Northern Corsica

286km (178 miles) SE of Marseille; 137km (108 miles) SE of Nice

Corsica is where residents of Provence and the French Riviera go on holiday. The Mediterranean island is breathtakingly beautiful: Its empty coastline, its sky-topping mountains, or its Italianate piazzas will leave you at a loss for words.

Not only does Corsica boast what are generally regarded as three of the Top 10 beaches in the world (plage Saleccia, plage Rondinara, and place Palombaggia), its spiny mountain center is also crossed by the GR20, arguably the most awesome hiking trail in France. Little wonder that ferries shuttle out of Marseille and Nice harbors to the Northern Corsican towns of Calvi and Bastia all year round.

Quite reasonably, Corsicans have long been keen to protect their language, culture, and environment. Even Corsica-born Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t manage to definitively incorporate the island into the French state. After France’s capitulation in World War II, Corsica was placed under Nazi rule. The ferocity of the local resistance fighters—known as the maquis after the fragrant scrub where they hid—ensured that the occupiers only held onto a tiny coastal strip. After liberation, the island was nicknamed USS Corsica as it hosted a dozen or so American Air Force runways, as the Allies flew sorties over southern France.

In recent decades Corsicans have received more autonomy from France. The once-banned Corsican language (a relative of Italy’s Tuscan dialect) is now practiced at Corsica’s only university, the Università di Corsica Pasquale Paoli, in the island "capital" of Corté. Locals still like to let off steam by defacing or shooting French-language road signs. But such sentiments are directed at the disinterested government in Paris, and not towards the tourist industry that forms islanders’ main form of income. With only 320,000 residents (the same population as Nice) spread over 8,680km2 (3,350 square miles), Corsica has an empty stretch of sand for everyone. Better still, the slow cruise over from France is a holiday in itself. Note that we haven’t included restaurant recommendations along the northern coast. Dropping into unnamed beach shacks, local markets, and fisherman-run restaurants is all part of the charm.