Travel

Family travel: Diving into Corsica

A mountainous Mediterranean island with a French-Italian identity, Corsica offers the perfect blend of old towns and stunning beaches. And with new direct flights, it makes for an easy-access family break.Monday, 14 January 2019

By Maria Pieri
Kayaking, Santa Giulia Beach.

"Woooooooo!" yells the lean young man, full of bravado as he jumps clear of the rocks and into the water, feet first, causing an almighty splash, before emerging without a scratch — his educated gamble that the water would be deep enough having paid off.

The freshwater pool is one of a number scooped out from huge granite boulders streaked with different shades of grey and green lining the riverbanks.

The young man and his group of friends had only moments earlier scrabbled across the rocks, surveying the landscape for the next big leap. Spotting the pool to our left, he'd asked, in a thick French accent, "Is it deep?" To be honest, it was hard to tell — the light refracting off the stones is playing havoc with my depth perception. But, my French not being up to explaining all this, all I could do was shrug. A quick dive with a snorkel had satisfied him, though, and the jump, was made. But he's not alone. To our right, other leaps of faith are being made. Perched high above Corsica's Piscines Naturelles de Cavu — created where a river flows through a canyon — we've got the best seat in the house.

"Dad, are you going to jump?" asks my son, Luca (9). "We'd prefer if he didn't," I reply, happy to be labelled the kill-joy on this occasion.

Corsica — a French island with a very Italian feel — is one of the most mountainous places in the Med. Ribboned with rivers and strings of lakes, it has an impressive arsenal of summer activities, most family-friendly; some — like the rock pool leaping — more adrenalin-charged than others. It's also known as Napoleon's birthplace: the capital, Ajaccio, in the west of the island welcomed France's legendary military man to the world in 1769, and the town is clearly proud of its most famous former resident. You can still visit the house where he was born (now the National Museum of the Bonaparte Residence in Corsica), or the caves where he played; and statues of Napoleon line streets and plazas named in his honour.

We're staying further south, in Pinarello, by the coast. With its stretches of boulder-strewn, sandy beaches, it's pretty idyllic. Just not today. The coast is toiling under a heatwave that has temperatures hitting 30C before breakfast, sending us heading into the hinterland to the Piscines Naturelles de Cavu, a 30-minute drive along one of the island's shady forest paths, through the pretty village of Taglio Rosso.

Our guide had told us to "just keep driving" — and we soon realise why; the sweltering heat means a village tour is out of the question. "And don't stop at the first pool," he'd also instructed. "There are three — continue until the path ends, pass the waterfall, then park and cross the bridge on foot. From there, you'll find one of the quietest spots."

All good advice. Under the shade of pine and chestnut trees, it's a blessing to be engulfed in cooling mountain air. My daughter, Rae (11), is a little hesitant about testing the water, preferring to be snap happy with the camera, while I nurture an unspoken camaraderie with a young girl in a blue-and-white-striped swimming costume next to her, who's already playing in the water.

Exploring the rocks on Palombaggia Beach.

Soon Rae is edging herself into the pool over smooth rocks and boulders, some a little slimy with algae; others a little rough at the edges. It's easy to imagine the countless gallons of water that must have flowed over them through the ages to create the almost polished surfaces we're lying on.

Later, with Rae drying herself on the rocks next to me, something flits into our line of vision. "Mum, butterflies! No? What are they?!" The humming, large-winged jet-black insects hovering above the surface of the water remain nameless until a quick Google search confirms they're dragonflies.

This is wild swimming with wildlife — and there's even a natural spa to enjoy: a mini waterfall tumbling fresh invigorating water between piles of rocks that my son and daughter are soon fighting over.

Meanwhile, their dad, Chad, is off exploring. Luca sets out to see where he went, and soon returns to say he's found him, thwarted by a natural dam and mini waterfall he's finding hard to cross. I climb down to discover their intrepid father has got himself stranded on a watery ridge between two boulders in the neighbouring pool.

