When I arrive on the “Île de Beauté,” as the French call it, I always think of the advice offered to the late British writer Dorothy Carrington, whose “Granite Island” is widely considered to be the best book in English ever written about Corsica. “Get away from here before you’re completely bewitched and enslaved,” she recounts being told by a stranger in an Ajaccio café on a summer day in 1948 (to no avail, as it turned out, as she moved to the island in 1954 and lived there until her death, in 2002).
Having traveled all of the Mediterranean countries, I’d say Corsica is the most miraculously unspoiled place anywhere around this storied littoral.
I know why Carrington fell so hard for Corsica. Its beaches are magnificent, and the island — which is 114 miles long and 52 miles wide — has an astonishing variety of landscapes and ecosystems. The thick pine forests in parts of the interior are almost alpine, while much of its coastline is subtropical. The island’s food and wines are superb, and each of the towns has an intriguingly different personality.
Corsicans love their island so fiercely that they’d never allow a big chunk of it to be bought up and transformed into a resort zone like the Costa Smeralda in neighboring Sardinia, which was developed by the Aga Khan in the 1960s. Nor would they permit its pristine white-sand beaches and craggy coves to be snapped up by big hotel chains or off-island developers. An important aspect of the island’s still-simmering independence movement — Corsica has been governed by France only since 1768 — has been an aggressive desire to protect the island from the ravages of mass tourism.
Now a young generation of worldly Corsican hoteliers is striving to find an equilibrium between the imperative to protect the island and the need to provide more jobs for its young people by creating new hotels in historic settings and renovating existing properties to appeal to the tastes of modern travelers.
I recently undertook a 10-day road trip from Cap Corse in the north to Bonifacio in the south via Ajaccio, the charming city on the island’s west coast that is best known as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Arriving on the island just before dusk late on a hot summer Sunday, I was overwhelmed by the lemony-resinous-peppery scent of the maquis — the dense green cover of oak, juniper, heather, thorn and wild herbs, including nepeta, the wild mint that is a signature of Corsican cooking.
Even after visiting Corsica numerous times, I’d never spent any time in the city of Bastia, as it had never had a hotel good enough to tempt me to linger. Now with the recent opening of the 26-room Hotel des Gouverneurs in a 14th-century stone house on the edge of the citadel, I had hopes of a convenient base from which to explore. Things got off to a complicated start, however, since the tiny lanes made it impossible for a taxi to reach the front door. Instead, I was left in a small square around the corner from the hotel and required to fend for myself with my luggage.
On arrival, the views of the Mediterranean from the lounge and bar were spectacular, and the front desk staff were welcoming and efficient. The best feature of my Suite, with its contemporary Roche Bobois furniture, was the view of the sea and the Vieux Port. The bath was well-lit but came with a single vanity and a stall shower (other suites here have tubs, so you may wish to request one when booking).
After visiting the Oratoire de la Confrérie de Sainte-Croix to see its 16th-century wooden statue of Christ des Miracles, the protector of fishermen, which is borne in a devotional procession every May 3, I descended through the steep Jardin Romieu just as the city’s starlings began to streak through the sky before sundown.
Since the Hotel des Gouverneurs serves only breakfast and a limited room-service menu, I decided on an early dinner at Chez Huguette, a friendly and deservedly popular seafood restaurant with a seaside terrace on the Vieux Port. After some excellent oysters from the Étang de Diane, a lagoon on the island’s eastern coast that has been producing oysters since the days of the Romans, I opted for a just-landed sea bass baked in a crust of sea salt. After dinner, I headed to the bar for a nightcap of P&M Corsican whiskey, which is made with spring water from the St. Georges spring near Ajaccio and aged in 200-year-old oak wine barrels.
Whether it was the whiskey or the climb back up the hill, I slept very soundly at the Hotel des Gouverneurs. In the morning, my only regret was that its small spa and indoor pool were out of service. That said, this friendly and attractive place is not a true luxury property but rather a well-run and nicely designed hotel from which to explore Bastia.
Location in the intimate citadel of Bastia; superb views from rooms and public spaces; the helpful young staff.
