugologone.it]