Island-hopping by ferry from Corsica to Sardinia and Sicily
Richard Hammond takes the laid-back route to Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily on a no-fly island-hopping adventure in the sun...
I was standing on the top deck of a ferry looking out across the Strait of Bonifacio that separates Corsica and Sardinia. The sun was shining, the sky was perfect blue and the sea was calm. We soon passed the headland and turned into the protected harbour at Santa Teresa di Gallura. Ferry trips can be one long, stomach-churning pitch-and-roll, but this crossing had taken only 90 minutes and it had been a pleasure: fresh sea air, clear views of Sardinia's historic coastline and near perfect sailing conditions...
On board the ferry from Sardinia to Sicily. Photo: Richard Hammond. I'd taken the ferry to Sardinia because I didn't want to fly to the Mediterranean. Cutting down on carbon was a factor, but I also wanted the option of staying longer at a beach or a bar without having to worry about rushing to catch the next connection. It's ironic, the slower you travel the easier it is to be spontaneous, even if that just means choosing to spend a few more hours dozing in the sand dunes.
So I took the sleeper train to Nice to catch the ferry across the Mediterranean with three islands in my sights. It looked on the map like it could be a slog, but according to the timetables, it was just a short hop to Corsica, a skip across to Sardinia and then one long jump over to Sicily. The crossing from Nice to Bastia on Corsica took three hours, and from there I headed west towards Ile Rousse, spending the night at an "auberge ferme", where I was told about a two-day walk along the beach-studded coastline of the Desert des Agriates (right: Plague de Ghignu).
My original plan had been to head immediately inland to Corsica's mountains, en route to the island's southern port at Bonifacio, but the weather was perfect and the walk into the Desert des Agriates was too good to miss. This truly is slow travel: a two-day trek along the desert's 40km rugged coastal path – the sentier de littoral – one of the longest stretches of protected coastline in the Mediterranean. If you like your beaches hard-won, this is the way to do it.
I then travelled inland to Hotel Monte D'Oro, near Vizzavona, in the heart of the island's mountain range. It's one of the oldest hotels in Corsica and oozes antiquity without being ostentatious. There's a creaking old staircase with sepia pictures on the walls, and an ivy-clad restaurant that serves food from the owner's farm with a range of Corsican wines. The owner's grandmother famously stood up to the Italian soldiers who took over the hotel during the second world war. She was furious that they had turned her small chapel at the back of the hotel into a stable for their horses and made her feelings known to a visiting Italian High Chaplain who ordered the soldiers to raze the chapel to the ground and rebuild it as a mark of respect.
After the short skip across from Corsica to Santa Teresa di Gallura at the northern tip of Sardinia, I travelled inland to the Supramonte mountains, staying for a couple of days at Hotel Su Gologone, a stylish country hotel, designed by the owner's daughter, with low-set, white-washed walls overlooking rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves. There's a spring-fed swimming pool, a gym, a museum of traditional arts and crafts, and a large restaurant, which serves local specialities, such as sweet and sour wild boar roasted in front of the fire. The hotel is a few hundred yards from the eponymous Su Gologone spring, the starting place for walks into the Supramonte.
The area is former bandit territory and the maze of confusing pathways means it's easy to get lost, so I was advised to hire a guide who led me and two other guests for a morning's hike into the Lanaittu Valley and up to a Bronze-Age village tucked into a cave near the top of Tiscali mountain. The long jump across to Palermo, Sicily, from Sardinia's southern port of Cagliari took about 15 hours, but I spent most of it asleep in my cabin, and woke as we arrived in Palermo, mid-morning in bright sunshine. I headed straight to Riserva dello Zingaro (above left), a nature reserve an hour west of the capital.
Like Corsica's Desert des Agriates, it's a protected area with several stunning beaches that are off-limits to cars. A €2 entrance fee ensures the upkeep of the seven-kilometre waymarked coastal track that weaves in and out of hidden coves and wide sandy beaches, with occasional deviations to large caves that provided welcome shade in the midday sun. I then spent four days at Il Paesino (right), a self-catering agritourism just outside the ancient city of Syracuse in the southeast of the island.
Agritourisms range from those that offer little more than a room at the back of the farmyard to those that are more like a boutique hotel than a working farm. Il Paesino is somewhere in between. The old farm buildings have been converted into plush apartments, there's a large olive grove, a swimming pool, and a restaurant that serves meat and veg from nearby farms and local Sicilian wine. It's a 20-minute drive into Syracuse and the ancient city of Ortigia, once the capital of the Mediterranean. I spent the day walking around the cobbled streets of this ancient city and my final evening watching a performance of Agamemnon at Syracuse's Greek Theatre (in the remains of the amphitheatre where it was first performed by the ancient Greeks), as the sun set over the bay. Above: Il Paesina agritourism, Sicily. Photograph: Richard Hammond.
The final leg of my journey involved taking the train back through Italy. Although it's just a few kilometres from Sicily across the Straits of Messina to the mainland, the train is actually carried across on a boat - a bizarre construction that scores zero points for carbon efficiency, but would impress anyone who has ever owned a train set. There was talk some years ago about building a bridge over the crossing, but the idea was ruled too dangerous because the area has a long history of seismic activity. After boarding the train, the two halves separated and slid onto the ferry's rail tracks separately, grinding to a halt, side by side, in the belly of the boat. The crossing took just forty minutes then the trains re-joined and we sped off along the Italian coast up to Rome. The whole trip had taken just over two weeks, yet it wasn't the slog it had looked on paper. Boarding the ferries had been hassle-free, the boats had been clean and punctual, and I'd had the freedom to cross the islands at my own pace. I'm planning to cross the islands again, only next time I intend to carry on to Malta. For a no-fly, island-hopping adventure in the sun, the Mediterranean now feels a lot closer to home.
Getting there '
For a detailed guide to taking the train from London to Corsica see: Train and ferry from London to Corsica.
Train from London to Paris costs from £59 return and the sleeper from Paris to Nice costs from £30 single in a six-berth couchette. Ferry from Nice to Bastia costs from €29 (£22.80) (corsicaferries.com). Ferry from Bonifacio to Santa Teresa di Gallura from €13.22 (£10.40). Ferry from Cagliari to Palermo costs from €93.07 (£73.25) for a single bed (tirrenia.it). Train from Messina to Rome costs from £39 single and the sleeper from Rome to Paris costs from £42.50 single in a 6-berth couchette.
Where to stay: A night at Su Gologone costs from £79 per person half board and a week at Il Paesino costs from £690 including car hire based on two sharing (long-travel.co.uk, +44 (0)1694 722193). For more information about holidays in Corsica, follow the link below: