Posted by: Jerry Garrett | September 12, 2010

My 36 Hours in Costa Smeralda

Costa Smeralda's majesty is best seen from above. (Jerry Garrett Photo)


The menu at La Piazza restaurant here is in three languages: Italian, English and Russian.

“A great many Russian billionaires come here now,” a waiter informed me.

That is one change I noticed upon my return to Costa Smeralda, after a 26-year absence.

The Russians have landed; their navy of mega-yachts clogs the small harbor at Porto Cervo. When I last visited, in 1984, Porto Cervo’s sandy shores were mostly for local fishing boats. If those still exist, it was hard to see them for all the yachts.

The Porto Cervo Yacht Club is a panorama of excess. (Charming Italy)

“Billionaires” is an interesting choice of word; a euphemism, perhaps, to explain all the new money being thrown around here these days. Descriptors such as mobsters or mafia are frowned upon.

Costa Smeralda is also popular with German vacationers; at the small airport in Olbia (which serves the area from Berlin, Munich, London and several Italian cities), there was one Meridiana jetliner from Italy, and two Air Berlin planes. The local Audi and Volkswagen dealerships are big enough, and glossy enough, to remind me of the steel-and-glass monolith that is the Munich airport.

Italians must come here in droves too, though, as Olbia’s surprisingly murky harbor is usually jammed with cruise ships, and enormous car ferries, which daily disgorge day-trippers, exotic sports and luxury cars, and holiday caravans. Many car clubs do road rallies here.

What’s the attraction? Well, Costa Smeralda is stunningly beautiful – in places – and the area enjoys the sunny weather one might expect of a Mediterranean beach resort, nearly year-round.

The northeast corner of Sardinia; Olbia is the port of entry.

The area designated as Costa Smeralda – by essentially a very large homeowners association – occupies the northeast corner of Sardinia. Costa Smeralda – literally, the “Emerald Coast” – comprises barely a tenth of the island. Sardinia itself is huge; nearly 15,000 square miles – bigger than Maryland and eight other U.S. states. It has the spine of a rugged mountain range down its center. The mountains carry over to its immediate northern neighbor, the French island of Corsica, which is even larger. This collection of islands is about 250 miles off the coast of Italy in the central Mediterranean.

The famed waters of Costa Smeralda are, in fact, more turquoise, aquamarine and deep blue than emerald-colored. Either way, in small bays and coves, and secluded beaches, the water is exquisitely clear and inviting.

If your plan is to visit Costa Smeralda for a weekend, or a short 36-hour getaway, let’s dive right in with this brief travel guide, and offer some suggestions for where to go, what to do, and what to eat.

Pack Light

You don’t need much more than the clothes on your back and a bathing suit. In fact, if I were young, blond and entrepreneurial, that might be all I’d bring. Oh, and an empty bag. I’d probably go home with it full.

Hotel Romazzino is the quinessential Costa Smeralda experience. (The Luxury Collection)

Where to stay? Hotel Romazzino, if you could afford it. If you can’t, and you are (see above) young, blond and single, I’d go there anyway and just start in the bar. I’m certain you will find accommodation (Check out affordable choices from TripAdvisor readers).

As for other choices, you probably can’t go wrong with any of the hotels in the Starwood Luxury Collection, which in this area includes the Romazzino, the Caia diVolpe, Hotel Pitrizza and Hotel Cervo. Budget choices are inland, at rustic San Pantaleo.

The Cervo is right on the bay at Porto Cervo (check it out with their live webcam). The hotel is part of a tony village, La Piazzetta, of exotic shops and upscale restaurants – some serving authentic local cuisine.

Local arts & craft

Want a packaged tour, that can be taken at your leisure (more or less)? Try Untouched Italy’s offerings.

La Piazzetta is a prime spot for dinner, and watching the shadows steal across the bay as the day turns to night. If you eat when most tourists eat, let’s say 7-10 p.m., you’ll never have trouble finding a table; the locals don’t even begin to show up until 10.

Lamb is a solid dinner choice, even if you don’t generally think of lamb as your first choice. It’s almost always fresh and local. Seafood? A surprising amount Costa Smeralda seafood is farmed (offshore here, in large circular pens – many in the murky harbor). That’s why I suggested lamb first.

Sardinia grows its own.

Sardinia grows a bounteous array of its own fruits and vegetables. It is renown for its figs, blueberries and blood oranges.

Also well worth sampling are local cheeses and sausages. Different varieties of honey can occupy an entire store display.

