A Corsican Holiday
Special note: Yes, this Nouvellettre® is longer than most. But, it is filled with valuable information if you are contemplating a trip to the French island of Corsica, which I highly recommend! The photos you see here were mostly taken by myself, but a few mixed in here were at the hands of fine-art photographer Wendy Paton and Brenda Prowse, my cohorts in our Corsican crime!
It’s been three years since I’d been to Corsica and that’s way too long not to have spent time on the French island. Over the years, I’ve had the habit/tradition of going for one week, not every summer, but every other summer, in order to experience other beaches and continue to give Corsica the test: is it the best beach vacation or not?
I’ve tested every side of the French island, as well as the beaches on Ibiza, Mallorca, Sardinia, Greece (various islands), Capri, the Algarve in Portugal and various other sandy enclaves including many in France. Nothing compares.
The main thing that Corsica has over all the others is unspoiled authenticity…and it’s in France. What that means is that thanks to past strict property laws, the island has not (yet) been bombarded by foreign second-home buyers or even developers looking to make a fast buck, however, the signs of that changing are evident. For the moment, commercialism is still at a minimum and I hope it never gets the best of the island.
Being part of France makes a big difference because the infrastructure is well in place and things run like clockwork, just like the TGV. The roads are in perfect condition. The landscape is pristine and it’s all beautiful and very well-tended. On top of it all, culturally it’s a blend of France and Italy, so the food is great, the people have a real spirit (no joke!) and the landscape is drop-dead gorgeous. On almost every beach, there is a good restaurant and facilities that provide the deckchairs and parasols. What more would you want?
Of the various parts of the island, my all-time favorite is the area between Calvi and Ile Rousse on the northern coast (not the cap), and in particular, the town of Algajola. I’m fond of it not only because of the many beautiful beaches in the immediate area, but also because of the convenience of the three towns in such close proximity to one another that makes it so easy to enjoy it all. There is a small local train, affectionately known as “u trinichellu,” that periodically runs between them stopping at the small enclaves along the way, so if you didn’t have a car, you could still easily beach and/or town hop. (See more about it here)
In the south, Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio are both beautiful hill towns, but that’s what makes them less convenient. One must park outside of Bonifacio and walk in. Porto Vecchio is easier to manage, but the best beaches nearby aren’t as fabulous or as abundant as those in the north.
Ajaccio is a big town and that’s its own problem. It lacks the charm of the smaller towns and the beaches nearby are more commercial in style than most. If Napoleon Bonaparte fascinates you, then a trip to his hometown might be well worth it to you. But that’s not our goal, while being on the best beaches is, so we can let Ajaccio go for another time.
Bastia in the north is a pretty town, but the beaches around it seriously lack charm. When I stayed in Bastia many moons ago, we ended up driving across the Cap almost daily, through Patrimonio to Saint-Florent, where there is a beautiful beach. (As an aside, Patrimonio is well-known for some of the island’s best wines. Out of nine AOP regions in Corsica, the Patrimonio appellation is the oldest one, dating back to 1968, with a reputation reaching the Middle Ages. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a rosé from the region.)
This year, my traveling companions were new to the island, but I was clearly not, which put me in charge by default. In advance, I created a proposed schedule for the week, made reservations at some of my favorite restaurants, reserved lounge chairs and parasols at the best beaches, and made dates to meet up with a couple of Americans I know living there. Then, I made a photo album of every photo I’d ever taken in Corsica and sent it off to my traveling companions to get them excited about the trip in advance! That’s when I got excited, too!
While sunning on the beach in Nice, I watch the Corsican Ferries go in and out of the port and dream about being on one…but instead, we flew a whopping 40 minutes from Nice, which is a whole lot easier and faster (5 hours 45 minutes on the ferry), if not a bit more expensive (the ferry is about 100€). If we owned a car, then taking the ferry would make sense, but instead, we landed and picked up a rental car at the Calvi airport. This year, out of character, there was no line at the Europcar counter. We scored an automatic transmission for no extra money. It took minutes to hop in and head off to Algajola, just a 15-minute ride from the airport.
