A leisurely meander around the the Tyrrhenian Islands fortuitously concludes with a fishy feast for Gilbert and Maire Park
Originally my wife, Maire, and I had planned to cruise our Nimbus 365, Let’s Go, from its home berth in the South of France to Corsica but since our friends Janet and David had a holiday booked in Sardinia we decided to extend it to take in both Tyrrhenian Islands.
We had been to Sardinia before in a previous boat and loved every minute of it and now we had the perfect excuse to revisit it. The plan was to meet our friends near Olbia and take them to a fabulous restaurant for lunch on the island of Tavolara a few miles further south. It was a long way to go for lunch but every good cruise deserves a rewarding destination!
It had all looked so easy on paper but inevitably when May came and we wanted to leave our base in Aigues Mortes (near Montpellier) to cross the Gulf of Lyon – the windiest place in the Mediterranean – the area experienced its longest period of sustained high winds for many years.
Then suddenly a one-day window appeared in the forecast, which would be followed by another four days of gales. We made a dash for it, scurrying around the eastern edge of the Gulf to Saint Mandrier, south of Toulon, before the next weather front kicked in.
We have visited this marina several times before and love the laid-back atmosphere and regular local events. There is a colourful Saturday food market awash with homegrown produce and a Sunday flea market for the bargain hunters. A water bus shuttles back and forth to the city of Toulon every 30 minutes at the princely sum of two euros for a 20-minute ride.
After four nights the gales abated and we were off again to the Ile de Porquerolles where we planned to refuel the boat and be ready to leave the next day for the crossing to Calvi in Corsica.
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The crossing is 118 miles through open sea and although we have done it before there was still a sense of anxiety about setting out to sea alone in a relatively small boat. The best way we have found of relieving this is a good meal and a bottle of wine the night before to send us on our way.
The restaurant we chose was L’Orangeraie in Place d’Armes and the deciding factor was the blackboard outside describing their commitment to customer service. We weren’t disappointed – the food, the service and the sunset were all first class.
Fortunately, there are no tidal gates to worry about in the Mediterranean and the forecast was for little wind and a calm sea so we slept well and rose at a reasonable hour ready for our departure. The sea was as kind as predicted and we cruised at about 17 knots taking our time to enjoy the pods of dolphins that appeared on our bow and even the occasional whale.
About 40 miles off, Corsica started to appear on the horizon and we debated what it was we could see on the mountain peaks – was it cloud or was it snow? It turned out to be both, even though we were well into May it had snowed the day before! As we entered the bay of Calvi we were treated to the amazing sight of the citadel bathed in glorious spring sunshine against a stunning backdrop of snow-covered mountains.
Calvi needs more than a one-night stopover to enjoy fully, so we booked the berth for four nights and spent the days exploring the town and its surroundings. We found a great deli on the main street, as well as a bakery 50m away from our berth where we could buy our morning croissants still warm from the oven.
A train trip to L’Ile-Rousse on Friday took us to a huge street market where we stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables. On previous visits we’d enjoyed an all-day bus trip around the northern part of the island, but feeling we’d already ticked that box we chose instead to wander around the old town, discovering restaurants and bars as well a commercial area a little further out of town that had everything on our shopping list.
After four nights it was time to set sail again, stopping briefly to refuel (we had used 351 litres of diesel on the 118nm crossing from Porquerolles to Calvi – 2.97 litres per mile) before leaving for a two-hour trip north to Saint Florent.
The Capitainerie welcomed us in and helped with our lines making docking easy. It’s a pretty town and our evening walks along the promenade looking at the boats with an ice cream in hand made it a very pleasant two-day stay.
Round the cape
The next part of the trip was around Cap Corse with its fearsome reputation for rough weather. Despite the forecast of low winds and calm seas, its reputation won out! We got round it alright but not without a fair bit of water being thrown right over the top of our Nimbus.
Thankfully, Let’s Go coped admirably with the conditions, and my wife, who has tested every sea sickness cure known to man, didn’t feel as bad as she’d expected to in the circumstances. Nevertheless, it was with some relief that we pulled into the marina at Macinaggio.
Although it’s a huge marina surrounded by masses of restaurants, cafes, a supermarket and no less than three different chandleries there isn’t much else to see or do – other than the inevitable boules court.
Our next stop was Bastia, the old capital of Corsica until Napoleon moved it to his home town of Ajaccio. We arrived just before midday in the old port and could get no reply from the Capitainerie (the office shuts from 1130 to 1400) so we found an empty berth and moored up.
When the office reopened we were told we could stay where we were – good job too as a few minutes later we heard the Capitainerie telling other boats the port was full. Being inveterate tourists we went on an evening bus tour to see the Holy Stairs at the Chapel of our Lady Monserrato.
The faithful climb these steps on their knees, but not us! We also walked the length of the high street to the other marina, which though well situated opposite a hypermarket and a laundry, seemed less atmospheric than ours.
The weather was settled so we took the opportunity to take a short diversion to the Italian island of Elba. Our first stop was Portoferraio and that evening we strolled around the old town with its narrow cobbled streets, terraced paths and grand fortress before settling on a tiny restaurant in the main square, called Trattoria Pescatore.
The crockery didn’t match, and the tables were covered in plastic gingham but the food was exquisite, the service impeccable and the cost amazingly low.
Over to Elba
The following day we picked up a hire car and drove out to see Napoleon’s country house only to find it was shut so instead we went for a drive around the island. Despite the rain we did get to see some wonderful coastal scenery.
Once we’d exhausted our sightseeing opportunities on this side of Elba we cruised our boat round to the other side of the island to Porto Azzurro. It turned out to be an absolute gem. The harbourside berth, the ice cream shops and the welcoming people made it a fantastic place to be.
