How Italy’s most famous coastline stays crowd-free

This year, the Costa Smeralda – a 20 km stretch of white sand and crystal clear sea in northern Sardinia, Italy – celebrates its 60th anniversary. This once uninhabited coastline was considered of very little value to Sardinian farmers in the 1960s. Today, it prides itself on being a Mediterranean playground for the upper classes.

Over the decades, the Costa Smeralda has been a popular haven for royalty and Hollywood stars seeking their dolce vita getaways. Princess Margaret was photographed here in 1965; Greta Garbo was a frequent visitor and Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly and Kirk Douglas were all known to be fans.

It all started with a lunch in London in 1958 when the Aga Khan first saw the potential in this unspoiled corner of Sardinia – then just a deserted strip of beaches and pine forests. Once he decided to invest, the land was bought over the years from hundreds of Sardinian women and a consortium was created to ensure that all future developments complimented the landscape.

Spiaggia del Principe, Sardinia

But what does the Costa Smeralda have more than many other jewels of the Mediterranean? The secret lies in the surprising absence of crowds. Smeralda’s relatively low tourist density – with just 1,000 hotel rooms and a good portion of visitors staying in their yachts – means that the original vision of a “sustainable destination for the few” has become a reality. For 30 years, building on the coastline has been banned, and the ban is still enforced with pride. Meanwhile, other European hotspots – take Ibiza or Majorca, for example – have arguably taken a hit to their authenticity as they cater to the massive influx of tourists.

You pay the price, however. In the literal sense. When I decided to go off-road and explore the coastline on foot, I thought I’d treat myself to a five-minute taxi ride back to the hotel. I arrived home 50€ poorer. And this phenomenon of double-digit prices is widespread: wines by the bottle, aperitifs at more than €20, and around €60 for a portion of pasta.

Although the small town of Porto Cervo is populated by Giorgio Armani, miu miu and the Lamborghini Store – I challenge you to find the only supermarket – the people are not as superficial as I thought. While waiting for my taxi, several people kindly asked me if I was okay. Maybe I looked rather messy by their standards.

To reach the coast, a 40-minute taxi ride from Olbia airport is most convenient. For accommodation, the Hotel Cala di Volpe and the Hotel Cervo are well located. The former backs onto a sheltered beach to the east of the Capriccioli peninsula while the latter is in Porto Cervo itself.

Hotel Cervo offers a free boat trip for its guests to Spiaggia del Cervo, a serene and hidden beach. If you opt for the first shuttle at 9:30 am, your chances of swimming alone in the refreshing waters are high.

During this time Cala di Volpe was built to be the private residence of the Aga Khan. Overlooking the idyllic “bay of foxes”, it was to this hotel that James Bond and Anya Amasova traveled with their white Lotus Espirit in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Bond associations aren’t surprised when you learn that the three-bedroom Harrods suite at the top of the hotel – complete with wine cellar and elevated infinity pool – can cost £39,000 a night in high season. Fear not, you can always indulge in a Bellini at the Atrium bar without booking a room.

The beaches along this stretch of coastline share two things in common: gentle tides and crystal clear waters. In other words, a snorkeler’s dream. With or without the gear, you’ll notice the marine life maneuvering around your legs. Try the Aga Khan’s favorite Spiagga del Principe or Spiaggia di Capriccioli – a set of three small beaches, with shallow waters and puffs of surrounding olive and pine trees. Since Capriccioli is small, an early morning excursion is essential if you want the water to yourselves.

Capriccioli Beach, Costa Smeralda (iStock)

Ten minutes on foot from Capriccioli you will find Spiaggia la Celvia. This 300-meter crescent of fine gravel-like sand often attracts famous faces, along with their yachts – of course – dotted around the bay. And for those looking for a thrill to go along with their thrill, Spiaggia di Marinella is the biggest beach of them all. It attracts a much younger crowd, offering windsurfing and jet skiing.

It’s not just beach lovers who flock to the Costa Smeralda; it is also heaven on earth for seafood lovers. Gourmets will be spoiled for choice at Al Pescatore in Porto Cervo. Feast on the roast octopus and burrata and you won’t be disappointed. Mazara’s famous prawns may be a Sicilian delicacy – notorious for causing territorial disputes among fishmongers – but they shouldn’t be missed here. They are accompanied by squid tagliatelle and bottarga.

For a fusion of cultures, the newly opened Zuma Porto Cervo offers the izakaya experience – the Japanese equivalent of a British pub – with a rooftop view of the marina. And, before leaving Sardinia, it would be criminal not to taste the seadas, a Sardinian delicacy with a clever contrasting mixture of honey and cheese. Even the waiters of the Cervo restaurant enjoy serving this dish.

If the luxury of the Costa Smeralda seems far removed from the rest of Sardinian life, it’s probably intentional. Loved by both the yachting fraternity and the jet set, she has deliberately formed her own Nordic enclave. Costa Smeralda is a brand – a brand that attracts an increasingly glamorous clientele; the veneer-clad influencers usually seen in the likes of Mykonos are certainly becoming more than a passing sight. But the deft way in which it has avoided the overdevelopment of other Mediterranean resorts means it’s easy enough to find your own unspoilt corner. After all, exclusivity has its advantages.

Assouline’s ‘Costa Smeralda’, €95, is available for purchase here.

About Juana Jackson

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