Lukas Degutis

How Italy’s most famous coastline stays crowd-free

How Italy's most famous coastline stays crowd-free
Spiaggia del Grande Pevero, Sardinia
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A five-minute taxi journey costs €50, a single drink can set you back more than €20 – and if you want to avoid shelling out €60 for a plate of pasta, you might struggle to find a supermarket. But the Costa Smeralda offers one luxury that's hard to put a price on at the peak of the summer holiday season – a surprising lack of crowds.

Back in the 1960s, this 20km stretch of beaches and pine forest on Sardinia's northern coastline was uninhabited and deemed of little value to the country's farmers. But the Aga Khan spotted a business opportunity. He purchased the land and began the process of turning it into a tourist destination for the upper classes, establishing a consortium to ensure all future development remained tightly controlled.

It soon started to attract a celebrity crowd, with Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Kirk Douglas and Princess Margaret all visiting in its 1960s and 1970s heyday. But by the 2000s it had perhaps become better known for playboys and paparazzi than princesses.

Princess Margaret arrives at Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda, in 1965 (Alamy)

So, as the resort marks its 60th anniversary, does it have anything to offer over other – more affordable – Mediterranean destinations? Its appeal, it seems, lies in just how quiet it is, even in the height of summer. For 30 years, building on the coastline has been outlawed, and the result is that there are still only 1,000 hotel rooms on offer (though a fair number of well-heeled visitors bed down in their yachts). 

You do pay the price for this kind of peace, though. After exploring the coastline on foot in the baking Sardinian sun, I decide to treat myself to a five-minute taxi ride back to the hotel – where I arrive €50 poorer. The small town of Porto Cervo is peppered with premium shops including Giorgio Armani, Miu Miu and the Lamborghini Store (no cheap and cheerful souvenir stores here) – and I challenge you to find the only supermarket. With a single Aperol costing more than €20 and a portion of pasta roughly three times that, it's a budget-busting place to visit.

But the atmosphere feels friendly rather than snooty, and the scenery is undeniably breathtaking. It's also easy to get around. Fly into Olbia airport and a taxi will take you to the coast in 40 minutes. For accommodation, both Hotel Cala di Volpe, which backs on to a sheltered beach to the east of the Capriccioli peninsula, and Hotel Cervo in Porto Cervo are well situated. Hotel Cervo offers a complimentary boat trip for its guests to the tucked-away beach of Spiaggia del Cervo – and if you opt for the first shuttle at 9.30 a.m, your chances of swimming solo are high. 

Spiaggia del Principe, Sardinia

Cala di Volpe, overlooking the idyllic ‘bay of the foxes’, was built to be the Aga Khan’s private residence, and it was this hotel that James Bond and Anya Amasova drove to in their white Lotus Espirit in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). These days, the hotel's three-bedroom Harrods Suite – equipped with wine cellar and infinity pool – costs €39,000 a night during peak season. But you can still indulge in a bellini at the Atrium Bar without booking a room.

With gentle tides and clear waters, the beaches along this stretch of coastline are a snorkeler's dream. Try the Aga Khan’s favoured Spiaggia del Principe or Spiaggia di Capriccioli – a bundle of three small beaches with shallow waters and whiffs of the surrounding olive and pine trees. Capriccioli is small, but opt for a morning trip and again you have a good chance of having the water to yourself.

Capriccioli beach, Costa Smeralda (iStock)

Within a ten-minute walk of Capriccioli, you will find Spiaggia la Celvia, a 300-metre crescent of fine gravel-like sand that often draws famous visitors (along with their yachts). The largest beach of the lot, Spiaggia di Marinella, attracts a much younger crowd and offers windsurfing and jetskiing.  

Unsurprisingly, seafood is Costa Smeralda's specialty. Try the roasted octopus and burrata at Al Pescatore in Porto Cervo. The Mazara red prawns may be a Sicilian delicacy – known for causing territorial disputes amongst fishmongers – but they are not to be missed here, paired with squid tagliatelle and bottarga.

The newly opened Zuma Porto Cervo has views of the marina and is inspired by the leisurely Japanese concept of izakaya – literally 'stay-drink-place'. And, before leaving Sardinia, it would be criminal not to try seadas – the local honey and cheese pastries that the waiters at Cervo Restaurant take delight in serving. 

Costa Smeralda is a long way from the real Sardinia. Much as the Aga Khan envisaged, the resort remains a luxury brand – albeit one where the hordes of influencers seen in other European destinations are becoming an increasingly common sight. But the restrictions on its development mean it's still easy to find your own unspoilt corner – if you can afford it, that is.

'Costa Smeralda' by Assouline, €95, is available for purchase here.