Dramatic mountains, historic citadels and beaches that rival the Caribbean combine to make Corsica the glittering jewel in the Mediterranean’s crown
Corsica is probably Europe’s most spectacular island, a natural summer destination for Mediterranean boats. About 100 miles long, this unique French region has a high mountainous spine falling dramatically to the sea. Perfectly spaced harbours await you at the end of each day, when sea breezes die and a rosy light warms the old stone around the quays.
A landfall here is imposing. Cruising down from Cannes or Nice you’ll often see mountain peaks from 60 miles away – the distance of a modest English Channel crossing. Gradually the rugged heights around Monte Cinto come into focus, and sometimes you catch a distinctive whiff of maquis – an exotic blend of aromatic shrubs, herbs and fragrant pine.
In summer, the island has long blissful calms, though you need to watch for any hint of strong winds, especially the westerly mistrals that can pounce out of a blue sky. Lazing in some enchanting anchorage, always be ready to make for the nearest marina if necessary. No hardship this, because bistros abound and you can look forward to good Corsican cooking and sunny wines.
I have chosen 20 compelling reasons for visiting this magical island, whether in your own boat, with Med-based boating friends, or simply on holiday in a comfy hotel. Experience Corsica once, and you’ll be hooked.
Citadel at Calvi
Calvi is often the first port-of-call from the Riviera. You approach around a commanding steep-sided citadel and the marina overlooks a magnificent bay whose lush coastal plain and crescent beach curve away beneath sunbaked hills. The esplanade is packed with restaurants and shaded decks at the water’s edge.
The citadel is a warren of narrow streets and steps, where tall houses cast some welcome shade. It’s a fair climb up here in the summer sun, but the views are worth the haul and you can gaze for ages across the harbour and a jigsaw of pantile roofs. Out in the bay, yachts of all sizes lie at anchor in bright blue water, wafted by cooling breezes.
Cruising south from Calvi, you pass beaches and holiday villages before the coast becomes more rugged towards Punta Palazzo. Around Scandola nature reserve, the glowing red cliffs are weathered into fantastic sculptures. Off Punta Rossa you turn into a fabulous gulf and follow a wall of granite towards a humped promontory topped by a Genoese fort. Behind it the remote village of Girolata has several restaurants and beach cafés. Boats bring in fresh fish and tourist ferries arrive from Porto.
This lovely anchorage is reasonably well enclosed, so in settled spells you can stay overnight here. The water is crystal clear and turquoise shallows gleam around the bay.
Grand Gulf of Porto
Three miles south of Girolata, the stunning Gulf of Porto opens up like an opera set. With binoculars you can see the harbour and clustered houses at its head, minute against 8,000ft mountains just inland. The powerful scenery catches your breath, overshadowing even the most glamorous superyachts.
The old town of Piana is high on the south shore, reached by a precarious road past jagged granite pinnacles towering above the sea. Tiny Porto harbour has grown around a river mouth and a few holiday villas. It is now a bustling base for tourist launches that shuttle out to Girolata and Scandola. The harbour channel is tricky for strangers to enter, but you can anchor off the beach just outside.
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Bay of Sagone
From Cap Rossu, the bold southern headland of the Gulf of Porto, it’s a dozen miles round to the glittering Bay of Sagone, a pleasantly low-key resort fringed with gorgeous white beaches and scattered villas. After the rocky remoteness of Scandola and Girolata, I like Sagone for its sociable holiday vibes. There are usually plenty of other boats about, with moorings at the head of the bay. In easterlies or settled north-westerlies Sagone is a delightful anchorage and swimming from the boat is sublime.
The north-west shore has a short stubby pier and low quay where you can land with a dinghy. Here, the convivial Restaurant Petra Marina is one of my favourites in Corsica – excellent cooking and moderately priced.
Great food and wines
Corsican charcuterie is unrivalled in France. Free-range pork and wild boar (sanglier) go into the spicy saucissons and the pâté de sanglier is scrumptious. Creamy sheep’s milk cheeses such as Fleur du Maquis and Tomme Corse de Brebis are perfect with juicy sun-ripened tomatoes from a market, sliced and dressed with olive oil.
The island has some notable vineyards whose reputations are growing. In the north-east, the chalky soil and sunny slopes around Patrimonio produce Nielluccio grapes for reds and rosés and Malvoise for the whites. Muscat du Cap Corse is a luscious dessert wine, which tastes heavenly when chilled. Outside Ajaccio, Corsica’s main city, the Domaine Clos Capitoro produces a dry, fruity Clos Capitoro rosé, which is our house wine of choice when in Corsica.
