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Corsica’s Untamed Beauty

The underdeveloped island is a charmingly sophisticated gem.

From an airplane en route to the northern Corsican city of Bastia, less than two hours in the air from Paris, the island’s upper reaches appear in dramatic relief, a life-sized topographical model. Craggy ridges stretch like fingers down into the water, and in the distance rise the snowy peaks of the interior. A few villages are scattered about, but mainly it’s untamed wilderness on this bottom vertebra of the Alps, the last ripple of the dragon’s tail as it storms its way northward to the continent. Directly below, a yellow ferry from Marseille or Nice or Livorno plies its way across the shale-smooth sea.

Officially part of France, Corsica sits 100 miles south of the Riviera, off the west coast of Italy and just north of Sardinia. Visitors often experience a strange sense of familiarity once they arrive on the island, whether by boat or by plane. This may seem odd in a place as singular as Corsica, but the varied landscape recalls other well-loved corners of the world: Spots in the north evoke the Tuscan hills, stretches in the west recall the brooding Oregon coast and the south has the arid drama of Big Sur. There are lush valleys straight out of Switzerland and teeming beaches of Caribbean-blue waters. This is not the standard-issue Mediterranean playground but somewhere far richer in texture and perspective and experience.

Though only 3,200 square miles—smaller than Connecticut—Corsica requires more than a week to explore in full. Urban life is not where the island’s charms lie; even the biggest cities, Bastia and Ajaccio, have the air of provincial outposts. And in the resort towns, like Calvi and Porto-Vecchio, the chicest lodgings are secluded spots on the outskirts. For luxe beach stays, there are several lovely options, both classic and modern, at the island’s southern end; the villages of the interior provide a glimpse into the age-old artisanal culture; and up north, near Bastia, are wilder coastlines and wineries that are just now getting their due around the world (see “An Island Wine Guide,” below).

French is the official language, but the native tongue, spoken by only a small percentage of the population, is an old Italian dialect from the period in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Genoese ruled the island. Corsica has a history almost as dramatic as its landscape: centuries of invasions; a culture once dominated by insularity, superstition and vendetta; and in recent years, though less prevalent now, Mafia ascendancy and separatist violence.

Tourism came late to Corsica, and as a result, it’s refreshingly underdeveloped compared with other Mediterranean destinations. It has an easy, rustic sophistication that stands in stark contrast to the blinged-out Riviera.

The Southeast: Sartene

Perhaps the best example of the island’s lo-fi aesthetic is Domaine de Murtoli (rooms, from $270; houses, from $1,500; Murtoli, Sartène; 33-4/95-71-69-24; murtoli.com), on the southern coast, outside the village of Sartène. Since 1994, Paul Canarelli has been converting his family’s ancestral land from a collection of tumbledown shepherds’ huts and olive mills into a resort of spectacular proportions. From the entrance to the 6,200-acre estate, it can take up to 20 minutes to reach the accommodations: 17 painstakingly restored stone houses, which have been done over in a refined Provençal style, the kitchens equipped with copper pots and La Cornue stoves. Outside each house is a private pool and a cuisine d’été for cooking alfresco. Low-slung stone peaks frame the vast sky, and families of wild boar saunter by, warily eyeing human intruders. The unpaved, pockmarked resort roads—SUVs strongly recommended—lead through the maquis, a fragrant, herbal scrub found all over the island. High ground affords glimpses of the sapphire Mediterranean and a five-mile stretch of pristine and largely deserted beach. At the far end, a rocky promontory is capped by the ruins of a 17th-century watchtower. Domaine de Murtoli can be a completely self-contained experience: Under chef Jean Neel, both La Grotte and the beachfront Restaurant de la Plage are excellent, and the resort pre-stocks kitchen pantries with groceries on request. But for a night off campus, chef Gisèle Lovichi’s Auberge Santa Barbara (Résidence hôtelière Santa Barbara; 33-4/95-77-09-06; santabarbara.fr) in Sartène offers elevated Corsican staples, like lobster tagliatelle or daube de manzu (a hearty veal ragù).

A ten-minute drive from Domaine de Murtoli is Le Hameau de Saparale (rooms, from $500; 5 Cours Bonaparte; 33-4/95-77-15-52; lehameaudesaparale.com), a winery dating back to 1895. Philippe and Julie Farinelli took over the property in 1994, and while her husband looks after the winemaking, Julie, a Parisian of Corsican descent, has been remaking the property’s old stone buildings into handsome country retreats. In addition to private pools and outdoor kitchens, the Hameau provides guests with bicycles for the short ride to La Plage de Roccapina, the closest beach. At harvest time, the Farinellis offer winemaking weekends for guests, many of whom are Parisians seeking quiet and calm among the vines.

