My eyes were closed. A hum of happy chatter, youthful squeals, clinking of plates and glasses, the cyclical shove of seawater on to shore and beach balls patted back and forth. I sat up and squinted in the bright sunshine, at the limpid turquoise water that was shallow enough to paddle in for at least 20m, the cool, green pine forest that hugged snack bars and a couple of pricy restaurants, then to the stocky Genoese watchtower on an island to my right – a reminder that this Mediterranean island has a long, knotty history.
Corsica has been part of the kingdom of Genoa, an Anglo-Corsican kingdom (Nelson lost his eye here), a republic and occupied by fascist Italy. These days a department of France with a proudly distinct identity, the island pushing for greater autonomy from the mainland.
This beach, Pinarello, is named Pinareddu in the Corsican (Corsu) dialect that has its roots in Tuscany. As I drove around Corse-du-Sud, the dual road signage – Bonifacio/Bunifaziu, Porto Vecchio/Portivechju, Ajaccio/Aiacciu – was shuffled with pizzeria after pizzeria. The Corsican flag, the “bandera testa Mora” (Moor’s head flag), shares striking similarities with that of its Italian neighbour, Sardinia.
While less than half of the population of Corsica speaks Corsu, there was outrage among pro-independence nationalists this year when it was banned from use in public office. Unesco has deemed Corsu in danger of becoming extinct.
Nationalists are also strongly opposed to the construction of second homes for non-natives, although you wouldn’t know it on the roads that slither down the green hills to the glitzy beaches clustered around the town of Porto Vecchio, such as Pinarello, Palombaggia and Santa Giulia. Luxury villas that rent for tens of thousands of euros per week are plugged into the hills, while cement mixers stand sentry outside padlocked gates.
But outside this honeypot of some of the Med’s most spectacular beaches, tourist development tends towards low-key campsites, independent guesthouses and small hotels.
There are few chain resorts or high-rises and not a laminated English menu in sight. If you want to get away from the mainstream, look no further. This doesn’t, however, mean that it’s cheap. Supermarket prices are generally only slightly cheaper than in the UK, although hotel rates have fallen slightly in the past year, from a September average of €176 per night to €170 (£145) according to industry data analyst OTA Insight.
Tourism has also declined in the past year, as many French holidaymakers looked to cheaper destinations. The local trade union reports that hoteliers saw a drop in occupancy rates between 27 and 55 per cent in May.
With around three million tourist arrivals each year – half as many as neighbouring Sardinia – and less than a fifth of Mallorca’s annual visitors, you won’t battle crowds on Corsica. I found the coastal T10 road from Bastia to Bonifacio blissfully quiet in August, despite the multitude of glorious beach towns that filter out from it. It was also remarkably green even though the high temperatures were prolonged this summer.
Arrivals have increased in some of the island’s smaller ports this year, such as Propriano, perhaps suggesting a preference for smaller, better-value destinations.
For me, this meant forgoing the luxuries of crisp hotel sheets, buffet breakfasts and room service. At Eurocamp Sole di Sari near the town of Solenzara, the “eco-friendly park” of around 140 holiday homes is a good-value base where you can keep costs down by self-catering (who doesn’t love a trip to a French supermarket?) or popping into the small restaurant for reasonably-priced wood-fired pizzas and local charcuterie.
Most of the cars by the timber-clad cabins displayed Corsican Ferries window stickers, their French owners chatting on verandas while meals were prepared.
Though compact, the cabins are well spaced out in the foothills of the Massif de Bavella, just a five-minute drive from the Côte des Nacres (Coast of Pearls). Beyond the pines, holm oak, eucalyptus and pink oleander rise the saw-toothed peaks that are the first to receive the morning sun.
While perfect beaches proved magnetic – with a cluster of cyan coves, Canella, Favone, Tarco and Fautea all within 20 minutes’ drive along the T10 – the omnipresent mountains soon won me over. From my cabin, I wandered down past the park’s timber-decked pools and scampering lizards towards a canyon where the river Solenzara pooled emerald green and mirror still for deliciously refreshing swims among scarlet darter dragonflies and circling red kites.
Fifteen minutes’ drive up into the mountains, the river was more active. There are several popular swimming gorges where I joined locals and holidaymakers lounging on the smooth granite boulders and diving into dark pools below, wallowing in waterfalls and whirlpools and paddling in the clear pools.
Adventure companies pop up along the valley, offering rope courses, kayaking and Via Ferrata climbing routes, or you can set off along hiking trails into the fragrant maquis to find out-of-the-way swimming spots and waterfalls at Polischellu and Purcaraccia.
I took the easier option, driving along hairpin bends deeper into the pine-forested mountains to glimpse the 1,222m Col de Bavella and pretty stone village of Zonza. However, a spectacular electrical storm the previous night had thrown trees and debris onto the road, so after some clammy-palmed manoeuvering I turned around and headed back down.
I found the perfect refuge at the hillside Auberge Restaurant L’Alba, with a path down to a sandy river beach and wild boar roaming the maquis. Every table was full, the service welcoming and the menu groaning with bounteous salads, Corsican burgers oozing with local sheep’s cheese and pancetta, cheese-stuffed aubergines, wood-fired lamb shanks and John Dory.
The bill came to less than £20 per head and, after a long and languorous lunch in the warm afternoon air, there was only one thing to do – head back down to the river to cool off in the water.
The writer flew with easyJet from Gatwick to Bastia. Ferries operate from Nice and Toulon to four ports on the island.
Eurocamp offers a week’s rental of a two-bedroom holiday home, sleeping six, at Sole di Sari from £587. It is offering up to 20 per cent off holidays for next summer booked before the end of October, eurocamp.co.uk/special-offers/early-booking-offer .
Auberge Restaurant l’Alba