A Cavallo Story

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In the wake of a checkered past, the splendid island has risen above.

We first noticed something peculiar about Cavallo, a startlingly beautiful island about a mile from Corsica and eight from Sardinia, when we checked into its only hotel, the Hôtel & Spa des Pêcheurs. The island is French, formally part of the commune of Bonifacio in southern Corsica. But most of the newspapers in the lobby were Italian, as were many of the women working at reception. There our mobiles roamed with a French cellular network, but in our room, which faced Sardinia, they switched to an Italian one. The men tending the beach bar were Romanian and Spanish. The other guests were speaking either French or Italian. The menu in the mostly Italian, mostly seafood restaurant was in both languages, as well as English; our waitress was Roman; the maître d’ Neapolitan; the chef Italian, too. But we were in France. We found ourselves speaking three languages at once. We were understood often enough that failures to communicate were a curiosity, not an annoyance.

The people we encountered didn’t get our curiosity about the island, though. Or else they preferred not to indulge it. Cavallo’s history has ensured that this one-hotel island is among the least known of the bolt-holes Italians refer to as molto particolare, meaning “very special”—and perhaps, “not for you.” And that’s the case even though it has long attracted celebrities, from pop stars Petula Clark and Sylvie Vartan in the 1960s to the guests from Alicia Keys’s Mediterranean wedding in 2010, though her publicist will neither confirm nor deny it. Curious.

Cavallo is the jewel in a chain of granite islands that form the Lavezzi Archipelago, which is otherwise uninhabited and makes up the southernmost stretch of Metropolitan France. In the ’60s, Jean Castel, proprietor of a famous Parisian disco, bought the islands, hoping to turn Cavallo into a destination for his elite clientele. They started coming on boats and private planes that were met by donkey carts that brought Louis Vuitton luggage to houses designed to fit in with the island’s dense maquis brush and the granite rocks once quarried for ancient Rome’s statues.

“To be sophisticated and simple is the great challenge,” says Petula Clark. “It was really quite primitive.” And difficult. Castel brought electricity, and fresh drinking water flowed from Corsica—at least, it did when Castel’s experiment wasn’t being sabotaged by Corsican nationalists. The hotel began life as a fish market and restaurant, called Les Pêcheurs, where the chef from Castel’s disco cooked sumptuous candlelit dinners. “We lived like gypsies and washed in the sea,” Clark says. “It was paradise on earth.”

It is still that, despite what happened next. Castel sold the island to the predecessor of BNP Paribas, the French bank. It had its first moment of infamy in 1978, when Victor Emmanuel, pretender to the Italian throne, shot and killed a young German man named Dirk Hamer while he was in Cavallo. (The shooting was ultimately judged an accident.) In the ’80s, when the other Lavezzi islands and their waters were designated a natural park and taken over by Bonifacio, development rights to Cavallo were sold to an Italian company. It turned the restaurant into today’s hotel and the primitive port next to it into a sophisticated marina village with hundreds of moorings, apartments, a yacht club, a small café and a grocery store.

Then Cavallo’s dark decade began. Organized crime infiltrated the development company. Its head would later be convicted of money laundering, and reports surfaced that the Mafia had used the island’s airstrip to ship drugs. The Corsican nationalists continued to wreak havoc, too; in January 1990, a violent faction bombed the island for the first, but not the last, time. Still, wealthy Italians—among them was future prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—came to Cavallo, big yachts plied its clear waters, architect-designed villas rose and an expanded Hôtel des Pêcheurs (there was no spa yet) opened in 1992. But inevitably, official investigations led to a dip in real estate values, the bankruptcy of the company and the sale of its land, dotted with the empty shells of villas and apartments.

Only then did the hotel’s manager (an Italian who had come to Cavallo via French St. Martin) and some of the families who owned homes on the island make peace with the Corsicans. The marina was sold to a cooperative of shareholders. The Italian engineering company that had built and managed the hotel took ownership. And Cavallo finally became what Jean Castel dreamed of: an oasis for international cognoscenti. Berlusconi doesn’t come anymore, but Emmanuel still owns a home. In our week there, however, no one would tell us where it was. Even when discovered, Cavallo keeps secrets.

The Hôtel & Spa des Pêcheurs is located at Cavallo, Bonifacio, Corse-du-Sud. Rooms start at $370. To book or for more information, call 33-4/95-70-36-39 or go to hoteldespecheurs.com.