Corsica is no longer the cheap destination it once was. And even less so if you don’t book early—six months in advance at the latest is when you can guarantee the best digs at the best prices! Our accommodations were not inexpensive, but worth it, having had the experience of staying in Algajola so many times. BudgetYourTrip.com reports that “The average price paid for one person for accommodation in Corsica is €56. For two people sharing a typical double-occupancy hotel room, the average price paid for a hotel room in Corsica is €111.” I’m not sure if this is really true or not, but our two-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment in La Résidence Santa Vittoria was €330 per night, but it slept up to six and had complete apartment facilities including a washer (very important at a beach vacation!) and a sea view.
La Résidence Santa Vittoria was close to perfect. The only things missing were WiFi (a temporary situation, and we were able to use our own Personal Hotspots), a cutting board in the kitchen, and it was not fully stocked like an apartment we might represent. But that had no bearing on our satisfaction. Located in the center of the village within walking distance to everything, it had private parking just outside the door, a large terrace, a view of the sea, all modern appliances and bathrooms, plus daily housekeeping managed by the hotel. We were prone to book it again for next year before we left.
One reason I love Algajola is its “plage”(beach). The Plage d’Aregno is a 9.8 out of 10 on my scale of perfect beaches. The sand is soft, but course, so it doesn’t stick to anything. There are several good restaurants on the water’s edge, some that rent “transats” (lounge chairs) and parasols.
One of the first things we did the evening we arrived in Algajola was purchase three “noodles”—what the French call “frites”—made of styrofoam on which we can float. I have a couple of slings that you thread onto the noodle to create a seat so that you can float all of your cares away. And we did!
We had booked the transats in advance and managed to get the front row on our first day. The water at the Algajola beach is shallow, calm, clear, clean and warm—perfect. The scenery is beautiful, bordered by the mountains at our backs with a centuries-old castle on the western end. Because it’s a large beach, even when crowded, it feels less crowded than most.
Lunch at Le Beau Rivage was just as I had remembered it, a feast of seafood and local “charcuterie” that made us even lazier for the rest of the afternoon on the beach. It simply could not have been more perfect for our first day. Before leaving, we secured our transats for our last day in Corsica as well as our last lunch on the island. We enjoyed our meals there at Le Beau Rivage better than almost anywhere else.
Opposite Le Beau Rivage is now a hotel/resort complex that wasn’t there three years ago, that really has changed the landscape…not for the better, but that’s part of the new development of the island I’ve been so fearful of, and heard a bit about from my friends who live there. Even so, the number of vacationers seemed to be less than in years past. It wasn’t too tough to get into restaurants as a result. At the last minute we scored a table at one of the village’s best restaurants for dinner on our second night at U Castellu, under the shadow of the village castle, which also serves as a small B&B.
I like to try the local specialties, and meats are what Corsica is all about…wild boar, goat, lamb, etc. One can order-up a “planche de charcuterie” almost wherever you go and it will be the best you’ve ever tasted. While seafood is plentiful, it’s not Corsica’s primary industry. Their fishing industry is much smaller and less important than its neighboring islands, such as Sardinia.
Dining is not hugely expensive, at least for the quality you find, in spite of the fact that this was high season when the restaurants need to make or break their year. Meals tended to average about 30€ to 35€ a person, but note that we are not heavy drinkers—which would increase a bill—and we don’t do desserts, so that keeps the bill down a bit, too.
After dinner at U Castellu, next door at the baroque church of Saint Georges d’Algajola, we attended a concert by I Campagnoli, a group singing Corsican polyphony. It’s not a sound one hears often, or perhaps ever at all, but it was mesmerizingly beautiful and the foursome very accomplished. This was not a treat we could have experienced anywhere else. CDs were on sale and my friends went home with signed disks.
