Culture & sports / Travel
Financial Times
By Jeff Mills
Published: August 9 2002 16:27 | Last Updated: August 9 2002 16:27

Sardinia: Costa still clear for the jet-set

A smart super-yacht, the more ostentatious the better, is the proper way to arrive on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda, one of the main summer outposts of the glitterati.

It was the method chosen by Dodi Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, when they stopped off during a Mediterranean cruise shortly before their fatal accident.

Mind you, judging by the number of private jets and helicopters parked side-by-side in the sunshine at Olbia airport, executive air charter companies are doing a roaring trade, too.

The alternative is to take the slightly less glamorous option and fly from the UK with Meridiana, the Aga Khan's own airline, which started life with the sole purpose of jetting the rich and famous from Europe's capitals to his carefully designed Mediterranean fleshpots.

I have time to reflect on this as I stand in line waiting for the sole immigration official to check passports. I have time to take in my surroundings, too. It's a cute little airport where you can follow your bag's progress from the aircraft to the solitary baggage belt. Just as the luggage arrived, the passport man was joined by his colleagues and the queue disappeared - perhaps they always do it that way in this very laidback part of Italy.

Had it not been for the Aga Khan, the chances are that no one would have heard of the Costa Smeralda. He had the idea, back in the 1960s, of finding a Mediterranean island as close to perfection as possible, bagging its best stretch of coastline and building stylish hotels, marinas and nightclubs. He then invited all his rich and famous friends to come and stay and, just for good measure, started his own airline to transport them.

Even now, after all these years, nothing much has changed. So be prepared to share the restaurants, the poolsides and the beach with the kind of famous faces you may well have seen on the pages of glossy magazines.

Admittedly the guests are not quite the A-list the Aga Khan may have had in mind when he created the jet-set resort. In those early days you might have run into Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, Peter Sellers, Audrey Hepburn and the odd royal. Now you are more likely to be soaking up the sun alongside footballers and pop stars.

Mind you, it is still possible to spot minor royalty sipping Camparis and soda at one of the quayside restaurants in Porto Cervo, the main town of the coast. Princess Caroline of Monaco has visited the Costa Smeralda - it's called the Emerald Coast because of the sea's colour - a couple of times in recent years, on both occasions for honeymoons.

The Costa stretches for more than 30 miles along Sardinia's north-east extremity, almost all of it made up of outstanding sandy beaches with a few rocky coves. There are buildings too, cleverly designed to blend with existing terrain. There are no high-rise hotels here and, such is the colour of the building materials, that if, for example, you take a boat trip along the coast - and there are few better ways to spend a day than speeding along to some near-deserted cove for a picnic lunch - you are sometimes hard-pressed to spot the hotels being pointed out to you by the skipper.

Centre stage for the fashionable summer set is Porto Cervo, built as the centrepiece of the coast. Imagine a Mediterranean fishing village, replace all the village shops with designer boutiques, convert the fishermen's houses into offices for internationally famous companies catering for the super-rich and then get rid of the fishing boats to make room for super-yachts and you start to get the picture.

The small but very smart Cervo hotel carries the Mediterranean style through each of the 108 guest rooms, with their tiled floors and furniture designed to reflect regional tastes.

The surprise here, though, is the discovery that the hotel has not only its own tennis club but two swimming pools, squash courts, a gymnasium and a conference centre, which apparently brings a healthy level of business during winter.

The Cervo is the place to choose if you like to be at the centre of the action. Take one of the rooms at the front of the hotel and you can sit on your balcony and watch the antics below, particularly at sundown when the entire population, locals and visitors alike, joins the predinner parade around the bars.

If you prefer to spend your leisure time by the beach, however, there are three clear choices within the Costa Smeralda's portfolio. Of these, the 52-room Pitrizza with its arches, pergolas, patios and secluded gardens is thought by many to be the best and in some ways, it is. It is probably a good choice if, for example, you are a honeymooner wanting nothing more than to hide from the world, emerging only to eat dinner.

The problem with the Pitrizza is other people. This seems to be the favourite haunt of those who "discovered" the Costa Smeralda years ago and have been returning ever since. If you can put up with the pub bore in his military blazer and his over-opinionated wife then this hotel may suit you.

A better bet is to switch on your sense of humour and book into the 123-room Hotel Cala di Volpe, where you can spend a happy few days watching the antics of the media darlings frolicking around the spectacular pool, taking the hotel's ferry to the small private beach or gorging on an impressive lunchtime buffet.

The Cala di Volpe is where you are likely to find the superstars, but they are difficult to spot. One of the reasons privacy-lovers choose this hotel is for its outstanding top-floor suite, which comes with an enormous private terrace with its own swimming pool, Jacuzzi, barbecue and state-of-the-art sound system. This is the room to opt for if you have $3,000 (1,910) a night to spare.

A much more civilised choice is the excellent 94-room Hotel Romazzino (the name means rosemary) which, although built in 1965, has been extensively renovated. All rooms have either a terrace or balcony, there is an Olympic-size swimming pool with plenty of sunbeds (even when there are Germans staying) and plenty of sports - that is if you can drag yourself away from the delightful private beach where patrolling waiters ply you with cold drinks. At lunchtime, you need walk no more than a few steps to a good beach restaurant where you can choose from the barbecue or buffet.

If you yearn for an evening out, join the beautiful people at one of the coast's exclusive nightclubs. This year's favourite seems to be the aptly named "Billionaire".

Don your finery, grab your platinum credit card and designer sunglasses, and you will feel right at home.

SARDINA FACTFILE

Jeff Mills flew direct from Gatwick to Olbia, capital of Sardinia, with Meridiana, the Italian island's own airline. Fares start from 199 return. To book, call 020-7839 2222, www.meridiana.it.

Half-board accommodation at the Cervo Hotel costs from ?110 (70.73) per person a night; at the Pitrizza from ?390; the Cala di Volpe from ?250 and the Romazzino from ?340. VAT is extra. Book through Starwood reservations in the UK on 00800-325 45454 or worldwide on www.starwood.com

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