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Corsica’s Wild Beaches, Mountains, and Beauty

Cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica.

Photo: David Cicconi

The Corsican flag is one of the few in the world with a human form on it, a dark, Moorish head with a white bandanna, which was once in the flag’s history a blindfold, but which is now tied around his forehead, and the image of this wild youth is painted on the plane from which I get my first glimpse of Corsica. The graphics and design of every other plane I have ever flown on have a kind of reassuring, quasi-military formality to them with the exception of one I once took from the middle of Colombia toward the Venezuelan border that had riotous-looking black crows reminiscent of Heckle and Jeckle painted on the wings. Those crows seemed to be saying, You are going to a place where adventure is prized above security, and, likewise, that dark young man on the Air Corsica fuselage held in his romantic profile a promise that my girlfriend and I were on our way to a place that valued rebellion and individualism.

Flying in from Nice, suddenly the clouds part just as they do when Peter Pan and the Lost Boys begin the descent into Neverland. And there it is, sparsely populated, barely developed, fierce and forbidding Corsica. What you see first is the mountain peaks marching down the island’s center like a granite army with spears held high. As the plane makes its way toward the Corsican coast, we descend into the relative banality of the maquis-choked flatlands until we touch down in Figari, an outpost tucked into Corsica’s southeastern pocket. A vigorous spring wind blows us across the funky little airport, into the low-tech office of a car rental company, and from there it is a half-hour northeast cross-country to the resort town of Porto-Vecchio.

Porto-Vecchio is part of the first Corsica, the Corsica of travel posters, of mauve Mediterranean waters filled with winking and nodding yachts, of palm trees and white-sand beaches, of fashion shoots and nightclubs where exquisite Gauls dance in that unnervingly goofy way that makes some people wonder how on earth the French developed a reputation for sensuality.

Our hotel, however, is utterly and 100 percent sensual. We have reserved a relatively modest room in the swank Grand Hôtel de Cala Rossa. While some grand hotels allow their well-heeled if not necessarily well-born guests to emulate the experience of very old money, to pretend to their dukedoms beneath chandeliers dripping exquisite light, canopied four-poster beds, carved candlesticks, faux heirlooms in every corner, the Cala Rossa seems instead to have been designed for those who wish to escape the oppressive luxuries of the past.

It seems more like a futuristic spa, if the future was, in fact, 1988. At first I thought that what I was seeing was the pinnacle of minimalism, but really the Cala Rossa aesthetic is Perfectionism, owing nothing to any movement or style, owing everything to its knowledge of what will be most pleasing and functional to its deep-pocketed guests. It is one of those places where no one seems to be paying you the slightest mind but at the very moment you need something—a beach umbrella, a vodka tonic, a ride into town—it’s as if one of the staff had been standing there all along. From the terra-cotta-and-turquoise patterned floor tiles, to the big gleaming doors with lacquered driftwood handles, to the little bowls filled with floppy white orchids, to the oxblood leather armchairs, strategically placed in the event you should become fatigued during the walk from the day spa back to your room, the Cala Rossa is one of those places that makes you wish you’d booked for a month rather than just a few days, though, to be fair, it is also the home of the $18 mixed salad, the $30 dessert, and the $100 catch of the day, a place where a month’s worth of continental breakfast buffets would add up to a down payment on a three-bedroom home in Moline, Illinois, my girlfriend’s hometown.

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