Travel writer Jennifer Bradley Franklin heard that Hotel Cala di Volpe was the peak of Sardinian splendor, but she wanted to see for herself. She spent a few days at the blissful seaside retreat in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, and learned that reality was far grander than anything she imagined.
Cala di Volpe still lives up to the setting it was designed to be: A luxe, laid-back playground for the ultra-wealthy and famous. Prince Aga Kahn IV fell in love with the 55-kilometer stretch of coast in northeastern Sardinia, and started buying up land in the 1950s. He appropriately christened it Costa Smeralda, or "Emerald Coast," because of the striking blue-green water.
Built in 1963, the hotel presides over a sparkling cove and features 124 rooms and sixteen suites, all of them unique and filled with Sardinian-made furnishings, art, and textiles. The property is designed to look like a fishing village, with blush-colored terracotta exterior walls, porticos, terraces, Juliette balconies, and wooden accents. The pace, the melodic language, and the terrific local wine all feels very Italian, of course. Yet the island of Sardinia is very much doing its own thing. Incidentally, the name Cala di Volpe means "bay of foxes." Though I never saw any of the furry mammals, it's easy to imagine that "foxes" refers to the good-looking staff and guests — think European royalty and Russian oligarchs with their model arm candy. There is no spinning this hotel as a deal, no matter when you visit. It's a splurge, but you can expect to get your money's worth in the attentive service, spectacular food, and the kind of understated elegance that only money can buy.
Claim to Fame
James Bond fans will recognize the hotel from its starring role in the 1977 film, The Spy Who Loved Me. In it, Roger Moore (Bond) stays in "Suite A5," which was never never actually a suite. Rather, it's the Mediterranean-styled Il Pontile Bar overlooking the glittering water. Even if you don't stay at the hotel, it's a chic place to enjoy an aperitivo before dinner. The hotel is also in the record books, thanks to one of the most expensive suites in the world. Perched on the top floor in the center of the property (for the best sweeping views, naturally), the Presidential Suite features three master bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, a wine cellar, outdoor gym, 250 square meters of outdoor terrace space, and a huge private pool. Prices can reach more than $30,000 per night, depending on the season.
What's on Site
Cala di Volpe feels like its own little town, so much so that many guests never feel compelled to leave. Because the hotel is situated on a bay, the private beach is a short (free) five-minute boat ride away. Even the ride is an experience, since many monied guests arrive by yacht and drop anchor in the nearby waters.
On site, guests can also make use of an Olympic-sized saltwater pool (though the lunch restaurant overlooks it, so I preferred to soak up rays away from diners), a beauty center with a hair salon and spa, a trio of grass tennis courts, and watersports galore (jet skis, sea kayaks, sailb boats). The complimentary WiFi is great throughout the building but gets spotty outside; I never felt the need to waste time being online.
Many well-heeled guests come to Costa Smeralda to shop at the legendary Porto Cervo (the hotel and village was also developed by Aga Kahn), which has a legion of designer shops (Gucci, Bulgari, Dolce & Gabbana, Rossetti, Valentino). However, those who want to give their black Amex a workout without leaving the Cala can shop for jewels at de Grisogono, fashion at Prada, and leather at Hermès without leaving the hotel lobby.
Food is a real highlight at Cala, and there are plenty of options. There are three bars — one on an outside terrace, one in the space where James Bond was filmed, and a clubby one in the lobby. Barbecue Restaurant (yep, that's the name) overlooks the pool and has huge potted olive and lemon trees dotting the open-air dining room, which serves a huge breakfast buffet with pastries, cured meats and fish, cheeses, yogurt, and to-die-for cappuccinos. At lunch, it becomes a seafood grill, with chefs cooking your choice to order.
Cala's culinary crown jewel is Restaurant Cala di Volpe, where an antipasti buffet includes caviar and other locally sourced delicacies from the sea. (Tip: Don't miss anything with bottarga. While it's an acquired taste, the Sardinian variety is considered the best in the world.) Primi pasta courses are often finished tableside and prime cuts of meat for secondi pair perfectly with a rich glass (or bottle!) of Cannonau, a red grape credited with giving Sardinians long lives.
