Sardinia’s northern Costa Smeralda resonates as one of the best-known places in the world for travelers seeking luxury amidst incredible natural surroundings. Celebrating its 60th anniversary, Hotel Cala di Volpe embodies this celebrated and unique destination. Despite its age, it’s among the most beloved hotels in the world, in large part due to a beautifully balanced experience of nature and architecture. Its anniversary is being celebrated in part with a book published by Assouline and the completion of a multi-year restyling by the famed studio Moinard Bétaille.
Cala di Volpe was a centerpiece of Costa Smeralda’s transition into a tourism and real estate destination, created in 1962 by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV and his Sardinian partners, now managed by Smeralda Holding. Until then, it was a wild and uninhabited territory where nature took precedence, and since then the human impact has been limited, allowing visitors to experience the sea and the land in a unique way.
The hotel’s design was entrusted to Jacques Couelle, a visionary French architect whose work fuses architecture and sculpture. It is said that upon his arrival to the undeveloped location he laid on the ground to feel the shape of the land with his own body. In its 176 pages and 150 images, the Assouline book captures the birth and decades of evolution of this destination, from the first building to its new renovation. Presenting the volume in Porto Cervo, author Nicky Swallow underlined the development of a project that became a community: “I do not think there is, in Europe, a tourist area so connected with the nature in which it is immersed: 96% of the areas of the consortium are still green. This has allowed it to host sophisticated but relaxed tourism, and this philosophy endures over the decades.”
These choices create a singular relationship between place and people. “It’s like entering another world. And then we must emphasize the relationship created between customers and staff: on both sides, we know that there is such an affection for the place and the atmosphere that the bonds last for many years and become a friendship.
Cala di Volpe has over 60% repeat guests: when they arrive, they are greeted with kisses and hugs, and when they leave, the tears run. They may have discovered Cala di Volpe for their honeymoon many years ago and then returned with their children, who remain hotel customers and feel at home. Some customers leave personal items in custody and find them the following summer. It is the concept of the ‘Cala di Volpe family.'”
At “the Cala,” the name by which loyal visitors refer to it‚ such a delicate balance is preserved with extreme care, and any transformation, however small, can create an imbalance. Architects Bruno Moinard and Claire Bétaille were well aware of this how when they started the restyling work in 2018.
“We immediately had a thought when we got there,” declares Bétaille. “It’s a bit like Tancredi said in The Leopard: ‘If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.’ And that was our refrain with the whole team here because the guests love this place, which we had to respect but surpass.” Their intervention was delicate and respectful of the past. The curved and sculptural lines of the walls have been preserved, in some cases accentuated. Plasters that blend with locally sourced tree branches are still in place, as are stained glass windows made of uneven glass fragments. Similarly, the general sense of spontaneity of the forms was maintained, which were often shaped by the hands of Jacques Couelle themselves as images in the book demonstrate.
Bruno Moinard underlines this idea in his own words. “We arrived at this project in a very humble way. We threw ourselves into the creation of Couelle with full arms,” he says. “We looked for all the imperfections, all the branches, all the pieces of wood, all the imperfect coatings, all the interceptive things that are due to man’s hand and the time that passes. And we retranslated all this. This project is like a theater scene that was not illuminated, awakened, and bright. And deep down, we worked mainly on highlighting this place.”
Nevertheless, some elements needed to be changed. “We prolonged the gentleness,” he says. “The gentleness of the building existed. But we were well aware, and we all knew that when we entered the rooms, we were in front of furniture, things from the 1960s that had a certain stiffness and did not have the tactile or ergonomic side we love today.”
The relationship between the views and the interiors in Cala di Volpe is significant. For this reason, the architects have chosen to emphasize the continuous passage between the sea’s blue hue and the rooms’ pale colors, between communal areas and private places, all thanks to the dimension of fluidity. “We understand that there’s a coherence between the outside and the inside,” he says. “That’s why we slide along walls; we slide into a bathroom, a passage, in those typical corridors that look like burrows. [We did that with] carpets laid as if put by chance, but with a lot of calculated imperfection to keep our project fresh.”
As directed by Smeralda Holding, this restyling had to guarantee a future that will be in step with the changing times for decades to come, keeping the sense of luxury intact. And nature was vital, says Claire Bétaille, “When we look at Cala di Volpe, we immediately understand the power of nature, a potent nature that inspires architectural and artistic creation. These two things suddenly find themselves in symbiosis and the form of refinement and intense luxury. And finally, we say to ourselves that there is no more current subject than this power of nature that offers an experience at this level of refinement on a territory. All this for us today is highly contemporary.”