New direct flights have improved access to wild and scenic Corsica. Beverley Rouse discovers its appeal.
Corsica may be the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, but there is no risk of this beautiful, laid-back island becoming a theme park to its most famous son. The family home where the French military leader was born in 1769 in the island’s capital, Ajaccio, is now a museum, and the port city is one of the destinations for Air Corsica’s new direct seasonal flights from London Stansted.
Corsica is a mountainous Mediterranean island off the west coast of Italy and the south-east coast of France. It’s been governed by France since it was handed over by the Republic of Genoa to pay debts in 1768.
After flying into to Ajaccio, we take a scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Sunelia Perla Di Mare resort, near Ghisonaccia. The route takes us along quiet, winding mountain roads and through green countryside and dense pine forests. Traffic lights are few and far between, so if you’ve never driven abroad, Corsica is an ideal place to start – as long as you can hold your nerve when a coach comes the opposite way, when you’re on a narrow road next to a steep drop.
The island is home to the GR20 – said to be one of the most difficult hiking trails in Europe – and is popular with cyclists, although e-bikes are available to hire for those whose legs need a little help.
I decide to give my legs an easier challenge with a cycle round the bumpy paths of the pine forest near my family-friendly lodge (£10 a day for adults or £45 per week).
The resort is right on the beach and there’s a kids’ club to keep children entertained. There is also a beautiful spa (£53 for a 50-minute massage), and yoga takes places on a quiet decked area within the spa complex.
Evening entertainment near the bar area is great for parents who want to dine while their children are happily occupied by karaoke or a conga led by Sunny, Sunelia’s ladybird mascot.
Corsica has plenty more to offer for those who hire a car and leave the site. The medieval town of Bonifacio, on the southern tip of the island, is a must-see, with a breathtaking view from the restaurant-lined harbour of the Bastion d’Etendard. This formed the most important part of fortifications which date back to 1195, and were built to defend the city.
Walk up the steep hill for a closer look or, like me, take the Petit Train de Bonifacio and save your legs for the walk back down.
A 30-minute boat trip with SPMB Promenades en Mer (£30) from Bonifacio to the nature reserve at Lavezzu is one of the highlights of my stay and shows how close the French island of Corsica is to Sardinia, its Italian neighbour which is just eight miles away.
We have a picnic lunch on Lavezzu, an unspoilt island of granite rocks where there is little but an abandoned shepherd’s hut and a cemetery housing the remains of 700 sailors who died in a shipwreck in 1855.
On the hour-long journey back, it’s fascinating to see the sheer white cliffs and caves, one of which locals say is the shape of Napoleon’s hat. The boat even goes inside one cave to see a hole to the sky, which is said to be shaped like Corsica.
There is also a fantastic view of the King of Aragon’s Stairway, 187 steps which were said to have been cut into the cliff by invading soldiers in 1420, although the less dramatic truth is that it was created by locals in a natural rift in the cliff to access drinking water.
We also squeezed in a visit to the Aleria Museum where fascinating objects from the history of Corsica include fertility symbols and drinking vessels in the shape of animals’ heads.
The ticket price includes a look around the remains of the ancient town of Aleria, built between the first and second century BC, with parts of the forum, shops, temples and baths visible following excavation.
While relaxing in Corsica’s glorious sunshine may be top of most holidaymakers’ to-do lists, there are plenty of other options for anyone who prefers to be out and about.
The island’s Mavela whisky distillery is open for tours from May to October, and also produces eau de vie spirits from local crops of chestnuts and myrtle berries.
Some farms which make cheese and yoghurt from sheep and goat’s milk also offer tours and tastings.
The island also produces essential oil from the scented, yellow, everlasting “immortelle” flowers, which grow wild in the countryside. The oil is used in age-defying skincare by Helios di Corsica, as well as being used by L’Occitane and sold on high streets in the UK.
Corsica is quite rightly proud of its produce and we end our stay with lunch at Aux Coquillages de Diana, a fish and seafood restaurant on stilts at the Etang de Diana in Aleria on the east coast.
The produce is caught in the brackish water of the Diana lake shortly before it’s served up to hungry diners in the bustling restaurant with views over the placid water.
French and Italian influences ensure that Corsica offers visitors a delicious menu and a unique experience but, while its history is fascinating, it is the island’s modern vibrancy that makes it such an interesting place.
So, forget Napoleon brandy and fill your glass with chestnut beer, rosé wine or myrtle liqueur, and enjoy the flavours of Corsica.
Sunelia Perla di Mare (sunelia.com/en) is open from April to October each year. A lodge (sleeping five) costs from E378/£335 per week. Fly with Air Corsica (aircorsica.com) from £103 return, from a choice of three airports. For information about the island, visit corsica-pro.com