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Sardinia Diary

Sailing is a way of life in this beautiful little Italian island. And it’s true: there’s something about being out on the ocean that awakens the adventurer in all of us.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2010 17:43 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Sardinia is one of those places that you think you know something about. But when you stop and think about it, you realise that you don’t know very much at all. Isn’t it the little island just south of Italy? No, it isn’t. It is far up to the West. Isn’t it where those delicious huge lemons come from? No, that’s Sicily. Wasn’t one of the Godfather books partly set there? No, Sicily again. Didn’t Napoleon come from around there? Nopes. Napoleon came from Corsica, a French possession north of Sardinia.

Or finally: isn’t it the place that all sardines come from? (No, of course not. Don’t be so silly.)

The first thing I learnt about Sardinia even before I got there was how difficult it is to fly to. I took a flight from Delhi to London. Then, another to Rome. And finally, a third flight from Rome to Olbia, one of Sardinia’s three airports. My destination took another hour to drive to.

SardiniaSomehow, perhaps because we think of Sicily or Capri when people mention Sardinia, the landscape is a bit of a surprise. There are few tall trees but lots of shrubs. The hills and rocks seem volcanic in origin and so, largely free of the sort of lush vegetation you would expect on an island. It is certainly not the sort of Italian island where wild flowers dazzle the eye and the fresh citrus scent of lemons wafts through the air.

That said, it is stunningly beautiful. The sea has an intense inky blueness; the bay is gorgeous and because much of Sardinia is barely developed, vast landscapes are visible in every direction.

I stayed at the Hotel Pitrizza, a Starwood property which had its own little private beach and where no structure was more than a single storey high so the island’s natural beauty was not besmirched by the ugly tower blocks that have ruined so many seaside resorts. My cottage had two terraces, and I ate breakfast each morning on one of them, staring out at the hills. In the evening, the other terrace offered a view of the dark blue sea. As settings go, it was fairly idyllic.

Porto Cervo, my destination, was a ten-minute drive from my hotel and was unlike any Italian town I have seen. Some of this had to do with Porto Cervo’s history.

In the ’70s, the Aga Khan decided to transform the coast of Sardinia (the Costa Smeralda) into one of the world’s most exclusive destinations. Because the area was thinly populated and little developed, the Aga Khan was able to build his dream destination from scratch.

He constructed a few beautiful hotels (including the one I stayed in), small clusters of single-storied buildings that housed shops and restaurants, and a magnificent yacht club that would soon rank among the top clubs of its kind.
In the early Nineties, the Aga Khan sold his hotel chain (Ciga) to Starwood and Porto Cervo began to take on a life of its own.

But because the developments had been so high quality and exclusive, the area became a magnet for what used to be called Eurotrash in the old days: wealthy Europeans with big boats who liked the idea of working on their tans in a resort that was not frequented by the mere middle classes.

Over the last decade, the Eurotrash millionaires have been overshadowed by Russian billionaires and their entourages. Such clubs as the noxious Billionaire exist to take money off the Russians and the Costa Smeralda has developed a nasty reputation rather like the one that the South of France enjoyed in the Sixties before the coach parties and the budget tourists got there.

Given this background, you will understand why I was glad to get to Sardinia after the season was over and the billionaires had left. By the end of August, the Russians have moved on to look for new houses to buy in London and to find solace at the following month’s Paris shows where designers long to clothe their leggy Ukrainian girlfriends in high fashion. By the end of September, it is all over for the Costa Smeralda. The hotels all close for six months, re-opening only in the spring. The shop-keepers shut their doors and vanish. And most restaurants down their shutters.
All this makes September the right time to go to Sardinia. The Russian oligarchs and Eurotrash millionaires (and Elton John who was in Porto Cervo this summer) have all departed, the dreadful clubs (Billionaire etc.) are closed and the hotels enjoy their last peaceful month of the year.

Every two years, Porto Cervo hosts a regatta in September. The town is taken over by fit and tanned young men and women in polo shirts, crew shorts and yacht shoes and the big power boats leave the marina to be replaced by infinitely more elegant sailing boats.