We spent full days at our other favorite beaches. Le Pain de Sucre is nestled at the end of a small cove, facing the open sea, wild and undeveloped, with a private beach. But it also has transat service, a menu of cocktails and ice cream sundaes from sunrise to sunset, and also excellent meals. It has its own fishing boat, the “Saint Jean,” to serve up a wide variety of fish and shellfish of what they promote as “impeccable freshness.” We discovered that on Mondays they have no restaurant staff and only serve “snacks” such as the traditional planche de charcuterie with cheese, but we survived well until we could return later in the week for a “real” meal. The real meal was amazing, starting with homemade foie gras and a whole sea bream grilled and bathed in a lemon sauce. The beach there is stunningly beautiful with soft white sand; the water is shallow and relatively calm. The setting is magnificent. Again, it gets a 9.8 rating.
Le Matahari at Lumio is another great restaurant with a great beach. For more than four decades, the Matahari Lumio “has created indelible memories, woven amidst sandy shores, gazing upon the cerulean expanse of the sea, beneath the watchful embrace of Calvi’s bay and its grand citadel.” Situated on a small cove of the Plage de l’Arinella, the setting is tough to complain about. The Matahari is particularly elegant, although the beach tends to attract families with babies because the water is so shallow, calm and easy to manage with tiny tots.
By lunchtime, the babies are gone off to their naps along with their parents and the adults come out to dine and play. It’s always been a bit of an enigma for me that the two should be so harmonious. For dinner, they move the tables to the sand and create a romantic setting at the water’s edge.
Of note is the comportment of the people who vacation on the island. I observe and remark about it every trip there—that the visitors are obviously upper middle class, well behaved, well dressed, but not “bling-bling” or showy in any way. No one screams on the beaches, there are no radios playing, and everyone seems pretty chilled out. These are mostly families—not partying young people like in Ibiza. They are primarily French and Italian with a smattering of British and German. I only heard one other American voice all week long with the exception of our own friend. It’s a total pleasure to be among the tourists in Corsica.
In Ile Rousse at dinner Monday evening, directly on the beach with our bare feet in the sand at Le Grand Large, at sundown, we watched the Corsican Ferries glide in and out of the port—funny to see them from the other side of their excursion from Nice and other ports. Now while I’m watching them go in and out of the Old Port from my Niçois plage, I will be able to easily imagine them gliding to the dock and moored in Ile Rousse or Calvi.
Ile Rousse is a pretty town with a beach of fine white soft sand. The shops in town are not the usual tourist traps and offer beautiful artisanal gifts and mementos. There are a few classy clothing shops, in one of which I have always found fun things—Benoa. Conceived in Corsica and manufactured in Italy, Benoa has been creating this kind of ready-to-wear for over fifteen years. The collections are in plain, colorful, airy pieces that last over time. I can attest to this. This time I scored two dresses, a pair of pants, and a belt at 50% off. The things I’ve purchased here in the past have held up to the test of time, so I expect these will, too.
August 15th is a holiday in France—”Assomption” or Assumption. Yes, it’s a religious holiday, and even though France is highly secular, the observance goes back to Louis X111 (1610 – 1643). The son of Henri IV and Marie de Médicis, he was faced with challenges in producing an heir with his spouse Anne of Austria. The king turned to prayers directed at the Virgin Mary and communal processions were arranged on the 15th of August. Remarkably, in 1638, young Louis, who would later become Louis XIV, came into the world. In light of this event, Louis XIII proclaimed August 15th as a Marian festival, dedicated to honoring the Virgin Mary. And “c’est la vie en France.” As a result, fireworks loomed over Algajola that evening that we watched from our balcony not too far away.
One evening we drove up into the mountains to the hilltop town of Sant’Antonino for dinner at A Stalla. This is a treat of which we make a point of partaking. You drive into the mountains and up a steep and narrow road to a parking lot in front of a church and then enter the village after climbing up dozens of stone steps in the footsteps of Ugo Colonna, the renowned Roman nobleman who established the town. Several restaurants perched on high offer great Corsican dining and beautiful views.
