Yosemite of the Sea: Cala Gonone, Italy
Travel Tales
Yosemite of the Sea: Cala Gonone, Italy

I shift into fourth gear and smoothly let off the clutch to accelerate out of the ravine, away from Cala Cartoe, a secluded velvety beach in middle-of-nowhere Italy. I’m totally living my dream, I think and laugh out loud, shaking my head in disbelief as I zip past countryside vineyards and up the tight, twisting mountain road. Despite being alone and unreachable, I'm completely at ease sans cell service or data on this faraway, foreign isle. And, through the grace of the universe, I’m teaching myself how to drive a stick. Solo.

A month ago, I was invited to Italy for a work project and immediately, I knew I’d need to extend my time here. I hadn’t been back to Italy since a study abroad program in college. My speaking skills were rusty. And I’d never explored Sardegna: a large Mediterranean island the size of Belize that’s separated from Rome by 176 miles of the cobalt Tyrrhenian Sea. As soon as I read about it, I needed to go.

I was also overdue for a real vacation, which I hadn’t taken in nine months. The truth is, I love my work as a journalist, so I often forget how important it is to disconnect from it all: my routine, connectivity, and schedule. In paradox, my deep belief is that vacations are needed for transformative experiences that help us become better humans. A ‘vacation’ for me is as much a $40 flight to trek in a remote desert for four nights as it is a beach stay. As long as I, ‘Return to my humanness,’ as I like to say. Space and time is intentionally carved out for zero obligations. Days are distilled, simple. Without pressures and mind chaos, my stresses dissolve, I feel lighter, my appreciations recharge, and I can recenter my values. Hopefully, I return to daily life with new strands of self-actualization.  

Cala Gonone

Morgan Tilton

On Sardegna’s northeast coast, Cala Gonone, a fishing village and flourishing seaside haven, anchors a south-stretching range of limestone peaks and sheer cliffs. Poppies and junipers decorate the coastal landscape above the transparent emerald-blue sea. At the plateau’s base, a series of shimmering white-pebble beaches are accessed by sea taxi—or, by bushwhacking for multiple days along rugged, little-worn singletrack. I love challenging backpacking trips, but given I only had a weeklong vacation, I was attracted to the former. I wanted warmth, head kissed by the sun, feet massaged by the shore.

The day before, I’d wrapped up my assignment in Napoli, where I’d gathered with a global group of journalists to report on Tecnica’s mountain running shoe launch. I took an afternoon flight to Rome. My next plane was delayed. After hours of hair-pulling travel, I landed in Olbia near 11 p.m. and, my fear was confirmed: There were only manual rental cars. With trembling hands, I grabbed the keys for my only option.…What if I can’t read the traffic signs? Will my bone-dry contacts blur-out? Could I get pulled over or in an accident? What if I get lost?

Cloaked in night, I unlocked the car, told my fears to be quiet and took a deep breath. My hand-written directions lay open on my single backpack in the passenger seat, and I focused every ounce of my energy on driving that Fiat 500. With pure luck, I made it to my farmhouse stay-over without stalling once.

After a morning at B&B Sa Soliana, I was still anxious but eager for my second day on the road. I steered my rig for two hours to Doragli, a slope-side city with Nuragic sites from 1800 B.C.—and stalled first thing, next to a police officer, as I rolled away from a fuel pump. Above Doragli, I turned through a mountain tunnel and out the other side was a breathtaking view of the sea and Cala Gonone (pronounced CAL-LA, GAH-NO-NAY), population 8,600, below me.

I traced hairpin turns toward the colorful-rooftop marine town. Fluffy clouds spilled over the ridgelines. It was simply perfect. In town, I checked into Hotel Miramare, overlooking Spiaggia Centrale and the main harbor. The soonest I could take a sea-taxi tour to explore the Gulf of Orosei was tomorrow. So, I hopped back in my car to explore other seashores with remaining daylight.

