In summer, Italians become obsessed with the sea. With the determination of salmon, they travel by train or by car, and climb mountains of steps to arrive at apartments on rocky coasts. They take over tiny villages tucked between olive groves near La Spezia. They turn Portofino and Capri into amphitheaters of social display. In Catania, Sicily, they run out each morning for granita di caffè, the local delicacy of espresso ice. In Corniglia, one of the Cinque Terre of Liguria, they sit in the piazza and argue about politics. Whether it's in Formia or the Maremma, on Capalbio or Pantelleria, each Italian family, to borrow from Tolstoy, vacations at the sea in its own way.
The Missoni family, renowned designers of striped knitwear, takes its seaside vacations in Puntaldia, just below the famous Costa Smeralda, on the northeast coast of Sardinia. A half-hour drive south of sleepy Olbia and its airport, Puntaldia lies along a rugged coast tamed by tasteful new architecture and discreet holiday residents.
Despite the tranquil setting, it's a busy place for Angela Missoni, who recently assumed the chief design responsibilities of the family business. "I used to be a solitary person," she says, surrounded by relatives and friends one June evening. "I don't know what's happened to me." What has happened is a new beach house—actually a compound with residences for Angela and her three children, her parents, and her brother. The weekend population can reach a dozen, and more when they're joined by extended family: Angela's boyfriend and his teenage daughter, or her ex-husband and his new girlfriend.
"As long as the children are happy, nothing else matters," says Missoni, 42, a robust beauty with an open-armed approach to life that she learned from her freewheeling, creative parents, Ottavio and Rosita.
In fact, her children seem more serene than happy. Teresa, 12, is quietly writing poetry; 15-year-old Francesco is paddling around the pool. Puntaldia, a community of elegant limestone buildings, may look dreamy, but that doesn't mean it's Eden for the kids—especially for the eldest, 18-year-old Margherita, who has started to exhibit jet-setting tendencies.
"It is so exclusive here that it makes you feel lonely," Margherita sighs. "This is a family place," replies her mother, who rarely leaves once she arrives. "If you want a scene, go to Porto Cervo."
Mother and daughters are sitting in one of two empty cafés on an empty piazza on a dead Friday evening, having exhausted Puntaldia's possibilities. So of course the mind of Margherita, whose friends include Versaces and Agnellis, does, indeed, turn to Porto Cervo. The posh, polished international resort town, an hour north of Puntaldia, is the Costa Smeralda's social epicenter.
"It is the opening weekend of the season there," Margherita says as she sips a drink and sends electronic text messages from her mobile phone to friends in London. She doesn't know if Billionaire, the nightclub owned by Flavio Briatore, Naomi Campbell's Italian beau, is open yet. She isn't even sure that the overhyped Porto Cervo scene is all that cool, with tourists coming through on buses, looking for celebrities as if they were bird-watching. "It's touristic and false, in a way, to be seen in Porto Cervo," declares Margherita, who two nights before had presided over a table of teenage friends at an important fashion-world benefit in Milan. "But after a quiet day with your family, you need to go out. We will go there tomorrow night."
Her mother doesn't say no. But she wants nothing to do with it.
FOR 25 YEARS THE MISSONI FAMILY SPENT ITS SUMMER vacations on an island off the coast of Croatia, where Ottavio, Italy's onetime 400-meter-hurdle champion, grew up. His wife, Rosita—whose parents owned the textile mill that gave the couple its start in sportswear manufacturing in 1953—discovered the easy sweetness of Sardinia later in life. She was seduced not by its glamour but by its vegetation, which is so various and profuse that the air is fragrant all year long. "Here, every bush is fantastic," says Rosita, an avid mycologist and gardener. "We have myrtle, bougainvillea, hibiscus, acacia, and oleander blooming at different times. It's paradise in every season."
When D. H. Lawrence visited Sardinia for nine days in 1921, he was taken by its natural beauty and remoteness, describing it as an "uncaptured" place where "the world left off." "Strange how this coast-country does not belong to our present-day world," he wrote in Sea and Sardinia about the area where the Missonis now live. "It just is not included." The inhabitants of the northeast region, Gallura, were historically mountain people, so they never had much use for the seaside places where the resort villages have gone up in the past 30 years.
Now, however, thanks to the Aga Khan and the lavish resorts he developed around Porto Cervo beginning in the sixties, the entire northeast coast has become well trafficked. For the modern sybarite who likes international nightlife, it's hard to beat the posh hotels and restaurants along the granite cliffs and clear waters. And for size and beauty, it's hard to beat La Cinta, the beach the Missonis walk to from their house. With a view of rocky Tavolara island, which rises from the sea like an iceberg, La Cinta is one of Sardinia's longest beaches, and among its most popular. "I love to sit between the rocks, to be alone and think," Angela says as she walks past families lying out on the sand. "But in August the waters are so crowded with boats from Porto Cervo that I don't swim. Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here."
Back at her spectacular house, she is reminded. Family and friends—the group has swollen in size since the previous evening—are blissed out on the terrace, having lunch. Other than Margherita's sighting of a professional soccer player at the piazza, it has been a profoundly quiet day. "At the sea, Italians are lazy," says Angela, who seldom ventures beyond her immediate surroundings. "I think there's something to be said for doing nothing. My father used to ask, 'Why make so much money if you don't have time to spend it?' It's a very good question."