The 4 p.m. check-in time is both inconvenient and ungenerous. Similarly, the fact that additional tea bags and coffee capsules are available for use at an extra fee seemed cheeseparing.
Avoid arriving at this property in a rental car, since, due to its location inside the citadel, there is no parking.
Following breakfast on the terrace, during which it was so clear I could see Italy on the horizon, I picked up my rental car near the ferry dock — Corsica is well-served by ferries from Marseille, Nice and several Italian cities — and headed north to Cap Corse. Once I’d left the suburbs of Bastia, route D80 became a huge pleasure to drive on a summer day, since it hugs the coastline and offers glorious views. The farther north you go, the more rural the peninsula becomes. Off in the distance I glimpsed not only stone watchtowers built by the Pisans and Genovese but also the occasional abandoned farm. This part of the island lost much of its population due to emigration to Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico (where, during the 18th and 19th centuries, Corsicans ran the island’s now largely vanished coffee industry). This explains the presence in many villages of elegant colonial-style houses known as “maisons d’Américains,” which were built by Corsicans returning home having made a fortune in the New World. My first destination, the beautiful village of Rogliano, is especially well-known for these houses.
After an excellent lunch of grilled langouste at Vela d’Oro on the port in the seaside town of Macinaggio, I arrived at the 29-room Misincu hotel in Cagnano in time for a lazy afternoon. Previously known as the Hôtel le Caribou and a favorite address for French celebrities like film stars Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot in the 1970s, the property reopened late last summer after a renovation that essentially transformed it into a new property.
The hotel is the work of hoteliers Sylvain Giudicelli and Reza Zographos, and it is named for the long white-sand beach above which it is located. “Our guiding idea for the hotel was simplicity,” Giudicelli told me, adding, “so we didn’t want any of the flashiness of southern Corsica or places like Saint-Tropez.” This low-key sensibility was immediately apparent, and the young international staff were exceptionally welcoming and friendly. (When I realized that I’d left my phone in my car, the valet delivered it to my room in less than five minutes and waved away a tip.) Public areas at Misincu are cool and sleek, from the reception with its floor of white Sardinian marble to the rattan lampshades, raw wood furniture and vanilla-colored canvas upholstery found throughout the property.
Though I’d booked a Junior Suite, I was upgraded to a Maquis Mascaracce Suite, which proved to be a small cottage with a plunge pool and a private terrace shaded by a plane tree. It came with the same bohemian beach-shack décor found throughout the property, a look that recalls the Greek islands and was created by interior designer Olympe Zographos. The cottage also came with a large lounge with a beamed ceiling, plus a spacious bath with two matte-white porcelain vanities and an oversize stall shower with a monsoon showerhead.
Both of the hotel’s two restaurants are excellent. I had a barefoot lunch of vitello tonnato (cold veal with caperberries in creamy tuna sauce), and sautéed baby squid with red peppers at A Spartera, the beach restaurant, and a pleasant dinner at Tra di Noi, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant, which affords stunning views across the sea to the island of Elba. Amenities include a beautiful turquoise tile-lined swimming pool and a well-equipped spa. The hotel also organizes a variety of activities, including hiking, scuba diving, horseback riding and deep-sea fishing.
The Miniscu is an exceptionally pleasant property from which to explore northern Corsica, or a place to just put your feet up and do nothing at all. When the time came, I was very sorry to leave, following a memorably delicious breakfast of Corsican charcuterie and an omelet filled with brocciu (fresh ewe’s milk cheese) and nepeta.
The beautiful décor that references the Aegean and the Balearic islands; the breakfast omelet filled with brocciu (soft ewe’s milk cheese), wild mint and country ham is a don’t-miss dish.
Service in the gastronomic restaurant was slow and imprecise.
The shoreline of the beach is often covered with a carpet of seaweed, a common phenomenon on Cap Corse. The hotel leaves it in place because it’s part of the local ecosystem; it’s soft to walk on and has no smell.
