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.