There are plenty of upshots to having an only child: holidays (under-occupancy supplements aside) are one of them. Pretty soon, it seemed, my son Joe was old enough to take anywhere, and while friends back home were battling with pull-ups and toddler tantrums for the second or third or – God help them – fourth time, our small but perfectly formed family was rolling down sand dunes in Oman, tracking leopards in South Africa and riding dragon boats in Thailand: trips that would have seemed inconceivable (and prohibitively pricey) had we had a younger sibling (or three) in tow.
Oh yes, pretty fearless we three Flanagans… But every tribe has its weak spot, and for us it was the (dun, dun, duh) European Villa Holiday. The idea of staying somewhere that lacked plenty of external distractions – ideally gross ones such as hyena poo – or other kids for Joe to play with gave me the collywobbles. I mean, once you’ve exhausted the beach, what do you do? Get out the Travel Monopoly?
Fears are best off faced, though – which was how we ended up at U Paese Di l'Ondella, a small complex of rustic but luxurious villas on Corsica. Anyone who’s ever been there assured me we’d love the island: “The beaches! The food! The scent of the maquis in the air!” But deep down I wasn’t convinced that my rabble of a family and such an allegedly glam’ location would be a good fit.
But it wasn’t a disaster… It was different, but it wasn’t a disaster, for the following reasons. First off, we went somewhere completely new. Admittedly, Corsica isn’t exactly the Outback, but discovering it together – rather than opting for, say, Greece, which we knew well – upped our sense of family adventure and lessened the likelihood that, if it all went pear-shaped, we’d spend our time bitterly wishing we’d played safe and booked Mousses on Lefkas again. It also helped that U Paese di l'Ondella was a cut above the family apartments we’d rented in the past – it was like walking into a Fired Earth catalogue, with stylish touches everywhere we looked. Chez Flanagan seemed a pit in comparison, but we were working on the premise that with only one child, there was less likelihood of our trashing it (another bonus!).
The villa is in quite a secluded little spot, on the hillside above the main road linking the towns of Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio. Joe, a sucker for mod cons, was taken with the deep infinity pool and hot tub, but even those could only hold his interest for so long, so it was lucky we were a short drive from two of Corsica’s most famous beaches, Palombaggia and Santa Guillia. Both would give St Barts a run for its money. Icing-sugar white sand? Check. Crystal-clear water? Check. Immaculately manicured mothers in Gucci flipflops, guaranteed to make you wish you’d hit the gym harder before you left Blighty? Check.
As beautiful as the glam’ August hordes, the gently shelving bays were understandably popular with families. We’d come armed with paddlebats and ball (which we quickly lost) and a football – the latter is an essential element in every one-child family’s arsenal, drawing in kids wherever you are. Joe soon had a game going and from then on he could have llived on the beach.
Luckily, it appeared that the Gucci mums didn’t do mornings, so by hitting our local beaches early we could avoid the worst of the crowds. But to keep things interesting, we took turns to choose an area of the map to head for and whiled away several afternoons discovering a host of inlets. The island’s east coast, towards Favone and away from the glitterati, was equally beautiful but had infinitely quieter beaches where the cost of sun-lounger hire didn’t leave us laughing hysterically (at Palombaggia you’d have thought we were trying to buy a time-share.) Still, if you’re counting the Euros, do as locals do: buy a sun umbrella from a supermarket for about the same as a day’s hire.
But, as we’d expected, there came a point where all three of us were sick of the beach and that ball. Fortunately, Porto Vecchio and the stunning medieval town of Bonifacio were also an easy drive away. Porto Vecchio, the nearer of the two, heaved at night. Built by the Genoese in the 16th century, this walled harbour town is Corsica’s answer to St Tropez, with cafés and restaurants spilling out onto the pavements, narrow streets swarming with fashionistas, and expensive restaurants taking over the ramparts. Yet the atmosphere of the citadel lingers – as we sat munching crêpes at The Black Pearl (one of the cheapest options, though still costing €40 for the three of us), it was easy to imagine the town under attack from yet another bunch of ruthless invaders. (For a true feel of what it’s like to be robbed, hit one of the fancy pick ‘n’ mix sweet shops… If we’d had more than one kid we’d have had to remortgage.)
Bonifacio’s incredible walled Haute Ville was also worthy of exploration. You can walk through the tunnels in the citadel’s walls, while the contents of the fabulous harbour are an even bigger draw: we tried to keep our jaws off the floor, but with boats the length of our street back home, it was impossible.
“They must all be Roman Abromavich’s,” Joe declared.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Russian oligarch to take to the sea here. Rocca Croisières has a fleet of (much smaller) boats that will take you out for the day for €45 a head. The tour took us out past the back of the old town, where houses clung like limpets to the cliff edge (we couldn’t help but wonder how on earth they got insurance) and on to the Iles Lavezzi, part of an archipelago of uninhabited granite rock islands fringed by countless sandy coves. Boats run to and fro like buses, so you can stay for the entire day or just an hour or so. It’s slap-bang in the middle of a large marine reserve, with no shop to be seen, so take a picnic, suncream and plenty of water.
Oh, and take some fish food too: the islands are, as we immediately discovered, fantastic for snorkelling. I expected to see little so close to shore, but dipping down below the waist-high water, I nearly swallowed my snorkel:
“Octopus! Octopus!” I shrieked, before remembering that I was underwater so nobody would hear me.
A master of camouflage, within seconds it had vanished, leaving Paul and Joe convinced I was joking. Far less shy were the vast shoals of fish of all shapes and sizes that besieged us as we swam out further. Lured in by the loaf of bread we’d cunningly brought with us, they churned around us in search of scraps, making the waters appear to boil.
Despite the allure of its coastline, it was Corsica’s interior that truly convinced us we’d made the right choice for our solo jaunt. Driving up the coast as far as Solenzara, we headed inland to the Col de Bavella. Completely unspoiled and, after the buzz of the coast, wonderfully peaceful, its mountain scenery is simply astonishing, dominated as it is by the Alguilles de Bavella or ‘stone needles’, with peaks rising to more than 1600m. Well-marked mountain trails make walking here a joy; hardier types can try mountain-climbing, canyoning and the high-ropes adventure course at Ospédale.
All that was too high-octane for us in all the August heat. And so instead we spent our final afternoon in glorious isolation, clambering over mountain-river boulders rubbed ice-smooth with time, and swimming in deep, cool rockpools the colour of jade. Yep, it was just the three of us… And it was magical.
Find out more about family holidays in Corsica, including things to see and hand-picked family-friendly accommodation options.