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Exploring the secrets of longevity in Sardinia – the world’s first Blue Zone

With a relaxed Italian lifestyle, strikingly picturesque landscapes and a climate similar to nearby North Africa (all just two hours from London) – it’s hardly surprising Sardinia has become an increasingly popular holiday destination in recent years.

The world’s first identified ‘Blue Zone’ – a geographic area with inhabitants that, statistically, live the longest lives – Sardinia is thought to be home to the highest concentration of Centenarians (people aged 100 and above). In 2012, the Province of Ogliastra, in the east of the island, was reported to contain the world’s oldest family – with a combined age of 818, between nine siblings. It’s also feasibly predictable that Sardinia has more than 10 times the amount of Centenarians per capita than the USA.

But what’s their secret? Some research suggests Sardinia’s high concentration of centenarians is, in part, genealogical, but there’s also a profound focus on lifestyle. Residents of Perdesdefogu in the area’s mountains, for instance, are geographically and culturally isolated, with many adhering to a traditional, healthy, relatively stress-free lifestyle. Many Sardinians still hunt, fish and harvest their own food, proudly drink red wine (Cannounau wine has a high level of flavonoids) and remain close with their families.

Then there’s the matter of diet: alongside the consumption of red wine, a classic Sardinian diet will consist of healthier whole-grain bread, Pecorino cheese made with sheep’s milk that’s naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids, and often reserve meat for Sundays and special occasions. Other typical Sardinian dishes include Porceddu – spit-roasted suckling pig stuffed with herbs and conventionally cooked over juniper or myrtle wood. Another traditional Sardinian delicacy – casu marzu – is a type of Pecorino cheese, intentionally containing thousands of live maggots. A potential relief for the more squeamish; the cheese has now been outlawed for reasons of hygiene.

Although less traditional, fish and seafood has become a particularly strong arm of Sardinian cuisine, unsurprising given the island’s exceptional produce found within many restaurants. It’s also impossible to visit Sardinia without indulging in bounteous expanses of traditional crisp, flat bread (Pane Carasau) served with practically every meal. Best when seasoned with sea salt and woody rosemary, the paper-thin bread was originally conceived for Shepherds, made by separating baked flat bread into two thin sheets before baking once more.

In the north of the island, Gallura is famous worldwide for its beaches with pearl white sand, clear waters and ancient wine culture. The weather here is typically Mediterranean with around 300 days of sunshine per year, whereas the stunning coastline has a series of rock cliffs and islands that form the National Park of the Archipelago of La Maddalena and the Natural Reserve of the Straits of Bonifacio – dividing Sardinia from nearby Corsica. Of Gallura’s main towns, Olbia is the most highly populated, with the first settlement dating back to the Stone Age. Close to the Costa Smeralda – a playground for the super rich, popular amongst the likes of Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow and European royalty – Olbia has a seaport and international airport. Flights from London Gatwick to Olbia, with Meridiana, are fairly cramped but quick, with one-way flights beginning at just £37.

Around the coast of Gallura, Delphina Hotels and Resorts is a collection of eight four and five-star accommodations. Within easy reach of Olbia and Alghero airports, the hotels, exclusive residences and villas are surrounded by green gardens which overlook the sea, in the villages of Cannigione, Palau, Santa Teresa Gallura, Isola Rossa and Badesi. With over 20 international awards by European tour operators, Delphina is also the leader in Sardinia for Thalassotherapy – the medical use of water for health and beauty treatments. Across their resorts, Delphina’s six wellness and SPA centres respect the international protocols of Thalassotherapy, with water direct from the sea to the swimming pools in one continuous cycle. Gallura is, essentially, a perfect destination for relaxing holidays (with limited phone signal), though Delphina Hotels and Resorts also offers a full activity programme, from full-day excursions on ancient sailing boat Pulcinella, to golf, hiking, windsurfing and more.

