Although the Caribbean is vastly enticing, you don’t have to cross an ocean to land on a French island bathed in sunshine. Corsica is perhaps the most obvious piece of the Gallic seaside jigsaw – the fourth largest outcrop in the Mediterranean, and the biggest to fly the Tricolore. It is a behemoth; 3,368 square miles of picturesque ports, mountain ridges and soft beaches. The first category – all waterfront eateries and chic boutiques – is filled by northerly Bastia, and a west-coast capital, Ajaccio, which was the birthplace of Napoleon (the Maison Bonaparte – musees-nationaux-malmaison.fr/musee-maisonbonaparte – takes up this tale). The second dominates the skyline in the central Monte Renoso massif and the north-westerly Monte Cinto peaks – playgrounds both for hiking and cycling breaks. The third are everywhere, along a shoreline which runs to 620 miles – but finds their most attractive form, perhaps, in the south-east, in the sandy coves which fringe Porto-Vecchio.
Essential sight: Bonifacio, the medieval citadel at Corsica’s southernmost tip, where you can stroll to the clifftop Place du Marché and gaze at Sardinia skulking seven miles away.
How to do it: Corsica’s size and geographical diversity lend themselves to all manner of escapes. If cycling is your forte, “Corsica, The Beautiful Isle” – an eight-day route which trundles from Bastia to Porto and back, via the Cinto slopes – may appeal. Saddle Skedaddle (0191 265 1110; skedaddle.com) will arrange it as a private ride (as well as an escorted tour) from £2,145 per person (with bike hire; flights extra). Less energetically, a week at Villa Contemporanea, a five-bedroom retreat at Porto-Vecchio (ref: 13405), arriving on July 30, costs from £8,729 (flights extra) via James Villas (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk).
September to October
There is, of course, a second cluster of French islands in warm, azure waters – and it lies much further from the mainland than Martinique. A full 9,750 miles away, in fact. That’s the distance between Paris and Papeete – the capital of French Polynesia, and the biggest settlement on its most fabled outcrop, Tahiti. That said, “biggest” is a relative concept in the South Pacific, a region rather short on urban sprawl, but blessed with delicate beaches and whispering palm trees. And while Tahiti is gorgeous, the length of the journey means you will certainly want to island-hop to next-door Mo’orea, where Mont Rotui rears like a striking snake. And to Taha’a, 150 miles to the north-west; a jewel fringed by coral reef, and brilliant snorkelling opportunities, plus luxury resorts.
Essential sight: Bora Bora. Taha’a’s neighbour is the picture-book image of the South Pacific in all its glory – the main island enveloped by a barrier reef and a shallow lagoon.
How to do it: The European autumn is an excellent time to visit Tahiti – the French Polynesian dry season runs from March to November. Luxtripper (020 4538 2013; luxtripper.co.uk) offers an 18-night “Luxury Tahiti Island Hopping” holiday which also lingers in five-star properties on Mo’orea, Taha’a and Bora Bora. From £9,608 per person, including flights.
The Frioul archipelago
If Tahiti snoozes half a planet away from the core French landmass, the Frioul islands sit much closer to the mothership – two miles west of Marseille’s main harbour. Yet in spite of their proximity, they bear scant resemblance to the country’s cluttered second city. They are low-slung and desolate, loitering sun-baked and pale when viewed from the door of Marseille’s hilltop basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde. But their flinty face has a hard appeal. The second smallest of the four outcrops, If, is host to a 16th-century fortress which occupies an intriguing place in Gallic mythology; forever tied to the mysterious “Man in the Iron Mask”. The link is apocryphal – this notorious 17th-century political prisoner was never held inside (the association probably comes from Alexandre Dumas’s use of it as a cage for the titular hero of his 1844 thriller The Count of Monte Cristo). But you can enter the cells of a jail – France’s Alcatraz, if you will – that was used until 1890.
Essential sight: Plage de Saint-Estève, a horseshoe bay on the second island, Ratonneau.
How to do it: The archipelago can be an ideal afternoon element of an autumnal mini-break in Marseille. Ferries (lebateau-frioul-if.fr) depart regularly from the Vieux-Port. A three-night stay at the four-star NH Collection Marseille costs from £798 per person, with flights, transfers and breakfast, via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com).
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