Paul Ashford Harris

Porto Cervo : The 'Candy Coast.'

Porto Cervo is a purpose built sailing Mecca on the Costa Smeralda coast of Sardinia, an island previously mostly renowned for extreme poverty, bandits and kidnapping. The town, designed at the behest of the Aga Khan, by architects in the 1950’s as a faux medieval Moorish village is built around the marina and yacht club. The pink and yellow pastel homes sit comfortably within the Mediterranean greenery and sparkling blue of the harbour. The marina has 700 berths available with shipyard facilities for everything up to and including super yachts. The port lies just across the Bonifaccio strait from Corsica and is a bit of a shock to your average bloke. It is as if some crazed explorer has drilled through the earth’s crust and been rewarded with a gusher of money of Vesuvian proportions. Here the sun always shines, only beautiful homes are permitted and only beautiful people. No poor intrude and no crime exists, at least not of the vulgar variety previously Sardinia’s speciality.

Porto Cervo is also host to some of the world’s great sailing contests. We arrive whilst a couple of events are taking place, hosted by the Yacht Club of Costa Smeralda. The Yacht Club was a personal project of the yacht loving Aga Khan, with amongst others Prince Rainier of Monaco crewing as a Director. It is a majestic construction built over the marina and exquisitely appointed including some Vatican sized paintings of super yachts and the Aga Khan’s collection of antique model ships. From the bar you can gaze across the marina at the 12 meter yacht Azzura, retired to the cliff opposite and the Italian entry in the 1983 America’s Cup. His love of boats and need for a marina was manifested by his construction of a $200m runabout called Alamshar, after one of his thoroughbreds, and capable of out running the paparazzi at 60 knots plus.

First off in the racing programme is the Loro Piana (Italian luxury clothing brand, peasants) Superyachts series. There are 21 entries of up to and over 100 feet, some of them floating works of art, with crews of twenty to thirty professionals. We watch in awe as they charge around the islands and head down wind with huge spinnakers bulging in the 15 knt breeze. God knows who won and it would be slightly indelicate to care. The Super Yachts are followed by the Audi TP52 World Championships; well it’s not going to be the Toyota Prius series is it? These are modern 52foot racing yachts, skippered by some of the best sailors around who manoeuvre them like outsize dinghies. They are evenly matched with nothing much between the 9 entries but the American entry Quantum Racing, skippered by America’s Cup coach and skipper Ed Baird, finally comes out on top in front of Brazil and Sweden. The harbour quay is full of bronzed yachties sporting matching designer apparel and busy making sure the yachts are match ready for each days racing. There are also a clutch of doddery billionaires, smirking as they squire some delectable eighteen year old eye candy. Of course there are one or two not so lucky, scowling behind dark glasses at being stuck with the dumpy wife and her equally dumpy sister, a walking reproach to the cosmetic surgery industry. Botox is more common than suntan lotion. The billionaires, or so we surmise they are, are mostly off some of the biggest motor cruisers (ships would be a more accurate description) parked in the marina. They are no doubt hoping that one of Porto Cervo’s more frequent visitors, Russian Oligarch Abramovitch, doesn’t turn up and up stage them with his 163 metre monster Eclipse.

“Look on my yacht ye mighty and despair.”

As the sun dips we repair to a chic waterfront restaurant for dinner and celebrity spotting. As we are sipping our Prosecco, the drink du jour, a seagull, quickly discerning that we are dross amongst the glitter, scores a direct hit on skipper Kim Il’s shirt, thus adding a Rothko like smear of off white tinged with ochre to his otherwise colourful ensemble. A couple of black tied and nicely coiffed waiters compete to dab at his shirt front, and somewhat unnecessarily, at his crotch. Janice and I maintain decorum. The food is as good as expected although the bottle of excellent Barriu, at the cheap end of the wine list at 90 euros, is hard to swallow since we bought some at the bottle shop for around 20 only the day before. No BYO in P.C.

The Aga Khan, the Godfather of Porto Cervo, has strictly controlled the development of the marina and surrounding town. As a result the paths and gardens are immaculate, cars few and only of the most estimable brands. There are acres of designer shops boasting every luxury label one can imagine; D&G, Valentino, Versace, Missoni, Prada, Rossetti, Cavalli, etc etc and in case anyone might have missed the point, Briatores, where the shoes are tastefully emblazoned with dollar signs. Harrods, perhaps attempting to live up to its not entirely appropriate motto,’ Omnia Omnibus Ubique’-all things for all people everywhere, has deigned to open a branch in Porto Cervo.

Prince Karim Aga Khan is an interesting cove and apart from messing about in boats he is an inspiration to his 20 million odd followers. These are Nizari Ismailis Muslims, mostly living in Africa and Asia. They are Shias, and he is their 49th Imam. They each bequeath him at least 10% of their gross income some of which is returned through charities. Not many of them seem to be holidaying in Porto Cervo. He has however been mindful of setting a good example to his flowers by marrying Sarah Croker-Poole, an English model, daughter of a Lt Col in the 6th Lancers. Sarah commendably took the name Begum Salimah for the benefit of the Aga’s followers. Sadly a less than amiable divorce ensued (grounds adultery-his, multiple) for a reputed settlement of $30m plus a bonus of jewellery worth another $27m. He soon remarried German born Gabriele zu Leningen-Begum Inaara to you and his followers- and divorced her some ten years later after an affair with, you guessed it, an air hostess: settlement around $80m-but heh, no jewellery.

Apart from a wife or two his real love is thoroughbreds. He owns amongst this and that over 100 hundred race horses, an 164 ft yacht(see above), two Bombardier jets and an island in the Bahamas. His entrepreneurial efforts have been noteworthy contributors to his wealth including of course the development of Porto Cervo, where a house recently sold for $120million, and properties generally sell for up to 300,000 Euros a square meter. He is reputed to be the world’s 10th richest royal. There are certainly some interesting options in all this for the Ismailis to aspire to. Porto Cervo might make a nice alternative to Mecca.

It is mid June but the shops are empty and the marina is only half full despite the events. Is there a money strike or, as June rolls into July, and the weather heats up for the holiday season, will a deluge of the glitterati from all over Europe and especially Russia, descend? Safe to say a matter about which the current residents are supremely indifferent. Visit? Of course; but leave before you become infected.

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