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Asinara Island, Sardinia

Such is its rare beauty that it is sometimes hard to believe that up until 10 years ago the Island of Asinara was little more than a penal colony and before that a quarantine reserve for diseased seamen.

Now this isle, barely 20sq miles in area and lying off the north-west tip of Sardinia, is being transformed into a tourists’ paradise.

This is in no small part down to the spectacular rocky terrain, beautiful beaches and clear blue waters that make obvious why it was once known as Hercules’ Paradise.

Its present-day name gives no hint to the wild, rugged beauty that has slowly seen it transformed into a protected National Park. (Asinara comes from both the Latin sinuaria, describing its supposed sinus shape, and the Italian asina – from the albino donkeys found here).

Nor does its recent history. Having first been fought over by the medieval maritime republics of Genoa, Pisa and Aragon owing to its strategic position, it then housed, in turn, sailors with contagious diseases; World War One prisoners; Ethiopia’s ousted royal family; left-wing Red Brigade terrorists; and, until the late 90s, Mafia detainees.

Now the only fighting it sees is among property developers keen to cash in on the inevitable tourist boom. To its credit, however, the Italian Government is doing its best to preserve the Asinara’s unspoilt beauty.

Access to the island is strictly restricted, excursions are permitted only with accredited guides, accommodation is limited to a spartan hostel and some of its inviting beaches remain barred to the public to protect its landscape, flora and fauna.

Officially sanctioned day trips run from either Stintino or Porto Torres on the mainland, from where you take a boat, getting off at Porticciolo Fornelli on the southern tip of Asinara.

Porticciolo Fornelli is home to the former maximum security prison, dating back to the late 19th century. Its attractive gardens were created by inmates in the early 1980s.

This small coastal village features few other buildings of historical interest, although a few miles away lie the ruins of an ancient castle, Castellaccio.

From this small village, visitors take a bus to Cala d’Oliva beach, from where it is possible to set on guided bike or off-road excursions.

For an even more leisurely way of seeing Asinara, there are also boat trips that circumnavigating the island. An increasingly popular alternative are fishing excursions, in which visitors are accompanied by the island’s fishermen and get to tuck into the afternoon’s catch at the end of the boat ride.

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