I'm ready for Corsica. I have my striped boat-neck tee, my easy little tank dress, my rope-soled espadrilles—and a guide to driving a manual-shift car. Because before I can get to the blue bays and honeysuckle-scented hills of the mountainous French island 100 miles southeast of Nice, I'm going to have to get that Peugeot I've rented into reverse.
I could have skipped the car, and my nervous first attempt at driving a stick in 35 years, and planted myself under a striped umbrella at one of southern Corsica's touristy beach resorts; plenty of visitors happily do just that. But I wanted to see another side of the Mediterranean's fourth largest—and arguably most beautiful—island. At 130 miles long and 50 miles wide, with a central spine of 6,500-footers that gives way to corded acres of vineyards and olive groves before plummeting to the sea, Corsica is an implausible mashup of landscapes (Tyrolia meets Tuscany meets Tonga) that cries out for exploration—and wheels. My destination is the relatively undiscovered northeast coast, made more accessible recently by an increase in flights into northern Corsica's Bastia airport and more enticing by the emergence of a handful of stylish small hotels, terrific restaurants serving Corsica's singular earthy cuisine, and a network of small-batch producers making everything from wild-boar sausage to chestnut flan.
The car bucks and dies. Another try and I'm off, slowly easing onto the two-lane highway. A couple of roundabouts (one circumnavigated twice), one stall-out, and I find the mountain road I need. And what a road it is: serpentine, narrow, skirting the edge of steep slopes. In my rearview mirror, I see a long line of cars. I pull over to let them pass—and take in the amphitheater of forested hills, some dotted with stone villages, below me.
I descend to sea level and pull into Saint-Florent, a pretty 15th-century fishing village curved around a natural harbor. The citadel that looms above the terra-cotta roofs and town square petanque court is a remnant of Corsica's long history with Italy, just 50 miles across the Tyrrhenian Sea to the east. After centuries of Genoese rule and a brief period of independence, Corsica was sold to France in 1768— a move that generations of Corsican separatists have railed against ever since. Along the marina, a row of restaurants with blackboard menus tout the day's catch: rouget, loup de mer, langouste. I take an open table, look across the docked yachts to the peaks I've just come through, and flag down a waiter. I could use a glass of wine.
Just out of town, I find the Hôtel Demeure Loredana and a balconied room overlooking the water. In the morning, I drive into the countryside following signs pointing to vineyards, farms, and workshops. I sample a crisp vermentino at the Domaine Orenga de Gaffory winery, buy a pot filled with foraged herbs in Julien Truchon's ceramics studio, poke my head into Christelle Dervieux's hillside fromagerie (nobody here—she's out with the goats), and pick out a football-size smoked pork lonzu at Charcuterie San Sebastianu.
The next day, I take a shuttle boat to Les Desert des Agriates, a vast protected area of undeveloped coastline and fragrant shrublands known as maquis accessible by foot or sea, or by bicycle or horseback. Lotu Beach, where we land, is beautiful, but I want to see Saleccia, said to be one of the Mediterranean's best strands. After more than an hour on the rocky coastal path, I come around a point and spot it—a half-mile sweep of ivory sand fronting translucent cyan water, backed by dunes and Aleppo pines. Glorious, and for now, I have it nearly to myself.
Later, I'm in the car, bouncing down a narrow dirt track in search of a rustic farm restaurant called Le Potager du Nebbio. It's worth finding. I order samosas filled with herbed brocciu, Corsica's signature creamy sheep's milk cheese, and a mint-laced salad. Over a glass of housemade myrtle liqueur, owner Sophie Pollini tells me she and her husband started with organic gardens, a produce stand, and three tables set under olive trees strung with fairy lights. When people started to come, they added more tables and more lights—now, reservations are hard to get.
"Still, we try to do things the human way," she says. "Not too much."
That sense of balance is the essence of this northeast coast. I find it again the next day in Oletta, a hanging hilltop village of pastel stone houses. After some tricky downshifting to maneuver the steep cobblestone lanes, I spot U Palazzu Serenu, a pale gray-and-white Florentine-style palace turned luxury hotel. Owner Georges Barthes, impeccable in a blue linen suit, cornflower scarf, and laceless navy Jack Purcells, escorts me to my room, cool and white and spare. A rooster crows as I lean out the large window to take in the view: a turquoise lap pool, a clipped lawn, and beyond the rolling hills, Saint-Florent and the glinting sea.
Over espresso the next morning, Barthes explains why he left Paris for this remote hillside. The founder of an international chain of rose shops, he traveled widely for business and was disappointed in the places he stayed. "For 20 years, I held in my head a dream hotel," he says. While at his summer home on Corsica, Barthes learned the 17th-century palazzu was for sale. Seven years ago he sold the flower business, bought the mansion, and set out to restore it to match his chic, minimalist hotel fantasies.
He asks me what my plans are for the day. I tell him I'm not sure.
"You must drive the Cap Corse," he says.
I've read about that corniche road around the island's prominent 25-mile-long northeast peninsula, an intimidating white-knuckler. Those who have dared it said it should be driven clockwise, in order to always be on the safer inside lane.
"Drive east to west," he says. "You must. Otherwise, the beauty is always behind you."
I go, starting out in the rain. I pass through a village with wisteria dripping from latticed doorways and spot the ruins of a round Genoese watchtower on a wave-frothed, rocky point. To the east, Elba—the Italian island where Corsica native son Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled—emerges dark and hulking from a lifting mist. By the time I make my way down a twisting luge run of a road to Centuri, at the top of the west coast, the sun is out. I eat lobster-filled ravioli overlooking painted fishing boats in the small harbor, walk along the seawall, and then get back in my car and head south.
I'm into the really hairy stuff now: the switchbacks, the drop-offs, the vertigo-inducing vistas. Most of the traffic is coming the other way. Guidebook followers, I think. This isn't so bad. The windows are down. The air smells of rockrose and broom. Curve after curve, I shift and brake and shift again. And around each corner, a revelation: a hilltop windmill; an opalescent cove; the white blade of a distant sail, tracking south. Let the hills spill into the blue sea. I'm driving.