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French island home to a constellation of medieval cities and tiny hill towns

Kayaks on Tonnara Beach in Corsica. Credit: Aefa Mulholland

If you think France stops at the delicious strip of beaches that hems the South of France, look again. Corsica, Napoleon’s birthplace, basks in the Mediterranean, just a brief flight or ferry ride across the Ligurian Sea from Nice or Marseille. It might no longer be an independent island nation, but don’t tell its fiercely proud inhabitants. The officially French island has a constellation of medieval cities and tiny hill towns — and a fierce character that has outlived occupations and invasions by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Saracens, Lombards, Genoese and, finally, the French. One visit to the 183-by-84-kilometre island explains why it has been so hotly contested. It's a wonderland of beaches, tiny hill towns laced with roads barely wide enough for a lethargic donkey to trot along, and an abundance of medieval hill towns and fortresses. Budget flights have reached the Île de Beauténow, making it accessible, but it still feels as if you've just inched off the map.

Calvi, population 5,500, perches on the northwest coast of the island — known as the Corsican Riviera — and has an imposing 15th-century Genoese citadel, crumbling four- and five-storey houses with sun-bleached shutters that loom over narrow alleys, and many cats that sleep in the sun. It’s something of a surprise to discover that this ancient fortified town is home to one of le plus chic spots in the Mediterranean, celebrity magnet Chez Tao, a lavish piano bar housed in a former bishop's palace. The waterfront below offers an enticing choice of restaurant bars, perfect for trying the local delicacy, sanglier (wild boar), sipping something delicious and watching the sun set over the bustling harbour.

On the west coast, budget flight destination Ajaccio offers a brace of museums, including Napoleon's birthplace. Southern city Bonifacio has a charming port, an old town perched on a 60-metre-high limestone cliff and a gay beach. Central Corte is the island's university town. Porto-Vecchio, on the southeastern coast, boasts the island's most star-studded beaches and luxe lodgings to match. The hill towns of the north, such as Sant’Antonino and Pigna, offer windows into the past: crumbling, old cellar restaurants where servers squeeze lemons into tart lemon-pressé drinks; impossibly steep steps that lead up to faded churches; and upright old women who speak only Corsican.

Two-thirds of the island is mountainous and a substantial portion is densely forested, but at sea level more than 200 beaches confetti a 1,000-kilometre coastline. Some beaches offer fine sand and perfect sunbathing opportunities. Other rocky coves have fantastic snorkelling. More than a few lure sports enthusiasts. At Plage Algajola on the island’s breezy east side, kite- and windsurfers gear up for the gusts and skim along the crests of insistent waves. Even the most remote sandy strip has its own unassuming beach restaurant, complete with linen-covered tables, palapas nestled in the sand and a menu of astoundingly fresh fish and salad. Areas of unruly bush and grass grow around many northern beaches. The maquis, as this scrub is called, is full of rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme. Each step stirs up amazing aromas — the island even smells good. Supermarkets sell wee gingham bags of the herbs to take home. The southern beaches are the busiest. Not to be missed are the popular Tamaricciu, the stunning Rondinara, glitzy Palombaggia and the bar-strewn Campomoro.

The five-star La Villa offers impeccable food, exquisite rooms, an infinity pool and thrilling citadel and Bay of Calvi views. At the other end of the island, Bonifacio’s new Hotel Genovese holds court from the cliff. Indifferent service is more than compensated for by the incredible views and the stunning outdoor pool.

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