A Saga of Sardinia and Corsica

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I returned on June 18 from a 13-day tour of Sardinia and Corsica with Saga of the UK. This was the only appealing itinerary I found that included both islands. Our itinerary took us from Cagliari to Alghero in Sardinia, to Calvi in Corsica, then back to Golfo Aranci in Sardinia, and finally back to Cagliari for our flight back to London. The full itinerary can be found at http://travel.saga.co.uk/holidays/touring-holidays/europe/ corsica-and-sardinia.aspx?), or by searching the Saga website at www.saga.co.uk. I paid GBP 1499 for the tour, including air between London’s Stansted airport and Cagliari, plus GBP 229 for the single supplement and a 2.5 percent surcharge for paying by credit card. I was credited GBP 26.00 for included travel insurance available only to UK residents, and I am disputing an additional GBP 35.00 charge for unnecessary mailing costs. I also paid airfare to and from London and two hotel nights in London, one before and one after the tour. The flight to Cagliari left early in the morning so I had to fly to Heathrow the night before and spend the night at a Stansted airport hotel (the Radisson Blu, within easy trolley cart distance of the terminal). On the return, my flight from Cagliari arrived back at Stansted after the available flights home from Heathrow had departed, so I spent another night at a Heathrow airport hotel (the Premier Inn on Bath Road, GBP 55 for the night and a GBP12 taxi fare to or from Terminal 1). There were 38 of us, 34 of whom were British. Saga has a minimum age of 50 for its tours, and almost everyone in our group was retired, but no one had any physical problems. In fact, in terms of age, the group was virtually indistinguishable from many other tour groups I’ve known with no minimum age. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, a Saga group may not be a good fit; otherwise, Saga’s age policy should not be a consideration. Anyway, I’ve found that the British usually are good travelers. Everyone in our group was prompt and good-natured; most were experienced travelers, and many had taken Saga tours before. Our hotel arrivals and departures were handled so smoothly that the size of the group never became a hindrance. The pace of the tour was leisurely. We spent two nights in Cagliari, three nights at each of the next three hotels, and then a final night back at our original hotel in Cagliari, so we didn’t have to unpack and re-pack every day. Our days frequently did not begin until 9:00 or 9:30 AM, which was quite unlike the 8:00 AM departures that I’ve often experienced, but I don’t think the late starts deprived us of seeing or doing anything essential. We did have two long days of driving between islands (including crossings by ferry between St. Theresa and Bonifacio). I intend to suggest some itinerary changes to Saga that would eliminate both long days and allow more time on Corsica. We traveled in a large, new coach that allowed ample room for our group, and our guide and driver were exceptional. Our tour leader, Maggi, is British and has done this tour many times before. We had only one local guide—for our half-day tour of Cagliari. Other than that, Maggi was able to act as our guide. Every three days, she wrote up and distributed details of what was to come, so we always had a written record of arrival, meal and departure times. She also told us everything we needed to know about our plans without speaking to us as if we were children, as some tour leaders are prone to do. She either provided city maps to each of us or directed us to the local tourist office where we could get them for ourselves (sometimes the offices balked at giving her 40 maps at once). The hotels were fine and probably the best available. There probably were no quality hotels with enough rooms for us in the narrow streets of the historic parts of the cities in which we stayed, so we sometimes were beyond a short walk to the center, but I never felt stranded at my hotel. Full buffet breakfasts always were included as were some lunches and dinners. Our lunches sometimes were sandwiches we’d order at cafes, some attached to gas stations, along the road. When lunches and dinners were included, we usually had a choice of entrees. Four optional tours were offered. I took them all for a total cost of GBP 72.60, which was good value for money. I thought that this was the only time I’d ever be on these islands, so I should see and do what was on offer. In most cases, the best alternative was to spend the day or half-day relaxing at the hotel. In Cagliari, Alghero, Bonifacio, Calvi, Ile Rousse (optional) and La Maddalena (optional), we had a short guided tour to see the highlights and get us oriented, and then ample free time to explore on our own and usually have lunch. On balance, I thought the tour offered a good balance between group time and free time. The cities were not so crammed with “must sees” and “must dos” that I ever felt pressed for time, even with our leisurely morning starts. The town centers were full of outdoor cafes and restaurants, mostly for locals and European tourists. I rarely heard English from anyone who was not in our group, but most shopkeepers and restaurant and cafe people spoke enough English for us to get by without problems. I think June was an ideal time to visit. The weather was comfortable, the skies usually were blue, and the number of other tourists was manageable. I’d hesitate, though, to make the same trip in July or August when it’s much hotter and more crowded. Those may be ideal times to visit for northern Europeans in search of beaches, but not for Americans with much better beaches much closer to home. In general, I’d describe the tour as a pleasant experience, neither mind-boggling nor mind-numbing. I’ll leave the description of sights to the guidebooks, which do a better job of that than I could. Lonely Planet has guidebooks for each island. I enjoyed wandering the narrow streets of the old towns and observing the scenery, ranging from arid maquis in southern Sardinia to greener and more rugged landscape in northern Corsica. But I really couldn’t say that this was a trip that provoked many gasps of wonder. Sardinia and Corsica are destinations best suited to Americans who already have visited much of continental Europe. For those who share my curiosity about them, the Saga tour is an option worth considering. The only major reservation I have is that Saga will not allow non-UK residents to book their tours online or by email. I had to pay $100 for the phone call to England. I’ve encouraged Saga to change this practice. By the way, much as I wish it were otherwise, the people of Sardinia are neither Sardines nor, for the politically inclined, Sardinistas. Also, and to my surprise, we encountered very few references to Napoleon in the parts of Corsica we visited.