Article and photos by Josh Steinitz
Walking along a narrow foot track, we could see miles in every direction. Beneath our feet was a soft mixture of pincushion-like grass, surrounded by low shrubs, granite boulders, and peaks towering in the distance. Our only neighbors were some occasional black-coated pigs that foraged amidst the wild heath. Here, after many days of memorable experiences around the island, in this out of the way spot, we felt like we were experiencing the real off-the-beaten-path Corsica of legend.
As an American, when you tell your friends you’re traveling to Corsica, you usually get a series of messages like “have fun in Italy!” or “oh, I love the coast of Spain!” More than a lesson in the geographic ignorance of most of us, it’s a strong indicator of how unknown this incredible place, known as “L’Île de Beauté,” is among even the savviest U.S. travelers
On our 10-day trip, my fiancée Sylvia and I followed a counter-clockwise route around the island, starting in Ajaccio, the capital (and birthplace of Napolean). The port city, a legitimate destination in its own right, makes a good base for exploring both the southwest coast as well as some destinations in the notoriously rugged interior, since the main cross-island road runs from Ajaccio to Bastia in the northeast. Basing ourselves out of the friendly and welcoming Hotel Les Mouettes, with an enviable location right on the water just outside of downtown, we spent several days exploring the region, making days trips south along the coast to Propriano and Campomoro, and north into the mountains around Corte.
Propriano is just one gulf south of Ajaccio, but takes roughly 90 minutes to reach by car given the famously winding nature of even the main roads in Corsica. It has a pretty little waterfront harbor and the requisite open-air terrace restaurants along the quay, and merits an hour or two of exploration. It’s also within striking distance of Campomoro, a small village at the end of the road. There we found a white sand beach, clear, warm waters, a historic restored Genoese lookout tower (of which there are many around the island’s coast), and a walking path down a pristine undeveloped stretch of coastline, surrounded by granite boulders tumbling into the blue sea.
After a seaside day, we were ready to get an up-close view of Corsica’s rugged interior mountains, so we drove to the historic university town of Corte, and then on the ultra-narrow road up the Restonica Valley. The scenery became more and more jaw-dropping as we climbed up the valley, and we periodically slowed to a crawl to pass cars going in the opposite direction, with the driver on the outside trying to avoid the certain death of plunging over the edge. From the end of the road, we hiked up to the famous Melo and Capitello Lakes, set in a stunning glacial cirque surrounded by granite spires. The terrain was reminiscent of Yosemite or the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and felt incredibly far removed from the coastal beach towns. It was just one of many experiences that highlighted the incredible diversity of the island. Many destinations lay claim to the clichéd notion of being a region of “contrasts,” but on this score, Corsica really delivered. And, while we found plenty of people just about everywhere we went, we almost never heard a word of English spoken.
For the next phase of our trip, we based ourselves out of Hotel Cala Rossa, on a small peninsula near Porto Vecchio on the southeast coast. A Relais & Chateaux property, the place exudes understated sophistication. More importantly, it enjoys a fantastic location, with its own private beach club with truly perfect opportunities for swimming in warm, shallow waters, lounging on a chaise under an umbrella, or feasting overlooking the Mediterranean. It’s also a good base for exploring all that southeastern Corsica has to offer, including Bonifacio, Porto Vecchio and the Alta Rocca.
Perhaps the most photographed place in Corsica, Bonifacio is a medieval citadel town that sits on a high promontory above the sea, surrounded by tall white limestone cliffs. The town’s stunning location can best be appreciated either by walking the cliff-top trail east of town toward the lighthouse at Cap Pertusato, or by boat from the sea—both are well worth it, and can be accomplished in the same day if you arrive early. After walking out toward the cape and taking the obligatory photos (how could you not, with that view?), we returned to the harbor and hopped on a boat to the Lavezzi Islands just south of the main island, between Corsica and Sardinia (which lies just 12 miles to the south). While the small main island was crowded with day-trippers, with a little exploration I found some solitude surrounded by soft beaches and large granite boulders in the mold of Virgin Gorda or the Seychelles. The area is also famous for diving and snorkeling, with large groupers inhabiting the local waters.