The Southwest: Porto-Vecchio

If the Sartène area offers a refined version of traditional Corsica, Porto-Vecchio is home to an ultramod take on island living. Just around a cove from the old port town, down a series of narrow roads, sits the 34-room Casadelmar (rooms, from $480; 93 Rte. de Palombaggia, Porto-Vecchio; 33-4/95-72-34-34; casadelmar.fr), a European take on the California beach house done in glass and weathered wood. In the early aughts, owner Jean-Noël Marcellesi hired Parisian architect Jean-François Bodin, who renovated the interiors of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, to convert a run-down ’70s resort into the breezy construction it is now, all straight lines and right angles. Red-cedar terraces equipped with raffia umbrellas and white sun loungers descend down to the infinity pool, which overlooks the bay and the private beach.

Inside, Casadelmar’s muted palette gives way to vivid bursts of color, with rooms decked out in turquoise, violet and scarlet. The cuisine at the hotel’s signature restaurant is just as expressive and dynamic. Italian Davide Bisetto, who has been chef here since it opened in 2004, arrived at the resort having earned one Michelin star at the Royal Monceau in Paris; in 2009, at Casadelmar, he received two. His food can be overly fussy, and his most successful dishes are traditional with a twist, like a Sicilian cassata made with Brocciu, the fresh sheep’s-milk cheese that’s almost synonymous with Corsican cuisine.

This summer, on the opposite side of the bay, just north of Porto-Vecchio, Marcellesi opened a sister property, La Plage Casadelmar (rooms, from $370; Presquîle du Benedettu, Lecci; 33-4/95-71-02-30; laplagecasadelmar.fr). While the original Casadelmar has only a narrow strip of sand, this new spot, as its name implies, is all about the beach. With just 15 rooms, it’s also much smaller and more intimate.

Porto-Vecchio itself, like many Corsican resort towns, seems rather parochial, just tinged with jet-set glam. Alongside the dowdier storefronts are shops like Carioca Plage (Parvis de l’Eglise; 33-4/95-72-20-05), which sells Missoni Mare caftans and Eres bikinis, and Corambe (8 Cours Napoléon; 33-4/95-70-23-66), with its selection of trendy Parisian labels like Isabel Marant Etoile and Laurence Doligé. Down the street, L’Orriu ($ 5 Cours Napoléon; 33-4/95-70-26-21) stocks every kind of Coriscan delicacy imaginable: homemade foie gras laced with cédrat confit (candied citron), wild-boar terrine, eaux-de-vie, olive oil, cheese and smartly packaged canistrelli cookies from Anne Marchetti’s nearby bakery.

The Interior: Bastelica

Corsica remains an island of independent farmers and craftspeople, and the best selection of the island’s bounty can be found along the Strada di l’Artigiani, a self-guided tour of about 30 local ceramicists, jewelers, bakers, winemakers, glassblowers and olive-oil producers in the northern Balagne region. Less known, but no less noteworthy, is the I Tre Vaddi area, a series of three valleys in the mountains east of Ajaccio, Napoléon’s birthplace. In one village alone, Cuttoli-Corticchiato, there are people making charcuterie, wine, jam, chestnut flour, pottery and traditional knives with handles carved from sheeps’ horn.

I Tre Vaddi native Christophe Gandon grew up in Bastelica, a mountain village best known as the birthplace of 16th-century Corsican nationalist Samperu Corsu. After a decade working as the director of marketing for Paris-based magazine Kalliste (the Greek name for Corsica, meaning “the most beautiful”), he came back to open a hotel in his hometown. Sitting at an altitude of 2,800 feet, the 11-room Artemisia (rooms, from $110; Boccialacce, Bastelica; 33-4/95-28-19-13; hotel-artemisia.com) is not much to look at from the outside, but on the inside the two-year-old hotel has charm and character. The lobby restaurant has a design aesthetic more befitting hipster Berlin than rural Corsica, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views. The rooms range from 180 to 240 square feet—tiny to some, cozy to others—and are all done in white, the beds set in picture windows and covered in fluffy duvets. Gandon arranges gastronomic weekends for which he brings in accomplished chefs, such as Ange Cananzi, who cooks at the restaurant Gandon qualifies as the island’s best, the Pasquale Paoli (2 Place Paoli; 33-4/95-47-67-70; pasquale-paoli.com) in Ile Rousse.

