Posted November 13, 2015
Part one of my most recent Mediterranean travel focused on France’s southern coast from Nice to Monaco, where we explored Vieille Ville, the old city within Nice, swam in the idyllic Mediterranean Sea, and watched the sunset from a harbor-side restaurant in Monaco. For the second part of our trip, we flew from Nice to Ajaccio on the west coast of the island of Corsica. From there we drove south to explore the dramatic landscape and stunning beaches of southern Corsica and northern Sardinia.
What to See and Do in Corsica
The island of Corsica is historically famous for being the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Today it is a popular travel destination with its gorgeous coastline and majestic mountains and countryside. Corsica is popular with French and Italian travelers and much less so with Americans or Brits, so brush up on your French.
Getting to Sartene, Corsica
From Nice, we took a short 49-minute flight on Air Corsica to Ajaccio, Corsica. Air Corsica is not a budget airline, they offered us drinks during the flight, checked our bags at no additional cost, and enjoyed a comfortable, albeit short trip over part of the Mediterranean Sea. We picked up our rental car (manual transmission only) from Budget at the Ajaccio airport. From Ajaccio, we traveled south for an hour and a half through some of the most dramatic mountain views I have ever witnessed, along a winding and at times extremely narrow road to the small mountain town of Sartene. I chose to stay the night in Sartene because of its location on a hillside in central Corsica, surrounded by farmland, forests, and mountains on the horizon.
Where to Stay in Sartene, Corsica
The Hôtel San Damianu was the obvious choice because of the breath-taking views from the hotel’s restaurant and nearly all its rooms. A nice touch was that instead of numbering the rooms the hotel chose the names of famous musicians. Our room, the Vivaldi, had a large balcony overlooking a valley with the Mediterranean off to the far west and the mountainside town of Sartene to the east with farmland in the valley below and mountains off in the distance. It was easily the most spectacular panoramic view I have ever seen from any hotel room I have stayed in. The hotel appeared to have been recently remodeled, including the room, which was decorated with a modern design. We were among the few guests at the hotel that night so it was as if we had this view and the hotel to ourselves. That night we ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, which is situated on a large deck overlooking the view of the valley and mountains as the sunset. I had the filet mignon au porc with potatoes and vegetables and for dessert, I had crème brûlée. Corsica is known for its rosé, so naturally, we had it with dinner. The restaurant had a vast selection of Corsican wines, which are difficult to find in the US.
The following morning before we left for Bonifacio, the southernmost city in Corsica where we caught the ferry to Sardinia. Before we left though, we enjoyed a morning swim in the hotel’s pool that overlooked the valley. We had breakfast at the hotel which was not included in the price, but well worth it as it had an excellent range of fruits, croissants, cheeses, and cured meats, along with crêps and nutella. The Hôtel San Damianu in Sartene is by far one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in. The service was excellent, the views gorgeous, and the hotel and rooms stylishly decorated. It was the perfect place to stay on our journey through Corsica.
Getting to Sardinia
The drive from Sartene to Bonifacio is about an hour and a half and starts off just as winding as the journey from Ajaccio through the mountains before reaching the southern coast where the dramatic landscape opens to the expansive deep-blue Mediterranean Sea. The ferry from Bonifacio to Santa Teresa Gallura in northern Sardinia left at noon and took under an hour. We had to load the car onto the ferry in reverse, which I had the honor of doing. Once in Santa Teresa Gallura it was an easy 30-minute drive east along the coast to the town of Palau.
Where to Stay in Palau, Sardinia
I chose to stay in the town of Palau because it was strategically situated between Santa Teresa Gallura (ferry to Corsica), Costa Smeralda (stunning beaches), and Tempio Pausania (bucolic in-land town). Palau is a popular vacation destination for Italians and has a good selection of restaurants and hotels. Since both Corsica and Sardinia are popular summer destinations for Europeans the price of accommodation goes up during the peak season of July and August. Despite the high demand, I was able to secure three nights at Hotel Palau. I chose the Hotel Palau because of the scenic views from the rooftop patio overlooking Palau and the Mediterranean Sea, the pool, free parking, buffet breakfast that was included, and its walking distance location from the harbor where all the restaurants are located. Our room had a separate living room that opened to a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea and nearby islands.
An additional perk to the Hotel Palau was the grocery store located around the corner where we bought alcohol and food for lunch each day. The Hotel Palau’s breakfast offered an extensive array of fruits, croissants, cheeses, cured meats, and yogurts. My favorite item was the Nutella filled croissant, which I ate each morning!
