‘We slip into a routine that demands a lot of splashing’
Hal shoots me a glance that comes as close as the gaze of a nearfour-year-old boy can to disbelieving cynicism. He is not convinced by my suggestion that Arlo, the titular star of 2015 Pixar movie The Good Dinosaur, might – possibly – be just up the trail. Nor is he entirely buying my claim that the coxcomb peaks around us are the very mountains of the parallel-universe Montana and Wyoming that provide his favourite film’s setting. Still, buoyed by the certainty that no father would ever fib to his son, he redoubles his efforts, short legs skipping blithely over the pebbles – until, as his energy and enthusiasm expire, I hoik him on to my shoulders and we stride to the top of the bluff, to see the land dropping away sharply under us, and the Tyrrhenian Sea sparkling beyond.
In truth, although we have walked only a few yards from the car park, this is a minor act of parental selfishness. I have wanted to glimpse Corsica’s high-rise interior since the Tour de France used it as a spectacular curtain-raiser to the race’s 100th edition in 2013 – and here it is, beneath my feet, for the sake of a two-hour drive along the switchback roads of the “Route de Bavella” loop. In such context, what are a couple of white lies about a fictional apatosaurus?
Corsica’s first (and, to date, only) appearance in the world’s most feted cycle event was a rare blast of publicity for a European outcrop that, while known to the French, has often escaped the attention of UK tourists – and is scarcely touted as the destination of choice for British families chasing summer sun. It is – what amounts to consensus states – too swarthy and too wild, and not exactly a place for young children.
It is also too ill-defined on the map, too vague a concept. Where is it, anyway, aside from the fact that it sits somewhere in the Mediterranean, next to its equally rugged Italian cousin Sardinia? You might even ask, if you were being mischievous, if, at more than 600 miles from Paris, it is French at all.
I cannot see the next-door island from my viewpoint on the Col de Bavella. But, peering at the way the landscape rears and kicks, I can almost appreciate the doubters’ concerns. Almost. Because, by the time Hal and I have descended a few hundred feet, into roadside hostelry the Auberge du Col de Bavella, we are more convinced than ever that Corsica is suitable for children. Admittedly, Hal’s opinion has been bought – by a big slice of apple tart, with a side of vanilla ice cream, which is smeared across his face. Mine is built on the sturdier foundation that we have had another fine day in a week of increasingly fine days.
We are based at sea level, at Stella Cadent, a villa tucked into the village of Sainte-Lucie-de-Porto-Vecchio in the south-east of the island. It has already proved a literal case of good things coming to those who wait – revealing its location only after a right-angled turn off the highway into what seems to be a blind alley, then some bumpy gear-wrenching down a twisting gravel track. The pay-off is a happy sense of solitude, and a temporary home that will maintain our contentment – a large kitchen, a lounge with television and DVD player, Wi-Fi that works, and a swimming pool outside flanked by olive trees. It sleeps six in three bedrooms – a moot point, as we are but two, thanks to an unexpected surge in my wife’s workload, and my determination that a June booking shouldn’t be wasted – not least a booking in my son’s last June before the school system clutches him tight.
Stella Cadent is part of the portfolio of Simpson Travel, a Corsica specialist whose expertise is key to me finding the property without difficulty – detailed directions are emailed in advance, along with suggestions on where to buy groceries on the 25-mile dash north-east from Figari airport. Simpson is also visible when the British Airways flight from Heathrow touches down, the jovial David Henry ushering passengers from terminal to car-hire offices, then ensuring that children are found cups of water and seats within as their parents queue, briefly, out in the Gallic sunshine. He reappears the next morning on the steps of the villa, and spends an hour – part of the service he extends to every group of guests – recommending restaurants to suit the under-fives, and attractions that will hold their attention. “The beaches to the north of the Gulf of Porto-Vecchio tend to be quieter, and more family-friendly,” he explains. “Those to the south are more organised, but busier. And you have to pay for parking down there.”
David’s advice prepares us for a few days of exploration – although we slip into a routine that demands a lot of splashing first. The pool is positioned on the west side of the villa – and is thus shaded from the morning’s rays until about 9.30am. We become used to swimming before breakfast, aided by a support-team of armbands, flotation vests, lilos and inflatables – returning to the water in the evening as the sun plunges behind the ridge.
In the hours between, we go in search of adventure. Bonifacio is an unmissable source of interest. The southernmost town in (European) France is a pretty proposition, pinned so firmly to the end of the land mass that ferries tootle out of its harbour to Sardinia (which winks in the distance) – and so raised up on clifftops that it can be depicted as a fragment of a fairy Stella Cadent can be rented via Simpson Travel (020 3468 6949; simpsontravel.com). Prices for a week’s holiday at Stella Cadent start at £841pp, including accommodation, flights from London Heathrow to Figari, car hire and accommodation. tale far more plausibly than the interior can be cast as Wyoming. The conceit is abetted by the tourist “train” that trundles up from the harbour, halting at the walls of the medieval citadel. Inside, the walkway along the ramparts sparks a trip to the nursery rhyme “I’m the king of the castle” – and the chance to point in amazement at a seagull of such remarkable size that it could be an eagle dipped in white paint. Adjacent, Le Time, on Place du Marché, sells sundaes of such delicious decadence (including a crème brûlée glace) that the age gap between father and son melts as fast as the ice cream.
Porto-Vecchio is another delight. There is a discernible chicness to Palombaggia Beach, and a similar sparkle to Plage de Santa Giulia, with its designer sunglasses and its expensive bikinis – evidence that, while London may not have fallen for the charms of south-eastern Corsica, Paris is rather more clued-up. The trend continues in town, where the boutiques on Avenue du Maréchal Leclerc mimic the Marais, and the yachts in the marina along Quai Pascal Paoli flutter eyelashes at St Tropez. But there is no snootiness. We set up a lunchtime station at Tropicana, a restaurant on the bay front, where there is a two-course children’s menu for €11 (£9.50) featuring chicken nuggets and frites for Hal, and a slab of grilled sea bass (€22), with a chilled bière pression and a panorama of fluttering sails for me.
Our wanderings uncover further indications of Corsica’s suitability for family holidays. The exit from the airport immediately throws out
Bonifacio overlooking the Mediterranean, left; Plage de Palombaggia, near PortoVecchio, below