The transformation of this wild, practically uninhabited, stretch of Sardinia's northeastern littoral began back in the Sixties, when it was 'discovered' by the Aga Khan. Together with a group of wealthy investors, he set about converting the coastline into one of the most exclusive sites in Europe.
They bought up plots of land and called on the leading architects of the day to design hotels and facilities – and even the town of Porto Cervo itself, which quickly attracted all the prestigious names in chic shops and boutiques. Marinas were built to accommodate the yachts of the world's rich and famous, and Robert Trent Jones was persuaded to design a golf course fit for the dream resort. Lavish villas and luxury mansions started to appear between the pine woods and the Costa Smeralda became a VIP destination.
In this natural paradise, the coastline is washed by aquamarine waters, the air is heady with the scents of the Mediterranean and the landscape is dotted with rock formations sculpted by the Mistral. The beaches, each more beautiful than the next, boast evocative names such as Capriccioli and Romazzino. The exquisite white sands of Liscia Ruia – at 500 metres, one of the longest beaches – are fringed with strawberry trees, while the granite that underlies the Spiaggia del Principe ensures the clarity of the water.
The wild beauty of the Emerald Coast stretches for 55 kilometres, with exclusive hotels and exquisite private villas. There are first-class restaurants and chic watering holes with romantic terraces offering marvellous views of the crystalline sea, the white sands and green mountain backdrop of this, the second largest of the Mediterranean islands.
The surrounding area offers such attractions as a visit to the mysterious megalithic ruins at Nuraghe Albucciu, near the road to Arzachena, or, a little farther on from there, the ruins of the Templo di Malchittu. Even a simple sunset can be an unforgettable spectacle when viewed from a lounger on the Forte Cappellini Phi Beach. There are open air festivals, the regatta season, celebrated between June and September and featuring famous boats sponsored by big names, or you could try to get in to Flavio Briatore's Billionaire Club and rub shoulders with la creme de la creme.
The Costa Smeralda takes all the fame and glory, but just a little farther north there are other lesser-known natural gems of equal beauty. Let your imagination run riot as you explore the eerie granite rock sculptures created by the wind and the elements at Capo d’Orso – 'Cape Bear' named for one of the wind-eroded forms – and at Capo Testa – Cape Head – the northernmost part of the island. Or take a boat out from the small town of Palau to discover the idyllic world of caves, coves and cliffs of the seven islets of the Maddalena archipelago with its National Park protected status.
The airport at Olbia is Sardinia's closest international airport to the Costa Smeralda. Flights to Sardinia are seasonal, so there are fewer flights during autumn and winter, but from May to September, Jet2Com offer flights to Olbia from Edinburgh via Leeds, and from the end of July, EasyJet are operating from Bristol. Easyjet also offer flights from Gatwick, while this year British Airways is launching summer charters to Olbia from Heathrow. The range of flight options is wider if you choose to use one of the island's other international airports, Alghero in the north west or Cagliari in the south, and your travel agent will be able to advise of package deals.
The high cost of taxis and the inadequacy of public transport makes renting a car by far the best option.
Where to stay
Starwood hotels Luxury Collection offers a number of attractive alternatives in Porto Cervo – the Cala di Volpe, the Pitrizza, and the Romazzino – all with beautiful beach front locations, and with a level of exclusivity and style that guarantees you a successful stay. Also in Porto Cervo, the five-star hotel and beauty centre the Villa Armony is an oasis of relaxation and refinement, and the select L’Ea Bianca Luxury Resort looks out on the islets of the Maddalena archipelago.
Where to eat
All the hotels mentioned above boast fine restaurants. Two kilometres from Porto Cervo, I Frati Rossi, offers traditional cuisine – including marvellous fish dishes – with views over the Pevero golf course, while the Gianni Pedrinelli in Piccolo Pevero is a icon of Emerald Coast chic. Back in Porto Cervo, the Rosemary, on Via Spargi, Liscia di Vacca, offers spectacular views from its hilltop setting and is a romantic and less formal option.
The island's mountainous hinterland oa less well-known than the coast, but its small towns and villages are riddled with history. The wild, unspoiled scenery offers possibilities of exploration and discovery that you won't easily tire of before your vacation is over.