Determined to stick with our theme of alternating the sea with the mountains, the following day we headed up into the highlands, visiting the whistle-stop mountain villages of Zonza and Quenza. From Quenza, we followed a narrow country road (follow the signs for Chez Pierrot) higher and higher until we reached the end of the road at an old ski station at 5,000 feet in elevation. This area, known at the Plateau du Coscione, is wide open country at high altitude, and is where we enjoyed the walk through the open steppes covered with boulders and cut with trickling streams and rock pools—truly a beautiful and serene place, too far out of the way for most tourists to reach.
Later that day, we drove to the Col di Bavella and walked up from the pass to get a close-up view of the stunning rock spires characteristic of the region, surrounded by hardy Corsican pines. Following a rugged route steeply up from the pass, I was treated to ever more expansive views down the valley to the coast and deep into the mountainous interior. On the way back to the car, I followed an alternate version of the GR20, the famously rugged long distance hiking trail that virtually traverses the island from northwest to southeast.
That evening, we walked around the narrow streets of Porto Vecchio’s Haut Ville, enjoying a drink at one of the numerous outdoor terraces in the town square before moving on to Café Laurent for a fantastic meal of pesto linguini and steak au poivre amist a crowd full of boisterous locals and vacationers alike. We especially enjoyed downing limoncello with the owner after he found out we were from San Francisco, where he had a mysterious connection that he only revealed to us later.
From the southeast, the following morning we took the fast highway up the east coast to St. Florent, a small harbor town in the crook of the coastline where the Cap Corse connects to the main part of the island. Ambling along the quay, we admired the megayachts on display that had presumably sailed over from the French Riviera, and walked up to the old citadel to enjoy views west to the rugged finger of the Cap Corse. Eating outside at Tchin Tchin, we sipped local wine from the nearby Patrimonio AOC region, and Sylvia enjoyed the “best mussels ever,” bathed in a broth of white wine sauce.
St. Florent is also known as a jumping off point for some famous white sand beaches just to the west in the barren area known as the Desert des Agricates, and they are easily reachable by boat service from the main harbor. Unfortunately, a storm front blew through, so we elected to push west along the north coast to Calvi.
Checking into the gorgeous Hotel La Villa in Calvi just as the storm broke up and the sun came out, we immediately relaxed and rediscovered our island mojo. The view from the hotel’s terrace, with a sculptured infinity pond overlooking the bay and town below, was breathtaking. That afternoon, we moseyed around the town, walking its pedestrian street lined with shops selling charcuterie and gelato, exploring the historic citadel guarding the entrance to the bay, and strolling along the quay, lined with restaurants serving pizza, mussels, and gelato. Like St. Florent, and as the Corsican town closest to the French mainland, Calvi’s pier had dose of the Riviera, with multiple megayachts on display, and we enjoyed guessing who they belonged to and what was happening inside.
Perched just a 10 minute walk above town, La Villa is also a good starting point for the steep walk up to Notre Dame de la Sierra, a small church with a stunning panorama over the entire bay and the rugged mountains of the Balagne, the name given to this region of northwestern Corsica. And, from there it’s just a long walk or short drive to the peninsula jutting north to the lighthouse at Punta Revellata, where you’ll find sea cliffs, crashing waves and great sunset views back toward Calvi and the mountainous interior.
I also used Calvi as a base from which to explore two of Corsica’s most impressive natural features — the seaside cliffs around the Gulf of Porto and Monte Cinto, the island’s highest peak, topping out close to 9,000 feet above sea level. The long and windy drive south from Calvi to Porto required consistent concentration, but the payoff was huge. For starters, on a hike to the tiny town of Girolata (only reachable by boat or foot), I was treated to amazing views of the Scandola Reserve, a protected headland area of pink sea cliffs plunging down to the sea. Later, after driving past the small town of Porto, I parked alongside the road among Les Calanques (the cliffs), and hiked up above the road on an ancient footpath. Here, as the sun fell low in the western sky, the rock towers glowed orange above the deep blue sea far below – it was literally impossible to take a bad photography under these conditions and with these views.
