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Travel: Corsica a Mediterranean island that melds the old with the new

With French and Italian influences on its rich history and culture, Corsica's unspoilt countryside and modern vibrancy also make it a great destination for an island family holiday, writes Beverley Rouse

Hiking in the hills on Corsica's GR20, one of the most difficult – but scenic – trails in Europe

CORSICA may be the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, but there is no risk of this beautiful, laid-back island becoming a theme park to its most famous son.

The family home where France's most famous military leader was born in 1769 in the island's capital, Ajaccio, a port city situated on the west of the island, is now a museum.

Corsica is a mountainous Mediterranean island off the west coast of Italy and the south-east coast of France. It's been governed by France since it was handed over by the Republic of Genoa to pay debts in 1768.

On the road

After flying into to Ajaccio, we take a scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive from west to east to the Sunelia Perla Di Mare resort, near Ghisonaccia. The route takes us along quiet, winding mountain roads and through green countryside and dense pine forests. Traffic lights are few and far between, so if you've never driven abroad, Corsica is an ideal place to start – as long as you can hold your nerve when a coach comes the opposite way, when you're on a narrow road next to a steep drop.

The island is home to the GR20 – said to be one of the most difficult hiking trails in Europe – and is popular with cyclists, although e-bikes are available to hire for those whose legs need a little help.

I decide to give my legs an easier challenge with a cycle round the bumpy paths of the pine forest near my family-friendly lodge (bike hire is €12 a day for adults or €50 per week).

The resort is right on the beach and there's a kids' club to keep children entertained. There is also a beautiful spa (€60 for a 50-minute massage), and yoga takes places on a quiet decked area within the spa complex.

Evening entertainment near the bar area is great for parents who want to dine while their children are happily occupied by karaoke or a conga led by Sunny, Sunelia's ladybird mascot.

Exploring the island

Corsica has plenty more to offer for those who hire a car and leave the site. The medieval town of Bonifacio, on the southern tip of the island, is a must-see, with a breathtaking view from the restaurant-lined harbour of the Bastion d'Etendard. This formed the most important part of fortifications which date back to 1195, and were built to defend the city.

Walk up the steep hill for a closer look or, like me, take the Petit Train de Bonifacio (€5) and save your legs for the walk back down.

Natural attractions

A 30-minute boat trip with SPMB Promenades en Mer (€35) from Bonifacio to the nature reserve at Lavezzu – part of the archipelago Iles Lavezzi – is one of the highlights of my stay and shows how close the French island of Corsica is to Sardinia, its Italian neighbour which is just eight miles away.

We have a picnic lunch on Lavezzu, an unspoilt island of granite rocks where there is little but an abandoned shepherd's hut and a cemetery housing the remains of 700 sailors who died in a shipwreck in 1855.

On the hour-long journey back, it's fascinating to see the sheer white cliffs and caves, one of which locals say is the shape of Napoleon's hat. The boat even goes inside one cave to see a hole to the sky. It's an impressive feat when they turn the boat around to get it out again.

There is also a fantastic view of the King of Aragon's Stairway, 187 steps which were said to have been cut into the cliff by invading soldiers in 1420, although the less dramatic truth is that it was created by locals in a natural rift in the cliff to access drinking water.

For those staying longer, Delphine – who has been a tour guide for nine years – recommends a trip to see the spectacular rocky red granite needle-shaped peaks of the Aiguilles de Bavella in the south of the island.

Delving into history

While we don't manage that, we do squeeze in a visit to the Aleria Museum (€2) where fascinating objects from the history of Corsica include fertility symbols and drinking vessels in the shape of animals' heads.

The ticket price includes a look around the remains of the ancient town of Aleria, built between the first and second century BC, with parts of the forum, shops, temples and baths visible following excavation.

While relaxing in Corsica's glorious sunshine may be top of most holidaymakers' to-do lists, there is plenty to do for anyone who prefers to be out and about.

The island's Mavela whisky distillery – which was launched in Aleria in 1999 to produce its artisan Corsican whisky – is open for tours from May to October, and also produces eau de vie spirits from local crops of chestnuts and myrtle berries.

A taste of the island

Some farms which make cheese and yoghurt from sheep and goats' milk also offer tours and tastings. The cows we see grazing on Corsica during our travels are only kept for meat not milk, Delphine explains.

The island also produces essential oil from the scented, yellow, everlasting 'immortelle' flowers, which grow wild in the countryside. The oil is used in age-defying skincare by Helios di Corsica, as well as being used by L'Occitane and sold on high streets in the UK.

Corsica is quite rightly proud of its produce and we end our stay with lunch at Aux Coquillages de Diana, a popular fish and seafood restaurant on stilts at the Etang de Diana in Aleria on the east coast.

The produce is caught in the brackish water of the Diana lake shortly before it's served up to hungry diners (moules marinieres with chips €16) in the bustling restaurant with views over the placid water.

French and Italian influences ensure Corsica offers visitors a delicious menu and a unique experience but, while its history is fascinating, it is the island's modern vibrancy which makes it such an interesting place.

So, forget Napoleon brandy and fill your glass with chestnut beer, rose wine or myrtle liqueur, and enjoy the flavours of Corsica.

FACT FILE

:: Sunelia Perla di Mare is open from April to October each year. A lodge (sleeping five) costs from from €378/£335 per week; sunelia.com/en

:: Air Corsica flies seasonally from London Stansted (from £103 return) to Ajaccio, Bastia and Figari in Corsica, and from airports in mainland France; aircorsica.com

:: For information about the island, visit corsica-pro.com

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