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."
SARDINIA OFFICIALLY BECAME PART of Italy when the country was unified in the 19th century. Until then it had a history all its own. The island's many megalithic ruins (called nuraghi) suggest that shepherds and their families thrived here in prehistoric times. Then, in 1000 b.c., the Phoenicians arrived to take over, succeeded by the Romans, who reigned for 700 years. Byzantine, Vandal, and Arab conquerors followed, as did administration by the nearby republics of Genoa and Pisa. The Spanish ruled between 1479 and 1708, leaving the west coast port of Alghero with its distinctive Catalan character. Austria, Savoy, and Napoleon all came and went. By the time of Italian unification, in 1861, Sardinia was plagued by malaria; and so it remained neglected until after World War II.
Despite all the development in the northeast, most of the island is unspoiled. Farmers still work vineyards and tend hillsides where cork and almond trees grow. Religious processions file through every town, with musicians singing a cappella and playing wooden flutes called solitti. For these traditional experiences, Angela recommends several specific areas in the Gallura region. The Maddalena archipelago, for instance, is easily accessible (ferries run regularly from Palau) and thus, says Angela, better to visit during the off-season. But it is a low-key change from the Costa Smeralda, with its own remote beaches and a thriving old port city. The place also has some history: Napoleon came through and Garibaldi retired here; old buildings, inhabited by non-jet-setting Sardinians, line the streets.
From there, Alghero is a very pleasant half-day drive across the island's mountainous interior. "It's a beautiful town, with an old Spanish center," Angela says. "You have both the sea and the river, and because it's Catalan, it's different from the rest of Sardinia." Still an active fishing port, the city is alive with locals and visitors who walk along the ramparts by the water and shop on the Via Principe Umberto. Nearby are beaches, grottoes that rival those of Capri, impressive vineyards, and untrammeled ruins. And there's a frontier feeling of wildness that is found nowhere else in Italy.
On much of Sardinia, in fact, it is possible to see flamingos and peregrine falcons, wild horses and boars. Scuba divers treasure Sardinia's waters, among the cleanest in Italy. They're alive with dolphins, monk seals, flowering sea grass, and red Sardinian coral.
The same waters also supply the revered Restaurant La Gallura, in Olbia, with lobsters, octopus, squid, and bass. "It's not a scene, but it's considered to be one of the best restaurants in Italy," says Angela as she, her boyfriend (Bruno Ragazzi, who manufactures accessories for Missoni and Versace), and entourage enter for dinner on a Saturday night. The food, praised by the Academy of Cuisine in Rome, is exquisite. But even as the group enjoys local wines and strange and delicious Sardinian delicacies—mussels in yogurt sauce, fried sea anemones, a rubbery mollusk called sea lemon, pasta with tuna eggs, and sea bass baked under a mountain of salt—Margherita and Marina, Bruno's teenage daughter, are fixating on Porto Cervo.
"The disco we're going to is the hardest to get into in all of Italy," Margherita claims. "But if we do get in, I will dance for hours and lose two kilos."
Angela rolls her eyes. "You can't lose that much weight by dancing," she says. As there would be in the Hamptons, there is a plan: Margherita has a "cousin," Tania, who has put her on a list. And sure enough, after a long drive in the rain up the coast, Margherita and posse breeze past an impatient crowd outside Sopravento, the only club open this early in the season. Air kisses are exchanged; a Britney Spears song is playing; a VIP table is offered; and, in full view of at least one paparazzo, Margherita throws herself into dancing. Her green sultan pants brush the floor seductively—they're Missoni, of course.
SARDINIA IS A PLACE WHERE CHIC and sheep coincide, where a vacationing fashion designer like Angela Missoni is as native to the environment as a cork farmer. Olbia's airport is the place to witness an authentic Sardinian see-and-be-seen departure. "It's the only airport in Italy where you see private 727's, good luggage, and women who still tan in the old-fashioned way," says Angela. "Sometimes I see people carrying Missoni shopping bags from our store in Porto Cervo. I want to ask them what they bought, but I'm too shy."