Cruising south from Sagone you reach the majestic Gulf of Ajaccio, with mountains towering behind. Corsica’s capital lies at its head and near the harbour you pass the golden walls of a 16th-century citadel. Beyond this unmistakable landmark is a lively vieux port with colourful fishing boats, quayside cafés and the old town just inland.
Port Ornano marina is in the crook of the bay, an ideal base with a panoramic outlook. Ships come and go in the gulf and planes circle towards the airport. The south shore has several sandy coves where you can anchor for lunch and a swim. The city is an easy stroll from the marina, a chic shopping centre with some impressive imperial architecture.
A while ago I was delivering a Guy Couach 1280 from Sardinia to Cannes via Corsica. The leg from Bonifacio to Ajaccio started in a calm, but a north-westerly was freshening as we entered the Ajaccio Gulf. Halfway across, our starboard engine faltered and I pulled back to neutral, then the port engine did likewise. An evil blue net was trailing to windward.
We rolled as I wrestled with the boathook, before a fishing boat appeared and offered us a tow. Soon we were in Ajaccio being helped alongside by a band of locals. Within an hour a diver had cleared our props free of charge and we were all drinking wine together. I have never forgotten this warm-hearted kindness.
About 33km east of Ajaccio, Lake Tolla is an unexpected pleasure – a long scenic reservoir created by a dam across the Prunelli River. Tolla village stands above the lake, with views across the valley and its fine expanse of water. At 550m above sea level, this cleft in the mountains is often much cooler than the coast, and there’s nothing more relaxing than hiring a pedalo and meandering around the shores of overhanging walnut trees.
In the village you can lunch at the family-run Restaurant à L’Epica but get there by midday. A hire car from Ajaccio is the way to visit Lake Tolla, an easy day out if you are at Port Ornano.
A short hop south of Ajaccio around Cap Muro, friendly Propriano lies at the head of the Gulf of Valinco. Green hills fall steeply to the north shore, while the lower slopes behind Propriano look welcoming as you come in. White sandy beaches circle the gulf. Propriano is a thoroughly likeable resort where normal life thrives alongside tourist hotels and gift shops. The harbour feels agreeably homely. Fishing boats rub shoulders with yachts and motor boats of all sizes. Sizeable ships tend to use the more spacious outer quays.
The Hôtel Le Lido is west of the harbour right on the beach. Opened in 1932 as a simple beach bar, Le Lido is a memorable place to eat, its feet virtually in the Mediterranean.
Up in the hills behind Propriano, the 16th-century walled town of Sartène looks across a noble vista of mountains folding away in the distance. Although Sartène is popular with tourists and Place de la Libération alive with cafés, the hidden corners of this historic place are quiet and still.
You can visit Sartène from Propriano by bus or taxi. The winding road approaches an ancient, almost fairytale prospect of tall, ramshackle houses with red pantile roofs, clinging to the side of Vallée du Rizzanese. Wandering the sombre labyrinth of shady streets and passageways, you feel the independent spirit of old Corsica, steeped in the island traditions of vendetta.
Bonifacio is a cavernous fjord at the island’s southern tip, with an attractive marina at its head. You enter through a dog-leg cleft in sheer white cliffs of striated limestone. Perched high above this amazing natural harbour, Bonifacio’s 9th-century citadel is the oldest in Corsica. Inside its walls you find a slightly crumbling town with an Italian flavour. Wandering the cobbled streets you hear the constant sound of chatter − outside shops, on shady corners or echoing down from shuttered windows.
You can take a boat trip from Bonifacio to see the caves and inlets west of the entrance. The boats go right into the larger caves and visit limestone lagoons and turquoise pools.
Cavallo and Lavezzi
The Bonifacio Strait between Corsica and Sardinia is fringed with reefs and small islands, a tantalising cruising ground. To explore this area from Bonifacio, leave early in the morning, partly to bag an anchorage but also to catch the best pilotage conditions before thermal winds get going.
There are paradise anchorages around Cavallo and Lavezzi islands, and Cavallo has a tiny marina. Cala Lazarina is tucked into the south coast of Lavezzi, protected by a low cordon of moonscape rocks – an idyllic spot if no other boats are there!
Porto-Vecchio lies at the head of a long buoyed inlet on Corsica’s south-east corner. Wooded hills climb gently from the shore, a restful change from rugged cliffs and looming mountains. With its back to the west, this part of the island has a mild climate reminiscent of the Côte d’Azur. The waterfront has a mellow atmosphere where time ticks slowly.