Now, I’m returning from Cala Cartoe and my first moments by the sea on this winding Bond-esce, slightly harrowing route. I coast toward town as the sun sets. I can’t believe how stressed I was 24 hours earlier, I think to myself. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than reconnecting with my humanness.

To the Sea

Morgan Tilton

Early the next morning, I grab a cappuccino and croissant and walk excitedly to the port to find Marlin Boat. Waiting for me is the captain, a Swiss family and an Italian woman, Monica. We funnel on board with our shoes off, and my hair whisks my cheeks as we speed away from the mountain-sea town I’ve quickly come to adore. The succeeding hour is jaw-dropping. I gaze up at formations and escarpments that echo California’s Yosemite National Park, which I’d visited for the first time two months prior. This entire coast, too, is nationally protected within the National Park of the Gulf of Orosei and Gennargentu, a reserve that stretches 286 square miles. Yosemite, known for its dramatic, sheer granite faces, upheaved 10 million years ago. Light dances with its rock, creating surface hues of merigold, cream, flamingo, and ink with intense contrasts. Lush vegetation radiates in the crevasses and valley floor. Billows and mist fold over the tops of the mountains. This coastline looks like it was cut from Yosemite and planted next to the Tyrrhenian. I even learn that there is also a rock climbing mecca nearby.

Our skipper slows down and teaches us about each littoral as we pass: Cala Fuili, Grotte del Bue Marino, Cala Luna, Cala Sissine, Cala Biriola, and finally, Piscine di Venere. Translated as Venus Pools, the special spot resonates an electric, unreal blue. The intense color is created by the depth of the limestone, which is close to the water’s surface. Near the inlet’s caves, we anchor. Sun burns off the fog within a minute. The vibrant sea completely illuminates. I jump off the stern and swim to the coast. After salt-bathing for an hour, we continue past Cala Mariolu to our final viewpoint: Cala Goloritze, a pocket of coastline with a palace of magnificent rock figures including Aguglia a Tramontana, a 470-foot high obelisk and climber’s sanctuary. I need to come back and climb that intoxicating spire, I think as we point our ride back north.

At Cala Gabbiani, we offload to swim for almost two hours. I dive into the powerful swell. The cooler temperature livens me and the salt buoys my body. I look back at the ivory-apricot precipices--rocks that date back to 541 million years ago. I’m humbled by their historic, sky-reaching existence. Back between the warm sun and sand, I write in my journal: “Here, the horizon hardly exists against the sea. I sink into the center of time rather than being pulled along its line. Smooth evergreen sea glass softens my calloused feet, alongside ivory and salmon pebbles, pieces of broken limestone. Anonymity sits beside me, a friend. Here is all you are.”

For the first time in years, since an obscure backpacking trip in Utah’s Buckskin Gulch, I feel completely centered. I realize, despite being alone on this trip, I am nurturing a vital relationship: with myself. If I do not continuously take time to know who I am, how can I deeply, genuinely share myself with people and the world? For the beauty and health of connecting well with others, this is arguably the most important relationship that we have. My self-actualization, inspired by the swell of the sea, is that I need to love myself unconditionally and better.

Twenty minutes later, our guide picks us up, and we jet north to Cala Luna, where I fall asleep on the sand, next to my new friend, Monica, for an hour. When we leave the dock, she and I carefully step along the boat’s edge to the bow, to lay topless atop our towels with first-class views of the preserved matchless landscape. We banter in mixed English and Italian, about our lifelong gratitude and excitement for adventure travel. To deepen the quality of our lives and compassion for humanity, we explore the world’s most beautiful places.

I reflect on the romance of Cala Gonone. Despite being in a happy, healthy partnership at home, my aloneness here strengthens a bond with myself that feeds the love, presentness, and generosity I share. As we return to the harbor, close to 4 p.m., I book another boat tour—I have no qualms to go twice. If I could, I’d go everyday. My personal humanness is completely nourished by this Yosemite of the Sea.

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