If you take the time, you can stroll along the meandering narrow lanes to explore the 75 dwellings ingeniously hewn into the rock, utilizing indigenous stones. These interconnected abodes are intricately woven around the granite outcrop, creating a labyrinthine. If you are energetic enough to ascend to the village summit, you will find remnants of ancient fortifications and breathtaking vistas encompassing the entirety of Balagne from this vantage point. Dinner up there alone was enough for our old bones!
Wednesday we devoted most of the day to a boat trip to the Scandola Nature Reserve with lunch at Girolata. We had booked it with Promenades en Mer in advance, which has boats leaving from the port in Calvi. The reserve was established in 1975 and has been recognized by the United Nations as a Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 because of its beauty, rich biodiversity, and maquis shrubland. The beauty of the rock formations is overwhelming. We stopped once for a swim in a beautiful cove where Florent, our boat captain, threw cookies into the water to attract the fish, many of which are indigenous to the reserve and illegal to catch.
Then, we docked at Girolata, a town that is only reachable by sea and has just about 10 full-time inhabitants. Otherwise, it’s just us tourists taking advantage of its beauty. I knew from past experience that lunch sitting atop Girolata at Le Bon Espoir would be simply heaven. Florent was really accommodating as he started to announce the best restaurants in the tiny town, Le Bon Espoir being one of them—then I coaxed him into telling the others about other restaurants so they wouldn’t compete with us for a table there. I ran off the boat and up the walkway to the restaurant as quickly as I could and managed to secure the last table for three. Perfect!
For dinner, we met up with American friends who have been living in Calvi for many years. They wanted us to see their new apartment in the heart of Calvi and have an apéro before heading off to dinner at Casa Maiò in Calenzana. They have a two-bedroom apartment in a contemporary building with a balcony, affording beautiful views, and a garden they have planted with vegetables. They seem to be fully enjoying their lives on the island.
Casa Maiò’s outdoor patio amid lush vegetation is absolutely lovely, calm and relaxing. They serve traditional Corsican cuisine—lots of meat specialties cooked over a wood fire and serve special wines. If you go there, keep in mind that they only take cash for payment. This is not unusual for various Corsican establishments—we encountered it a few times, even some refusing to provide a receipt! I assume the Corsicans are holding on for dear life to their black market economy, even if France’s Fisc is working hard to force proper reporting!
Our last night was most unusual as we had been invited by one of my American friends living in Corsica to see an Italian movie with French subtitles, “Una Realizone,” in the open air on a big screen in the Parc Saleccia, with a copious home-made buffet dinner served before the film. She was one of the organizers. Attending the event was the co-screenwriter, Valentina Gaia, who we had the good fortune of meeting while we were dining at outdoor tables in the park. In the warm night air, it was a delightful way to end our week on the island.
During the week we learned that one can keep pesky bugs away easily by pouring a bit of coffee grounds onto a plate or other kind of receptacle and lighting it on fire! It easily burns and the fumes from the coffee repel not only mosquitoes, but also other insects such as wasps and bees. As it turns out, most bugs have a very strong sense of smell, and coffee grounds are very potent—even more potent once they are burned. The strong scent and “smoldering effect” fight them off and keeps them away. Just start with dry used or fresh coffee grounds, pour a bit onto your receptacle, and light it like you you would incense.
Try it…it works!
And that wasn’t the only thing we learned during our Corsican Holiday. Once again we learned that nothing quite compares to Corsica for the perfect beach vacation (except maybe the Riviera!) and the three of us decided the entire week was Perfect with a Capital P!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian at dinner on the sand in Ile Rousse, photo by Wendy Paton.
P.S. If you want to learn more about Corsica from a property perspective, be sure to see an article I wrote in August of 2020 after my last vacation there.
P.P.S. If you are considering a property purchase in or around Nice—or even Corsica—don’t do it lightly. Let us help you make the smartest decisions to ensure you make the best investment you can. We can also expertly advise you how best to create a profitable rental. Contact us to learn more.