The Costa Smeralda is legendarily beautiful and exclusive, but sail along the coast or drive inland a stretch—away from the glitz and glamour and 300-foot mega-yachts—and you can find semi-deserted beaches and villages that time forgot.
Part One: Where’s Your Boat?
I lived in Rome for a year not long ago. And one night I met an American society princess. She is blond, with crystalline blue eyes and cheekbones made of fine spun sugar. I will not write her name here, mostly because that would make her very happy. There was a constant flow of society princesses through Rome, as if there were a society princess conveyer belt that passed through the Spanish Steps. Somehow my wife and I ended up having drinks with her, among a group of self-styled Roman aristocrats and American Europhiles at a small wine bar in Trastevere. She was on her way to Sardinia, the princess. Had I ever been to Sardinia?I had not. But it sounded nice. You know, if it was good enough for Silvio Berlusconi—former Italian prime minister and a very rich man who is unafraid to enjoy his richness flamboyantly—there was probably something to the place.
“You must do Sardinia in a boat,” she said.
“That’s really the only way to experience it.”
Could you do Sardinia in, like, a raft?Or what if you just walked around in a double-breasted blue blazer with brass buttons?I asked these questions aloud. Because, I said, I didn’t actually have a boat to do Sardinia with. Can you believe it? I think she got my drift. Maybe I could stay on her boat sometime, let’s be sure to be in touch when we never speak again. This was a common experience in Rome, especially among the chillingly friendly class of decaying Roman aristocracy: I was constantly being invited to summer homes and Alpine redoubts by people who actually just wanted to end our conversation at a cocktail party. Not that I always hung out with decaying aristocrats. Who didn’t like me. This is coming out all wrong. But the place a lot of these people were (not really) inviting me to was Sardinia, which, they explained, was not like I thought it was, not all glossy telephoto pictures of Gisele Bündchen’s ass in the pages of Us magazine, but in fact the most beautiful place on earth. There were rustic villages. There was great wine. But mostly, of course, it is the ur–beach vacation spot for the Italians, the master race of seaside lounging.
If you don’t believe this about the Italians, go to Rome in August, when everyone disappears. Everyone. You can’t buy a newspaper because the vendor is at the beach. You can’t get an espresso because the barista who makes it is at the beach. You can’t even, and I’m not kidding, give the homeless guy on the Ponte Sisto the remainders of a pizza because he has taken his 12 dogs to the Adriatic and will reappear in the fall looking tan, rested, and ready to recommence his alcoholic decline. The beach vacation in Italy is not a question of class, it’s a question (like good tomatoes or the two-hour lunch, demanded by all social strata) of inalienable rights. And if I did not experience the Italian beach vacation, I was told by many people—especially Americans who like to chalk up Italian indulgence as cultural investigation—I would not experience Italy. Fair enough. I would conduct my study on Italian culture in Sardinia. And I would start in a boat.
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.
Part Three: The Encyclopedia of Blue
In the afternoon we leave the shadow of the great ships gathered near Cala di Volpe like they’re about to unleash an amphibious assault—and the star maps tour of the wealthy Euros of the Costa Smeralda—and head out for the Maddalena Archipelago National Park. The park consists of seven mostly uninhabited islands, and is destination No. 1 for Sardinian vacationers. Caprera Island, a sliver of granite and green scrub, is our introduction to the Sardinian beach: a crescent of sand, turquoise water, tanned beautiful children screaming in Romance languages. The only way to get here is by boat—either your own, or with one of the services that drop people off in the morning and pick them up at night. We anchor between a 15-foot boat with a couple of German women eating cheese sandwiches and a sleek angled yacht belonging to some Bond supervillain. We swim to shore, where an Italian man has decamped from his boat with a whole baby pig that he’s planning to roast over a fire for dinner tonight.