Before leaving the magical island, I decided that the most complete perspective on the place could only be had from its highest point. With that goal in mind, I set off early from Calvi and drove up into the remote Asco Valley, climbing higher along a narrow road to its end point at the Haut Asco ski station. The area is popular with hikers, and is typically where GR20 hikers spend the 3rd night of their 2-week trip. But, instead of following the main trail, I set off following red splotches of paint on the rocks, marking the route to Monte Cinto. Soon the “trail” crossed a stream and became nothing more than a “route” requiring class 3 rock scrambling using all four limbs and frequent backtracking to find the next paint marker. The route climbed extremely steeply out of the valley, and soon I was well above treeline gazing up at towering rock pinnacles that mark the roof of the island. After hours of careful route-finding and negotiating steep rock made slick by ice and snow on the shadowed north side of the mountain (yes, it gets cold up there), I finally crested the ridge and broke out into the sunlight, with huge views across the island to the south. After another hour of up and down climbing, I reached the summit cross and exchanged photo-taking responsibilities with a Basque couple who were proudly displaying their flag atop Monte Cinto.
From the summit, I could clearly make out the shape of the island, and its amazing diversity came into sharp relief. To the north, I saw turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and the town of Calvi, where that evening I would be enjoying a bottle of wine by the seaside. To the west, I saw the rugged Gulf of Porto, with its cliffs and lighthouse promontories, and further south, the Gulf of Ajaccio where we had started our trip. In the interior, I saw valley after steep-sided valley, bounded by jagged peaks with white granite reflecting the sunlight like a mirror, shining in the midday light. And to the east I saw the spine of the Cap Corse pointing confidently toward to the north, showing the way toward the island’s past, towards Genoa, toward the homeland of the builders of the 500 year-old towers that grace the island’s rugged coastline. The Genoese clearly liked what they found here enough to fight to keep it, as did the Pisans, and then the French. If the view from this high vantage point was any indication, I would have fought to keep it too.
Air France offers flights from Paris to Ajaccio, Porto Vecchio, Bastia, and Calvi. EasyJet flies from London and Paris to Ajaccio. Air Corsica is another option. Some flights only operate seasonally, so check airline schedules.
In Ajaccio, the Hotel Les Mouettes offers comfortable rooms, a friendly and helpful staff, a great location on the waterfront, a pool deck perched on the edge of the sea, and a wonderful breakfast featuring tasty croissants and pastries, cured meats and cheeses, local honey, and other assorted goodies. The staff can also recommend nearby restaurants and attractions. The best of these restaurants is Palm Beach. Just down the road leading west from town out to the Iles Sanguinaires (rocky islands extending out from a peninsula crowned by a Genoese tower), the cuisine here is truly top-shelf. Enjoying local wines, fresh seafood like mussels or spiny lobster, Corsican specialties like boar in myrtle sauce and a range of amazing desserts, all while sitting just above the gently crashing surf on the beach, and watching the moon rise over the gulf, is an experience not to be missed.
The Hotel Cala Rossa, just 15 minutes outside of Porto Vecchio, is a luxurious getaway in its own right, and you could be perfectly happy spending a week relaxing on the beach. But given all there is to see and do in the region, you’ll probably want supplement your relaxation with something more active. The hotel has an amazing breakfast spread, including crepes, waffles, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh fruit, pastries and just about anything else you could want to fuel up for the day. The beach club area has chairs with umbrellas that get assigned to you for the duration of your stay, just inches from the water, along with staff that will bring cold water or snacks. Dinner is also quite good at Cala Rosa, though wildly overpriced with a bit of a stuffy atmosphere, and as a result probably best avoided.
