If Harvard-educated Ishmaelite Prince Karim Aga Khan IV had not been bewitched by its turquoise waters, granite coast and yacht-friendly coves, Sardinia might have continued to be regarded as Italy’s Siberia.
Fifty years ago, after a Mediterranean cruise introduced him to the island, the Aga Khan began purchasing shoreline plots on Sardinia’s north-eastern coast. He turned the land that Sardinian farmers considered worthless as pasture into the Costa Smeralda community, which lent its name to the entire stretch of coast.
The Aga Khan was only in his twenties at the time but his pioneering ideas made the Costa Smeralda a model for upmarket vacation developments. He assembled neighbourhoods around the central “village” of Porto Cervo and mixed housing with hotels. The project opened Sardinian eyes to tourism’s potential for the economically depressed island and made Sardinia synonymous with jet-set Mediterranean holidays.
Frustrated with decades of local policies, the Aga Khan left Sardinia in the 1990s but his influence is inescapable. His landscaping plan prohibited the introduction of non-native plants and stipulated the use of local materials. He and three architects, Italians Luigi Vietti and Michele Busiri Vici and Franco-Swiss Jacques Couëlle, created an architectural style that mixes Mediterranean, Latin American and Middle Eastern influences with modern lifestyle essentials. Today the stucco walls, organic forms and twisted juniper-wood beams typify Sardinian architecture.
Other upmarket developments such as Porto Rafael and Porto Rotondo followed the Costa Smeralda and acquired their own cachet. Nevertheless, Costa Smeralda properties still command a premium.
The most highly prized properties, which may cost upwards of €20m, are rarely officially for sale. However, every property has its price, says agent Carlo Panciroli, who has represented high-profile clients and handled many landmark properties during 40 years in Porto Cervo. Panciroli says the best properties change hands only when a kind of synergy occurs: the right price, a buyer the owner approves of and an artfully structured deal. Secrecy surrounds both buyers and sellers; reasons for reticence vary from personal security to tax issues. New aspirants for the best properties cannot just expect to enter any agency without an introduction – even with a mountain of cash – and walk away with a prime property.
Aside from unlisted mega-properties, Panciroli has several attractive villas within the Costa Smeralda development. Villa da Capo, which has four bedrooms and baths and was designed by American architect Peter Schneck, is listed at €18m. It fronts directly on to the Liscia di Vacca beach.
Villa Amadè (€12m), located in the Pevero golf area, has five bedrooms and baths, a swimming pool and spa and a complete outdoor kitchen – along with glorious views. The villa also has an outdoor pizzeria, an atrium with a fountain and a kitchen with hand-carved motifs created by local carpenters. Houses of this kind can command rents of up to €300,000 for the three months from June to August. Furnishings are usually included in the purchase.
Panciroli says buyers who want a bigger place can take advantage of a recent law that allows owners to increase the volume of existing buildings by up to 30 per cent, depending on their distance from the shoreline.
Ownership within the development includes membership to the Consorzio Costa Smeralda, which provides street maintenance, rubbish collection, fire and police protection, and health and veterinary services. An architectural committee, which includes descendants of the original architects, guarantees architectural continuity.
Although Sardinia’s “bunga-bunga” parties and oligarchical excesses have attracted media attention, there is more to this island, which has been at the centre of Mediterranean geopolitics since the Neolithic Age and covers over 9,000 square miles (23,310 sq km).
In fact, you can connect with Sardinia’s rural traditions only minutes from the Olbia airport and the Costa Smeralda sea coast. Long-time Sardinian enthusiasts Count Gherardo Scapinelli di Léguigno and his wife Giovanna have assembled a portfolio of plots comprising traditional Sardinian stone farmhouses or stazzu.
The Scapinellis’ project is a novel idea in Sardinia because their unrestored or rebuilt stazzu come with architectural plans that new owners can personalise – as far as historic codes allow. Acquiring Sardinian building permits is complex and capricious. This problem has been solved by the Scapinellis, who have obtained all the necessary permits after a four-year bureaucratic tussle. New owners can begin construction on pre-approved projects immediately. The couple also provide salvaged building materials, such as traditional ceramic roof tiles and juniper beams, sourced from all over the island.
Purchasers of the land can be reasonably sure that their views will not be ruined by new construction. Land surrounding four of the plots is in conservation or agriculturally zoned areas. Prices range from €550,000 to €1.6m, according to the acreage and state of the buildings, and sizes range from the one-hectare Stazzu Cugnana, with one building, to the 47-hectare Stazzu Lisciarone, which has several buildings along with sites for others. Plans for Cugnana include a three-bedroom house and swimming pool. Beyond the fields dotted with wild lavender and garlic there is a view of the sea.
● Attractive coastline and scenery
● Great seafood, cheese and local cuisine
● Easy to reach on low-cost flights to Olbia from all over Europe
● Ostentatious and crowded in August
● Extremes of designer flagships and dreary grocery stores
● Dependent on air and automotive transport
What you can buy for …
£100,000 Time share for three weeks in July at Porto Cervo Chrysalis Bay at €90,000 from Gruppo Toscano
£1m Apartment of 100 sq m in the Dolce Sposa complex at Porto Cervo
● Carlo Panciroli, www.realestatecostasmeralda.com
● Gherardo Scapinelli, www.loftandvilla.it
● Gruppo Toscano, Email: email@example.com