The best holiday islands in France – and when to visit them
If the Caribbean is very attractive, it is not necessary to cross an ocean to land on a French island bathed in sunshine. Corsica is perhaps the most obvious piece of the Gallic seaside puzzle – the fourth largest outcrop in the Mediterranean and the largest to steal the Tricolore. It’s a monster; 3,368 square miles of scenic harbors, mountain ridges and balmy beaches. The first category – all the seaside restaurants and chic boutiques – is occupied by northern Bastia and a west coast capital, Ajaccio, which was the birthplace of Napoleon (la Maison Bonaparte – national-museums- malmaison.fr/musee-maisonbonaparte – takes up this tale). The second dominates the horizon in the central massif of Monte Renoso and the northwestern peaks of Monte Cinto – playgrounds for hiking and cycling. The third are everywhere, along a coastline that stretches over 1,000 kilometers – but find their most attractive form, perhaps, in the south-east, in the sandy coves that border Porto-Vecchio.
Essential view: Bonifacio, the medieval citadel in the far south of Corsica, where you can stroll to the Place du Marché on top of a cliff and contemplate Sardinia 11 kilometers away.
How to do: The extent and the geographical diversity of Corsica lend themselves to all escapes. If cycling is your forte, ‘Corsica, The Beautiful Isle’ – an eight-day itinerary that stretches from Bastia to Porto and back, via the Cinto slopes – may interest you. Skedaddle saddle (0191 265 1110; skedaddle.com) will run it as a private ride (as well as a guided tour) from £2,145 pp (with bike hire; flights extra). Less energetically, a week at Villa Contemporanea, a five-bedroom retreat in Porto-Vecchio (ref: 13405), arriving July 30, costs from £8,729 (plus flights) via James Villas (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk).
September to October
There is, of course, a second group of French islands in warm, azure waters – and it lies much further from the mainland than Martinique. At 9,750 miles, in fact. This is the distance between Paris and Papeete – the capital of French Polynesia, and the largest settlement on its most legendary outcrop, Tahiti. That said, “tallest” is a relative concept in the South Pacific, a region rather short on urban sprawl but blessed with delicate beaches and whispering palms. And while Tahiti is stunning, the length of the trip means you’ll definitely want to island-hop all the way to Moorea, where Mount Rotui towers like a gripping serpent. And at Taha’a, 150 miles to the northwest; a jewel fringed with coral reefs and superb snorkeling opportunities, as well as luxury resorts.
Essential view: Bora Bora. Neighboring Taha’a is the picture-book image of the South Pacific in all its glory – the main island shrouded in a barrier reef and shallow lagoon.
How to do: European fall is a great time to visit Tahiti – French Polynesia’s dry season runs from March to November. Luxtripper (020 4538 2013; luxtripper.com) offers an 18-night “Luxury Tahiti Island Hopping” stay that also lingers at five-star properties in Mo’orea, Taha’a, and Bora Bora. From £9,608 pp including flights.
The Frioul Archipelago
While Tahiti slumbers half a planet from the heart of the French landmass, the Frioul Islands are much closer to the mothership, two miles west of the main port of Marseille. Yet despite their proximity, they bear little resemblance to the country’s second congested city. They are low and desolate, strolling, sunburnt and pale as seen from the doorway of Marseille’s perched basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde. But their stone face has a hard appeal. The second smallest of the four outcrops, If, is home to a 16th-century fortress that holds an intriguing place in Gallic mythology; forever linked to the mysterious “Man in the Iron Mask”. The link is apocryphal – this notorious 17th century political prisoner was never held indoors (the association likely stems from Alexandre Dumas’ 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 prison – Alcatraz in France, if you will – which was used until 1890.
Essential view: Plage de Saint-Estève, a horseshoe bay on the second island, Ratonneau.
How to do: The archipelago can be an ideal afternoon element for an autumnal mini-stay in Marseille. Ferries (lebateau-frioul-if.fr) depart regularly from the Old Port. A three-night stay at the four-star NH Collection Marseille costs from £798 pp, including flights, transfers and breakfast, through Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com).