Reworking Costa Smeralda

Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The resort—originally built by the Aga Khan—gets a handful of upgrades.

For years the Costa Smeralda has reigned as the Mediterranean’s most glamorous beach resort, but whether it can hold on to that title remains to be seen. As one regular describes the properties that draw many of the world’s most discriminating visitors, “They are like a beautiful woman of a certain age: Even with good bones and maintenance, there comes a time when you have to choose a surgeon. You get either a great facelift or a bad one.”

The Emerald Coast appeared on the radar in 1962, when the 34-mile stretch on the northeastern rim of Sardinia was snatched up by investors led by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, who started building high-end hotels and residences. Then his friends and international celebrities started making an annual pilgrimage to the region.

Its rugged natural beauty, white sandy beaches, unspoiled coves and dozens of deserted islands create idyllic conditions for boating. The Aga Khan knew that if he could add luxury comforts, he could establish the world’s ultimate resort. So he hired the best architects to fashion four hotels as well as a marina, golf course, yacht club and town to serve them. French architect Jacques Couëlle conceived the 121-room Hotel Cala di Volpe (see “The Very Best of the Costa Smeralda,” below) as a fantastical fishing village with pastel-colored façades, terracotta roofs and wooden bridges. Luigi Vietti, who designed the Aga Khan’s own villa as well as the seaside town of Porto Cervo, rendered stone Sardinian farm huts into the romantic cottages of Hotel Pitrizza. And the whitewashed palace of Hotel Romazzino has a gleefully whimsical charm, while Cervo Hotel is in the center of all the action.

This purpose-built paradise attracted royalty, rock stars and the superrich, who came to swim and swan around one another every summer. Among the early regulars were Elizabeth Taylor, Daphne Guinness, Ringo Starr, Princess Grace, Aristotle Onassis and the Agnellis. More recently Russian oligarchs and Hollywood royalty like Steven Spielberg and Gwyneth Paltrow have descended. Their private jets at Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport and yachts swarming the coast testify to how well the Aga Khan’s vision has endured. “Everybody wants to be in Corsica, Sardinia and the west coast of Italy in August,” says Jonathan Beckett, president and CEO of Burgess, the super-yacht broker. “They want beaches, restaurants, golf courses, bars and boutiques—and they want to be able to cruise from one beautiful bay to the next.”

The most recent upgrade to the resort took place under the patronage of real-estate tycoon Tom Barrack of Colony Capital (which bought Smeralda Holdings in 2003 from Starwood) and his wife, Laurel Beebe Barrack, a former model, when they unveiled the first phase of a five-year renovation plan earlier this year. Adding new villas at the hotels Romazzino and Pitrizza and overseeing a lobby renovation and grand suites at Hotel Cala di Volpe, she has breathed fresh life into the resort. The new properties have distinct personalities that capture the earthy, sunbaked essence of Sardinia while delivering unabashed pampering. Proof of their success: All were rented for the season within a week.

If the same magic can be sprinkled throughout the hotels, then the Costa Smeralda will no doubt remain the most glamorous summer resort on the planet. But in April the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, bought the luxury ministate through Qatar’s investment fund for an amount speculated to be more than $700 million. Whether he will safeguard this paradise as his predecessors have and give her the facelift she deserves is the (nearly) billion-dollar question.

The Very Best of the Costa Smeralda

A romantic retreat for reclusive types who want a beautiful beach and a low-key scene, Hotel Pitrizza recently opened new villas. Those on the water and up in the hills are the ones to book. Rooms start at $2,445; Porto Cervo; 39-0789/930-111;

The best choice for families who want a lovely beach, Hotel Romazzino also has one of the best kids’ clubs in the Mediterranean. The 94 rooms in the main building—which have a faded, grandmotherly quality to their decor—start at more than $2,000 a night in the summer. The brand-new residences are on par with the top villas at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat. Rooms start at $2,175; Porto Cervo; 39-0789/977-111;

All the celebrities come to Hotel Cala di Volpe to see and be seen. Lunch at the poolside grill is $215 per person in high season, whether one has a plate of greens from the salad bar or three courses. The lobby and a few suites have been redone, but the regular rooms are in need of an overhaul. Rooms start at $2,370; Porto Cervo; 39-0789/976-111;

The Aga Khan still presides over the members-only Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, whose clubhouse was renovated by legendary architect Peter Marino in 2002. Its 24 guest suites have private balconies as well as easy access to the elite poolside terrace and lounge. Via della Marina, Porto Cervo; 39-0789/902-200;

Located in the town of Porto Cervo, the bustling shopping hub at the marina, Cervo Hotel is the least expensive option. Rooms are bare-bones rustic. Rooms start at $1,180; Porto Cervo; 39-0789/931-111;

Serving perfectly prepared dishes, like pasta with clams or red mullet, fish carpaccio and a three-chocolate dessert, I Frati Rossi also offers great views. At Porto Cervo; 39-0789/94395;

Foodies like Marcella Hazan are drawn to La Gallura, with its stellar local cuisine, including catfish cooked with pine nuts, raisins and chocolate, and mussels steamed with basil, vinegar and sesame seeds. At Corso Umberto 145, Olbia; 39-0789/24648.

With a sexy, laid-back scene by day and night, Phi Beach serves delicious antipasti, like scallops with fennel, orange salad and licorice extract. At Baia Sardinia; 39-0789/955-012;