I was surprised in the rise of the wine industry – reds, whites, even asti spumantes (the vintner keeps the bottles submerged in the harbor at a depth of 60 feet).

My “d’oh moment” this trip came when I finally discovered actual Sardinian sardines!

Sardines! Who knew?

Why Costa Smeralda Doesn’t Do Sunsets

Costa Smeralda really doesn’t do sunsets, btw. Why not? The island’s central mountains are in the way. If you go on the other side of the mountains – where the sunsets are spectacular – you aren’t in Costa Smeralda anymore.

Sunrises are another matter. But I imagine most Sardinians miss the sunset. Life seems pretty laid back here. It took a special dispensation from the concierge at my hotel to get coffee before 7 a.m.

How should you spend your day here? The spectrum of activities ranges from “niente” (nothing, in Italian) to “tutti” (everything). (Good resources here.)

The beaches around Golfo Aranci are typical of Costa Smeralda - largely inaccessible except for hotel guests and private land owners. (JG Photo)

Now, voyager!

It is possible to spend the day at your hotel’s private beach, and never feel the need to leave. The private beaches are a smarter choice than you might realize. The public beaches are beautiful, for sure, but most are difficult to get to; nobody in the local governing bodies seems inclined to make roads right to the beaches, or to provide parking for them. Usually, you see a clutter of cars along the roadside, with beachgear toting sun-worshippers heading off into the shrubbery toward a beach that’s still so far away you can’t even see it.

Rush hour in Costa Smeralda is not always a bad thing. (Luxist)

Auto tours are popular; car and moped rental agencies are everywhere. And that is part of the problem: Everybody’s out on the roads. So the roads are clogged. They are also winding and treacherously narrow. Throw into that mix the way Italians drive! So, this option is not for the faint of heart. (Another warning: Gas is almost $10 a gallon here!)

All that said, my first trip here, in a rented Fiat Panda (that did not even have seatbelts!) I did a circuit around the area that comprises Costa Smeralda; the roads were far less crowded back then. But then I got really adventurous and decided to take the 2-kilometer ferry ride from Palau to La Maddelena island.

La Maddelena is an island of great antiquity (Sardinia Nostrum)

While everything in Costa Smeralda looks like it was built 15 minutes ago, La Maddelena is an island of great antiquity, dating back to early Roman times. Napolean Bonaparte and Lord Horatio Nelson have taken turns bombarding it; Giuseppe Garibaldi, the unifier of Italy, lived here; Benito Mussolini was imprisoned here in 1943. The old town is lovely to stroll, and the beaches – although rocky – feature even clearer (and bluer) waters than most of Costa Smeralda. It is my favorite Costa Smeralda day trip. (For tour assistance check here.) It’s on a short list for 2011 America’s Cup yacht race host sites.

Be careful about getting back to Sardinia on the car ferry. I had to fight irate Italian drivers to get the last place on the 5 p.m. ferry; I asked the ferry captain why everyone seemed so mad at me. “Well, it’s Friday,” he said, “and the next ferry isn’t until Monday morning.” Oh.

Last Supper

Back to Costa Smeralda, where should you eat? There are at least five restaurants in Porto Cervo worth recommending: Spinnaker, i frati rossi, Clipper, Rosmary and La Briciola. TripAdvisor has a helpful list of the best couple dozen eateries in Porto Cervo, Arzachena, and (last resort) Olbia. Choices range from affordable local fare, to ridiculous, over-the-top billionaire fare. In 1984, a meal for 10 that I was invited to cost over one million. But that was back in the days of the lira!

This view from the Hotel Romazzino inspires you to chill a pill. (JG Photo)

How to spend your final hours in Costa Smeralda? In August 2010, helicopter tours were inaugurated from Porto Cervo. Smeralda International Service and Air Dynamic are partnering for 15-minute and 30-minute tours in a 7-passenger Agusta 119 Koala. You’ll need six friends, though; the prices of 110-176 euros per person are based having on a full load.

If money is no object, you might also consider chartering your own yacht.

The most popular activity in Costa Smeralda these, for those with billions, or even mere millions, seems to be shopping for real estate. Agents are as thick as the island’s voracious mosquitoes. If I return again in another 26 years, it’s possible by then that every little morsel of this paradise – at the rate it is going – will be gobbled up. Billionaires have big appetites.

Jerry Garrett

September 12, 2010


  1. […] written previously about Sardinia (My 36 Hours in Costa Smeralda) if you would like to know […]

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