Overlooking the sandy bay of Isola Rossa and its azure waters, Delphina’s Hotel Marinedda Thalasso & SPA was awarded five-star status following a €4.5million makeover last year. Adjacent to ‘one of the best beaches in Sardinia’, the hotel – built into the rocks like a fortress – vaunts an extensive choice of room configurations, each decorated by expert local craftsmen. From a single room balcony, the sea view is festooned with a throng of greenery, a large mansion in the foreground visually evocative of the Teletubbies’ house, and the bay – across which the sunset majestically illuminates the building’s masonry. With 195 rooms, the resort is so capacious; it’s often necessary to use the onsite golf caddies to get around.

Arguably the main draw at Hotel Marinedda, the Elicriso Thalasso & SPA Centre is one of the Mediterranean’s largest and most modern wellness centres. The 2,500 metre-squared centre features four seawater pools, each heated to different temperatures; two saunas, a Hammam with panoramic sea views; a cardio-fitness gym; as well as offering a wide selection of massage and beauty treatments.

Elsewhere, four restaurants operate on site. The hotel’s main restaurant offers a Mediterranean buffet of mostly local dishes, with a dedicated sushi counter also on hand. Each morning, the restaurant bestows a generous Continental offering, plus a cooking station with freshly cooked eggs, sausages and bacon. It also seems necessary to take advantage of the self-serve bottles of Prosecco to enjoy over breakfast. The quality of food served in the two a la carte restaurants is equally prominent, but the atmosphere is somewhat calmer – romantic, in fact. Regular changing dishes might include faultlessly stewed octopus’ tentacles sprawled on a bed of silky smooth creamed chickpeas. Gluten-free meals are also available on request. Elsewhere, onsite Pizzaria Basaricò serves pizza from a wood-fired oven, while Campari-based cocktails flow like water at the hotel’s main bar.

Just one of the available excursions, a taxi collects us shortly after an opulent breakfast, taking us on a half-day tour of Gallura. On a white-knuckle ride around the area’s tight lanes and hills, we stop at an Elephant-shaped mass of trachyte stone outside the quaint coastal village of Castelsardo. On the way, we admire the wealth of cork-producing holm oak trees stripped of their bark, followed by an espresso break in the village of Aggius. We stroll around the residential backstreets and admire the land that time seemingly forgot. Uncountable pocket-sized Fiat hatchbacks look almost as old as some of Ogliastra’s residents, while the architecture is so quaint; these eerily peaceful thoroughfares resemble venerable film sets. The very few people we encounter, however, each make a conscious effort to communicate with us – instantly recognising we’re tourists, exchanging barbershop small talk in a concoction of sprained English and fractured Italian.

After lunch back at the hotel, I’m desperate to explore the local area further and take a stroll downhill to the local Isola Rossa. Off the beaten track from the rest of the local area’s more touristic junctures, the small fishing village is sleepy and unperturbed beyond comparison. Along the coast, an elderly, bronzed local greets us like distant family members from his modest fishing boat, holding up a recently caught bass the size of a small child for us to venerate. Even a visit to the town’s local supermarket is a considerably less stressful affair when compared to British supermarkets. Granted, the aisles (even in the freezer section) are preposterously warmer, but the pace of life is refreshingly leisurely. There’s also no need to contend with passive aggressive self service checkouts that have the ability of leading even the most imperturbable to spiral headfirst into a nervous breakdown.

Walking back to the hotel, we follow the rocky coastal trail past the red Aragonese Tower and up into the rocks of the Valle della Luna, like a lunar landscape, in search of an optimum photo opportunity. By now, the temperature is quickly approaching 40-degrees and we begin to wish we’d brought a tank of water, quickly discovering the coast is so picturesque, regardless of altitude, we needn’t have bothered climbing.

Further along the coast, Delphina’s five-star Resort Valle dell’Erica Thalasso & SPA has been nominated, by Trivago, as the ‘Best Beachfront Hotel’ in Sardinia. Split into two hotels; Hotel La Licciola and Hotel Erica, the huge resort is set in 28-hectacres of land, with un-spoilt panoramic views across the coastline. With 271 luxurious rooms set across both hotels, we stay in Hotel La Licciola, opened in 2013 as an extension to the original resort. Also on site, seven restaurants, five bars and four swimming pools (one with a swim-up bar) are joined by another Thalasso & SPA Centre – Le Thermae. At La Licciola, the junior suites are capacious and modestly decorated in classic Sardinian fashion. Breathtaking panoramic views across the coast can also be seen from the room’s king-size bed – a natural alarm clock far less harrowing than my normal symphony of mating urban foxes, earth-shattering motorbikes and emergency service sirens.