I was in Porto Cervo at the invitation of Leonardo Ferragamo. Leonardo is one of the three sons of the late shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo and oversees the vast fashion empire that bears Salvatore’s name. But when he comes to Porto Cervo, he leaves high fashion behind and focuses on sailing boats.

I sat one morning by the pool at the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club and listened while Leonardo told me how he came to be so intimately involved with the regatta.

Like many wealthy young European men of his background, Leonardo loved sailing. These days when we think of millionaires and their boats, we think of bloody great motor yachts complete with dining rooms, party decks, discotheques and God alone knows what else.

But there is an older, more old-money, yachting tradition. This consists of rich men who treat their boats not as floating party palaces but as something more serious and well, more personal.

Such boats are always sailboats (bigger versions of the kinds we see at yacht clubs in Bombay and other Indian cities.) Most people start out with small boats and enjoy the sporting element to the exercise. Because small boats are captained by their owners, the yachtsmen learn how to hoist the sails, to use the wind to give their boats more power and usually, sailing brings out the competitive instinct in most yachtsmen: my boat can go faster than yours.

If you were to use a parallel from the world of cars, then a big power boat is like a stretch limo: it has lots of room, you can party in it and somebody else does the driving. A sailing boat however is like a Ferrari. It is meant for you, not for your guests and there’s no point in getting anybody else to drive it.

For Leonardo, yachting was a way of life. It represented a sport – rich people treat sailing the way the rest of us regard tennis. It allowed him to escape from the world when he took his boat and sailed out into the sea.

While he tried other boats as well, his favourite was the Swan, a well-regarded yacht made by a shipyard in Finland. He first bought a small Swan and then a bigger one.

In 1998, when the Swan company was facing difficulties, Leonardo decided to buy it. The decision was not an emotional one, despite his love for the boats, he says. He looked at the books and decided that the company had failed to move with the times. It still made excellent boats but it had forgotten how to market them or how to strengthen the brand.

Leonardo believed that with his experience in the Ferragamo empire, he could supply what Swan lacked. In some strange way, he said, a yacht reminded him of a shoe. A Ferragamo shoe looked great from the outside but he was always pleased when people said that it was comfortable. That was because so much went into the making of the shoe that the average customer never discovered. First-time buyers were impressed with the aesthetics. But those who came back and bought more were influenced by the comfort that the shoe provided.

So it was with a Swan. It looked great and had a fancy reputation with old-money sailors but so much went into the construction of a great boat that the buyers rarely realised exactly why it was that their boats sailed so well.
Leonardo decided to buy Swan in his personal capacity. Other members of the Ferragamo family made investments in the company as individuals but basically, Swan was Leonardo’s baby. He owned and ran it himself – independent of the Ferragamo empire.

Under Leonardo’s management, the Swan company prospered. But in recent years, it has begun looking at new markets. India is the obvious place to find new buyers. Experience demonstrates that new money goes for the big, floating party palace power boats. But once a newly-affluent society becomes comfortable with its wealth, its millionaires opt for sailboats.

Swan has had some success in India already. But these are early days.

I had never been to a regatta before and had little experience of the world of old-money sailing. Some elements of this world struck me as unusual. At the owner’s dinner at the yacht club, the millionaires dressed, not with standard Italian flash, but like gentlemen sailors, in white trousers, blue blazers and nautical ties. Some of them cultivated an air of casual shabbiness. It was almost as though they were saying ‘we have so much money that we don’t care what we wear’.

I went out on a Swan myself one day and it was easy to see how this kind of experience differed from going out on a power yacht. On a sailboat, the emphasis is on the outdoors. There are comfortable cabins below the deck (Ferragamo’s Swan has three bedrooms and a kitchen) but you are expected to stay on the deck, out in the open and to let the spray hit your face and the breeze ruffle your hair. At no stage are you allowed to forget that this is a sport, not a relaxed leisure-time activity.

I am not the world’s most sporty guy, but there’s something about being out on the ocean that awakens the adventurer in all of us. And there are worse things one can do with one’s life than sail determinedly into the wind.