The Maddalena Archipelago is an encyclopedia of blues—azure to midnight—and a dictionary of beaches. At Spargi there’s a giant rock that looks like a bulldog that you can climb up and dive from; Manto della Madonna (the Madonna’s cloak) has some of the clearest, bluest water in the Mediterranean; Santo Stefano is a no-go zone since it’s inhabited by a military base, in the process of being vacated to make more room for yachts and beachgoers. To be honest, they all kind of blend together, these beaches, each more perfect than the last. That’s Italy for you: never spectacular (like the Grand Canyon or New York City is spectacular), except in its endless jewel-box perfection. And the days we spend here tend to blend together as well. Not in a bad way.
We’d wake at about 9 a.m., emerge onto the deck, drink espresso, and eat ricotta with ground espresso beans and sugar sprinkled over it. About 10 we’d raise sail and I might climb onto the little wooden deck at the back of the boat and lie down and fall asleep in the sun. I’d wake up, dangle a toe in the water, fall asleep again, wake again when we’d anchor in some cove or nook or beach, and dive in. I’d swim for a while, climb back out, lie on the big cushions on the deck of the boat, and be almost totally dry by the time lunch was ready—maybe spaghetti with bottarga (preserved fish roe, a Mediterranean specialty), a green salad, and a bottle or two of cold white wine.
The thing about changeless perfect days is that you kind of get obsessed with their perfection. You think about the perfect number of glasses of wine to drink at lunch, the perfect pillow for your head. It’s the opposite of adventure: you try to keep anything that isn’t perfect from ever happening.
Then one night, the weather changes. It hadn’t seemed possible for it to be anything other than 83 degrees with low humidity and sparse high clouds—perfect, in other words. But on this night you could see something disturbing the sky at the horizon, miles and miles away toward Corsica. Marco quickly makes for a little cove at Capo Figari, and by the time we anchor there the winds are pretty crazy—40 or 50 miles per hour. The cove is protected, with a small sand beach, a little lighthouse, a humble villa where someone lives. A four-wheel-drive vehicle pulls up, and a little Sardinian girl runs out the door to meet her father as the wind whistles through the trees and the light in the sky goes pink and shy. And behind them, up a hill, trails are visible, leading from what I couldn’t say to where I don’t know. But it seems worth finding out: this is a big island, huge really, with 1.6 million people, and mountains, and we have seen nothing. Tomorrow, we’ll make land.
A Geographic Interlude
Yes, 1.6 million people. More than 200 miles long. Three million sheep. High craggy mountains. Flowing grasslands. It is one of the great ascendant wine-making zones in Europe. The red varietal Cannonau is fruity and delicious. We spend an afternoon at Capichera, a winery near Arzachena that’s famous for its excellent Vermentinos. Sardinia is a repository for strange archaeological ruins called nuraghi—stone formations left over from 4,000-year-old villages. On another afternoon we wander through the stone remnants of houses at Serra Orrios that have stood quiet and dead for thousands of years.
Meanwhile, parts of the island are changing. On the Costa Smeralda, they are redeveloping the town center in Cala di Volpe. In the south, Zaha Hadid has been contracted to design a new art museum in Cagliari, a city that even now is still pretty sleepy. Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, small enough to drive across in half a day, large enough to provide some mystery if that’s what you’re looking for, but you’ll never be far from a beach and a hotel and a tanned Italian enjoying them.
Part Four: Hello Dutch People, We Have Missed You
Places like the Costa Smeralda are mesmerizing and beautiful, but the most mysterious part of the country is the mountainous center, specifically a region called the Barbagia. It is supposed to be weird there, steeped in the traditions of strange, isolated, mountain-dwelling peoples. Lots of goats, even more sheep, spooky old ladies in black, a funny dialect, genetic diseases, that kind of thing.
We dock at the little port town of Cala Gonone, halfway down the eastern flank of the island. It’s a normal town. Sweet, unromantic. Stacked on a steep hill facing the sea. Not built with a sense of its own cuteness or to preserve its precious past. It’s a fishing village where people come to rent a house for a couple weeks, the kind of place where there is usually a Dutch family in a camper stopping by the little tourist office to ask directions. It’s low-key. In a rented car, we climb the death-defying switchbacks on the mountain pass that leads out of town. As we reach the crest and begin to descend, it is the first time we are not looking at the ocean in days.
