Most visitors to Costa Smeralda arrive at this port city, the closest to the mainland of Italy. The town is rather industrial and not the most idyllic along the coast, although only a short distance away are pockets of posh. Think of Olbia as a refueling stop. It is also far more affordable than some of the luxurious resorts below. The best beach is Le Salone between Punta delle Saline and the bottom of Capo Ceraso. Follow the SS. 125 5km (3 miles) south from Olbia; the beach is signposted. Olbia lies 30km (19 miles) south of Porto Cervo.

For a local bite and ambiance, Barbagia is a regional tavern decorated with island handicrafts that attracts mainly locals, though more and more visitors patronize it as well. In the harbor area, the chefs are known for their good food served at reasonable prices (unless you go in for the more expensive shellfish). From the coast comes the day's catch -- perhaps grilled lobster or jumbo shrimp, also from the grill. At night the pizza ovens are heated up. Desserts are homemade fresh daily.

Porto Rotondo

At a point 18km (11 miles) north of Olbia, is a small vacation village that is more family oriented than the posher neighboring village of Porto Cervo, center of most of the coast's nightclubs. Nonetheless, Porto Rotondo is the summer home of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has an extravagant house on one of the cliffs overlooking the sea.

The best beaches here are Spiaggia dei Sassi, with a fine sandy bottom and gray pebbles, or Marinella, between Olbia and Golfo Aranci. This beach has snow-white sands with shallow waters and a gently sloping beach, one of the better choices in the area for families with small children.

Porto Cervo

With its large parks, elegant boutiques, and nightlife, this is the nerve center of the Costa Smeralda, lying 30km (19 miles) north of Olbia. Porto Rotondo is a 20-minute drive to its south. A natural port here is filled with multihued houses surrounded by hills.

On the southeastern side, its Porto Vecchio or old port dates only from the 1960s. For the best beach, follow Via Granu toward the sea to Cala Crano, with its white sandy bottom surrounded by rocks set against a backdrop of hills. Another good beach is Portisco in the western part of the Golfo di Cugnana, a beach of white sand with rocky outcrops. It's reached from the coastal road leading from Porto Cero to Golfo Aranci.

Baja Sardinia

In the Gulf of Arczachena, Baja Sardinia lies 30km (19 miles) north of Olbia and directly to the northwest of Porto Cervo. Although still very expensive, hotels here are more affordable than at Porto Cervo and other posh spots. Most buildings here -- hotels, private villas, bars, and restaurants -- are grouped around a small square close to the beach.

The little resort faces the archipelago of La Maddalena, lying 4km (2 1/2 miles) to the west of Porto Cervo. The best beach is Cala Battistoni, with its fine white sand set against a backdrop of rocky outcroppings. This beach lies right in front of the village of Baja Sardinia, which is 32km (20 miles) north of the port of Olbia.

Cala di Volpe

This wonderful beach and small resort is actually a satellite of Porto Cervo to its immediate north. The location is 25km (16 miles) north of Olbia and 17km (11 miles) east of Arzachena. The region is visited mainly for its Cala di Volpe resort, arguably the grandest in all of Sardinia . The beach here is equipped with the most luxurious services in Sardinia and lies in a sheltered bay crowned by shrub scented with juniper and "strawberry" trees. We consider this beach the most beautiful along the Emerald Coast.

La Arzachena

Near the island of La Maddalena, the town of Arzachena lies 25km (16 miles) north of Olbia. Opening onto 80km (50 miles) of coastline, Arzachena was the launching pad for the international consortium that created the Costa Smeralda resorts in 1962. Most visitors use Arzachena as a jumping-off point for its satellite resorts of Porto Cervo, Cali di Volpe, and Baia Sardinia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.