Porto Vecchio has no shortage of bars and restaurants among the narrow streets of the old town of the Haute Ville. Set aside some time for a cold Pietra or Colomba beer on the main square, a cocktail on the outdoor lounge chairs at Le Patio, and dinner at Chez Laurent or any of the nearby streetside eateries. Don’t overpay for the restaurants offering a terrace view over the harbor — it’s not worth it.
In the St. Florent area, La Dimora is a wonderful choice for lodging. Reminiscent of a Tuscan villa, the restored farmhouse, surrounded by lavender and olive trees, has been extended and refurbished into a luxury boutique hotel, with a pretty pool deck and bar/restaurant terrace, spa, and breakfast area. Our room was stylish and modern, with an open shower and a small private garden patio. Small enough to feel truly unique, yet still offering plenty of privacy, La Dimora was one of the true pleasant surprises of the trip. Only a five minute drive outside of St. Florent in the hills below Oletta, it’s also a good base from which to explore the nearby Patrimonio wine region (try the white muscat at several of the local tasting rooms, typically consumed as an aperitif), and even the west coast of the rugged Cap Corse, the mountainous index finger of land in the northeast of the island. Alternatively, for access to the east coast of the cape, consider staying at Hotel Castel Brando in Erbalunga, a small fishing village north of Bastia – it’s the best lodging option actually located on the Cap Corse. Within St. Florent itself, we enjoyed our meal at Tchin Tchin, at the far end of the harborside quay.
Perched just a 10 minute walk above Calvi, Hotel La Villa is a beautiful property and one of the top choices for sophisticated luxury lodging on the entire island. Home to a new spa and indoor pool, an outdoor pool terrace, two fine restaurants (including one that enjoys a Michelin star) and a spectacular view over town, it’s easy to imagine spending a week or more there. Our room was a light and airy suite, with a private patio overlooking the town and the bay, albeit also looking at the roof of a recently built extension to the property (the new construction should have been set down further to open up the view).
While at La Villa (also a Relais & Chateaux property), we dined at the Michelin-starred Bastien restaurant, and were treated to an amazing “chef’s choice” meal of melt-in-your-mouth duck fois gras, ultra-tender pork medallions sourced from local farms, and a Grand Marnier soufflé, along with wine pairings. The service was attentive without being snooty, and friendly without being intrusive. It’s difficult to top the combination of food, service and the wonderful setting.
Corsica is famous for its cured meats (charcuterie), made from the ubiquitous pigs that roam the island grazing on chestnuts, hazelnuts, and the shrubs and roots of the maquis (oak and aromatic scrub vegetation like myrtle, lavender, rosemary and thyme). The island’s cheese, brocciu, is mild and forgiving, and goes well with a crostini any time of day. And, while true oenophiles might not think the local wines are award-winning, they are quite good and certain varietals have real quality — let your taste buds do the judging. On the coast, you’ll find plenty of seafood like mussels, lobster, and local fish, along with the usual assortment of pizza (actually quite tasty in Corsica) and typically a beef and pork offering (try some pork medallions in a myrtle sauce). In the interior the selection obviously skews more toward cuisine sourced from the land.
By far the best way to see the island is to rent a car. We found a good deal through Auto Europe, getting a sporty 4-door Renault hatchback from the decidedly unfriendly staff at Hertz at the Ajaccio airport. (Note that Corsica is not known for being the friendliest destination, and while this stereotype was validated by plenty of service industry staff, we found just as many exceptions). It’s virtually impossible to find a car with an automatic transmission, so make sure you can drive a stick shift. The curvy roads wreaked havoc with Sylvia – carsickness was a persistent condition for her as a passenger. If you’re prone to motion sickness, make sure to bring the preventive treatment you need.
For non-drivers, there are buses, taxis, and some train service, but Corsica is not an island meant for mass transit, and it can be especially difficult to get off the beaten path without your own wheels.