kayaking sardinia

The next morning, Francesco, Ada, and I flip rubber tops off compartment covers, shoving inside dry bags and water bottles. We’re leaving Ina behind in a shady Eucalyptus-grove campground and departing from the small port town of Santa Maria Navaresse, the last access for 25 miles. On a nearby peninsula there’s a cylindrical stone tower with square portholes, one of the many Medieval lookouts built by the Spanish to protect their captured territory. Above the beach, a street lined by red and white oleander turns into a gravel trace that disappears amidst a macchia-covered apron draping from mountains of gray limestone.

We paddle a half-mile off the coast. Mottled cliffs rise, purple in shade and yellowish in morning light. Francesco points to where they taper into the sea, six miles distant. "Capo Monte Santo. Advance—" He flips his hand forward. "—into Golfo di Orosei. Then go close to coast."

Each time I lift my camera, Francesco strikes a pose. First he raises his paddle over his head. Then he produces an Italian flag and spreads it between his fists. Eventually, he and Ada stretch out the four-headed Sardinian flag between their boats. Francesco would probably fire off a signal flare if the island weren’t a timber-box.

For an hour, the mountains grow. We pass the pyramid peak of Punta Giradilli below which cuts the deep canyon of an ephemeral creek. Eventually, the rocks change to a startling white. The air is still and the sea is placid, except for the occasional wake, which cradles my boat like a rocking chair. The danger Francesco mentioned is seemingly held at bay.

Nearing the cape, I paddle hard, eager to see this famous gulf. But, when it comes into view, it’s shrouded in dusky haze. The vastness, the rise and spread, is evident, but the contrast is lacking compared to the vibrant whites nearby. Perhaps these distant features are a different, darker rock? I look back at the coast we’ve already passed and see it has become just as shadowy and indistinct, almost ordinary looking. I realize it’s the compounding of forest fire smoke, windblown dust, and carried smog that blots out the true brightness and drama of this coastline when one isn’t directly underneath it.

We angle toward the cliffs until I touch their smoothed base with my paddle. Up close, the magnitude of this place is apparent. Overhead, white bluffs rise over a thousand feet, like a limestone Yosemite-by-the-sea. Peregrine falcons soar out from caves. Gulls call from their crags before zooming down over the water. Schools of tiny aringas skip across the surface, churning it like rain. Cormorants perch atop emerged rocks, their sleek necks rising from oblong bodies like tulips rise from a vase. When they spot their swimming prey, their necks curve downward and their bodies follow in fluid dives, emerging a minute later and dozens of yards away.

"Dolfina!" shouts Francesco.

A silvery fin, torso, and tail briefly break the surface. Hoping the dolphin will return, we linger before continuing through a small bay toward an outcropping with a natural bridge of jagged limestone mineralized black from the surf. As Francesco paddles underneath, he blurts, "Attention, rock." The message is either meant for me, or just Francesco alerting eons-old geology to his arrival.

The next arch we encounter puts the first to shame. Acro Naturale is a broad band of chunky white limestone creating a portal twenty feet high and twice as wide. Paddling through this stone gateway, we discover Cala Goloritzé, where day-trippers have come by raft to bask on the sandy beach and swim in water clearer than the air above. Francesco points at a smooth column that rises hundreds of feet like a steeple, adjacent to several rib-like undulations that resemble a rock church. We land on the sand near a topless sunbather and head toward cool shade for lunch. Later, I hike up the forested bluffs and stare down past the chalky beach to where massive house rocks have tumbled from looming cliffs and speckle the northern flank of the bay. A boat wake arcs through the teal water.

There’s a moment on any kayak trip, whether paddling a remote river gorge or running a plunging waterfall—or, as I now realize, traversing a postcard-perfect bay in a foreign sea—when it all becomes worth it. The frustration of poring over foreign maps, the annoyance of arranging flights and rental cars, the tediousness of packing, the nervousness of hopping into an unfamiliar boat, and the exhaustion of finally traveling—all fall away. Forgotten. This was that feeling. If I left now, and didn’t see another thing, I would be satisfied. To be here, with the white coast looming above the gulf. What could top this?

Page 1: Kayaking Underneath the Dolomite Cliffs of Orosei   Page 3: The Truth about Sardines