On its surface, Sardinia is the very definition of a Mediterranean island destination: blue waters, green-yet-rugged terrain, and rocky coastlines interrupted occasionally by white sand beaches. As Italy's second largest island, it has its share of name-brand attractions. Porto Pino, Costa Smeralda and San Teodoro are well-known seaside destinations that draw hordes of beach-seekers, wealthy yacht-owners, and jet-set travelers during the summer high season. Other attractions, such as the medieval town of Alghero, are popular with visiting history buffs and curiosity seekers who want to take a break from the beach. For most visitors, these few places are the face of Sardinia.


However, the island's true magic, especially from a nature-lover’s perspective, is its interior and its less-accessible sections of coastline. These sometimes-rugged, always-scenic places are characterized by their agriculture, natural landscapes, and the inhabitants' general sense of la dolce vita. Sardinia's tourism infrastructure is focused on its cities and high traffic beach destinations, making it easy to reach these places by train, hired car or express bus. Transit services are a little bit scarcer in less-visited parts of the island, but biking, hiking and even riding a steam train are viable, practical transportation alternatives that also happen to be quite green.

Though they can feel remote, the areas away from the tourism epicenters aren't void of infrastructure. Small farmhouse inns and local markets make an environmentally friendly, locally focused, low-carbon vacation possible no matter what section of island you choose to explore.


Go green

Like many other nature destinations, eco-tourists are presented with a catch-22 when it comes to transportation on Sardinia. Earth-lovers want a low impact, nature-centered vacation, but getting to the best natural attractions in a timely manner may require abandoning their carbon-free ambitions and renting a car. For those who are pressed for time, small, gas-sipping vehicles are available for rent in Cagliari, the island's capital, and other major towns around the island. Scooters and motorbikes are also available.


Though it might not be the most convenient option, Sardinia can be traversed without a car. For people planning to hike or bike into the wilds of the island and have the time to move a bit more slowly, bus or train travel is a viable option. A train system crosses the island, with stops in the capital, Cagliari, and main towns like Oristano and Sassari, which are way stations for eco-tourists on their way to trailheads or national parks. Buses can be used to get to smaller, in-between villages that often offer easier access to eco-attractions. The ARST (Azienda Regionale Sarda Trasporti) is the best bus option because of its number of routes and overall range. For simply sightseeing, the island's trenino verde (literally, little green train) steam train lines are a unique option. Though not generally used for Point A to Point B purposes, these trains do allow people to start in a hub town and get a taste of the local scenery and nature without any strenuous efforts.


Eat green

Part of Sardinia's attraction is that it is still a largely agricultural place, with local food available virtually everywhere. The island's large population of shepherds provides fresh cheeses and meat, while just-caught fish, local vegetables and, of course, olives, are all Earth-friendly menu items.


Vegetarian and organic eateries are found throughout the island, with La Terra di Mezzo (Middle Earth) serving up a vegetarian-style buffet with a mostly organic focus. Its central location in Cagliari makes it an obvious choice for just-arrived travelers in search of an organic meal. Truly local and organic food that has been picked, butchered or curdled within hours of sale or serving is found in the island's farmers markets and small farmhouse inns called agriturismos (see below). Markets are held on various days of the week all around the island, so chances are that a small town or large city near wherever you are on a given afternoon will have some sort of market where farmers are selling their crops or products directly to consumers. Luckily, many restaurants also shop from these same farmers, so small village eateries are stocked with the same local foods that are for sale in these authentic markets.


Sleep green

Accommodations befitting the jet set are found on Costa Smeralda and the handful of other tourism hotspots, while smaller inns and family-run establishments are the main alternatives. Green-minded travelers might prefer to check into one of the many farmhouses that double as inns and B&Bs. Some of these are so casual that they lack names. Many are spartan by international standards, with guests staying in accommodations similar to those slept in by local families and farmhands. Others are more high-end, bringing to mind the type of the agriturismos found in Spain's Balearic Islands, and in Tuscany and Umbria.


