The Deepest Blue

Issue 4 - 2016
By Sally Howard · Images Corbis, Alamy, Getty Images

It may be famed as a billionaire's playground, but look beyond the glitz of Sardinia's Costa Smeralda and you'll find even more to entice

Issue 4 - 2016
By Sally Howard · Images Corbis, Alamy, Getty Images

It may be famed as a billionaire's playground, but look beyond the glitz of Sardinia's Costa Smeralda and you'll find even more to entice

Sardinia’s Emerald Coast has come a long way since D.H. Lawrence rhapsodised about its simple shepherding life in 1921. These days the Costa Smeralda’s annual superyacht regatta draws supermodels and sheikhs, while Flavio Briatore and Silvio Berlusconi number among the region’s residents (the ex-PM is said to have hosted “bunga-bunga” parties in his villa’s replica erupting volcano).

The region’s renaissance as a jet-set playground began in the 1950s, when Aga Khan IV dropped anchor by a then sparsely populated peninsula to the north-east of Sardinia. Bewitched by its blue-green waters and flawless sands, the Islamic business magnate formed a consortium of buyers to purchase 30 square kilometres of land from the resident cattle herders, with a view to building a development of low-impact luxury villas. By the 1960s this elite hideaway, centred around the newly founded Costa Smeralda resort, was already a playground for the famous and the fabulous: Grace Kelly and Catherine Deneuve rubbed sun-kissed shoulders with European royals, and Ringo Starr composed Octopus’s Garden here, anchored off the coast on Peter Sellers’ yacht.

Today, while this glitzy heritage of gated villas and yacht-deck parties lives on – and is yours for the taking at hotspots like Flavio Briatore’s Billionaire nightclub and the Bulgari and Versace boutiques at Porto Cervo Marina – there’s another, arguably more seductive Emerald Coast that’s ripe for exploration. This is the wider Costa Smeralda of rugged landscapes strewn with granite boulders, tucked-away golden-sanded bays and Sardinian octogenarians shooting the breeze as they weave the patterned baskets for which the region is famed.

There’s good reason to visit now. When the resort was founded, the consortium limited building permission to three luxury hotels. Today, despite ongoing restrictions, the first generation of three- and four-star hotels has belatedly arrived, with whitewashed beachfront boutique CalaCuncheddi summing up the new mood in low-key luxury.

By the 1960s, this elite hideaway was a playground for the famous and fabulous

Thanks to an Italian government ordinance, all beaches on Sardinia – like elsewhere in Italy – are open to the public, though the Costa’s beachfront concessions can be pricey (loungers are around £16 per day). Alternatively, pack a towel and sunshade and a lunch of pane carasau (traditional flatbread) with Sardinian pecorino and take your pick from the miles of golden sands. For people-spotting, try the yacht-dotted Spiaggia del Principe. Or, for a broad sandy beach suitable for families, head two miles out of Porto Cervo to Baia Sardinia.

If you prefer a quiet cove, the sandy bays at Cala Petra Bianca and Poltu li Cogghi, with its shallow, bathwater warm waters, are protected from invasion by a lack of signposting from the road (exit to either
from the SP13 coastal road, with GPS). Or bag a cove to yourself by hiring a boat at Cala Calgone, where a gommone (rigid-inflatable boat) can be yours for the day from £70.

Suitably sun-kissed? It’s time to seek out a Sardinia that’s rarely visited by the superyacht set. Twelve miles inland from Porto Cervo, Arzachena is the putative “capital” of the Costa Smeralda. Originally a shepherding village, today this small comune is the launching point for an exploration of prehistoric Arzachena culture. Chief among these sites is the necropolis of Li Muri, a collection of stone-circle graves characteristic of Sardinia’s Bronze Age civilisation.

For a taste of the region’s living history, head north-west along the coastline through a landscape of wild green macchia (shrubland) to Castelsardo. This pretty old port town is clustered with craft shops selling jewellery, carvings and the broad decorated baskets for which the village is famed.

For a similarly photogenic old Sardinian comune, pick up one of the small ferries that depart several times daily from the port of Palau for the starkly beautiful La Maddalena, the largest island in an archipelago of the same name. The main town is a characterful cluster of sepia shopfronts and alleyways that’s worthy of a half-day’s exploration.

Costa Smeraldan cuisine is a smorgasbord of coastal seafood, new Italian and rustic treats from the mountainous interior. To rub shoulders with the jet-set, book a spot on the bougainvillea-trailed terrace of the Costa Smeralda’s Spinakker restaurant (situated on the road from Porto Cervo to Liscia di Vacca). For a younger yachtie crowd, try Il Pomodoro in Porto Cervo, a stylish pizzeria serving angler-fish risotto with Sardinian saffron and featherlight pizzas topped with local cheese. Intrepid eaters should head inland to Agriturismo Testone, where delicacies on offer inspire “guess-what-I-put-in-my-mouth” anecdotes – from lamb’s blood soup to “lung” ragu and casu marzu, the semi-legal Sardinian cheese that wriggles with live fly larvae.


The best time to explore the Costa’s highlife is nightfall, when the beautiful people venture onto dry land for their sundowners. The Berlusconi set heads to the Aqua Lounge at Porto Cervo, where the lighting is forgiving, the views are panoramic and mojitos are served “spicy hot”. Meanwhile jet-setters congregate at Phi Beach, a glitzy open-air nightclub and restaurant ranged around coastal rock formations on Baia Sardinia. Claim an egg chair, order a negroni and toast your good fortune. Salute!


Call 020 8682 5080 to arrange your tailor-made trip to Sardinia

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