Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, playground of the rich and famous, is known as a place to splash the cash - but it's also possible to visit without a billionaire's budget
One day I hope to be rich and famous. Until then, it’s nice to just play in the playground. Continental Europe is packed with them. Monte Carlo. St Tropez. Cannes. They all conjure images of the bronzed and beautiful. Places where the sun bounces off shiny bonnets of fast cars and paparazzi lenses wink in relentless pursuit of elusive celebrities.
I can’t claim I frequent them, I’m sorry to say. But just for a while I decided to slap on the sunscreen, put on my best playtime clothes and step into the millionaire’s playground of Sardinia’s Emerald Coast. The Costa Smeralda, as the locals would have it, is an extraordinary playground. The toys are glittering white yachts, a row of giant Hollywood smiles in the harbour. The sandpits are clean beaches, with sand that looks like crushed diamonds. The water that laps the sand sparkles like aquamarine jewellery. And all of the rich kids playing in the playground are dressed immaculately.
But it’s not an overwhelming parade of pomp and prosperity. The people are welcoming and generous and the warm seas of the Costa Smeralda wash everyone’s feet; rich or poor, celebrity or mere mortal. Just to drop a few A-list names, however, the likes of Elle MacPherson, George Clooney, Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere have all been spotted enjoying the sunshine on the northeast coast. So that’s the rich, the famous and the ridiculously good-looking. Italy’s paparazzi make their living here every summer, with enough celebrities each week to fill an entire edition of Heat.
The Aga Khan saw Sardinia’s potential in the 1960s when he developed the coast into what it is today. Of all the Italian islands, Sardinia is only beaten by Sicily in terms of size, and it has a rugged beauty. Mountains of green peak across the island and run down to the beautiful coast. You’d be fooled into thinking you’d gone too far and hit the Caribbean when you reach the beach. The perfect picture-postcard image of clear water and white sand will surprise you every time.
I hate to reveal what seems to be a locals’ secret. But if you want to enjoy one of the finest beaches you’ll find in Europe, you’ll need to drive out to Capriccioli. Ignore the dodgy handbag vendors and you’ll be in seashore seventh heaven. The beaches are free to sit on and there’s no fee to swim in the warm azure water.
But if you really want to play with the big boys on their turf, you’ll need a giant wad of cash. Accommodation prices are sky-high, especially in July and August, and a frothy cappuccino in Porto Cervo – the main port where the A-listers meet – will set you back more Euros than you have fingers. The boutiques will take the shirt off your back to give you a tie and the property dealers will need to see your platinum card before you even get in the door. A meal at the glorious Sottovento restaurant and club will sap your savings. And Formula One boss Flavio Briatore’s nightclub is not called Billionaires for nothing.
But you can play in the playground for cheap, if you’re willing to make sacrifices. OK, so it’s not glamorous to pinch the pennies, but don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone hanging around the port has fame and fortune. A lot of them are normal people too.
Hertz and other rental companies will provide you with your wheels. My hair swam in the breeze as I sped along coastal roads. OK, so I was behind the wheel of a budget Fiat Panda with the windows down, but if you park it far enough away and walk the rest, no-one will ever know. Visit outside the months of July and August and you’ll also save a wad of Euros (although your chances of spotting George and Elle will be reduced too). And if you stay in one of Costa Smeralda’s coastal villages, and not in Porto Cervo itself, your holiday bill will drop again.
Holiday company Just Sardinia gave me the lowdown on what would be open and when while visiting outside the busy summer months. I stayed in a self-catering apartment at I Giardini di Porto Cervo, which offers stunning views of Pitrizza bay. It was three kilometres from the port but some of the glamour and chic, albeit diluted, still leaked out to the tiny resort. And anyway, supermarket-bought vino tastes just as good as a bottle marked up by about €50 in a flash restaurant. In fact, it tastes even sweeter.