En Corse, Of Course
All photos by Adrian Leeds and Erica Simone
Every year sometime during the last half of summer, I take a week-long lizard-like beach vacation with a friend I met in Mikonos in 1979 while vacationing on the Greek island – Christa Kollig. She was with her then-husband and I was with my future-husband in the same hotel and on the same beaches (Paridise and Super Paradise). We’ve been reliving our beach vacation ever since then as annually as possible and are already planning our 40th anniversary next summer. While floating on the clear aqua water this past week in Corsica, we decided to meet next year in Mikonos, just for the sentimentality of it, but not because we prefer it to Corsica. I have never been back myself, so it’s 40 years overdue.
Our favorite sandy spot of all remains Corsica. Every now and then we’ll try out another beach enclave and always come back to the French island as nothing seems to compare, no matter how hard we try. Last year we vacationed in Sardinia and the year before, Majorca. We’ve been to Santorini, other Greek islands and Ibiza. Nope, none of these islands could top our Corsican adventures, so we came back to Corsica this summer and we fit right in like donning an old glove.
Other friends have joined us along the way on the adventure of beach-hopping, so it’s become more of a group effort than just the two of us. This year, my daughter and her friend joined us, making for a group of six women, our first time with such a large hen party. We all met within about two hours, landing at the Calvi airport from various originations, then rented a big car – a Renault Kangoo – so that we could all fit in comfortably, along with our beach equipment. The equipment is something we buy after arrival at a local vender: floating “noodles,” a folding chair or two, rafts, etc.
“What makes Corsica so great,” you ask?
We did a lot of talking about that as we “worked” (I use this term loosely) our way through our week of R and R on the beaches of the politically volatile French island that has an active organization promoting autonomy, which is code for “independence.” We all pretty much agree on some of the primary reasons, but there are nuances we each enjoy differently.
It wouldn’t be out-of-the-ordinary for you to know very little about the place. While it is one of the 18 regions of France, it is very much an island, a “collectivité territoriale” by law, and has more autonomy than most other regions. It’s made up of two departments (Haute-Corse and Corse-du-Sud) and can claim Napoleon Bonaparte as its national, as he was born in 1769 in the town of Ajaccio, now the capital. Still, the island doesn’t do much of anything to promote tourism and seems more to shy away from it than any other island of such caliber. This might be one reason I like it so much.
The people who frequent Corsica don’t know about it from billboards, or magazine ads, or traditional media, but from articles such as this that divulge the secrets about the little-known haven and from first-hand experiences of the people themselves who have come to know it like we have. In fact, this is way up at the top of my personal list – that the tourists who adore it like we do are of a certain type. They are mostly French or Italian, some German but not too many, they are tan, but not too burnt or leathery, moderately well-heeled, well-dressed, but not showy or glitzy in anyway, well behaved and not interested in rowdy, drunken vacations. There are lots of families and lots of kids, but they are generally well-disciplined and just having a good time. The beaches do not have radios blaring, paddle-ballers one must dodge with their pop-pop-pops of the ball or too many older topless women who shouldn’t be (although there was one woman with manufactured mammaries that stood to attention in spite of being prone on the chaise longue that we couldn’t help but notice, nor could anyone else!). We feel right at home among this crowd, even though we almost never heard American accents when we heard someone speaking English. Americans just haven’t caught on yet to Corsica.
Most of the beaches are equipped with “transats” (chaise longues) with parasols for hire, seriously excellent restaurants, not too expensive, and clean bathrooms. Most have no hotels or other establishments to spoil the landscape. The beaches all differ, however. One can immerse oneself in pure white fine sand, or perch on rocks, and there is everything in between from coarse sand to “galets” (like in Nice, so be sure to bring your water shoes). Some beaches are expansive and others are tiny coves. Access can be easy or more challenging. Parking is almost always free. You get to choose for yourself and there’s plenty of choice.
After trying every part of the island over the years, the spot we like most is Algajola, a small village along the northern coast between the towns of Calvi and Ile Rousse. It’s a beautiful ancient village, with a bevy of good restaurants, a beautiful long beach of coarse sand (the kind that doesn’t stick to everything) equipped with all the amenities and it’s easy access getting in and out of the village by car (as well as by the little local train that runs between the seaside enclaves). This beach is one at the top of our list for having everything, including warm clear shallow calm blue water on which one can float endlessly. (I once fell asleep on a raft there for two hours!)