It's Sunday evening, and Angela is out of her beach serape and into her black city clothes. Her family and entourage wear a motley mix of Missoni and denim. Daughter Teresa has a bouquet of wildflowers. Important (and self-important) people are waiting for flights to Rome and Milan. A woman in a Missoni skirt passes; Angela looks her over and her brain shifts gears to her office and factory across the sea.
"I really don't want to go home," she says, sighing. "But I have work to do."
SARDINIA: THE FACTS
September is the best time to visit: the crowds have subsided but the sunshine has not.
COSTA SMERALDA AND VICINITY
The northeast coast of the island has luxury, jet-setters, fragrant vegetation, and crystalline waters.
Pitrizza Porto Cervo; 800/325-3589 or 39-0789/93011, fax 39-0789/930-611; doubles from $787, including all meals. The most elegant and intimate of the upscale hotels around Porto Cervo, with 52 rooms, a horizon pool, a private beach, and an A-list clientele.
Cala di Volpe Porto Cervo; 39-0789/976-111, fax 39-0789/976-617; doubles from $787, including all meals. Jacques Couelle designed this resort in 1963 as an ancient village with Gaudiesque touches. There are pools, shops, and a tender to a private beach club.
Hotel Due Lune Puntaldia; 39-0784/864-096, fax 39-0784/864-017; doubles from $125. A tasteful, quiet resort, used mostly, in Angela Missoni's words, "by private people."
RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTLIFE
Grazia Deledda Strada per Baia Sardinia, Arzachena; 39-0789/ 98988; dinner for two $112. Named for Sardinia's Nobel Prize— winning novelist, this renowned traditional restaurant is on the road between Porto Cervo and Arzachena.
El Peyote Villasimius; 39-0789/98800; dinner for two $50. Small, atmospheric Mexican restaurant and bar for the late-night, dancing-on-tables crowd.
La Gallura 145 Corso Umberto, Olbia; 39-0789/24648; dinner for two $64. Spectacular Sardinian cooking, both traditional and modern. Run by Rita Denza for more than 65 years.
Il Portico Porto Cervo; 39-0789/931-603. On the busy Piazzetta, the café for having a drink and seeing who's in town.
Sopravento Porto Cervo; 39-0789/94717. One of the biggest discos in the area, near Golfo Pevero. The scene at Sottovento (39-0789/92443) next door is more intimate.
Billionaire Porto Cervo; 39-0789/94192. Open only during high season, this disco is the inner sanctum of the outwardly affluent.
There's an urban feel to the historic main town in the archipelago, but amazing beaches are right nearby.
Gabbiano 20 Via Giulio Cesare; 39-0789/722-507, fax 39-0789/ 722-456; doubles from $52. A modest hotel with good views on the edge of the port.
Giuseppe Garibaldi Via Lamarmora; 39-0789/737-314, fax 39-0789/737-326; doubles from $84. Small boutique hotel above the harbor.
La Grotta 3 Via Principe di Napoli; 39-0789/737-228; dinner for two $50. Family-run local favorite since 1958. The no-nonsense menu features mollusks and fish in hearty sauces.
Cervo 23 Via Vittorio Emanuele; 39-0789/733-014. The Gepetto-like Umberto Cervo, a self-taught artisan, makes interesting, modern-looking jewelry and leather goods.
Baghi Baghi 1 Via Montebello; no phone. Unusual vintage clothing and curios at great prices.
A city with Catalan character and café culture on the island's tranquil northwest shore.
Capo Caccia Via Capo Caccia; 39-0799/46666, fax 39-0799/ 46535; doubles from $170. On a cliff above the sea, with a private beach and extensive recreational facilities.
Villa Las Tronas 1 Lungomare Valencia; 39-0799/81818, fax 39-0799/81044; doubles from $166. Near the historic town center, this former royal villa has a pool, a garden, and a genteel, old-fashioned atmosphere.
RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTLIFE
Al Tuguri 113 Via Maiorca; 39-0799/76772; dinner for two $50. Small, old restaurant with the best Catalan cooking in Alghero. The elderly owner is either charming or imposing, depending on how you look at it.
Diva 1 Piazza Municipio; 39-0799/82306. Hip and lively late-night hot spot for locals.