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A mile or so south of the thrumming tourist-trap that is the Corsican clifftop town of Bonifacio, across turquoise waters dotted with tiny islets, lies a secret island called Cavallo.
Part of the Lavezzi archipelago, the wild little island is covered with maquis and its coastline liberally sprinkled with smooth granite boulders that put one in mind of the Seychelles, the Maldives or the West Indies. It’s as if an undiscovered Caribbean island has been dropped in the Mediterranean for the pleasure of moneyed Italians and French who don’t fancy the transatlantic flight. We went for a week last month and, on the ferry ride over from mainland Corsica, sat in the company of a French family – the parents hidden behind mirrored shades, their two children entertained by a nanny and, peeping from the handbag cradled in the mother’s lap, a tiny dog watching the blur of aquamarine.
Understated luxury, nature and extreme privacy are the watchwords on Cavallo. The tiny, 2km-long French island is owned and run by a small consortium of landowners, the Association Syndicale Ile de Cavallo (ASIC), which says it “guarantees security, discretion, and calmness”. Mooring in the coves is prohibited without permission and cars are banned, so the island’s sandy tracks are navigated by electric golf buggies.
There’s only one hotel – the four-star Hôtel & Spa des Pêcheurs – with a very good (and expensive) Italian seafood restaurant, a small pool and spa, and a friendly little beach bar. There’s one sparingly-stocked grocery shop, a small bar near the port (really a marina that fills up with yachts in July and August) and a brilliant little pizza place, La Ferme, perched atop the island’s only hill. That’s it.
Dotted around the rocks are houses built in a range of architectural styles. At the end of one promontory sits a sort of modernist fort, while some houses look like homages to Gaudí; others seem transplanted from mid-20th-century Palm Springs. One even played host to a hedonistic nightclub in the 1960s, when Parisian club-king Jean Castel owned the archipelago. Castel set aside the other islands as a nature reserve in return for development rights on Cavallo.
The jet set followed, including singer Petula Clark (who once said of Cavallo: “We lived like gypsies and washed in the sea. It was paradise on earth”), and actress Catherine Deneuve (who shot the 1972 film Love to Eternity there).
The archipelago changed hands, but the wealthy still came. Princess Caroline of Monaco is rumoured to have a place and Victor Emmanuel, Prince of Naples, lived in exile there. More recently, celebrities such as Beyoncé have visited to escape the paparazzi.
It’s not hard to see why the rich and famous – and the rich and secretive – come. The island is framed by a coastline seemingly built from a thousand Henry Moore sculptures – vast granite boulders that, like clouds, take on different shapes (is that a hippo? A lion?) as the light shifts. Sprinkled among them are little sandy beaches, and an azure sea.
After the boom in the late 1960s and 1970s, the island struggled through the 1980s and 1990s, cursed by corruption, too much building and a couple of bombing raids attributed to Corsican nationalists angry at the takeover of the islands by outsiders. Today, money is being invested in the long term viability of the island by the syndicate. A recent edict from the mayor has banned any further building and the shells of unfinished houses must be taken down if they don’t have a roof. It will mean the protection of the island’s character, ecosystem – and, of course, property prices.
This year, too, UK tour operator Simpson Travel began offering packages to the island (the first in the country to do so). It has two villas available, the Beach House – a Caribbean-style bungalow – and the more modern Maison Bleu, both owned by the mayor and stunningly situated.
Visitors can also stay in the hotel or in one of the self-catering apartment it runs, as my wife and I did. It was a comfortably appointed, very modern affair; our only gripe was that the kitchen was rather sparsely equipped. Still, the hotel restaurant was minutes away and our 18-month-old was welcomed at breakfast each morning like the island’s returning one true prince by the friendly Italian waiters.
We rapidly fell into a daily routine: breakfast, golf buggy to one of the beaches, a spot of sunbathing, snorkelling and sandcastle-building, lunch and people-watching in the breezy beach bar, followed by an afternoon on a different beach. Rinse and repeat.
Out of a sense of cultural duty one morning, we thought we ought to venture over to Bonifacio on the ferry. It’s a mere 15 minutes by boat to the port at Piantarella and a short drive in the hire car provided (that spent most of the week parked waiting for the return journey to the airport at Figari).
Bonifacio, perched precariously on the clifftops facing Sardinia, is breathtaking. Yet we only lasted a morning. A few hours spent wandering the tourist-filled streets had us scampering back to Cavallo for lunch. After all, when you have a private island at your disposal, you don’t leave.