The proximity to the two towns makes it perfect as it’s easy to travel in either direction for evening outings or beaches along the way and beyond, even heading up into the mountain for dinner in one of the “villages perchés,” such as the beautiful medieval Sant’ Antonino or Pigna. The vistas are drop dead magnificent no matter where you drive – something Sardinia doesn’t offer because Corsica is more mountainous, lush and dramatic in its landscape than the Italian island.
The cities in Corsica are quite charming, well-kept and landscaped. What’s in-between is even more lovely – beautiful villas and tiny enclaves. In Sardinia we found the old towns quaint and charming, but what was in-between a lot less so…run-down or new and ugly. Majorca was over-developed and commercial and lacked that “je ne sais quoi” of the French island.
We had the good fortune a long time ago of having discovered a beautiful three-bedroom two-bath duplex apartment in Algajola overlooking the water with air-conditioning, a large covered terrace with a view on the water and a Jacuzzi owned by a lovely Corsican woman named Anne Marie – “L’Ecrin.” It’s a five-minute walk to the village and the beach making it doubly easy to be lazy…our ultimate goal for the week. While the apartment has its few foibles, it’s pretty perfect and accommodated six of us last week quite easily and comfortably. Mostly, we love its large living/dining/kitchen with a large picture window/sliding doors that lead to an expansive terrace and the beautiful views.
Things are not very expensive on Corsica. Rental of the transats with parasols costs about 10€ to 15€ each for the entire day on any one of the better beaches, but, you must reserve in advance during high season. We tried to reserve at least one day before, but even that was too late at certain popular beaches. Some restaurants offer the transats for free if you stay for lunch – a good deal.
Exceptional meals are as little as 25€ to 35€ with wine and coffee. Plan on having some of the most amazing meals seaside you can imagine. The blend of French and Italian cuisine is perfected here, coupled with some of the finest wines, cheeses and “charcuterie.” The Corsicans were not fishermen…but were primarily farmers until tourism kicked in, about the 1960s. Before that, the waters were dangerous in light of invasions. The lighthouses were meant more for warnings so the coastal inhabitants could flee to the hills if threatened. Fisherman abound now and the local fish and shellfish are worth their weight in golden olive oil, also a major product of the island. We indulged in lots of it, from shrimp to calamari and octopus, sea bream and langoustines.
In the hills and mountains the Corsicans raise live stock such as cattle, sheep, goats and big boar-like pigs which make for some of the world’s best “charcuterie.” It’s on every menu and can be purchased just about anywhere on the island. The cheeses are as particular, “subtle and fierce, firm and chalky and soft as Camembert, tasting of the herbs and pine needles nibbled into milk.” (butterfield.com/) The bottom line is that one can dine very well – very well indeed. We all found Corsican cuisine to far surpass the quality of Sardinian, Majorcan or Greek fare. And that wasn’t all. We washed down every meal with plenty of amazing pale-colored rosé wines with which Corsica is abundant and very well known.
As tourists, we don’t clash with the local political scene, fortunately. Interestingly enough, the word “vendetta”” has a strong association with Corsica. Vendetta (n.) is…”a private war in which a kinsman wreaks vengeance on the slayer of a relative,” 1846, from Italian vendetta “a feud, blood feud,” from Latin vindicta ‘vengeance, revenge.’ Especially associated with Corsica.” The history is long and sordid, particularly during the early 1800s when there were thousands of murders perpetrated as a result of the feud between the Arcadians and the Italians. The feud is still going on in the island, signs of which can be seen in random places, but we don’t feel it one bit while enjoying the sun and surf.
I’ve tested out just about every side of the island, having spent vacations in the Ajaccio, Bastia and Porto-Vecchio/Bonifacio areas. Some tourists seriously love the Porto-Vecchio/Bonifacio area because these two cities are really beautiful and there is one magnificent beach of significance between them – Plage de Palombaggia – but that’s just one beach. In the north, there are at least a half-dozen we love. Our requirements, however, have to do with amenities coupled with beauty. If there are no transats or no good restaurant, we don’t even consider it for the list.