We ate in a harbour-front restaurant (Calafata Osteria) and I had the best pizza I have ever eaten called a Livorno that was topped with a delicious mixture of onions and cream. Add to this, wonderful coastal walks just a stone’s throw from the boat and you can see why we liked it.
Having read the pilot books and trawled the Internet we decided to cut out the middle section of Corsica’s east coast and headed straight for Porto Vecchio instead some 90 miles further south.
When we first arrived it was a bit of a disappointment. The marina was fine, but the town was up a long, steep hill and it was hot. The cobbled town square was being dug up and it was all a bit of an anticlimax. The next day we found the free, electric shuttle bus that not only takes you to the old city but also to and from the supermarkets – bliss.
I did walk to the chandlery and in the process saw what looked liked a rather lovely waterside hotel restaurant called Le Goeland with its own dock for visiting boats. It was too late to move Let’s Go there, but we ate there that night and the food was every bit as excellent as hoped, setting us up nicely for our passage across the Bonifacio Straits to Sardinia the following day.
The crossing from Corsica to Sardinia drifted by at a leisurely pace, passing the Madalena islands en route before peeling off from the channel to pick up a mooring buoy in Cannigione. This small Italian seaside town was one of our favourite places. The marina staff were the best we came across helping us with the buoy and on our return trip, when we were reversing into our berth in a Force 6 crosswind, they even used a dinghy to ease us safely in.
Then it was off to Porto di Punta Marana to meet up with our friends. Despite being the most expensive marina we stayed in, it was also the most disappointing – water you couldn’t drink, the highest fuel prices of our trip, dodgy electricity, the list goes on. Fortunately, it was offset by a fabulous lunch with our friends.
This was followed by a few hours at anchor in the afternoon in a nearby cove to let dinner settle before heading back to base. A perfect day and worth all the effort and every cent.
After four nights it was off to Cannigione and back to Corsica, stopping this time at Propriano to hire a car and see the famous standing stones dotted around the area.
The first ones we visited at Filitosa are more than 8,000 years old and have carvings of faces and weapons chiselled into the rock. There are also Bronze Age buildings called Castelli whose exact function remains unknown. Access is tightly controlled.
By contrast the second area we visited, Stantair, is a 20-minute walk down a track and protected only by a few old posts and wire. Walk a little further and you come to another row of standing stones at Renaghju, then Funtanaccia, where you will find an intact burial chamber.
The final place we visited, the Pallagiu Alignment, was even more surprising. We parked the car in a winery, declining a tasting until our return, and walked down a track for 20 minutes to a tumbled down wall with wire sagging across it and a little arrow on the rocks.
Fifty metres on we came to the incredible sight of 268 orange menhirs in the middle of scrubland. Stunning. After all this excitement we needed a bit of relaxation so we pootled off in Let’s Go, anchoring first in Campomorro where we were joined by the classic motor yacht Malahne that has hosted Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas and Jack Nicholson, among others. We bypassed Ajaccio and anchored in the Baie de Sagone for a bit of snorkeling and paddle boarding.
The time was rapidly approaching for our crossing back to the mainland. We had one more stop, Cargèse – a town famous for its two churches, one Greek Orthodox and the other Roman Catholic that face each other across a small valley.
By now a heatwave was starting and we wended our way up to the village, first for lunch and then on to see the churches and marvel at the internal decorations. Dinner that evening was memorable, not because of the food but because of the traditional Corsican music that accompanied it.
The next morning we set off back across to Hyeres where we refuelled (362L 128 miles) on the mainland. After that we went off to another favourite spot, the calanque of Port-Miou. Calanques are narrow valleys with deep sides formed by erosion or the collapse of a roof in a limestone cave.
We picked up a buoy and rowed across to attach a stern line to one of the rings on the cliff wall (the drop off is so steep that some boats simply back up to it and thread the line while standing on the bathing platform).
The heatwave was really taking hold by now and a dip in the cool water of the calanque was a necessity – so too was following the local custom of a nap in the afternoon!
Maire dislikes dinghy rides, but here she was tempted by the promise of the Michelin starred restaurant, Le Presqu’Ile, on the cliff above us. As we watched the sunset over the Mediterranean, eating delicious food and drinking equally good wine I knew this was a fitting end to a wonderful holiday. But it wasn’t quite over yet…
We had intended to visit Sausset Les Pins on the way out because it was said to be bustling and filled with style. So we thought it would be a good place to end our trip. When we got there the visitor’s pontoon was almost empty, we visited the town and were disappointed by how quiet it was.
That is until the evening when the harbour really started to buzz. Then all became clear, it was the night of the annual sardine feast for the town when the fishermen all bring in fresh sardines that are cooked on a huge communal barbeque – a truly delicious ending to the trip.
Highest: Porto Marana (€64 per night)
Lowest: Sausset les Pins (€33.78 per night)
Highest: Porto Marana (€1.84 per litre)
Lowest: Porto Vecchio (€1.63 per litre)
Best marina in the Tyrrhenian Islands
Cannigonie, both on the buoys (€25/night) and in the marina (€50/night). Nothing was too much trouble, including clearing a fouled propeller at no charge.
Mediterranean France and Corsica Pilot by Rod and Lucinda Heikell
Italian Waters Pilot by Rod and Lucinda Heikell
Bloc Marine – Cruising Guide (If you are going to France this is worthwhile for the large scale maps of the entire coast)
Weather apps: Windy, Météo France, Météo Marine Consult. All give wave height predictions, some include swell that can be a problem at anchor
Charts: Navionics of the whole area; instruction books are on my Android memory card for everything on the boat from the bilge pumps to the anchor light!
First published in the November 2019 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.