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The Myth of the Costa Smeralda Turns 60

“Exactly 60 years ago, a project was born that put a piece of Italy on international maps and set the standard for spatial planning and tourism development.”

Once upon a time, Sardinia was a mountainous island, land of shepherds, landing place of rulers. Everyone passed through here: Phoenicians, Romans, Genoese, Spanish and Piedmontese, sedimenting cultures and traditions. Then in 1962, Prince Karim Aga Khan arrived on the Sardinian coast and what had been a wilderness in the Mediterranean Sea for millennia became the chosen destination of yachts and private planes of the rich and famous–crowned heads yesterday and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs today. Where Jackie Kennedy, Margaret of England, Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot landed in the 1960s, today Mark Zuckerberg, Beyoncé and Jay-Z alight. 

The myth of this hyper luxurious destination withstands and without nostalgia for the good old days: to remain relevant, Costa Smeralda focuses nowadays on Gen Z and the powerful of tomorrow. How they did it is a pioneering story that still has to be taught, even if the Costa Smeralda does not actually exist.

Costa Smeralda is neither a municipality nor a historical toponym, but a registered trademark that demarcates the territories managed by a private consortium, which, like a demiurge, administers and governs 3,000 hectares of land, purchased by Aga Khan and the other founders in the early 1960s. Coves only accessible by boat, crystal-clear waters, granite cliffs overlooking small beaches and Mediterranean scrub used only for grazing animals: here the keen eyes of a handful of entrepreneurs saw an idyllic, wild, wonderfully secluded place with an emerald sea. A place where the international jet set could find refuge from the wear and tear of modern life. All it took was building them a natural, luxurious oasis. 

Stone by stone, the center of Porto Cervo was built–an imaginary village complete with church and square, post office and supermarket. Architects and urban planners of undisputed fame such as Jacques Couëlle, Michele Busiri Vici and Luigi Vietti founded the historic core in a few years, signing the hotels Cala di Volpe, Romazzino, Pitrizza and Luci de la-Muntagna; the restaurant Quattro Passi al Pescatore and the Stella Maris church. All around, the iconic white or pink villas with arches and wooden roofs, a design since christened the stile smeraldino (emerald style). An ideal small town was invented, perfectly immersed in the surrounding landscape, deliberately discreet, architecturally studied in every detail so as not to break the picturesque representation of the Mediterranean. The opposite of Italian “spontaneous construction”, Aga Khan, together with a handful of visionary entrepreneurs and professional architects designed everything (from the aesthetics of the facades to the sewers), constructed electricity and streets, created spaces for shops, set up tile and building material companies and filled them with workers. No airports or flights? He created those too. The previously unknown Mola Mountains became the Emerald Coast, so famous that, in other parts of the world, they ask: but is Sardinia on the Emerald Coast? 

Exactly 60 years ago, a project was born that put a piece of Italy on international maps and set the standard for spatial planning and tourism development. 

From the Ligurian Riviera to the Amalfi Coast, Capri and the places of the Grand Tour, Italian tourism was born thanks to foreigners who found beauty and a way of life in Italy–the Dolce Vita in the Bel Paese–so it’s not surprising that after the British and Americans, a Muslim prince Imam from the Shiite Ismaili community–a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, half-English and half-Portuguese, raised in Geneva and a Harvard graduate–arrived here. He was 24 years old and a citizen of the world, part of the elite that he wanted to host and that he immediately invited to spread the word of the Costa Smeralda to the sound of tabloid covers.

Black and White Photography by NellodiSalvo@CoastMagazine

Some consider the Costa Smeralda “fake” because it was wanted, planned, controlled, and regulated–that is, managed as any tourist territory should be handled, with care and a perspective. And it did so in years when eco-monsters and seashore mansions were being built elsewhere and shorelines were being defaced in the name of growing mass tourism. Here, on the other hand, there was a desire to create an enclave for the few, not for everyone, based on the beauty of the landscape, which was thus preserved as the most precious asset. Despite the fact that the largest concentration of yachts in the Mediterranean gathers here every year, images of Porto Cervo’s crowded piazzetta or nightclubs like the Billionaire are not representative of the destination. Emerald life is about privacy and understatement, not boardwalks. It’s about towering granite massifs to climb on and sheer cliffs to the sea. If Aga Khan built it all up, he did so only on 4% of the Mediterranean scrub-covered land and left 55 km of coastline untouched. Nightlife has never been chic. Here, they have never believed in democratic luxury: beauty is paid for, exclusivity is not for everyone and to maintain the mission towards environmental sustainability and the appeal of the destination, it is necessary to make “selection at the entrance”. Today, Costa Smeralda hosts trendy clubs for the sons, if not the grandchildren, of the first customers; its founders maintain the same vibe with a modern touch, trying to reconcile with the growing flows. And yet, at the same time, everything is done to keep the sea clean. The future is being planned, once again, for Italian tourism.



Where to eat with history:

At Quattro Passi al Pescatore, designed by Jacques Couëlle, the Costa Smeralda’s first restaurant and only pieds dans l’eau, in the middle of Porto Cervo. 

Where to people-watch with a buffet:

Cala di Volpe, an iconic hotel, was featured in a 007 movie and is the work of the great Jacques Couëlle. Here in the bay front, yachts gather and celebrities come ashore for a buffet lunch at the Cala di Volpe Barbecue by the pool. 

Where to eat contemporary Sardinian:

Terrazza Frades overlooks the bay of Cala di Volpe in beautiful Abbiadori. The three Paddeu brothers bring the best of Sardinia to the table, from aperitif platters to traditional recipes to a Sardinian fine dining tasting menu.  

Where to aperitif (but not in the piazzetta):

At the center of the Promenade du Port, Zamira’s barman is one of the best known on the Coast which attracts a clientele of regulars and locals. There is also a small kitchen open at all hours with sandwiches, salads and cold dishes.



Where to sleep downtown:

The work of Michele Busiri Vici and still standing as it was is Hotel Luci in La Muntagna, inspired by Mediterranean architecture and with even softer shapes.

Where to walk:

The Pevero Health Trail, paths through the Mediterranean scrubland overlooking the sea between Romazzino beach and Grande Pevero beach. Between country stazzi and coves, you immerse yourself in the nature of Gallura.

Cala di Volpe

Where to go to the beach:

Less popular and frequented than others, Cala Petra Ruja has blue-green sea and is surrounded by vegetation and a rocky seabed. Less equipped than other beaches in the area, the beach is usually quieter. There is also a beach in Porto Cervo, just beyond the Marina. 

Photo by Slim Aarons

Quattro Passi al Pescatore

Hotel Cala di Volpe

Terrazza Frades

Zamira Lounge

Hotel Luci

Pevero Health Trail

Cala Petra Ruja