This year, one of us came well equipped with slings we jokingly called “our diapers” – a triangular-shaped netting that fit onto our “noodles” to create a chair so that we could sit in the slings and float endlessly in the water. We “girls” giggled every time we plopped on, floated out to sea holding on to one another so that we could talk and…laugh a lot…which we did…a lot. Floating is my favorite past-time. The water is warm and at the beaches we like most are relatively calm and clear. We found ourselves staying so long that our fingers and toes became wrinkled like prunes. We didn’t care and compared them to see whose were the most prune-like (mine won!).
Shopping is a plus, thanks to the high quality level of the tourists, making the quality of the shopping just as classy. We often leave the island with a suitcase full of new clothing. Everyone outdid me this trip as I came home empty-handed – a first. There is a chain of stores called “Benoa” with boutiques in Saint-Florent, Ile-Rousse, Calvi, Ajaccio and Porto-Vecchio. We managed to visit at least three of them and the others found great fashions and great bargains (I had my fill a few years back).
This year we managed to have six good solid sunny days on the beaches from morning to night, except for a half-day two of our group took the boat tour from Calvi to the Scandola Nature Reserve, a Natural World Heritage Site and the tiny seaside town of Girolata that boasts of only 10 permanent residents. I had taken the trip a couple times before and therefore didn’t want to waste one beach day, but it shouldn’t be missed by those who haven’t enjoyed it before (colombo-line.com).
We didn’t find things overly crowded this “séjour” in Corsica and we wondered if it was timing, since we chose to take our vacation at the end of July. Once August hits, we can assume it would get more crowded. Since most people take their vacations Saturday-to-Saturday as we did, the line to the Europcar airport desk to check-in Saturday afternoon was a mile long and well over an hour wait. Expect that if you do the same, but perhaps it was because Europcar offered the best deals as the other rental car companies weren’t as busy. Our Renault Kangoo turned out to be the perfect vehicle – it was smooth, quiet, comfortable and easy to maneuver in spite of its size.
Our experience with Corsican rental car companies is to take nothing for granted and be vigilant to check for any damages to the car when you pick it up for which you don’t want to be blamed later. And be sure to clean the car thoroughly of sand before returning it or else you may incur a big fine! We kept a brush and dustpan in the car to dust off our sandy feet before getting in after the beach, then washed and vacuumed the car before returning it. The good-natured older Corsican gentleman who checked us both out and then in had a good laugh at seeing our brush and dustpan on the floor of the car.
“Oh la la, mesdames. Elle est propre! Hahaha…c’est un cadeau?” he wanted to know when he pulled out the brush and dustpan.
“Bien sûr, monsieur!” And off we went to the airport with our luggage dragging behind us, straw hats on our heads to protect us from the intense sun and heat.
Au revoir, Corsica. Boo hoo hoo. A la prochaine fois…
A few notes for your information…
Our Favorite Beaches:
Plage de Sainte-Restitude
Our Choice Restaurants (in alpha order):
A Stalla: Worth a trip up to Sant’ Antonino will take your breath away.
La Crique: Beautiful, but rocky “beach,” but one of the best meals you may have.
Le Beau Rivage: https://www.hotel-beau-rivage.com Hotel and restaurant, at the water’s edge, with great transats and delicious food.
Le Chariot: A staple in Algajola, in the middle of town, bustling all hours of the day and night; a place to hang out if that’s what you want to do!
Le Marinella: Here’s where you dine directly on the fine white sand of Ile Rousse. The food isn’t “haute gamme,” but the atmosphere can’t be topped.
Le Matahari: http://www.lematahari.com Totally elegant with white table cloths and beautiful decor, great cuisine; seaside at one of the most beautiful intimate coves of Lumio.
Le Pain de Sucre: Sits high above the sand for fabulous views of this beautiful beach. A little pricier than most, but well worth it.
Le Nautic: A good choice for Moules Marinière on the port at Calvi.
U Castellu: Also a B&B tucked into the back of old town near the Château of Algajola, with fabulous food, but a sombre ambience.
One last word of advice: book your trip to Corsica early in the year. If you don’t get your flights by February, the air fares will become less affordable. You can take the ferry from Nice, but even that books up way in advance. And rental cars are at a premium, so commit to the trip at least six months in advance. I promise you won’t be sorry…of Corse.
A la prochaine…
Editor of Parler Nice
Adrian Leeds Group