Carl Wilkinson was a guest of Simpson Travel (simpsontravel.com) which offers a week’s stay in an apartment at the Hôtel & Spa des Pêcheurs from £905 per person (based on five sharing), or from £2,225 per person based on two sharing a room at the hotel, both including flights from London, car hire and return ferry
Four experts reveal their favourite island retreats
The Kornati islands, Croatia
We were sailing up the Adriatic, pushed by the Sirocco wind, when an archipelago appeared: about 100 islands of every shape and size. Arid, covered in rocks or olive trees, they protruded from the sea like upside-down craters – the Kornati.
With the calm water, it almost seemed as if we could walk from one island to another. Below its clear surface, dolphins and seagrass meadows could be seen.
Traces of the past – foundations, fallen remnants of columns and capitals from the 1st century AD – can be found near the tiny ports. There are long dry-stone walls, used to enclose sheep, and simple houses, many of which are for rent.
After the long sea crossing, a restaurant, in a fisherman’s house, appeared like a mirage. We were brought a huge oval platter of spaghetti and lobster (that we had seen being taken from the sea), and grilled fish that, together with the wine, satisfied all our desires. Francesco da Mosto
For details, see kornati.hr
Francesco da Mosto is a Venetian architect, writer and TV presenter. He is the author of ‘Francesco’s Mediterranean Voyage’
Not all Aegean islands are Greek. Bozcaada, one of the Turkish-owned pair guarding the Dardanelles, is an enchanting anomaly, a 30-minute ferry ride from mainland Geyikli and a must-see for visitors to nearby Troy or the Gallipoli battlefields.
The four-mile island, untouched by package tourism but increasingly popular with arty Istanbullus, is fronted by a beautiful harbour town of shaded lanes, neoclassical mansions serving as stylish small hotels such as the Kaikias (kaikias.com), and traditional wineries. These mostly turn out fearsome plonks from the local Karalahana grape, though newly established winemakers such as Amadeus have lately transformed the island’s output.
Hire a bike or scooter to explore the lanes leading through vineyards to fine sandy beaches such as Ayazma and Ayana – though expect chillier seas this far north. Check out the private museum to discover the island’s Greek heritage. Eat outstanding yaprak dolma (hot vine leaves stuffed with rice) at Hasan Tefik (Alsancak Sokak 2). Jeremy Seal
For details of ferries to Bozcaada, see gestasdenizulasim.com.tr/en
Jeremy Seal is the author of two books about Turkey, ‘A Fez of the Heart’ and ‘Meander’
Dragonera and Cabrera, Spain
The ancient Mallorcans didn’t welcome visitors. Foreign merchants were allowed to land on islets just off the coast to load up with Mallorcan salt: primitive offshore trading. But there are two larger, habitable islands off the southern and westernmost tips of Mallorca: the humpbacked Dragonera (also known as “Lizard” island, a naturalist’s paradise) and Cabrera (or “Goat” island, with its natural harbour and spectacular sea caves). Dragonera’s only inhabitants have been lighthouse keepers but Cabrera was first settled in 500AD by Christian hermits, producing purple dye, and from 1809 to 1814 it was a prisoner-of-war camp for 9,000 of Napoleon’s soldiers. In the 1980s, massive street protests (in which I participated as a musician) stopped a tourist development scheme on Dragonera and reclaimed Cabrera from the military. Today both are national parks, open to visitors in daylight hours. Boat trips are available from Sant Elm (for Dragonera) and Colònia Sant Jordi (Cabrera). Tomás Graves
Tomás Graves, son of poet Robert Graves, is the author of ‘Bread and Oil’ and ‘Tuning Up At Dawn’ about the history and culture of Mallorca, where he lives
Kythira is a small, picture-perfect Ionian island opposite the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese peninsula with a dramatic, rugged landscape. Steep, rocky cliffs swoop down to meet deep, turquoise waters so clean and clear that it’s hard to imagine anyone has even dipped their toes in the water before you.
I stayed on the eastern side of the island in a sweet little coastal village called Avlemonas, with family-run cafés, bars and tavernas bringing the place to life.
It was tempting to look no further than this pretty little spot, but I was glad I did. Driving on, I came across the village of Potamos and its old-fashioned general store. Opened in 1945, it was an Aladdin’s cave, bursting with bounty from fabrics to old-fashioned fans. Claire Lloyd
Claire Lloyd is the author of ‘My Greek Island Home’, and runs a guesthouse on Lesbos (mygreekislandhomeguesthouse.com)