Forget the Amalfi Coast: Here’s how to visit Italy’s equally stunning Costa Smeralda – The Points Guy

The Amalfi Coast has come to symbolize "la dolce vita," but it’s by no means the only gorgeous coastline in Italy. Sardinia — and in particular, the Costa Smeralda — has its own particular kind of glamor.
In summer, yachts dot the marina at Cala di Volpe, with millionaires and celebrities coming on shore to savor spaghetti with clams at Hotel Romazzino’s beachfront barbecue or sushi by Nobu Matsuhisa at Hotel Cala di Volpe before partying at exclusive clubs like Billionaire and Phi Beach. Designer stores by Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Prada line the streets just off the main piazza in Porto Cervo.
Yet the foremost reason the region keeps drawing people back is its rugged natural beauty. As Giorgio Armani himself said in an interview with Costa Smeralda Hotels Magazine about his first visit to the Costa Smeralda, “The lasting memory is the emerald green of the sea. I remember thinking that a name had never been more of a perfect fit for a place.”
This year, the Costa Smeralda is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a series of concerts and events, as well as the release of a new tome by Assouline. The book, simply called "Costa Smeralda," tells the story of how Prince Karim Aga Khan IV fell in love with this wild, untamed part of Sardinia and decided to transform it into a seaside paradise for jetsetters.
To visit the Costa Smeralda for yourself and see why this breathtaking region has captivated travelers like Aga Khan for decades, here's all you need to know.
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The closest airport to the Costa Smeralda is Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport (OLB), which is one of three airports on Sardinia. Unfortunately, there are no nonstop flights to Olbia from the U.S., and the flights to Olbia currently cost more than $1,500 round trip. As a result, your best bet will likely be to fly to a major city on the mainland like Rome, Milan or Venice and then book a separate ticket on board a low-cost carrier such as EasyJet.
Once you arrive at Olbia’s airport, it'll take about 35 minutes to drive to Porto Cervo, the main town on the Costa Smeralda. Technically, the Costa Smeralda covers 34 miles of coastline between Portisco and Liscia di Vacca, but there are other places nearby that are worth visiting, too, including Palau and the Maddalena Archipelago. If you want to move around a lot and explore the area, it’s a good idea to rent a car, as taxis in this part of Sardinia are notoriously expensive and public transit isn’t very efficient.
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The main reasons to visit the Costa Smeralda are the beaches and the lifestyle. Some of the top hotels in the area have fully equipped beaches with sun beds and umbrellas, but there are also beach clubs you can check out.
If you’re looking for a fun yet laid-back vibe, Nikki Beach Costa Smeralda is a good choice. Book a beach bed and a table for lunch and a boat will whisk you off from Cala di Volpe to the club’s location on a secluded strip of sand. At lunchtime, indulge in fresh seafood like grilled lobster or octopus with potatoes while a DJ spins tunes. Staff shuttle back and forth between the restaurant and beach beds, keeping the rosé flowing all day.
There are many free beaches where you can simply lay a towel down on the sand and hang out as long as you want. The Spiaggia del Principe in Arzachena was supposedly Aga Khan’s favorite beach. Meanwhile, the Isola dei Gabbiani in Palau is a hot spot for windsurfing and kitesurfing because of the mistral wind that blows from southern France into the Mediterranean.
Of course, a trip to the Costa Smeralda wouldn’t be complete without a boating excursion. Book a full-day outing with Enjoy the Island and one of the skippers will take you around the Maddalena Archipelago, which was home to a U.S. naval base until 2008. Along the way, you'll stop at secluded coves where you can dive into the azure sea to swim and snorkel. The boat docks at Maddalena island for a lunch break, giving you the chance to grab a bite on this charming island — the largest in the archipelago — before continuing on to more beautiful bays in this stunning national park protected from development.
Related: What you need to know about European beach etiquette
Aga Khan’s development plan in the 1960s included four luxury hotels, all of which are now managed by Marriott. Crucially, the hotels were designed to blend into the landscape, spreading out horizontally rather than vertically to preserve the views and borrowing inspiration from the local vernacular, as well as elements from Mediterranean countries including Greece, Spain and Morocco. As such, the properties are stunning and are still the best places to stay on the Costa Smeralda.
Hotel Cala di Volpe is the most iconic of the four, with a sinuous architectural form designed by Jacques Coüelle, a friend of Picasso and Dalí who referred to himself as an architect-sculptor. Stepping into the lobby with its tall archways and views of the Mediterranean, you can feel the sense of grandeur.
Part of Marriott's Luxury Collection, the hotel is fresh off a four-year renovation that preserved Coüelle’s design, including details like colorful stained-glass windows and stairs painted a rainbow of pastel colors. The refurbishment also brought new restaurants like Le Grand, Beefbar and Matsuhisa to the property. A scene in the 1977 James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me" was filmed here, so don't be surprised if you feel like a dashing spy while riding the hotel’s Riva yacht.
Rates start at $523 or 98,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.
Another member of The Luxury Collection, Hotel Pitrizza is more of a tucked-away refuge with stone cottages inspired by ancient nuraghe structures found in the area. It’s also home to what may be the world’s first infinity pool, which looks out over the Mediterranean Sea, and gently sloping paths lead down to a private beach.
Expect to pay at least $513 or 98,000 points per night to stay here.
At Hotel Romazzino, you'll find the same whitewashed stucco architecture commonly associated with Greece, but the details (embroidered cushions and hand-painted wall decorations) are pure Sardinian.
This Luxury Collection property is on one of the longest and most beautiful beaches in the area, where you can lounge on plush sun beds all day. When hunger strikes, simply walk up to the open-air barbecue restaurant for a lunch of spaghetti with clams or grilled seafood. The bar also makes a fabulous Bellini.
Nightly rates start at $485 or 98,000 points.
A Sheraton-affiliated property, Cervo Hotel is the most centrally located of the four hotels. It sits right on the main piazza of Porto Cervo, so if you want to be in the middle of the action, this is the place to stay.
The hotel is surrounded by designer stores, chic restaurants and a summertime pop-up called the Waterfront, a sort of boardwalk lined with art galleries, bars and restaurants, including an outpost of Nikki Beach.
Additionally, it's the most affordable hotel of the bunch, with rates starting at $266 or 70,000 points per night.
Related: These are the best hotels in Italy for every type of traveler
The Costa Smeralda is a great alternative to the Amalfi Coast. Though it mainly attracts a jet-setting crowd, there are plenty of gorgeous free beaches budget-savvy travelers can enjoy.
What the region lacks in pretty pastel buildings clinging to dramatic cliffs it makes up for in sheer natural beauty, with sandy beaches, wild landscapes full of Mediterranean scrub and a sea that shimmers in a thousand shades of blue, turquoise and green.
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