My sense of the island changes dramatically. It’s a place where you can always see great distances. At the far horizon are the hulking gray mountains of the Barbagia and the high peaks of the Supramonte. In between are farms and grasslands, groves of quiet olive trees spangling their leaves silently in the breeze and sun, cork forests. It’s pretty hard to get lost in Sardinia but well worth trying, which we do for a few hours. We stop for lunch at a humble agriturismo (an inn that is also a working farm) not more than 30 minutes from Cala Gonone called Agriturismo Su Cuile, where they serve a light, maybe 8,000-calorie meal made from produce they grow on their farm: ricotta in several different forms, tomatoes, prosciutto and sausage made from wild boar, ricotta ravioli, braised baby pig, Cannonau wine. All served by a daughter of the large family that owns and runs the place, while some of the younger kids watch Japanese cartoons blaring from a TV, and the farm animals snort and nose around in their pens a few yards beyond the window.
Part Five: The Hour of the Old Women
The nearby village of Orgosolo, and the whole Barbagia region, is famous for several things. One of them is murals painted on the walls of buildings depicting the old ways of life, especially old women in traditional Sardinian black-lace headdresses—what you might wear to a funeral if you were a bride and also a nun. The other thing it’s famous for is actually living these old ways of life. After wandering the quiet streets in Oliena, and buying some excellent olive oil at the olive oil cooperative (socialist gastronomy at its best), I am sitting in the main piazza at a bar drinking coffee when I witness the Hour of the Old Women: from all the shuttered row houses, old ladies emerge in their funeral/bridal headgear and walk quietly through town. Some of them congregate at benches near me, lowering themselves creakily under a mural depicting old women in Sardinian headgear. Art imitating life imitating art.
Not more than 40 minutes away is the postcard version of a Sardinian inland town, Galtellì. Cobblestoned streets, countless baby churches (and a large, beautiful cathedral on the outskirts of town), all the buildings in the historic center preserved immaculately. There are also more tourists here than we’ve seen so far, taking pictures of what the island interior is supposed to look like (what it actually looks like: breathtaking vistas seen from cinder-block houses). At the foot of the town, outside the center, the quaintness gives way. We have a beer at a bar called Fena, which is actually a collective (socialist alcoholism at its best), where some of the shortest, saddest, drunkest men in Sardinia are whiling away the afternoon in big rubber boots still muddy from field work. They explain that Galtellì, and places like it, are dying. All the young people leave to go to school in the bigger cities of the island and never come back. These are villages of the elderly.
Part Six: A Bisected Pig
From here it’s less than an hour to the best restaurant in the region, Su Gologone, which is located in a hotel of the same name, the area’s finest. Before dinner we go for a hike nearby through the national park, for which the hotel is named. The park is dedicated to water, specifically one extraordinary spring that flows out of a great fissure in the rocks. It’s in a shaded nook, next to a sheer rock face, surrounded by ferns and moss and, possibly, enchanted goblins. At first it seems to be a pool that works as a perfect mirror of the high cliff above, until you realize that you’re actually gazing through clear water, hundreds of feet deep, into some chilly netherworld. It’s creepy, like some medium for time travel or mind reading.
The proprietor of Su Gologone, a spunky woman from Oliena who owns the place with her mother, says she believes the spring is a center of great cosmic energy. And she also says the water here makes the bread and produce and everything else taste a little better. The hotel is a “rustic” building (i.e., built in the local style to look like a big, white, very beautiful farmhouse) with a pool surrounded by hedges and extensive grounds with mature, fragrant plantings. When you walk into the restaurant, you can see the signature dish waiting to be prepared: baby pigs fed on wild nuts, sawed exactly in half with scientific precision and skewered on metal rods to be roasted. I eat pasta with wild-fennel pesto, and a very tender, very flavorful, very anatomically revealing cut of pork.