For lunch and dinner, Valle dell’Erica’s main restaurant serves another buffet with curiously opulent dishes – fresh fish and shellfish are serious business here – while a la carte Ristorante il Grecale offers an occasion somewhat more momentous. Here, dishes are prepared and presented with artistic flair, dressed like plates found in some of Europe’s most prestigious restaurants – disregarding the king prawn served in an espresso cup. Velouté of Jerusalem artichoke, for instance, is creamy and feather-light, embellished with precisely cut hunks of Mediterranean vegetables. Squid ink risotto, on the other hand, is decorated with intricately diced cubes of raw tuna so fresh I’d believe it had been caught within the past hour. After dinner, we stroll back to the hotel and, inevitably, get lost.

Another rousing day-trip includes a private boat trip to explore the Archipelago of La Maddalena, suspended between Sardinia and Corsica. We approach the island before lunchtime with mere moments to enjoy the glorious scenery before an armada of holidaymakers on water buses descend upon the national park. Orlando Bloom is nowhere to be seen. After a swim in the crystal-clear sea, the motorboat sets off to the indescribably gorgeous town on La Maddalena. Accessible only by boat (a 20-minute car ferry runs frequently from the port town of Palau), the town has a strong sense of disconnected seclusion, with white sand beaches typical of the Caribbean. Close to the luxurious Costa Smeralda, La Maddalena has a striking land and seascape with turquoise patches of sea meeting weathered granite outcrops. Within the town, pedestrianised lanes are festooned with quirky gift shops, delicatessens and quaint cafes with outdoor seating.

Just a short boat-ride from the Archipelago of La Maddalena, Delphina’s five-star Hotel Capo d’Orso is especially designed to suit couples in search of a romantic retreat. Nestled amongst the Cala Capra nature reserve, the hotel is secluded in shrub land, equipped with two beaches in isolated coves. Also, following the obvious trend, the hotel’s L’Incantu Thalasso & SPA Centre offers guests the opportunity to take advantage of the seawater Thalasso pools. Back at Valle dell’Erica, we visit the SPA on the last day, before heading back to the UK. Nestled within a natural environment of granite rocks and pungent herbs, Le Thermae celebrates the art of Thalassotherapy with a circuit of four seawater swimming pools at varying temperatures. First though, an intense back massage seems necessary as one final bout of indulgence before heading home.

Disheartened to leave at the break of dawn, the plane eventually lands at Gatwick with plenty of time to return to the city in time for work – a pitiless thud back to everyday life. Trudging back through departures, the stark contrast between London and Sardinia is instantly apparent. At passport control I feel as welcome as an influx of cholera. Meanwhile, the 120-strong customs queue is filled with woeful holidaymakers, pushing and shunting in a hurry to get back to reality. It’s evidential proof that, even when there’s no real need, London’s pace of life is so erratic, all reason and rationality is habitually misplaced.

I love London more than anyplace in the world. It’s home and has been for as long as I can remember. But could you honestly imagine breaking into your second century here with so much day-to-day stress? In Sardinia though, a land so majestically stunning, so tranquil -where it seems nothing terrible can ever happen – the notion of living to celebrate my 100th Birthday doesn’t seem quite so frightfully unsettling.

Further information on Delphina Hotels & Resorts can be found at delphinahotels.co.uk. Rooms at Valle dell’Erica rooms start from £136 per person, per night in a double room, half-board. Rooms at Hotel Marinedda Thallasso & SPA start from £118 per person, per night in a double room, half-board. All resorts are open from late May until late September. Flights from London Gatwick to Olbia via Meridiana airline begin at £37, one way.

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