Standing on a balcony nestled so high on a granite cliffside that a hotel golf cart had to deliver me here, I survey the sparkling water of Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda.
Here on the Italian island’s Emerald Coast, I am surrounded by natural beauty. Birds chirp softly from olive trees as I drink in the beautiful blend of terra cotta rooftops, Texas-sized cacti and colorful flowers leading down to the sea. The water below is calm, although I’ve heard this is only because it is late September, the end of the tourist season in Sardinia. The billionaires have taken their mega-yachts home for now and many of the luxury hotels will soon be closing until May.
I call my husband to tell him about the incredible view from my Superior Suite at Villa del Golfo Lifestyle Resort, because I think he needs to hear about my private patio pool. “Do you know who vacations in Sardinia?” he asks. “Beyoncé and Jay Z.” He knows this because both of us had to Google Sardinia before my trip. We don’t generally vacation on beautiful islands in the Mediterranean Sea. But now, as I notice that even my ensuite shower has a window with a view, I realize we’ve been doing it all wrong.
The history of Sardinia’s tourism boom is fascinating. Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV is credited with developing Costa Smeralda into the picturesque playground for millionaires it is today. Soon after graduating from Harvard in 1959, he invested in this strip of pristine coastline and set to work creating a paradise for wealthy tourists.
In an interview a few years later, the Aga Khan said of the area, “The sea here takes on particularly lovely hues, ranging from the darkest blue to the purest green. There are scores of fine, sandy beaches with not so much as a cat on them. Rugged green and gray mountains drop abruptly toward the water. A carpet of purple and yellow, and red and blue flowers perfumes the air. The climate is semitropical, much warmer than in the overcrowded resorts of southern France.”
Fifty-five years later, this all remains true. The only difference is that now, lovely family-owned hotels have popped up along the coast, to accommodate those of us who don’t own yachts. Villa del Golfo, for example, is an exquisite collection of unique rooms and cliffside suites owned by Bonaria and Luca Filigheddu. Gabbiano Azzurro Hotel & Suites, where I stayed for the second half of my visit, is owned and operated by the charming Da Tome family. Both welcome guests like family and take great pride in spoiling them with Sardinian hospitality.
For a truly relaxing holiday, guests at these hotels are invited to arrive with no plans. The concierge can arrange every detail, from excursions to sunset dinners on the beach. While staying at Villa del Golfo in Cannigione, I enjoyed a full-day sailing experience aboard Bon Aria, the yacht named after the hotel’s owner. We sailed for hours in the sunshine, enjoying stops to snorkel in Cala Conneri, dubbed the “cove of love,” and for a picnic lunch overlooking the deserted islands of the La Maddalena Archipelago. Another day, I joined a cooking class with Prisca, Bonaria’s sister, and learned how to roll delicate gnocchi by hand. I later returned to dine at Prisca’s restaurant, La Colti Farmhouse, and tried several courses of traditional Sardinian fare.
At Gabbiano Azzurro, south of Costa Smeralda in Golfo Aranci, I enjoyed many more adventures by land and sea. Here, too, the concierge can arrange everything from dolphin watching tours to scuba diving at an underwater museum of contemporary art. Or, you can relax onsite, as I did, and watch Chef Jean Franca make su filindeu (threads of God), the rarest pasta in the world.
Accompanied by a local guide arranged by the hotel, I also spent one day inland, seeing a different side of the island. Here, in the rugged island interior, I climbed mysterious Bronze Age stone ruins, surveyed a 5,000-year-old olive tree, and visited Cantine Siddùra for a wine tasting. Between each stop, I learned a little more about the history of the island. As my guide proudly explained, “Sardinia has a huge amount of history and mystery; it’s not just gorgeous beaches and ocean. There is culture, wine, food, and a lot of laughter.”
If you’d like to experience Sardinia’s Emerald Coast, I recommend visiting in September, when you can benefit from 80-degree weather and lower hotel rates. The water is still warm from summer but the beaches are uncrowded. Plan to fly from Rome or Milan to Olbia, or take a more relaxing route by hopping aboard a ferry from Livorno in Tuscany.
What Kind of Traveler Are You? Take Our Quick Quiz!
Cover: The panoramic view from the Hotel Villa del Golfo. Courtesy photo
Heidi Gollub travels the world with five kids in tow. The founder of Free Fun in Austin, Heidi believes you can find adventure everywhere, even in your own backyard. Follow her on Instagram at @heidi.go