Melissa's Travels

The Two Sides of Sardinia


has two distinct faces. One is wild, natural beauty. With some of the most gorgeous waters and unspoiled beaches in the Mediterranean, it’s no wonder that its northeastern coast, the Costa Smeralda, is a favorite spot for yachters. When I was there in June, we spent a morning exploring islands where the sandy beaches were completely deserted. (The waters truly do glisten green and blue like emeralds, from which the coast takes its name.) We had sheltered, shallow coves to ourselves, and skirted the dramatic cliffs of Tavolara with only a lone fishing boat sharing the view. The sun was baking but there was a strong breeze to keep us cool, and because it was a perfect summer day, the toughest decisions were to swim or not to swim and when to eat lunch. Another morning I headed up to the weekly market in San Pantaleo, where vendors set up tents in the town square in front of a simple stone church and under the shelter of a flowering tree. I love browsing for artisan crafts and local produce, but discovering this charming small town and partaking in its weekly market revelry was a richer treasure than anything I could purchase.

But beyond these simple joys—and many others, like hiking along cliffs covered with rosemary, thyme and pines or dining on simple grilled seafood drizzled with local olive oil—the truth about Costa Smeralda is that in summer it is also ground zero for the glamorous set. For those who hit the Mediterranean circuit of St. Tropez, Antibes, MonacoAmalfi and Capri (usually on a yacht), a visit to Sardinia is de rigueur. For billionaires who want to anchor their boats in bays alongside their equals, there remains no place with comparable bragging rights or concentration of bling. Eating lunch at Cala di Volpe one day, where a salad from the buffet will set you back €170, I saw a man with the word ‘Rich’ embroidered on the breast pocket of his linen shirt (suffice it to say, it wasn’t his name). Later that day in Porto Cervo, the port town crammed with boutiques selling every top luxury brand, I spotted a sequin-encrusted bag emblazoned with the words “Luxury is Relative.” As over-the-top as it was, I wondered if it would be more appropriate as a beach tote than the Birkins I had seen bikini-clad women nestling in the sand by their chaises at Romazzino beach.

This brazen celebration of excess is the other, less attractive side of Sardinia. A few years ago, some residents on Sardinia clamored for the closing of the legendary nightclub named—with typical subtlety—the Billionaire’s Club. They found the celebrity partying and $10,000 bottles of Champagne an affront in tough economic times. The challenge was merely a tempest in a Champagne flute, however, and soon died down. After all, the billionaires bring a lot of tourist revenue to the island.

But while the parties rage on at the Billionaire’s Club, some members of the club do love the island for its savage, untouched beauty. Tom Barrack of Colony Capital, the current owner of Costa Smeralda Holdings, enlisted his wife Laurel who has been a Sardinia lover for decades, dating back to the days when she lived in Italy and modeled for Armani and Fendi, to help with its most recent upgrade. What she masterminded has brought a new level of elegance and pampering to the coast but in a way that captures the distinct beauty of Sardinia.

Barrack developed a five-year plan to breathe new life into its four renowned hotels, and the first phase debuted this year with a new look for the lobby at Cala di Volpe and brand-new villas at Romazzino and Pitrizza. To say that the comfort quotient was dialed up is an understatement. Loro Piana created the textiles in the hotel’s signature colors, and the upholstery was done by the atelier that works primarily for Valentino. There are temperature-controlled stone floors, fireplaces, private gardens and pools as well as butlers. But it’s the villas’ Sardinia-ness that strikes you. Traditional island craftsmen and artisans made everything from the rugs, glassware and lamps to the carved wooden doors and the sterling silver handles on them.

“We wanted the rooms to feel modern and cool but distinctly Sardinian,” says Barrack. “So everything came from as close as possible—if not the island, then Italy.” The new villas at each hotel have distinct personalities, as the Aga Khan would wish, but they all capture the rugged, earthy, sun-baked essence of Sardinia. At Romazzino, for instance, which draws families who have come for generations to enjoy its wonderful beach and well-run kids’ club, the four new residences have private pools and master suites with great spaces for gathering but also for privacy. The villas have been brilliantly sited so they are within walking distance of the pool, beach and lobby but feel separated from the hotel bustle. The buildings are white stucco with pale stone floors, wood-beamed ceilings and lots of wood furniture, creating a raw, natural backdrop for whimsical touches like bright turquoise pillows, lime green bean bag-like chairs and chandeliers composed of schools of ceramic fish.

With stone facades and grass-planted rooftops, the six new villas at Pitrizza, which is a hideaway for romantics, blend into their rocky surroundings. Inside are dark wood-beam ceilings and cozier spaces with alcoves filled with Sardinian sculptures. The same divine Loro Piana textiles and hand-woven Sardinian wool carpets in richer colors complement the eclectic furniture, which includes tree-branch lamps, steel and leather desk chairs and free-form wood coffee tables. The result: they feel like the sanctuaries of a confident, global collector who wants to merge indoor and outdoor living with maximum comfort and minimum pretension. They capture the best of Sardinia.

When to Go:

In my book, the time to come is shoulder season (June and September) when the weather is warm and lovely and the crowds have not descended or have already dispersed.

Where to Stay-Families:

The villas at Romazzino.

Where to Stay-Couples:


. The beach house has stone steps leading into the Mediterranean but the villas up on the hillside have the most spectacular views.

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