Part Seven: The Perfect Beach
Embedded in the cliff-ringed cove surrounding Cala Gonone are a handful of spectacular beaches. You can only get to them by boat—there’s daily service from town. The first beach is called Cala Luna, a patch of sand and a tidal pond tucked into an opening in the sheer rock. From our boat, we swim to the beach, sun ourselves, and explore the nearby caves that empty onto the beach. In the famous Bue Marino cave, more than a hundred meters deep and almost half again as tall, it’s like being inside a calcified whale. Down the beach, there’s a spot to rent kayaks, now manned by two tanned locals skipping stones in the pond. Otherwise: no one. We tramp along the path that skirts the pond and find the small bar and restaurant that’s open only in summer, Su Nuraghe, where we eat fried mullet and spaghetti alla bottarga and drink a bottle of white wine. The beaches only get more beautiful, more quiet, less full-service the farther away you get from port. It’s not so different from those places up north, in the Maddalena Archipelago, only these you somehow feel you’ve discovered yourself.
Society Princess Redux
The night before we leave Sardinia, we return to the playpen of the Aga Khan, the Costa Smeralda. Probably the most famous (if not the best) hotel on the island is the Hotel Cala di Volpe, located on the folded coastline in the heart of the region. And it serves a buffet dinner in the main dining room, booked solid every night all summer long. We scrub ourselves in the outdoor shower at the back of the boat, unpack our fancy clothes, and get a taxi to the hotel, still reeking of salt water.
The cocktail-hour crowd breaks down into three distinct demographic groups. The first is old men with alarmingly younger women—like you think they might have a heart attack just looking at their dates. Near the table where we’re drinking our Negronis and eating big green olives is a man aged somewhere around 127, who looks not unlike an older Rupert Murdoch, accompanied by a woman in a short skirt with a heaving bosom and a bored expression that seems Eastern European. She looks like an extra from the Duran Duran “Rio” video, if I’m not dating myself too much. Group number two: handsome couples with well-scrubbed, strangely well-behaved children who are dressed like their parents. On the other side of us is a family of Italians with two beautiful sons, maybe seven and nine, in little Polo shirts with cashmere sweaters over their shoulders. They all would appear to sweat Acqua di Parma. Group three is men from Middle Eastern countries, some with what you have to assume are prostitutes. In fact, the guy just over my shoulder (I have to crane to see) appears to be with the twin sister of Rupert Murdoch’s date.
I could have stayed out here on the deck forever, staring at people, witnessing the behavior and mores and fashions of the self-identified rich (there are lots of reasons you might like to spend time at the Cala di Volpe, but keeping it real and meeting a wide swath of the socioeconomic spectrum isn’t one of them). Guests continue to pour in, on dinghies from giant yachts anchored in the bay and from the hotel’s private beach, not to mention the people like me who’d come to people-watch. Meanwhile, just inside the window, the waiters and chefs are putting out the buffet: countless antipasti, endless desserts. Then a woman in a bright flowery wrap dress is seated at the table Rupert Murdoch has just vacated. She waves hello. It’s one of the friends of the society princess we met at the wine bar in Rome. Her name will also remain untyped.
“Can you believe it!” I say.
She crosses her tanned, well-shod leg and fishes out her iPhone, which has just gently alerted her to an incoming SMS. “When I go to the Yale Club in New York,” she says, “I am not surprised to run into Yalies. When I come here, I am not surprised to see people I know from other places like this. I mean [Society Princess No. 1] even told you she comes to this hotel, right?”
“Yes,” I say. I sip on my Negroni. “You know,” I continue, ending the conversation as I have learned to in these situations, “next time you’re on the island, you should really stay on our boat. That would be a ton of fun.”
When to Go
High season in Sardinia is July and August, when Italians leave the mainland and head for the islands. In the spring and fall, temperatures are mild and there are fewer tourists.
Alitalia flies to Cagliari from Rome. Numerous car rental companies serve the Cagliari airport.
Boomerang Yachting & Charter
(40 Via Garibaldi, Olbia; 39-0789/24293; boomerangcharter.com; weeklong rentals from $1,825) offers private or group travel itineraries on a variety of boats.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Set in Maddalena Archipelago National Park, and known for its excellent fresh fish.
What to Do
Arzachena; 39-0789/80800; capichera.it.
Archipelago National Park 39-0789/79021; lamaddalenapark.it.