The Emerald Coast
Between Golfo Aranci to Baia Sardinia on the north-east side of the island of Sardinia, lies an inaccessible strip of coastline known as Costa Smeralda.
Its 55 kilometres of sandy beaches and coves border an emerald green sea, renowned for being amongst the most beautiful sailing waters in the world, and for superyachts it is one of the most popular destinations in the Mediterranean.
Costa Smeralda is a mini-state within Sardinia, with an independent security force, a private fire brigade and a capital, Porto Cervo, that is a carefully planned ‘fishing village’ with archways, external staircases and loggia fronting designer shops and superb restaurants.
Porto Cervo Marina lies in a well-protected harbour, presided over by Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, and there are excellent hotels, restaurants and world-class shopping close by. The social whirl consists of regattas such as the Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta, polo matches, film festivals and vintage car rallies. More pragmatically, there are good yacht repair facilities, and private jet and helicopter access at Olbia.
Transformation of a wilderness
Many myths surround the foundation of the Costa Smeralda, but the generally accepted version of events recounts a conversation that took place during a business lunch in London in 1958. One of the men present, who had recently returned from a trip to Sardinia, was passionate about the potential of a wild strip of coastline there.
Distressed by the negligible planning regulations prevailing on the island, and disturbed by the proliferation of Soviet Bloc-style hotels springing up along the coast, he presented an irresistible case for saving the area from architectural Armageddon by creating a private holiday refuge – for an investment of just $25,000.
HH the Aga Khan is synonymous with the development of Costa Smeralda. Aged just 21, he had succeeded his grandfather to take the title only the year before, and leapt at the opportunity to join the Costa Smeralda Consortium with Patrick Guinness and four other investors. Together they set about transforming 120 square kilometres of this undeveloped wilderness.
The fact that this rugged shoreline had remained undeveloped until then was down to a combination of history and geography. Vulnerable to sea-borne invaders – and Sardinia has had many over the centuries, from the Greeks to Moorish pirates – the local population had moved inland. They were further deterred from settling along this coast by malaria, which was only finally eradicated on the island after the Second World War.
Sensitivity to the environment and local style
When planning for the area began, a committee assessed the environmental impact, aesthetic style and overall quality. Members included specialist conservation architect Luigi Vietti, who was responsible for the building design in Porto Cervo, specialist environmental architect Michele Busiri Vici, who designed hotels, villas and the Stella Maris church, and French peer Jacques Couelle, a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, who designed the unusual Hotel Cala di Volpe. HH the Aga Khan dispatched photographers throughout Sardinia to take pictures of local buildings from which identical replicas were built.
The arrival of the jet-set
The early years of the Costa Smeralda were reserved exclusively for the very rich. The stylish Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli was a regular visitor, while another habitué was Count Domenico Agusta, head of the aviation family and manufacturer of the legendary MV Agusta racing motorbikes.
In 1962 when the Costa Smeralda was opened up as a tourist resort, VIPs arrived rapidly, popularising Porto Cervo, Porto Rafael and Porto Rotondo and developing new holiday homes in the area. The paparazzi were quick to exploit this concentration of celebrities and the resort’s fame grew exponentially.
Capri and the Côte d’Azur may have been the traditional playgrounds of the European glitterati in the 1960s, but during the 1970s and 1980s, a stay on the Costa Smeralda became an essential part of the social calendar.
The region still attracts an international pack of high-profile ‘A-listers’ from motorsports, modelling, films and music. Flavio Briatore, Naomi Campbell, Denzel Washington, Heidi Klum, Maria Carey and a cluster of 007s are all among the faces linked with Porto Cervo and its high-octane celebrity circuit.
It’s an exotic combination of big names, big boats, beaches and exuberant nightlife that makes an intoxicating cocktail.