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Sailing to Sardinia

Launch Slideshow
Photo: Christopher Baker

Part Two: A Nautical Comeuppance

Three hours. That’s how long it takes me to feel like we have the most ghetto boat in the whole Mediterranean. We arrived by plane under cover of darkness the night before, boarded the 36-foot boat we chartered, and fell dead asleep with no real idea of where we were. We woke up feeling pretty snazzy in the harbor at Portisco, where we went grocery shopping, drank coffee at the little espresso bar, and waved knowing waves at other people on boats. It’s an invisible community, the yachtsmen of Europe, that I’ve never really known existed, a seafaring tribe who look at things from literally a different angle (like, you can see things from the water that you can’t from the road) and wear deck shoes.

Not long afterward, Marco, the person we hired to captain our boat, has us at full sail, tilting toward the south around some bend of coastline, the hillocks of the town of Romazzino rolling past. Portisco, Romazzino, Cala di Volpe—these are the faceted enclaves of the Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, the northeast quadrant of the island and the capital of monied tourism on Sardinia, and arguably of the entire Mediterranean. When most people think of Sardinia—the Sardinia of Gisele—they are thinking of this Sardinia, constructed from a sleepy stretch of coastline by the Aga Khan, who dreamed the place up and developed it 40 years ago. Marco, who was born and raised here (he actually claims his mother went into labor on these very waters, in a boat), points out the houses we sail past: There is the villa of the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, who has three small houses for his wives; that is the villa of the Agnelli family, the famed owners of Fiat; that one belongs to the Pirellis, the tire people; that is the villa of the owner of Volkswagen; this villa is my favorite because it’s not too big, but the location is very special, the stone one there, which belongs to the owner of Coca-Cola. I think about correcting him—see, Marco, these are publicly traded companies; Coca-Cola doesn’t have an owner per se—but really, look at the villa of the owner of Volkswagen. Like the rest of them it’s built low-slung among Mediterranean gardens, hidden to the world except from the sea, collecting perfect, humidity-free cloudless sunshine on a prime piece of some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Does it matter whether the guy is the “owner” or not?

Then, as we clear the point, several very large ships come into view in the distant port of Cala di Volpe. One of them is, I think, a hospital ship. Another is a cruise ship, sailing, if my eyesight isn’t failing me, under the Celebrity Cruises imprimatur. And that other one must be a very new, very white, very fast Italian Coast Guard cutter. Only, no. That is not the case. This one is the boat of the owners of Swarovski, Marco reports. That one is the boat of a big Saudi prince. The hospital ship is actually the yacht Pelorus, 377 feet long, and belonging to the famous Russian oligarch turned British soccer overlord Roman Abramovich, who owns the Chelsea Football Club. The waters around the Costa Smeralda are to boats what the driveway parking at the Hôtel du Cap is to cars: a showplace for all the exotic, shiny, astronomically expensive vehicles you rarely see in person. Boats can be many things, I learn on the seagoing portion of this Italian beach vacation: modes of transport, declarations of personality (hypermasculine motor-driven craft versus fetishistic, restored wood sailing sloops versus floating Winnebagos crammed with kids and bags of chips), and very clear announcements of net worth. Many, many people can figure out how to afford a lease on a Mercedes. Not so much on a $75 million floating boutique hotel.


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