Some places are just so beautiful, so unbelievably picture-perfect, so utterly, gob-smackingly Instagrammable, that you think, ‘if this didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent it.’
So I’m taken aback on finding out, on my first afternoon on the Costa Smeralda – one of Europe’s top playgrounds for the super-wealthy – that actually someone did, literally, invent it.
Before 1961, the Costa Smeralda basically wasn’t a thing. Or rather, it was, but back then it was just a barren stretch of wild, rocky coastline. There were no hotels, no restaurants, and certainly no flashy designer shops – just the modest dwellings of the farmers and their families who lived and worked inland.
That is, until a certain Prince Karim Al Husseini Aga Khan IV sailed past it on a yacht in the summer of 1959, and was so captivated by the translucent green colour of the sea, the hidden coves, dramatic granite rocks, windswept olive trees and undulating stretches of sand that he determined, then and there, to develop it into a tourist destination.
Bearing in mind that he was – and still is – one of the richest royals in the world, with an estimated net worth of over $1 billion, it was safe to assume he wasn’t going to be peddling the Emerald Coast, as he evocatively named it, to the Thomas Cook package holiday market.
The Aga Khan – spiritual leader of a sect of Muslims known as the Nizari Ismailis – was born in Geneva, owns a private island in the Bahamas, and keeps hundreds of racehorses. As a result, he has mixed with rich people and royalty all his life, and it was these friends and family members he started to entice to the Costa.
From Princess Margaret to George Harrison, and Brigitte Bardot to Peter Sellers, they came in their droves, making it instantly fashionable. Between 1961 and 1968, he had several hotels developed along this 30-mile long, sparkling stretch of coastline, which today are still among the most desirable in the area.
I’m staying at one of them, the Hotel Pitrizza, in one of nine recently opened Unique Suites. These come with their own turquoise infinity pool with sea-views, a plush sitting room decked out in tasteful blues, creams, sands and slate greys, eclectic, locally made furnishings (the rug and bedspread envy is instant), and the occasional polished table hewn from a massive chunk of tree.
Pitrizza’s main draw is its peaceful, not to mention private, setting. Its grounds, which slope gently towards the Med, are lushly carpeted in trees, plants and flowers, from fuschia-coloured bougainvillea to scented rosemary bushes.
Relaxation is the order of the day; you can lounge next to the hotel’s main pool, or bag a sunbed right on the beach. There’s even the upmarket equivalent of those blokes who walk past sunbathers trying to sell cheap sarongs or sunglasses; only here they’re trying to flog imitation Hermes and Gucci handbags.
In the distance float a couple of obligatory super-yachts; recently one of the world’s longest, the Russian-owned Dilbar, was berthed out here. And the likes of Beyoncé, Will Smith and Rihanna have all parked up at some point to pose on deck in their teeny weeny bikinis (with the possible exception of Will), before puttering back to shore for freshly grilled lobster or seafood pizza at Pitrizza’s laid-back restaurant.
With an estimated net worth of over $1 billion, it was safe to assume Aga Khan wasn’t going to be peddling the Emerald Coast, as he evocatively named it, to the Thomas Cook package holiday market
In the evening it’s time to get glammed up and head out to Porto Cervo, a 15 minute drive away; this is the social hub of the Costa, essentially a tiny terracotta toytown composed almost entirely of designer stores (Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, et al) and a couple of fancy bars. Disappointingly, I don’t spot anyone famous; strolling around the small main square are a cluster of Russian women in spray-on jeans sprinkled with Swarovski crystals, and a couple of comfortably built men with bouffant, Flavio Briatore hairstyles, puffing on large cigars. After my non-eventful passeggiata, it’s time to head off for an aperitivo.
Nearby is another of the hotels the Aga Khan had built, the Cala di Volpe, which, the concierge tells me, is the place to network. Every year they hold a £1,000-a-ticket gig in the grounds; previous headliners include Elton John and Robbie Williams. The hotel itself is an attractive, long, low Spanish-style building with raspberry pink and lemon yellow walls and eclectic interiors, all designed by iconic, sixties French architect, Jacques Couelle. Floors are composed of slivers of juniper wood embedded in resin, walls are broken up with shards of coloured glass, and old, empty wine bottles are embedded in plaster.
Outside on the terrace of the Il Pontile bar (itself so glamorous it starred in a scene of The Spy Who Loved Me alongside Barbara Bach), the waiting staff serve me the frothiest, peachiest Bellini I’ve ever had, before I sit down to dinner. Guests at any of the four hotels in the group, including the charming and low-key Hotel Cervo in Porto Cervo, and the more family-friendly, watersports-focused Hotel Romazzino, can dine at any of their restaurants; I loved it here, however, as they basically flambé everything, as if it were still the 70s.
As the flames rise high over my spicy prawns and I bask in the rum-soaked glow of my retro cherries jubilee, I’m very glad indeed that the daring dream of a playboy prince became this fabulous reality.