This is a guest post by Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.

I had enough airline points to fly to Europe. Italy, even, but I craved something a bit more off the beaten path…while still being familiar.

coast of sardinia

I landed on Sardinia, an island of Italy just below Sicily. It was Italian…and not. It was perfect. While the island, which was founded in the 8th century by Phoenicians, is known as a beach playground for jet-setters in the summer, I was to discover a different side of it in the fall. Here’s what I learned.

1. Sardinia is Old. Like, Really Old.

monte sirai

I mentioned the Phoenicians. They may have been among the first settlers there, but they certainly weren’t the only people to live on, and thereby impact, the island. The Romans, Punics, Vandals, French, Spanish…you name it…at one point or another found this strategically-placed isle appealing.

Most fascinating to me were the Phoenicians and even earlier civilizations. The latter built honeycomb-shaped structures called nuraghi that, to this day, pepper the island in the thousands. While they were once used to house families and communities, most stand derelict now, though in recent years (“recent” in Italy being in the last 100 years), they’ve been used as shelter for animals for people who built their stone houses nearby.

I visited Monte Sirai, an archeological park, to explore Phoenician and Punic ruins one day on my trip. I was drawn to the necropoli, though they gave me the creeps. The Phoenicians buried the cremated remains of their bodies, then marked them with a slab, while the Punics built underground tombs that housed entire families in the afterlife (I wouldn’t want to be trapped down there at night!).

2. It’ll Reshape Your Idea of Pecorino.

pecorino sardo

My experience of pecorino cheese has, I now realized, been limited. The stuff we buy here is fit primarily only for grating on top of dishes. But in Sardinia…oohhhhh it’s another story. It’s meant for slicing and savoring, as well as cooking.

My host at the agriturismo where I stayed took me to a cheese shop where I sampled half a dozen varieties of pecorino Sardo, including a surprising young pecorino that was creamy and tangy, rather than the aged hard cheese. I bought about two pounds’ worth of the stuff and spent about $15. I laughed to myself; back at my favorite fancy cheese shop in San Diego I probably would have paid $25 for the same amount.

sheep in sardinia

After we left the cheese shop, we found ourselves stuck in traffic: sheep traffic! A sheepherder (shepherd?) was urging his flock down the road. I just sat in the middle of the woolly madness and laughed and laughed.

3. Sardinia is Wild.

southwestern sardinia

And I don’t mean trust-fund-beach-party wild. Well, not in the southwest, and not in November, anyway.

It rained most of my time there, but I enjoyed just driving around the roads that curved through farmland and around mountains by the coast. I stopped at many beaches (in the rain) and marveled at how un-touristy they looked.

4. The People are Wonderful.

cat sanctuary in sardinia

This is hardly exclusive to Sardinia. When I travel — and when I’m alone, especially — I find that people open up if I give them a smile and speak a little of their language.

Let’s start with my hosts at Agriturismo Sirimagus, Lorella and Gianni. From the moment I arrived, they were warm and inviting. I was the only guest (it was off-season, after all), so I got their undivided attention over long, delicious homemade dinners each night. Gianni was so kind as to take me on a private tour of some local nuraghi. Lorella called the airport several times to find out where my lost luggage was. They felt — and still do — like long-lost Italian cousins.

As I navigated the island, I pushed myself to break out of my shell and talk to people, to practice my Italian. At the archeological park, I was amused with the dozen or so cats (and a dog) who greeted me, and as I was petting them, a man came and talked to me. He showed me the cat sanctuary, which explained the overabundance of felines. Inside, the two men at the reception desk, while surprised to have a) a guest off-season and b) an American one who spoke Italian, were happy to talk to me about the site.

Sardinia surprised me in many ways. Rather than a vacation filled with seeing sights and shopping, this one was laid back and without agenda. It was also one of few solo trips I’ve taken, and that enhanced my experience wonderfully. Lorella says I must go back in the spring. Who am I to argue?