Sa Perda Arrumbulada and Agriturismo Costiolu are two family-owned inns on working farms. These places gained a little notoriety after being featured in a New York Times article that covered Sardinia's agriturismo scene. La Cerra, a farm/B&B with some overtly green traits (environmentally friendly cleaning products, guided hiking tours, and a restaurant with an organic menu) is yet another example of this type of family-owned establishment. According to the Times, Sardinia has nearly 600 such inns, so even though each agriturismo might have only a few rooms, there are hundreds of options overall.


See green

Being an island, Sardinia is, of course, filled with water-related activities and attractions. Sailing is synonymous with the glitzy, glamorous Costa Smeralda area in Northern Sardinia. Yachts with nine-figure price tags ply the waters off the coast, and Europe's elite charter mansion-sized yachts to cruise the Med. But it is possible to forego the extravagances and take a basic wind-powered cruise around the Sardinian section of the sea. Despite the size of most boats in the area, visitors can charter a Sardinian sailboat without going completely broke or learn to sail themselves via one of the island's sailing schools (most of which offer primer courses for around $300). Kayaking is a (generally) less pricy alternative, with companies like the specialized Sea Kayak Sardinia offering a menu of classes, day trips and longer island-length paddles. Kayak aficionados find Sardinia's coastal waters to be ideal from a paddling and scenery perspective. The UK's Guardian newspaper calls Sardinia one of Europe’s 10 best sea kayaking destinations.


Sardinia is also a great spot for scuba divers, with reefs, wrecks and caves drawing both experienced underwater explorers and novices. Companies like Protec Sardinia offer a full range of dives, from quick single-tank trips through ships or underwater caves to longer open-water adventures. Nautilus Diving Center, on the northern tip of Sardinia, offers a full menu of dives, with PADI certification available for those who are novices when it comes to air-tank-aided diving.


The water is full of sightseeing opportunities, but many nature-minded folks come to Sardinia because they have seen images in glossy travel mags of its unique and ruggedly beautiful landscapes. Perhaps the best place to introduce yourself to this beautiful geography is in the island's national parks. National Park of the Bay of Orosei and Gennargentu (often referred to as Gennargentu National Park) sits on an undeveloped stretch of coastline in Eastern Sardinia. This park has it all, from beaches and blue waters in the namesake bay to high mountains that host skiers in the wintertime. Trails crisscross the park, providing some of the best hiking routes on the entire island. Gennargentu sits in the Ogliastra region, a place known for its wild beauty. Inlets with beaches break up the cliff-lined shoreline, while seals, foxes and birds of prey inhabit the protected areas.


La Maddalena Archipelago National Park is another eco-tourism option. It covers a swath of islands and sea in the area between Sardinia and the French island of Corsica. Much of the land in the archipelago is uninhabited, making it perfect for wildlife viewing.  Porto Conte Regional Park, a convenient stop for people visiting the historic town of Alghero, is known for its beautiful coastal landscapes. Famed conversationalist Jacques Cousteau called Porto Conte one of the most beautiful corners of the Mediterranean. Conservation-minded visitors might also like the Molentargius Environmental Education and Sustainability Center, which is part of the protected area near Cagliari called the Molentargius — Saline Regional Nature Park. The park protects a wetland area that is an important habitat for sea birds. Aside from its conservation education features, this attraction is an ideal spot for birdwatchers, with boardwalks and bird hides making it easy to view the winged residents without interrupting their day-to-day lives.


Even if you don't consider the beaches, history and weather reasons to visit, Sardinia's natural beauty and authentic inland areas make it one of the Med's best eco-tourism destinations. Whether seeking out unspoiled coastline, waking up in an inn on a working farm, or pedaling across remote trails in one of the island's national parks, Sardinia has lots to offer nature lovers and anyone else who wants to spend their hard-earned vacation days doing something unique and different.


Want more vacation ideas? Check out more eco-friendly destinations.


MNN tease photos of coast and houses via Shutterstock