The old walled town is right above the marina. Built by the Genoese as a refuge from pirates, it is set around Place de la République and a 12th-century church, with lots of pavement cafés where you can linger over coffee. The east ramparts look over the harbour and the grand reaches of the gulf.
East coast mussels
North of Porto-Vecchio, you soon pass a long coastal plain backed by rolling hills and forests, a softer landscape than the mountainous west. Solenzara has a pleasant marina next to a river, with a small but lively town nearby. Between Solenzara and Bastia there are saltwater lakes behind the low, flat shore.
In the tranquil Étang de Biguglia, delicious mussels, oysters and clams are cultivated in shellfish ponds, and the mussels in particular are a treat. Large and succulent, they are best served raw like oysters (ask for moules crues), with a squeeze of lemon juice before they slip down. The paths around the ponds are fascinating to wander and you’ll see barges working the mussel beds.
Climb to Cervione
Port Taverna is a useful east coast stop, though its approaches are shallow. Cervione village stands high in the hills behind the marina; a delightful 6km walk inland up the Campoloro valley. Try to leave early while the sun is low and not too hot. The village stacks up in layers of tall, austere houses, with a bell tower and a cathedral.
Cervione lies at the seaward end of La Castagniccia, a vast chestnut forest stretching from Monte San Petrone. These eerie woods are dotted with hamlets, many almost deserted. The chestnuts were once harvested for market and many local recipes use chestnut flour and pork. Contented pigs roam freely here!
From Bastia you can take a narrow-gauge train right across the spine of Corsica to Ajaccio, a totally absorbing four-hour journey through sensational landscapes. The first stretch runs south along the coast to Casamozza, where the single track heads inland towards the mountains.
At Ponte Leccia a branch turns off to Calvi while the main route climbs through valleys and canyons to the picturesque old town of Corte, with its dramatic citadel balanced on a rocky outcrop. The railway crosses old viaducts and at Bocognano, at the foot of Monte d’Oro, you pass cascading waterfalls. Starting early gets you to Ajaccio in time for lunch, with an afternoon train returning to Bastia by evening.
Bastia is Corsica’s second largest town and busiest port, the island capital until demoted by Napoleon in favour of Ajaccio. Its fine old quarter looks and feels Italian, and has some superb trattorias. While Port Toga is a convenient marina, the historic vieux port is the connoisseur’s choice for a short stay. Traditional Genoese-style apartments climb six stories above the quays, their windows strung with washing. Above them, smaller houses and terraces cling to each other and the steep hillside.
A short taxi ride to the north, the beautiful village of San Martino di Lota seems to hover above the sea, looking out towards the Tuscan islands of Elba and Pianosa, 30 miles away.
Corsica’s big toe
The island’s ‘big-toe’ peninsula juts north 20 miles from St Florent on the west side and Bastia on the east. This is a great area to explore if, having arrived in Calvi or St Florent, you have limited cruising time. Choose a quiet day for rounding Cap Corse and its neat white lighthouse. A few miles down the east coast, Macinaggio marina lies in a gorgeous bay where lush green country slopes down to the harbour and a golden beach.
This side of Cap Corse has several small fishing villages and Erbalunga is one of the prettiest. Leaning together on a rocky point, its simple houses were once hung with nets and the tiny harbour piled with crab pots.
On the west side of Cap Corse is a strangely rocky and desolate stretch of coast called Le Désert des Agriates. Barren it may be, but there are several anchoring bays. From here you can turn towards St Florent marina, at the head of a spectacular gulf.
St Florent feels a bit like St Tropez, with chic waterfront brasseries and colourful houses looking across the harbour. The town occupies a low point near an elegant round citadel. A backdrop of hills lends grandeur to the scene and a gleaming white beach around the bay adds a final touch of lotus-eating luxury. Up behind St Florent, some of Corsica’s best vineyards grace the terraced slopes around Patrimonio.
Nuits de la Guitare
If you are in St Florent in late July, don’t miss the guitar festival at Patrimonio, a vineyard village above the sea. The hills form an amphitheatre for Les Nuits de la Guitare, a famous event attracting some of the world’s finest players. Here, in the dusky summer evenings, you can listen to several styles of guitar music, from classical recitals and blues to flamenco and gypsy. The festival has been running for 30 years and a finer setting you can hardly imagine. Buses or taxis take you up to Patrimonio, but a relaxing walk downhill is the best return option.