The ultimate regatta
Sail with the rich and famous in Corsica
Say “Corsica” and you probably think of mountains, brigands, earthy food and Napoleon. Nothing wrong with that as this towering “French island basking in the Italian sun”, as Balzac put it, is indeed home to the toughest longdistance walking trail in Europe, the GR20, and its residents were once so inclined to bloody feuding that they gave the world “vendetta”, an Italian word that was hijacked by these islanders who have a mixed linguistic history. Village markets offer a feast of wild-boar sausages, piquant cheeses, thick maquis honey and robust wines, while the souvenir shops in the capital, Ajaccio, won’t let you forget it was the birthplace of that little man with big ambitions for an empire.
How strange, then, that the Corsica I’m visiting is nothing like this. I look south over a blue sea dotted in yachts, the coastal road adorned with umbrella pines and views to Sardinia. Sandy coves are speckled with wellturned-out families in straw hats and espadrilles enjoying the sunshine and hypnotically clear waters.
Shaped like a bunch of grapes, Corsica is a fruit that many travellers have been strangely reluctant to taste and that’s our loss. But there is one social set, the yachties, who have wised up to the charms of the so-called Ile de Beaute. Every year, a 15-day jamboree of racing and partying known as the Corsica Classic takes place. Started in 2010, this regatta hops around from Ajaccio on the west coast to Saint-Florent in the north, in a fabulous flotilla of heritage sailing yachts. Last year the 28 entrants included several vessels more than a century old, such as the graceful teak-decked 55ft schooner Morwenna, which was built in Sussex in 1914. Every one of these nautical jewels has a story to tell, with owners such as Louis Renault, Jascha Heifetz and Pierre Cointreau, and a guest list that’s included Humphrey Bogart and John F. Kennedy.
Despite the aura of wealth and pedigree, the mood here is not elitist. Billionaire or bowman, both are united in a shared enthusiasm for the thrills of ocean racing aboard these immaculately restored craft. In fact, there’s no charge for yachts to enter, while each member of crew pays a registration fee of the equivalent of about $225. I catch up with the regatta in the harbour at Porto-Vecchio (known as the “St-Tropez” of Corsica) and have my first glimpse of these vintage vessels with their varnished woods, leather details and polished metalwork. Moored beside them are garish modern-day gin palaces as bright as a supermarket freezer with potted orchids and purple lighting. I know which deck I’d rather be on.
“This is one of the best classic regattas in the season,” explains French art dealer Alain Moatti, who sails the 62ft sloop Serenade, built in California in 1938. “The weather and coastline of Corsica are both so beautiful.” And, of course, there are the parties, where rose wine flows beside quayside tables piled high with pastries,