On paper, the archipelago of La Maddalena, off the North East coast of Sardinia should be anyone’s idea of a perfect island paradise. This little corner of Sardinia is known for its natural beauty, with towering lush green hills, gorgeous coves and inlets, and sparkling blue seas.
Not surprisingly north-east Sardinia, known as Costa Smeralda is a playground for the rich and famous. During the summer months, huge yachts moor off the coastline, and the area is awash with beautiful people. The main town of Porto Cervo is home to upscale hotels and shops, and the nearest airport in Olbia is quite possibly the cleanest, most sophisticated airport I’ve ever visited. Where else would you find potted palm trees in the public toilets. Not surprisingly, this sophistication comes at a price to keep the peasants out, so staying here was well outside our price range. Fortunately, if you head a bit further up the coast, reality returns and prices come down. The area around La Maddalena and the port town of Palau is more affordable, but just as pretty, although there are still areas of exclusivity dotted around, for example, Isola Santo Stefano.
The La Maddalena archipelago is made up of a number of small islands, some of which are off limits to the public as they are part of an ecologically significant protected marine reserve. The only island with a significant population is Isola Maddalena, which is connected by a regular ferry service all year round from the port town of Palau. The crossing takes approximately 20 minutes and sails roughly every half an hour late into the evening. The ferry connects to the only town on the island, La Maddalena, which is surprisingly big for such an out of the way place. During the summer, due to its close proximity to Costa Smeralda and the excellent ferry service, the place is awash with day-trippers and can get very crowded. The town is cute enough, small enough to wander round in an hour, with a few interesting shops as well as the usual assortment of cafes, restaurants and bars.
The main draw of the La Maddalena though, and the neighbouring island of Caprera (connected by bridge) is its numerous spectacularly pretty beaches and beautiful clear waters. The most popular beaches are connected to the main town by 2 bus routes, which run throughout the day roughly once an hour. The first bus route takes you in an anti-clockwise direction around the island- not quite circular as the road runs out around three-quarters of the way round, but it takes you to the door of all the main beaches. The other bus crosses over onto Caprera, taking you down to the more sheltered southernmost tip, where the most popular beaches can be found. The roads to these main beaches are pretty good, although parking can be difficult if you don’t get there early during the peak season. Whilst there are many beaches to choose from, none of them are particularly big, so the most popular ones are literally heaving with people by midday. It’s a case of finding a square inch of sand and claiming your spot with your beach towel. The aroma of other peoples’ sun-cream is never far away from your nostrils.
Fortunately, as there are so many beaches to choose from, if you’re prepared to deviate away from the main roads, you can find some absolute gems. Our own personal favourite was Isola Guardinelli, another little island connected to La Maddalena by causeway. It takes about an hour of walking from the main town; just turn left at the stadium and follow the dirt track to the beaches. It is accessible by car, but is pot-holed and rough going so you’ll need good suspension. The beaches on this little island are gorgeous, far less crowded and relatively sheltered from the regular mistral wind, which regularly blows in from the west. On some days it is so strong it can practically blow you off your feet. Beware of flying bin lids, one nearly took me out! Another cute beach, so small it doesn’t even have a name is just north east of the town and just below the main town reservoir. To access it you walk through the Bulldog disco car park and down through some shrubs to the beach. If you follow the coast path north, just round the corner you’ll find another completely deserted beach. Heaven.
Due to the regular strong winds, the most popular beaches on La Maddalena can be found on the sheltered eastern side, or in the south of Caprera. However, it is still worth taking a trip over to the western side. The beach at Bassa Trinita is very dramatic with its crashing waves and rocky headlands. There are also some great rocks at Spaggia Cala D’Inferno which provide some grand views of Sardinia and also come with a little shelter from the pounding winds.
Unfortunately the strong winds put paid to our planned visit to the marine reserve- a boat trip sails you around the small unpopulated and protected islands, and gives you a chance to see the rare pink sand. If visiting La Maddalena, if the weather allows, numerous people told us that this boat trip was amazing, so go on it if you can.
As with all our holidays, we like to get a bit of walking in if we can. Unfortunately the provision of walking routes on La Maddalena is pretty poor; generally you end up having to walk on the main roads, many of which don’t have pavements and really weren’t built with pedestrians in mind. We found an okay-ish back route over to Isola Guardinelli which we did a few times. Walking on Caprera is much better, with beautiful forest paths and coastal trails. We stumbled across a gorgeous atmospheric picnic area deep in the woods, which I’d recommend if you want to shelter from the sun or wind. If planning on walking back from Caprera to La Maddalena (or the bus is full), then crossing the bridge isn’t much fun though, and the initial area into town is pretty grim too due to lack of pavements.
Tourism to the island in the main seems to be domestic; we encountered very few non-Italians when we were there. We heard a few Americans in town (it used to be a US Marine base until relatively recently) and some French, but for the most part it looks as though the Italians have been keeping this beautiful little secret to themselves.
I’d love to be able to say that I really loved it here, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Whether its just a small island mentality, or just an end of season weariness pervading the place, there was a general feeling of indifference, even hostility at times to anyone not from round here. To an extent I can understand this; until 2008 when the Marine base shut down, La Maddalena had no need for tourism. The locals have had to embrace fairly rapid change, which could explain the hostility; it was particularly noticeable amongst the older generations. Regardless, the main memory of La Maddalena I will take with me is not one of beautiful seas and golden sands, its one of grumpiness and shopkeepers trying to fleece me. After a week of this, leaving the island was like escaping from Alcatraz. Such a shame.
So in summary, on paper, yes, La Maddalena is picture perfect in every way. Just don’t expect a warm welcome!
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