How Costa Smeralda became a timeless destination

10 August 2023
Written by
Sara Magro

And pioneer in sustainability and branding

On March 14, 1962, Prince Karim Aga Khan and five other partners – Patrick Guinnes, Felix Bigio, John Duncan Miller, Andrè Ardoin, and René Podbielski – founded the Costa Smeralda, a consortium in order to manage, control and protect the territories acquired in Gallura, an area of 3,114 hectares with 55 km of coastline between Olbia and Arzachena. From day one, the stated goal was to enhance the real estate assets from an environmental and urban planning perspective and protect the image of this new destination in the north of Sardinia. This success was attributed to the picturesque landscape, surrounded by white sand, pink granite, and shrubs of the Mediterranean maquis. 

Costa Smeralda for Assouline. Credits Oliver Pilcher

In terms of sustainability, the deed of incorporation seems to have been written today rather than sixty years ago, during the height of the economic boom and building speculation, with references to preserving local waters and traditions. Even then, the prince had already sensed the importance of protecting the natural beauty of this area, deciding to build less than 4 percent of the area purchased (96.3 percent is green) and, an exceptional case at the time, had set up an Architectural Committee composed of Jacques Couëlle, Michele and Giancarlo Busiri Vici, and Luigi Vietti, authors of the pioneering project, to define the building criteria and oversee their compliance. It was the first time a destination imposed very strict rules on development: soft lines, pastel colors, large spaces for parks and gardens, and the obligation to plant two trees for every plant cut became the hallmarks of the Emerald architectural style.

The Costa Smeralda will never become a mass destination due to building constraints. Suffice it to say that the beds are the same today as they were in 1962. While remaining true to its principles, the destination is by its very nature constantly evolving. Plans include a museum telling the brand’s history, and an adventure park also open in the fall and spring, seeking to extend the summer season. Also on the way are the Belmond group, which will renovate and manage the Romazzino hotel and Cheval Blanc will do the same the Pitrizza, and a new hotel has been announced for 2025 to replace the old Cervo Tennis. Cala di Volpe, the iconic jet set resort, which turned 60 in 2023, has retained its artwork look with stained-glass inlays by architect-sculptor Couëlle, while its rooms have been refurbished by Moinard-Bétaille. It is no longer possible to separate rural-chic aesthetics from fast Internet connections or glamorous vocations, as exemplified by the Matsuhisa restaurant (read Nobu), which has now expanded on the beach and is serving sushi there as well. 

Zuma, on the Port, also serves contemporary Japanese cuisine such as ponzu and marinated garlic, pork with yuzu koshu, and cocktails. On the Promenade du Port, Michelin-star chef Andrea Berton signs the menus of Meraviglioso, a summer restaurant open from breakfast through dinner on the terrace, which turns into a club after midnight.

Nikki Beach at Waterfront pop up in Porto Cervo
Hotel Pitrizza. Courtesy of Costa Smeralda

Now it is perhaps easier to understand why the Costa Smeralda is a brand and not a toponym. «Going to the Costa» corresponds to a lifestyle, as much as dressing Gucci or Armani. It is the first tourism project in the world to propose itself as such, defining a specific type of holiday at the highest level and international as early as the early 1960s. And, apart from St. Moritz, which has registered the name as a trademark, it remains the only example, while other destinations are working to define their tourism identity with equal precision.

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