The Island Of Beauty

21st June 2013

With its sparkling sea, craggy mountain peaks and almost tropical beaches, it’s hard to imagine a place more deserving of the title île de beauté (Island of Beauty) than Corsica. It has a wonderfully wild and rustic feel, with two-thirds of the island made up of mountains (in fact, the rugged landscape makes for some of the best hiking in Europe), but it is the crystalline water and near-white sand beaches that have kept it alive in people’s imaginations.

Separated from mainland France by the Ligurian Sea, Corsica has 1,000km of coastline and over 200 beaches. But unlike most seaside destinations, there is a distinct lack of high-rise hotels lining the surf. Instead you’ll find quaint seaside towns, languid beaches and great local cuisine. From top to bottom and east to west, it’s a truly stunning part of the world, with some of its most beautiful and pristine stretches of beach situated on the northwest coast of the island. Known as the Balagne region, this little slice of paradise is easily accessible by sea and air, making it a fabulous place to spend a mini break.

Katie Beck talks you through a leisurely weekend on the Island of Beauty…

Calvi, the biggest port town on the northwest coast, is the easiest place to get to with regular ferries from both France and Italy and daily flights from many UK airports. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus came from here and with the striking citadel presiding over it, there’s an air of history and a grand past.

Its present is no less impressive. It has a picturesque 8km stretch of beach that fills up with bronzed sun lovers, wind surfers and jet setters in the summer. The chic port is framed by handsome yachts and lined with welcoming cafes, brasseries and seafood restaurants. Plan an afternoon arrival, and choose a comfortable outdoor seat overlooking the sea for some of the world’s most delicious moules marinières.

After lunch, make your way to the Trinicellu, a tiny single-track coastal railway, which will take you along the seafront to neighboring towns. Trains run ten times a day in each direction during the summer months, so it’s easy to explore the coast without a car. Climb aboard for a bumpy but outrageously scenic ride, with fantastic views of the clear blue sea and brilliant sky through the train’s little windows.

Disembark 30 minutes east in the tiny town of Algajola. This little gem of a village, with a population of just 303 people, has some of the most untouched beaches around. Despite its size, it’s well equipped with a range of restaurants from fine dining to casual, a small but sufficient selection of hotels and cottages, and a handful of shops selling local olive oil and handmade pottery.

Check into the adorable U Castaellu. With its five stylishly appointed rooms built into an ancient Genoese fortress, this boutique hotel is the perfect base from which to explore. Maude, the welcoming hostess, serves a fresh breakfast of local breads, cheese, jams and coffee to order every morning on the sunny terrace overlooking the sleepy town.

For dinner, try U Columbu situated on rue Marina, Algajola’s charming main street. The spacious yet warm restaurant mixes a contemporary, cosy atmosphere with excellent food and a great selection of local wines. The menu is seasonal with fresh seafood, and modern takes on classic Corsican and Italian dishes.

The next morning, once you’ve got your bearings and had your fill of the glorious sea and sand (if that’s possible), pack a little rucksack and set off along the scenic cliffs. There are countless walking and hiking trails criss-crossing the island, and one such begins at the end of the Algajola beach.

Once up from the beach, the path changes from sand to dirt and with a slight incline, the terrain is easy to moderate. The striking views of the blue sea and mountains below are simply gorgeous and you can walk as far as you want. For a more leisurely journey, drop down to the itty bitty town of Marine de Davia and and cool off on the near deserted beach there. For the more adventurous hiker, it is about 11km to l’Île Rousse, a slightly bigger and more trafficked seaside town to the east.

Whether you get there on foot or by train (a 15 minute ride) the bustling cafes of l’Île Rousse should be next on your list. The beaches here are more crowded and the feeling is a bit more touristy, but every morning from 8am to 1pm there is a fantastic farmers market in the Place du Marché, with local producers selling fruits and vegetables, cheese, jam, honey and the chestnut infused charcuterie for which Corsica is known.

The population of this lively beach town is ten times the size of its tiny neighbour but l’Île Rousse, with its red rocky barriers slowing erosion into the sea, has a well-worn and comfortable feel. Pascal Paoli – the old town named for the 16th century Corsican Patriot who is said to have created it – is a quaint and utterly delightful place for lunch with its cobblestoned roads, and centuries-old houses built into the fortress. There are plenty of dining options, from the Michelin-starred Restaurant Pasquale Paoli to the myriad cafés and seafood spots: just find an open table, order some chilled rosé, do like the locals and have a leisurely meal.

After spending time on the beach, or watching a local boules tournament in the main square, head a couple of kilometres up the mountain to the pastoral hillside village of Monticello. Sat atop the steep incline above l’Île Rousse, the unobstructed views from this little town are what dreams are made of. Next, make your way to Hotel A Pasturella. Situated on a side of a cliff, it is one of the town’s few lodgings – but be prepared for luxury.

The rooms are spacious and expertly decorated with roomy bathrooms and lovely natural light, and the hotel is also home to a fine dining restaurant, which is where those in the know book in advance for expertly prepared dishes served in style.

The hotel has a more casual café in front where guests can take their breakfast or enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate in the evening and which doubles as a lively local meeting place.

After a night or two perched above the sea, make your descent and head back to Algajola to round off your trip. Dig your toes into the powdery sand… soak up the sun to your heart’s content. For an afternoon snack or a pre-dinner drink, stroll to the end of the beach where you will find the Snack A Rotta beach bar. It couldn’t get any more authentic. Order a couple of Pietras (local Corsican beer), sit back and listen to the surf.

For a final dinner, look no further than out of your window. The U Castellu restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel is thought to be the best in town. The family-run establishment, nestled between the walls of the fortress, serves wonderful hearty Corsican and French dishes and has a great wine list. The seafood soup is particularly good, crystallising all that is good about Corsica into one outstanding bowl…

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