By Veronique Lievre for Fathom | The Mediterranean island of Corsica has always been a special destination for me. Rich in history, culture, and natural beauty, it offers an amazing mix of activities for the off-the-beaten-path vacationer. It is nicknamed the isle of beauty for so many reasons: the crystal-clear sea, picturesque mountain villages, delicious local cuisine, and historic sites. I've been visiting every year since I was child, and I'm still discovering new scenery and things to do. And I am constantly amazed by its beauty.
Corsica is unique for its many different topographies, ranging from beaches to 120 snow-capped mountain peaks. The snow irrigates the many native plants that blanket the island and creates high-altitude lakes and pastures. The native brush is called "maquis," and you'll see and hear a lot about its smell and the beauty while you're here. The diverse geography means visitors can partake in a wide array of outdoor activities — skiing, swimming, sailing, fishing, and hiking — throughout the year. That the island is such a manageable size (it's only 114 miles long) means travelers can try a little bit of everything in very little time.
The Balagne region in the northwest is known as the garden of Corsica, an island within an island, for its agricultural heritage. Anchored by the coastal town of Calvi (supposedly the birthplace of Christopher Coumbus), it's a great starting point for the many things to eat, do, and see on this mighty island.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Take the Artisans' Route from Lumio to Belgodere, a scenic drive through many historic villages with spectacular sea views. Stop along the way in Aregno, San Antonino, Pigna, and Belgodere. I almost don't need to tell you to notice the beautiful blues of the Mediterranean in the distance and to smell the maquis, because how could you not? The mountains are dotted with historic villages, which all have their own gastronomic specialties: olive oils, cookies, charcuterie, and cheese. You can stop into many studios to to see artisans at work crafting ceramics, glassware, baskets, paintings, and knives.
WHAT TO DO
Make Your Village Rounds
Visit any one of the many terraced mountain villages and buy locally made olive oil, almond cookies, and essential oils. As you explore the winding streets and small shops, you'll quickly figure out what each village does best. If you look closely at the historic churches, you'll get a good sense of how architecture has changed over the centuries.
Take a Train
Micheline La Corse is a toy-like train that's been running since the 19th century from Calvi to Ile Rouse. It stops along the way at the beach of Bodry, where the water is like a dream.
The Citadel in Calvi is a 13th-century fortress that's well worth the uphill hike. Walk around the ramparts to take in incredible views of the sea and the mountains. In the winter, the mountains are blanketed in snow, and it's quite a site. There's a secret passageway that leads down to the harbor. Of course you're going to take it down.
Ready to swim? Mara Beach, just outside of Calvi, is my favorite place to lounge by the ocean. There's also a great coastal trail nearby.
Le Bon Café near the entrance of Ile Rouse is artisanal coffee making at its finest, from roasting to grinding to drinking. On display is a trove of cool coffee memorabilia like old-fashioned coffee grinders and bags for carting beans. Buy something to take home; the packaging is great.
Clos Culombu is a winery near the village of Lumio that just opened a brand new designer tasting room.
Nature, Nature, and More Nature
Scandola Nature Reserve is a UNESCO-certified national park on the western part of the island. Make your way to Girolata, a beautiful area with a Genoese fort and many great hiking trails. There are no roads leading there. You have to take the boat from Calvi, which only adds to the experience.
Set aside a day to spend in the forest of Bonifatu, 30 minutes from Calvi. Go swimming in the many natural pools by the river and wander the many hiking trails. A perfect day.
WHERE TO STAY
Since starting Boutique-Homes.com, I've been on the lookout for chic home and villa rentals all over the world. Here's a small sampling of how to stay the Corsican way.
For modern living, stay at Pietra Nova, situated on a natural rock formation and surrounded by olive and oak trees with great views of the bay of Calvi and the village of Lumio in the distance. The large outdoor dining/lounging area is a terrific spot for dinner (prepared from freshly purchased ingredients, of course). From 1500€ per week.
Experience typical Coriscan village life at La Torra, a two-bedroom rental in the mountain village Ville de Paraiso, 45 minutes from Calvi airport by car and within 10 kilometers of the beach. Guests can hear the bells of the village church ringing every morning like they've done for hundreds of years. 650€ per week.
If you're looking for a more rural atmosphere, Bergerie Above Calvi offers a secluded experience away from the coastal crowds. The property is almost like a mini-hotel with all the privacy of a rental set in an olive grove. The rooms are four bergeries — shepherds' cottages renovated into chic lodging for 2-4 people, each with private terraces and fully equipped kitchens. Daily breakfast is included. The Bergerie is nestled into a hillside, so guests can take in views of the bay and the village from the private pool. From 500€ per night.
La Caseta is a traditional two-story home in Balagne, with orange and lemon trees growing all around the expansive patio. When I stayed here, I made a lot of freshly squeezed juices.
A beautiful, terraced two-bedroom apartment near Ile Rousse overlooks the sea and the mountains and is decorated with contemporary art. It's very convenient for day trips into the mountain villages.
Groups traveling to Corsica should consider a 15th-century monastery near the village of Costa on the Artisan Road. The 17 rooms are simply furnished with only a desk and bed, which is ideal for writers who want a quiet place to work on a novel. The entire atmosphere is both spiritual and tranquil. From 700€ per night for the entire monastery. Imagine the group party!
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Fly: Ajaccio Napoleon Bonaparte Airport (AJA) in Ajaccio is the largest international airport in Corsica. It's serviced by airines like AIrFrance, Air Corsica, Easyjet, and Swissair, among others. The island is small, so it won't take you very long to get wherever you're going.
Renting a car is the best way to see the island. But be careful — the roads are very windy and don't always have guard rails. And the Corsicans are known to drive very fast.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit is May through June when the sea starts warming up and the maquis begins to bloom, before tourist season has officially started, and September, when the tourists have left and the weather is still beautiful.
On the beaches in Corsica, feel free to go topless or even nude. But make sure to put your shirt back on before going into the villages.
When driving, always pull over to let the Corsicans zoom past you if you want to do leisurely sightseeing.
If you can't finish a meal, never ask for a doggy bag. The locals will be insulted.
Tipping isn't customary, but it's always better to make it so the restaurant doesn't have to bring you change. The tip doesn't have to be a lot: If the total comes to 46€, leave a 50€ bill.
WHAT TO BRING BACK
A bottle of Immortelle essential oil purchased on the Artisan's Route in Lumio.
Artisan coffee from Le Bon Café in Ile Rousse.
Homemade cookies from Salvatori in Ile Rousse. The same family has been making them for generations.
A can of fish soup available in every grocery store. The packaging is blue with a picture of a fish. If you're having trouble finding it, just ask for the blue packaging. The locals will know!
Beauty products from Casanera, a new store in Calvi that makes their products from all local ingredients.
I always bring back a few immortelle flowers that I collect in the maquis. Their smell is very strong and lasts forever. I keep the flowers in a little tin box. Every time I open it, the fragrance transports me to Corsica.