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26 mai 2007

The new way to do Europe

OLBIA, Sardinia

The elite who vacation in Porto Cervo on Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) are more apt to come in by yacht. But, on EasyJet, about $120 can get you to the nearby town of Olbia, gateway to this stunning stretch of coast in the north.

It’s a strange combination—budget travellers mixing up with the likes of European royalty and rock stars like Peter Gabriel (who has a house in Porto Cervo). At this glamorous coastal town, your lunch bill can exceed your air fare. A five-minute drive from my hotel into town cost an outrageous $30 each way by taxi. On top of that, the English-speaking driver I hired at the airport charged almost $70 an hour.

But if you’re willing to forgo staying in the centre of things, life needn’t be that expensive. My hotel, the Grand Hotel of Porto Cervo, spread out on a slope above a rocky beach, offered every amenity, from tennis courts to three swimming pools. Even in summer, excepting the peak month of August, a double room can be had for $180 a night.

And meals can be good value if you know where to go. My driver took me to a local restaurant called Idea Food Piccola where, in typical Italian fashion, our lunch took 90 minutes. As I sat on the veranda of an old house, smiling waitresses brought out heaping platters of perfectly prepared, straight-from-the-Mediterranean seafood. The cost: $20.

The Emerald Coast was developed into a yachting haven in the 1960s by a consortium led by the Aga Khan, and the stunning beauty of the area can’t be ignored. Buildings had to be low density and adhere to strict architectural codes—low-rise, with red-tile roofs and buff-coloured walls. Just taking a walk—looking at the lush green hills carpeted with wildflowers and the wild olive trees—was a thrill.

The taxi driver who took me on a three-hour tour of the countryside and villages between Olbia and Porto Cervo kept criticizing the Costa Smeralda. “This isn’t the real Sardinia,” he said. “This is Disneyland. To see the real Sardinia, you have to go into the hills.” To make his point, he drove me to the house he was building. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was set in a field blazing with wildflowers. Half a mile away was a village on the slopes of a hill, topped with a small medieval castle.

This setting backed up his thesis that the focus of the wealthy foreign tourists on the sea was misplaced. Here, just half an hour from an area where oceanfront land sells for a small fortune, a taxi driver can afford to buy one of the most beautiful plots of land I had ever seen.

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