39°14’47” N, 09°03’27” E Not just for megayachts (published August 2012)
While much of Sardinia is rural and undeveloped, the northeast coast has become an aquamarine playground for the rich and famous and their floating palaces. Persian Prince Aga Khan “discovered” these magnificent cruising grounds in the 1960s and began transforming the sculpted bays of what developers dubbed the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) into chic, boutique-lined marinas like Porto Cervo. I, for one, was duly impressed one blustery August day when, in search of a place to anchor our sloop, we threaded past a dozen megayachts loaded with all the essentials for a quiet Mediterranean getaway: helicopters, auxiliary speedboats and fleets of jet skis, tied like a line of pack mules off the stern. Equally unforgettable was the €300 ($420) bill we paid after an engine problem trapped us in upscale Marina Portisco for three days; I could practically feel the Euro bills rush through my fingers as the minutes ticked by.
But there’s another side to Sardinia that can be found by exploring a little further south or simply waiting for the off season. The leviathans of the modern yacht industry have vast cruising ranges, yet rarely venture away from the compact Costa Smeralda. Just a day’s sail away, we found shelter from a week of howling wind in a wide bay punctuated only by the humble town of Porto Istana. The scenery here is equally beautiful, without any hint of a crowd. Offshore, the towering profile of Tavolara Island brings a touch of the South Pacific into the central Mediterranean. Not a megayacht in sight, not a Euro spent in our safe, pleasant anchorage.
Another way to beat the crowds and inflated prices is to cruise in the off-season, when prices in the fancy marinas plummet. For example, in prime cruising grounds on the northeast corner of Sardinia, Marina dell’Orso charges only €12 per day for a 35-foot yacht—one-tenth the rate charged in July and August. From there, cruisers are just a step away from the stunning Maddalena islands, scattered pearls off a magnificent coastline. In summer, their raw beauty is tarnished by an invasion of motorboats, blaring music and bikinis, but in April, we had the azure coves of those uninhabited islands to ourselves. A cross-channel jaunt to southern Corsica brought us to the stark beauty of Lavezzi Island and the cliff-top fortifications of Bonifacio. These locations are hard to enjoy among jostling summer crowds, but you’ll have them all to yourself for the rest of the year.
The Costa Smeralda’s larger-than-life reputation steals the show from the real Sardinia, but maybe it’s for the best. The same Sardinia that is expensive and crowded can also be a quiet, relaxed place for cruisers of every budget. The stark contrast emphasizes the beauty of the undeveloped coastlines—it’s almost a pity that the megayachts don’t see the rest! Almost.