The only divider between Corsica and Sardinia is the skinny Strait of Bonifacio, which stretches eight nautical miles between the Mediterranean islands. Despite speaking local languages that sound more similar to each other than their respective countries (Corsica is French and Sardinia is Italian), these two islands appear more like fraternal twins than mirror images. Sardinia measures six times the size of Corsica and is known as a celebrity playground. In the 1960s, Prince Karim Aga Khan began heralding in the jet-set crowd (along with their private yachts, of course). This lead to the development of luxury resorts like Hotel Cala di Volpe, which still stands today.
Corsica, meanwhile, is less about plush beach clubs and more about natural beauty, which is best seen on hikes skirting the coastline. What both of these islands do have in common, however, is their pride and elusiveness. Shop hours are loose, restaurants close on a whim, and the best mode of transport — four wheels — is also one of the most dangerous: especially as roads dramatically twist through the center’s mountainous terrain.
On my first visit to Sardinia, my hotel’s house car (a Maserati, naturally) whisked past the ancient olive groves and vineyards along the slopes of the Supramonte mountain range; we took the skinny country roads as if we were racing in the Monaco Grand Prix. The next time around, I decided it was better to go at a slower pace — and one that I could control. I booked the first departure of the new Backroads Sardinia & Corsica Multi-Adventure Tour (which starts at $5,099 per person) and spent six days trekking across the islands in some of the most scenic ways possible: by foot, kayak, bike, and horseback. Here’s a snapshot of some of the best ways to explore Sardinia and Corsica by land and sea.
Shop (and Savor Local Cuisine) in Costa Smeralda
From the Olbia Airport (one of the island’s three main airports), it’s a 40-minute drive to Monte Cugnana, where a six-mile hiking trail snakes up Costa Smeralda’s jagged, pink granite peaks to the artist village of San Pantaleo (known for its Thursday crafts market) and out toward the Mediterranean Sea. Rest your feet along the way and refuel in town on the terrace of Caffè Nina with a platter of traditional cheese like ricotta stagionata (aged ricotta) served alongside Sardinian specialty pane carasau, a thin, crunchy circular flatbread that shepherds on the island once took with them while they tended to their flock. Before heading down to Costa Smeralda and the chic coastal town of Porto Cervo, pop into a few of San Pantaleo’s designer-driven boutiques like Yashu e Prem, a husband-and-wife-run shop that sprouted from their beachwear line that was once sold at hippie market stalls. Another standout spot: Petra Sarda, which has sold handmade stoneware since 1981.
Island Hop in the La Maddalena Archipelago
A 30-minute zodiac ride from Porto Cervo lies La Maddalena, one of Sardinia’s — and Italy’s — best-kept secrets. The archipelago consists of seven large islands and 55 smaller isolotti, with the majority of the maddalenini (inhabitants) living on the main island of La Maddalena. A 20-minute cycling route runs along the coast and up into the hills of La Maddalena, passing by deserted coves that would feel right at home in Cap d’Antibes in the South of France, or St. Barts in the Caribbean. A bridge connects the island with Caprera, which gets its name from the Italian word for goat (capra): a nod to the smaller island’s main inhabitants. The main draw here is the white-sandy shore that’s practically yours for the taking — hidden from the road by the characteristic Mediterranean maquis, or evergreen shrubs. Set your sights on Cala Coticcio or Cala Napolentana and cool off after with a dip. The tucked-away turquoise inlets of two of the island's most stunning beaches also double as great spot to visit while kayaking around Caprera.
Hike in Bonifacio
“Corsicans have always been shepherds — they wouldn’t live on the coastline,” explains our guide, Christine, as we admire the Bastion de L’Étendard, a 15th- century fortress — France’s highest — which rises above the port of Bonifacio (less than an hour ferry ride from Sardinia’s port of Santa Teresa di Gallura).
Perched on top of a limestone peninsula, the fortified city of Bonifacio is appropriately named the “City of Cliffs,” with steep staircases carved into the chalk-white crags. The city was initially a defense against pirates before falling into the hands of the Genoese in the 12th century. Its old town is still a mix of Pisan and medieval fortifications, which accentuate its past life as a military stronghold.
After getting your bearings in the old town, which hovers over the harbor, head down to the boats in the port below and begin your three-mile trek. The marked paths pass through the surrounding hills toward the lagoon-like Paraguan beach (a common spot to arrive via horseback), sidetracking along the way with trails to landmarks like the red tower-topped limestone lighthouse of La Madonetta.
Cycle Through Propriano
A 37-mile stretch of the Mare a Mare sud (sea to sea) trail links the Alta Rocca region’s perched alpine villages, stretching east from Porto-Vecchio to Propriano, a small port on the island’s southwestern coast. The Tour de France has held stages in Corsica, if that gives you a hint at what the terrain looks like. While the ride isn’t reserved for athletes, you’ll climb nearly 3,300 feet. One of the many rewards: a freshly grilled homestyle lunch (think veal-wrapped saltimbocca) on the al fresco terrace of Chez Dume in Sainte Lucie de Tallano, where you can admire views of the valley unfolding below. Once you’ve made your way down to Propriano, it’s a short drive over to the fishing village of Campomoro. From here, a two-mile hike winds along the coast and up to a Genovese watchtower, with steps leading up to 360-degree views of the surrounding sea. Once you’ve worked up a sweat, head back to the beach and take a dip (or, if you're certified, you can scuba dive right offshore) before relaxing with a glass of rosé on the terrace of upscale beach eatery U Spuntinu.
Museum (or Island) Hop in Ajaccio
Ferries from mainland France dock in capital city Ajaccio, where statues and streets bear the name of one of the town’s most famous resident: Napoleon Bonaparte. Visit the former French emperor’s birth home, which is now a national museum. Alternatively, peruse the collection of paintings curated by Napoleon’s uncle (the archbishop of Lyons, Cardinal Joseph Fesch) at the fine arts museum housed inside Palais Fesch, which is home to France’s largest Italian painting collection after the Louvre. If you’re staying in town a few days, hop on a boat and cruise to the îles Sanguinaires (the Blood Islands), four ruggedly beautiful islets where the main attractions are nature walks and fiery sunsets.
Go Food Shopping
While you’ll come across more designer boutiques here than on other parts of the island, shopping isn’t one of the highlights in Ajaccio — unless you’re going food shopping, that is. Pop into three-year-old gourmet market Maison Ferrero (named after the charming propriétaire, Dominique Ferrero), which is stocked with a carefully curated collection of more than 2,500 Corsican and French products, from locally cured meat and cheese to an impressive range of wine (some of which is exclusive to the shop).
Reserve a seat at A Nepita for dinner, an intimate bistro tucked on a side street, where a daily changing menu offers two nightly market-sourced dishes. For something more formal, take a seat at A Terrazza, the Mediterranean eatery unfolding on the seafront terrace of Hôtel-Demeure Les Mouettes. The former 19th-century summer villa has led many lives, transforming from a residence to an inn when well-heeled travelers from northern Europe started wintering on the island one century later. The palm tree-lined, 28-room boutique hotel offers a resort feel thanks to its private beach and heated saltwater pool (a more inviting option for the majority of the year when the Mediterranean Sea is too chilly for a dip). After a week of adventuring around the islands, this is just the kind of place you’ll want to hole up in for a few days, stretching out on the sunbed of your private terrace, watching the waves slowly roll in to shore.