Our first evening in Palau we ate at an extremely popular restaurant with locals called Trattoria Pizzeria del Porticciolo. We celebrated our arrival in Sardinia with a jug, or two, of local white wine. I had mussels for dinner, which were delicious. The food, wine, and ambiance were well worth the 25 minutes wait we endured to sit down.
Day trips in Northern Sardinia
Spiaggia del Principe, Sardinia
Despite their proximity, Sardinia and Corsica have very different landscapes. Northern Sardinia is very rugged and relatively flat while southern Corsica is mountainous and relatively lush. One reason for choosing to visit northern Sardinia was because of Costa Smeralda, a small strip of north-eastern Sardinian coastline dotted with several stunning beaches. One of which we visited is Spiaggia del Principe, a small cove with turquoise blue waters and white sand that is popular with locals. To reach the beach, we had to descend a steep and narrow shrub-lined path, often stopping to let others pass or vice versa. A bonus to the beach was the small cafe nearby selling food and beer.
Spiaggia del Principe is easily one of Europe’s best beaches and it feels as if you are somewhere exotic and exclusive. It is common to see yachts anchored off the coast, which contributed to the exclusive feel of the beach, as many celebrities are drawn to the region and often stay in Porto Cervo just up the coast from Spiaggia del Principe. That night for dinner back in Palau, Carrie and I went to a restaurant in the harbor. I had a seafood pizza and Carrie had mussels.
Tempio Pausania, Sardinia
Public transportation in northern Sardinia is sparse so renting a car is the most efficient way to see much of the countryside and beaches. Before we traveled we read extensively on the driving conditions in both Corsica and Sardinia, which as we were rightly warned were not to be taken lightly. The roads were generally in good condition, but very narrow and the driving (manual transmission only) is fast and aggressive. We all adapted fairly quickly and opted to pull over at times so that others could pass. We were, of course, in no rush.
We spent our second full day in Sardinia traveling the countryside in search of a winery (known locally as a cantina). Our guide book indicated that there was one just outside the town of Tempio Pausania. Unfortunately, we found that the winery no longer existed, at least not in the location that the travel guide provided. After a few attempts to find the hidden cantina, we gave up and decided to explore the town of Tempio Pausania. Tempio Pausania, the administrative capital of the region, complete with beautiful 18th-century granite-stone architecture, is the perfect contrast to the coastal areas of Sardinia we had explored thus far. We walked the streets, squares, and narrow alleys of the city before stopping at a street-side cafe.
We left Tempio Pausania determined to find a cantina. But first we stopped at a grocery store to pick up some bread, cheese, and charcuterie for a picnic at the cantina we hoped to find. Not far from Tempio Pausania is Lago del Liscia (a lake) and Olivastro Millenario (ancient olive trees) possible alternatives for a picnic should we not locate a cantina. Intrigued with what a 4,000-year-old tree could look like we had to check it out. Olivastro Millenario, situated on the northern side of Lago del Liscia, is a set of three olive trees that are 4,000 and 3,000 years old. It cost €2.50 to enter the small park where the olive trees are located. The park overlooks Lago del Liscia and the surrounding northern Sardinian countryside. The olive trees are enormous in size and you are able to walk under all of them except for the oldest, which you are forbidden to touch. During our visit there were only a couple of other people, so I think olive trees are safe from being over-run.
By mid-afternoon, having explored much of the northern Sardinian countryside, surprisingly void of cantinas, which we thought unfortunate for a famous wine-producing region we decided to head back to our hotel in Palau, taking a different route back. Fortunately for us, we happened to pass a cantina called Tondini. We recognized it set off of the SP38 because of the vast array of vines along the side of the road, plus the enormous signage. Another bonus was that we happened to be the only visitors at the time. The winemaker was very helpful and offered us a free tasting of several of their white wines and a sweet dessert wine. He spoke very little English but was helpful in explaining the wines to us slowly in Italian, as well as answering our questions presented in broken Italian. We bought two bottles and returned to our hotel to hang out by the pool, play cards, and drink some Tondini wine! The best part about our search for a cantina was the drive throughout the northern countryside well off the tourist trail, taking in the rugged hills, plains, and villages of spectacularly scenic Sardinia.
Where to Stay in Bonifacio
Our return ferry back to Bonifacio from Santa Teresa left at 10 a.m. I planned our return trip, so we broke up the driving back to Ajaccio and had a day to explore the beaches of southern Corsica and the nightlife of Bonifacio. Pinterella and Sperone beaches, two of southern Corsica’s best, are a quick fifteen-minute drive from our hotel in Bonifacio, which was a three-minute walk from the harbor. On this occasion, we opted for a large two-bedroom suite at A Madonetta. I choose A Madonetta, a new, modern-designed hotel, because of its availability (Bonifacio is popular in July and August), proximity to the harbor, beaches, and the main road out of town, and the great reviews and free parking. The room was spacious with two bathrooms, one bedroom, one sitting room with a pullout-bed, an entry room, and a large balcony. The balcony was perfect for hanging out, drinking Corsican wine, and playing cards.