For those looking for meals in Porto Cervo, Starwood Luxury Collection hotels — including Hotels Romazzino, Pitrizza, and Cervo — have a "dine around" program that allows guests to dine at any restaurant and charge it to their room. It basically quadruples your dining options.
In the Room
Each of the 120 rooms and suites are uniquely decorated with pastel colors, traditional Sardinian art (think hand-woven baskets, trompe-l'œuil paintings, tapestries), and a mix of plush textiles. Many of the suites include multiple bathrooms with colorful tile, rain showers, deep soaking tubs, and Acqua di Parma bath amenities.
Room with a View
I stayed in a deluxe suite, which has two spectacular bathrooms and a balcony overlooking the bay. The balcony became my favorite place to sit with a glass of wine and catch up on email. A friend also stayed in a deluxe suite, but hers was on two levels and had a two-story outdoor terrace with sofas carved into the walls. Both were charming and it was neat to feel like our rooms were truly one-of-a-kind.
This Place Is Perfect For
Luxury travelers who don't need to be in the thick of a city. Because it's a true resort — a destination in and of itself — guests are not within walking distance of much. Families will love it here, thanks to plenty of activities for little ones.
But Not So Perfect For
The kinds of travelers who thrive on being able to walk to off-property restaurants, shops, and markets.
Any way you slice it, Sardinia is a gorgeous island, and Costa Smeralda in the northeast is one of its best features. Majestic mountains and cliffs rise up from the clear blue water of the Tyrrhenian Sea and much of the landscape is dotted with aromatic wild laurel, lavender, rosemary, and myrtle. While much of the coastline can be rocky in some places, the area has stunning and often secluded beaches.
In the summer, bright bougainvillea, hibiscus, and hydrangea add their brilliant colors to the mix of blues (sky and sea). Nearby Porto Cervo, the village created by Aga Kahn in the 1960s, is worth a visit, if only to see mega yachts parked in the harbor, high-end designer shops, and perhaps (if you're willing to splurge), a drink at Bar il Portico. Just don't order a coffee. It's such prime real estate that a simple espresso is 50 euros — a deterrent for would-be campers who would take up space in the town's primo see-and-be-seen spot.
What to Do Nearby
Sardinia is peppered with well-preserved archeological sites built by the Nuraghic craftsmen of the Bronze Age. Some of the best ones on the island are in Arzachena, Costa Smeralda's capital city. Nuraghe La Prisgiona (Arzachena, Località Capichera, 1; +39 393 914 7998) features more than 100 still-standing buildings dating from the 14th to 9th centuries B.C., as well as Coddu Vecchiu, a giant burial site nearby. The sophisticated architecture is awe-inspiring, as is the view.
The mountaintop village of San Pantaleo, a haven for artists, is also worth a visit, particularly during the lively Thursday outdoor markets. You'll find standard market foodstuffs (local wine, honey, vegetables, fruit, baked goods, and mirto, a sweet after-dinner liqueur distilled from abundant indigenous myrtle plants), along with antiques and silk, cashmere, pottery, and leather designed by local artists.
Sardinia's wine is rising in popularity internationally, and one of the island's exciting wineries is Vigne Surrau. The picturesque winery marries state-of-the-art equipment, modern technique, and heritage grapes like Vermentino, Carignano, Muristellu, and Cannonau with stunning and tasty results. If you want to rub elbows with suntanned locals, Spiaggia Capriccioli is a stunning and tiny beach nearby. All the area beaches are free to anyone, and the attached parking lot is available for a pay-by-the-hour rate. You'll find tiny vendors offering snacks, towels, and water toys.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get Here
Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport (OLB) is about 30 minutes from Cala di Volpe by car. It's best to arrange transportation in advance, as taxis can be hard to come by.
Cabs on Sardinia are notoriously expensive, so if you're planning to explore the neighboring towns, wineries, and archeological sites, plan to rent a car. However, many guests come for the hotel amenities and feel no need to leave. Splurging on a boat tour, which the concierge staff is happy to arrange, is well worth it. The Maddalena archipelago between Sardinia and Corsica to the north has more than 60 extraordinary smaller islands.
Rates start at €1,650. Click here for reservations.