After an hour on the highways around Bastia, I reached the T20, which crosses the interior of Corsica on a diagonal from Bastia to Ajaccio. Well-maintained and -signed, it’s a great road for anyone who loves to drive, because it zigs and zags just enough to keep the route interesting and traverses some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery in Europe. The average driving time between the two cities is three hours, but it’s best to allow a day for this trip so that you can stop in Corte, the central town that was the island’s first capital after the island was liberated from Genovese rule by the Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli in 1755. Paoli drafted the country’s constitution, proclaimed universal suffrage for men and women over 25 — this was rolled back for women when the French took over — and founded the island’s first university. Subsequently, he was forced into exile and died in London.
All this explains why Corte remains a bastion of Corsican pride and nationalist sentiment. The citadel, built by the viceroy of Aragon in 1419, today houses the fascinating Musée de la Corse, a visit to which greatly aids an understanding of the island’s history.
Arriving in Ajaccio late in the afternoon, I was instantly charmed by the pink 28-room Hôtel Les Mouettes, housed within a 19th-century villa in a park at the edge of the Gulf of Ajaccio. It seemed well-tended and relaxed, which is exactly what I was hoping for after disappointing hotel experiences in Ajaccio in the past. My Privilege Room came with sea views through French doors that led to a private terrace with a table, chairs and two loungers. The bedroom was decorated with framed lithographs of seashells and provided a large bed with a white cotton coverlet and armchairs with reading lamps. The bath came with a single white porcelain vanity, a large combination tub and shower, piles of fluffy white cotton towels, a heated towel rack and excellent lighting.
Exploring the property further, I found a rooftop sauna next to the herb garden that supplies the hotel restaurant, a large saltwater pool shaded by stately palm trees and a small, private sandy beach for those who prefer swimming in the sea.
When I came downstairs for dinner, I decided to have an aperitif — a glass of golden Corsican Muscat wine, since the island produces some of the best in the world — before moving to my table on the terrace. I was enjoying the sunset when a dapper young man in a blazer stopped by my table to welcome me to the hotel. General manager Jean-Baptiste Pieri had previously worked as a banker in New York City before returning home to join the family hotel business, which owns the Hôtel Castel Brando in Cap Corse. Learning that the Hôtel Les Mouettes was for sale, he bought the property in 2006 and has been assiduously restoring and upgrading it ever since. “Ajaccio is a fascinating city, but it needed a hotel that worked for luxury travelers,” he explained. “Corsica is at a crossroads right now, and I’m very optimistic for our future. Young Corsicans who’ve been educated in France and overseas are choosing to come home and invest here, which is boosting the local economy and creating some excellent new hotels and restaurants.”
The next day, since the hotel offers complimentary bicycles to guests, I peddled into Ajaccio to visit the city’s wonderful market, revisit the superb Musée Fresch, have lunch and do some shopping. The Hôtel Les Mouettes provides the perfect base from which to visit Ajaccio, just as I had hoped.
The traditional Vieille France atmosphere; the great pool and attractive rooms; a pervasive atmosphere of genuine hospitality.
The menu in the hotel restaurant should be less complicated and feature traditional Corsican dishes.
There’s complimentary on-site parking, and the hotel lends bicycles to guests on which to explore Ajaccio.
Given the exasperating inconvenience of the 4 p.m. check-in time now practiced by so many hotels, I drove south to Bonifacio, planning to spend the day in the town before arriving at the U Capu Biancu hotel later in the day. I got off to an early start so as to secure a place in one of the municipal parking lots, and then walked up the steep staircase to the formidable Bastion de l’Etendard, the walled citadel, with its views over the town’s port and also, on clear days, of Sardinia.
Despite the popularity of Bonifacio, this striking little place has managed to preserve an appealing atmosphere of unselfconscious authenticity. It was a pleasure to wander its shady lanes, to shop for locally made coral jewelry and to visit the cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure before returning to the port for a lunch of Corsican charcuterie and spaghetti with baby clams at Le Voilier.
Reached via a long, winding, mostly unpaved road through the maquis, the 41-room U Capu Biancu (The White Cape) was my next stop. Friends in Rome have been recommending the property for years, and knowing that it was independently owned and tucked away on a wooded estate overlooking a beautiful bay, I decided to take their advice. I had booked a Superior Room for two nights but had the pleasant surprise of being upgraded to a Sea View Deluxe Suite with a private terrace and a Jacuzzi.