After checking in, we grabbed lunch and beers from a local grocery store, just next to the hotel before heading to the beach. Parking was free and off a dirt road. Pinterella beach is the first beach you come across as you make your way to the spectacular Sperone beach. To reach Pinterella beach, climb over some beachside rocks. Pinterella is a long and sparsely populated beach with lots of plastic looking seaweed strewn about, making it unappealing. However, at low tide, you can walk over to the island of Piana, which several people were doing when we passed.
Having read in our guide book that Sperone beach is an absolute must see, we pressed on through some shrubbery before finally arriving at the narrow path that leads down to the beach. We were pleased that the beach set in a small cove, lived up to the hype. The water was crystal blue but much colder than the water in Sardinia. And, because the beach is popular with locals and Sardinians space can be tight. It was windy at the beach which caused Rob and Danielle’s umbrella to brake. Luckily, it was our the last day at the beach. Having purchased the umbrellas in Nice for 8 euro apiece they had served their purpose. We spent several hours lounging around and people watching before we headed back, stopping first for a beer at a rustic beach bar at the water’s edge near the parking area.
The harbor close to our hotel had several restaurants and bars, however, they almost all had sub-par reviews. With that in mind, we climbed up to the old town of Bonifacio, which was the best decision we could have made. Bonifacio is built on limestone cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. To get up to the old town, you have to climb a set of steep stairs. The views from the top are well worth the climb. We arrived early evening and the views of the sea, cliffs, and the old city walls were spectacular, as the sun slowly set off on the horizon. The enormous walls of Bonifacio were built right above steep cliffs. We entered through the city walls and strolled the narrow streets of the old part of the city. Our first choice for dinner was Cantina Doria, a well-known restaurant for traditional Corsican food, but the wait for a table outside was longer than we were willing to endure. As it was a beautiful evening we were determined to find a nice table outside. We settled on a restaurant (don’t recall its name) across from a church in a square. For dinner, we shared a jug of white wine and ate the famous Aubergines a la Bonifacienne, stuffed eggplant. The ambiance of the square and the outside dining made our evening perfect, not to mention the great food, wine, and company.
After dinner, we strolled back through the old city which seemed to be filled with more energy and activity than earlier in the evening. Close to the city wall entrance was an art exhibit projected onto the facade of a building that displayed an ever-changing color and shape of the building. They accompanied this with an opera singer inside the city wall’s passage. Both had drawn large crowds of onlookers. As we exited the city walls, we saw that they were lit-up with ever-evolving bright lights, illuminating the enormous and imposing city walls of Bonifacio. On our way back we grabbed ice cream at a harbor-side ice cream shop before heading back to our hotel.
Propriano and Ajaccio, Corsica
Our Air Corsica flight back to Nice from Ajaccio wasn’t until 7:50 pm so we effectively had the whole day with our rental car to explore the southern and eastern parts of the island. During checkout from the hotel we were informed that the credit card system was down and since we hadn’t paid yet we would have to locate an ATM. This was a huge inconvenience as we had to withdraw €330, especially near the end of our trip. After we paid, we traveled north towards the port city of Ajaccio.
The road north through the mountains of central Corsica is perhaps one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken. The near constant windiness of the road allows for an ever-changing scenery as you climb your way up a mountain before rapidly descending as you pass through tiny villages. The driver, unfortunately, does not get to enjoy the scenery quite as much as they contend with the ever-winding road and aggressive nature of the other drivers.
Ajaccio, the capital and largest city in Corsica, was a whole other level of difficult driving conditions, as more drivers and larger roads, lead to more aggressive driving, plus the addition of scooters. We found a place to park not far from General de Gaulle Square. From there it’s a short walk to the square that honors Napoleon Bonaparte with a statue. After a lunch of quiches at a street side cafe not far from the square we headed for the airport, which was just a short fifteen-minute drive from the city center.
We hung out at the airport and sampled some Corsican beers we had yet to taste. Ajaccio airport is not very big and you are left with very little to do. Interestingly, for Europe, the security line at the airport had a line just for women, which I mistakenly entered. Overall we had an amazing time traveling throughout southern Corsica and northern Sardinia. It’s a trip I would highly recommend to those interested in traveling to a part of Europe that feels removed from the over-touristed areas. The bucolic countryside and stunning beaches should be enough to entice anyone to visit.
Interested in traveling to Corsica and Sardinia and have questions about it? Please email me email@example.com
All Photography by Albert Bond
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