"It was easy getting across, but I think I'm stuck," he says. Heading down had been a cinch, Chad explains, but climbing back up had proved much harder. I can see mild panic is starting to set in. The boulders on either side are slippery but there are a few that might serve as footholds. As he weighs up his next move, a group of teens pass him and effortlessly scamper across the crevice into our pool, helping each other to make the crossing. I urge him to ask for assistance.

"That's not going to work, I can do it," he says, stubbornness and pride winning out over common sense. Seeing that it's possible seems to inspire a last-gasp burst of nimbleness, and he finally clambers free, thankfully with no injuries, other than a bruised ego.

Or so I'd thought. Over dinner that evening, Chad admits he's wrenched his shoulder. "We're supposed to be relaxing and I'm in so much pain," he groans.

Incredibly, on our return to the UK, he names the rock pools as the highlight. "Wooooooooo!" He smiles.

No pain, no gain, right?

Cafe at Palombaggia.

Things to do

Best beaches
A regular on 'best beaches of the world' lists, Pinarello has soft white sand, a boardwalk, pine forest and a smattering of restaurants. Santa Giulia is also worth visiting — located in a shallow bay, with beautiful clear water fringed by rocks.

Wild beaches
All beaches are public, and some of the most beautiful are undeveloped beaches such as Plage d'Araso, with few areas for sun loungers but plenty of wild sea grass, and Palombaggia — nearly two miles long, with white sand, smooth rocks rising from the sea, and a shallow waters.

Bonifacio
Known for its medieval clifftop citadel, the best way to see Bonifacio is from the sea on a boat tour. There's a lively marina, the old town to explore and the L'Escalier du Roi d'Aragon — 187 ancient steps carved into the cliff face. Around a 45-minute drive from Pinarello, book a boat tour to guarantee a parking spot.

Kayak tour around Pinarello
A four-person kayak tour with Sporsica took us round a nearby small island, pausing to snorkel. We landed by a beach with sea grass and lots of fish and walked up to one of the Genoese towers for some great views.

Porto-Vecchio
A port with Roman origins, the old town centre is at the top of a steep hill. Amid its maze of streets, you'll find boutiques, restaurants, cafes and piazzas.

Corsican cuisine

The island has deeply entrenched Italian roots, it was part of the Republic of Genoa until 1768, and this is evidenced in its cuisine: a ubiquitous selection of pizza and Italian dishes. It's carved out its own distinct culinary identity, centred on seafood and stews and ingredients such as chestnuts, myrtle berries and the famed wild boar. Pinarello's seafront of restaurants get busy, so book ahead; our favourite was La Pizzeria du Rouf (great pizza, caprese salad and grilled octopus). Also recommended are La Casa, for its mussels; Le Bistrot du Pêcheur, for an a la carte seafood offering; and Le Vig Vog for a younger crowd. A meal for four costs from €80-£100 (£70-£87).

Where to stay

Hotel Alto Di Pinarello is Simpson Travel's first Corsican hotel, offering nine stylish suites, a shared gated pool, a concierge and daily breakfast served on the patio. The open-plan, contemporary suites have terraces and one, two or three bedrooms. Air conditioned, smart and spacious, with free wi-fi a given, the kids loved it, and it's just a 10-minute walk down to Pinarello, where there are three lovely, sandy bays and a strip of good quality restaurants too.

Essentials

Who
Maria and Chad, Rae (11), Luca (9).

Best for
Soft adventure for the summer, culture for when it's not too hot.

Highs
The rock pools and the pizza.

Lows
The heatwave. It was 30c first thing in the morning, so hard to do anything other than jump into some kind of water — either the pool or the sea.

How to do it
Seven nights at Hotel Alto di Pinarello from £448 per person based on four people, including return flights, car hire and seven night's B&B. Prices during August from £1,129 per person for a family of four.

simpsontravel.com/corsica/porto-vecchio-bonifacio/alto-di-pinarello

Published in the Family 2019 issue, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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