Open from April to October, this low-slung stone property has an appealingly rustic look and casual atmosphere created by terra-cotta tile floors, beamed ceilings, wicker lighting fixtures and driftwood-finished accessories and furniture. The hotel’s public rooms, including the restaurant and bar, spill onto large terraces with views of the sea and the infinity pool. Once you arrive at the property, you’re unlikely to leave again until you check out. Indeed, I could very happily have spent an entire day on my private terrace were it not for the fact that U Capu Biancu has two fine private beaches and an excellent spa. At the latter, I had an invigorating massage using Corsican clementine and myrtle essential oils. Pilates and yoga are also available; other activities include kitesurfing, scuba diving and catamaran expeditions.
Although its décor seemed a little dated, my suite was exceptionally comfortable. Its spacious lounge came with a cotton-upholstered sofa and a writing desk, while the bedroom provided a copper tub set in a bay-window alcove and a spacious bath with double vanities and a walk-in monsoon shower.
The hotel’s two restaurants are excellent. For lunch at La Paillote I enjoyed a lobster salad with pine nuts, grilled ham and cherry tomatoes, followed by a hazelnut tiramisu, while for dinner I indulged in a rosemary-grilled langouste in the main restaurant. The breakfast buffet is generous and includes a variety of Corsican specialties, including local cheeses, charcuterie, jams and honey.
Service at U Capu Biancu is earnest and friendly, if not always completely polished. But overall, this is a memorably peaceful and private seaside hotel in a magnificent setting, which makes it an ideal place to far niente, “do nothing,” as the Italians say.
The gorgeous setting; the excellent spa.
Service in the restaurant can be careless; the unreliable internet connectivity.
Since housekeeping is understaffed (as it is at so many hotels nowadays), the inconvenient 4 p.m. check-in time is hard to avoid.
If Corsica has a Saint-Tropez-style resort it would be Porto-Vecchio, where megayachts come to dock in the marina. The town also has several of the showier and more extravagant hotels in Corsica, notably 31-room Casadelmar, which inspired a whole new generation of upscale Corsican boutique hotels when it opened in 2004.
Located in a lushly landscaped park of olive, fig and palm trees overlooking the Gulf of Porto-Vecchio, the hotel surprises with its sleek lines and Nordic-style wood-plank walls, now weathered gray. It’s an unexpected look for a Mediterranean island, but somehow French architect Jean-François Bodin’s design succeeds in the bright southern sunshine. Bodin also designed much of the hotel’s furniture.
The extremely comfortable lodgings are done in an unexpected Zen-like idiom, with raw oak furniture, beige upholstery and sisal-edged rugs atop mushroom-colored tile floors. Splashes of color — sky blue, tomato red, aqua — enliven these interiors, which also come with antique sepia-tone photographs and daybeds piled high with pillows.
The hotel has an infinity pool and a pontoon from which you can swim out into the bay, but beachgoers will want to take the launch over to sister property La Plage Casadelmar for a day on the sand. Other facilities include a Michelin two-star restaurant, where Italian chef Fabio Bragagnolo presents imaginative and refined modern Mediterranean dishes; a library-lounge bar (try the locally distilled Mavela eau-de-vie); and an ESPA spa with four treatment rooms.
In contrast to the easygoing crowd at U Capu Biancu, the fashion-conscious guests at Casadelmar arrive with large suitcases and seem to change their clothing often. They tend to hail from cities like Moscow and Berlin, although the hotel is also popular with Italians.
The young international staff at Casadelmar are warm and charming, which happily dilutes the self-consciousness of the clientele. Aside from vertiginous room rates, this is a pleasant property that may well appeal to a minority of Hideaway Report members.
Stylishly decorated rooms and distinguished two-star restaurant.
Head-spinning room rates and a fashion-forward, rather self-conscious atmosphere.
The azure waters of the Plage de Santa Giulia, one of the best beaches in Corsica, are less than a five-minute drive from the hotel; Junior Suites 201, 204 and 207 have large private terraces and direct access to a path leading to the pool.