The Northeast: Oletta

The drive from Bastia-Poretta Airport to inland Oletta can go one of several ways: There’s the Google maps version, which the woman at the airport’s information desk determines to be “trop dangereux.” There’s her version, a seemingly roundabout route that sticks to straighter, flatter roads. Then there’s the GPS version, a last resort as the sun begins to set, which leads higher and higher into the hills, the roads starting to bunch up on themselves, switching back like a slalom race. The GPS, it seems, has chosen the most “dangereux” of all.

Along this route are traces of the island’s deep-seated separatist urges: On the bilingual place-name signs, the French is inevitably blacked out with spray paint, leaving only the Corsican. At its end, the six-room, three-suite hotel U Palazzu Serenu (rooms, from $220; Paganacce, Oletta; 33-4/95-38-39-39; upalazzuserenu.com) stands in opposition to this insular nature: A grand 17th-century townhouse, it features artwork by contemporary artists from across the globe. In the bar hangs a series of paintings by Indian-born Anish Kapoor, and the lobby has a tree-like sculpture from American Wendy Wischer. These pieces come from the collections of owner Georges Barthes and his family. Barthes, the founder of flower-store chain Au Nom de la Rose, has outfitted the hotel with dozens of important works in both the rooms and public spaces. U Palazzu Serenu is in a sleepy village, with views down to the Gulf of St.-Florent and not much else. People come to town for the hotel itself—the collection, plus the impeccable interiors of designer Nathalie Battesti, has made U Palazzu Serenu a destination for connoisseurs of art and architecture. (The king and queen of Belgium stayed there after she saw photos on the hotel’s website.)

Along windy routes and among hidden corners, there is always a discovery to be made in Corsica. About an hour west of Oletta, down a back road near the city of Ile Rousse, is the six-month-old restaurant I Salti ($ Moulin de Salti, Speloncato; 33-4/95-34-35-59). Run by a young couple—she’s Corsican, he’s from Normandy—it mixes the best of the island’s ingredients (like Brébis cheese from a mile away) with expert French technique: sautéed foie gras with pear on brioche, for example. Corsica may still have a complicated relationship with “the continent,” but this couple has shown how fruitful a partnership it can be.

An Island Wine Guide

Corsican producers dominate the island’s wine lists, from Michelin-starred restaurants to pizza joints, so it’s important to know what to look for. And if anyone knows Corsican wine, it’s Nicolas Stromboni, who runs Le Chemin des Vignobles, a shop in Ajaccio. Last year, a French wine magazine named the 37-year-old France’s caviste of the year, and he serves as an unofficial ambassador for his homeland’s gastronomic bounty. Here Stromboni offers his sommelier’s advice. At 16 Av. Noël Franchini; 33-4/95-51-46-61.

Top Corsican Producers and Their Best Bottles

Clos Venturi Blanc 2011 (AOC Vins de Corse): “[Influential French wine critic] Michel Bettane has called Clos Venturi’s white wine the ‘Montrachet of Corsica,’” says Stromboni. “This wine is the purest and most elegant of all dry Corsican whites.”

Antoine Arena Carco Blanc 2011 (AOC Patrimonio): “Arena has pushed to spread Corsican wine beyond the island. He was also the first winemaker here to take the Burgundian approach: one parcel of land, one wine. This bottle is the red of a great orchestral conductor—nothing but harmony and precision.”

Clos Canarelli Amphora Rouge 2011 (AOC Figari): “Who said that Corsica doesn’t know how to do reds? Yves Canarelli first showed the immense potential of Corsican whites, and today he’s proving that whites aren’t the only thing we do well. This wine, one of the finest and most expressive of Corsican reds, is made from old vines and vinified without sulfur in clay vessels called amphoras.”

Domaine Comte Abbatucci Cuvée du Diplomate Blanc 2011 (AOC Ajaccio): “By updating wines from old vines for today’s palates, Jean-Charles Abbatucci has opened the way for winemakers looking to create something singular. This particular bottle is for those who love wines that are like nothing else they’ve ever tried. It’s a delight for all the senses.”

Domaine d’Alzipratu Cuvée Pumonte Blanc 2011 (AOC Calvi): “At Domaine d’Alzipratu, winemaker Pierre Acquaviva has shown that ‘simple is complicated.’ His wines are immediately accessible yet terribly complex. This one is like a lady: seductive, charismatic, devilish, with a body to die for, intellectual yet accessible.”

Corsica’s Top Three Villas

Palombaggia, near Porto-Vecchio, is possibly Europe’s most photogenic beach. And minutes away is Villa Miramare, where all six bedrooms look out at the sea from private terraces. Il Convento, outside Calvi, was once a convent but is now built for entertaining, with a full staff at the disposal of its guests. Il Mare was constructed with a modern sensibility from native stone, slate and wood. A few steps from the lush gardens is a private beach. To book, go to cedricreversade.com.Stan Parish

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