Hal shoots me a glance that comes as close as the gaze of a near-four-year-old boy can to disbelieving cynicism.
He is not convinced by my suggestion that Arlo, the titular star of 2015 Pixar movie The Good Dinosaur, might – possibly – be just up the trail. Nor is he entirely buying my claim that the coxcomb peaks around us are the very mountains of the parallel-universe Montana and Wyoming that provide his favourite film’s setting. Still, buoyed by the certainty that no father would ever fib to his son, he redoubles his efforts, short legs skipping blithely over the pebbles – until, as his energy and enthusiasm expire, I hoik him on to my shoulders and we stride to the top of the bluff, to see the land dropping away sharply under us, and the Tyrrhenian Sea sparkling beyond.
In truth, although we have walked only a few yards from the car park, this is a minor act of parental selfishness. I have wanted to glimpse Corsica’s high-rise interior since the Tour de France used it as a spectacular curtain-raiser to the race’s 100th edition in 2013 – and here it is, beneath my feet, for the sake of a wo-hour drive along the switchback roads of the Route de Bavella loop. In such context, what are a couple of white lies about a fictional apatosaurus?
Corsica’s first (and, to date, only) appearance in the world’s most feted cycle event was a rare blast of publicity for a European outcrop that, while known to the French, has often escaped the attention of other tourists – and is scarcely touted as the destination of choice for families chasing summer sun. It is – what amounts to consensus states – too swarthy and too wild, and not exactly a place for young children.
It is also too ill-defined on the map, too vague a concept. Where is it, anyway, aside from the fact that it sits somewhere in the Mediterranean, next to its equally rugged Italian cousin Sardinia? You might even ask, if you were being mischievous, if, at more than 600 miles from Paris, it is French at all.
I cannot see the next-door island from my viewpoint on the Col de Bavella. But, peering at the way the landscape rears and kicks, I can almost appreciate the doubters’ concerns. Almost. Because, by the time Hal and I have descended a few hundred feet, into roadside hostelry the Auberge du Col de Bavella, we are more convinced than ever that Corsica is suitable for children.
Admittedly, Hal’s opinion has been bought by a big slice of apple tart, with a side of vanilla ice cream, which is smeared across his face. Mine is built on the sturdier foundation that we have had another fine day in a week of increasingly fine days.
We are based at sea level, at Stella Cadent, a villa tucked into the village of Sainte-Lucie-de-Porto-Vecchio in the south-east of the island. It has already proved a literal case of good things coming to those who wait – revealing its location only after a right-angled turn off the highway into what seems to be a blind alley, then some bumpy gear-wrenching down a twisting gravel track.
The pay-off is a happy sense of solitude, and a temporary home that will maintain our contentment – a large kitchen, a lounge with television and DVD player, Wi-Fi that works, and a swimming pool outside flanked by olive trees. It sleeps six in three bedrooms – a moot point, as we are but two, thanks to an unexpected surge in my wife’s workload, and my determination that a June booking shouldn’t be wasted – not least a booking in my son’s last June before the school system clutches him tight.
When the flight touches down, the jovial David Henry ushers passengers from terminal to car-hire offices, ensuring that children are found cups of water and seats within as their parents queue, briefly, out in the Gallic sunshine. He reappears the next morning on the steps of the villa, and spends an hour – part of the service he extends to every group of guests – recommending restaurants to suit the under-fives, and attractions that will hold their attention.
‘The beaches to the north of the Gulf of Porto-Vecchio tend to be quieter, and more family-friendly,’ he explains. ‘Those to the south are more organised, but busier. And you have to pay for parking down there.’
David’s advice prepares us for a few days of exploration – although we slip into a routine that demands a lot of splashing first. We become used to swimming before breakfast, aided by a support-team of armbands, flotation vests, lilos and inflatables – returning to the water in the evening as the sun plunges behind the ridge.
In the hours between, we go in search of adventure. Bonifacio is an unmissable source of interest. The southernmost town in (European) France is a pretty proposition, pinned so firmly to the end of the land mass that ferries tootle out of its harbour to Sardinia (which winks in the distance) – and so raised up on clifftops that it can be depicted as a fragment of a fairy tale far more plausibly than the interior can be cast as Wyoming.
The conceit is abetted by the tourist “train” that trundles up from the harbour, halting at the walls of the medieval citadel. Inside, the walkway along the ramparts sparks a trip to the nursery rhyme “I’m the king of the castle”, and the chance to point in amazement at a seagull of such remarkable size that it could be an eagle dipped in white paint. Adjacent, Le Time, on Place du Marche, sells sundaes of such delicious decadence (including a creme brulee glace) that the age gap between father and son melts as fast as the ice cream.
Porto-Vecchio is another delight. There is a discernible chicness to Palombaggia Beach, and a similar sparkle to Plage de Santa Giulia, with its designer sunglasses and its expensive bikinis.
The trend continues in town, where the boutiques on Avenue du Marechal Leclerc mimic the Marais, and the yachts in the marina along Quai Pascal Paoli flutter eyelashes at St Tropez. But there is no snootiness. We set up a lunchtime station at Tropicana, a restaurant on the bay front, where there is a two-course children’s menu for euros 11 (Dh50) featuring chicken nuggets and frites for Hal, and a slab of grilled sea bass (euros 22) and a panorama of fluttering sails for me.
Our wanderings uncover further indications of Corsica’s suitability for family holidays. The exit from the airport immediately throws out the Prokart go-karting course, which is all but signposted from the runway. Our drive up the Route de Bavella serves notice of Xtrem Sud, an adventure park on the shore of the Ospedale reservoir, where young daredevils scurry along ropes slung through the trees. And there is identical amusement for teenagers three miles west of Sainte-Lucie, where A Tyroliana clings to the hillside in a blur of high-wire derring-do.
Hal and I have headed here in search of the Piscines Naturelles de Cavu – rock pools nestled in the craggy terrain – but find ourselves staring upwards at the braver souls scuttling above us as we dangle feet in the sun-warmed water.
Then there is the glorious stretch of coastline, due north of Sainte-Lucie, to which we become quietly addicted. No airs and graces here, but there are plenty of opportunities for flights of fancy.
The defensive watchtower at Fautea, which still monitors the horizon for enemy ships, is a 16th-century remnant of the era (1284-1729) when Corsica was ruled by the Republic of Genoa. But Hal, with the merest hint of encouragement, comes to see it as a “princess castle” which can be accessed via an exuberant march along a winding path through appropriately thick gorse and undergrowth. That there is no Sleeping Beauty waiting, no icy Elsa – and no ogres on the way – does not seem to matter at our journey’s end.
Tarcu, a hop further north, has a mini-golf course, where 18 gauntlets of trial and error are inventively designed to resemble dolphins, snakes and whales – and therefore conjure an untiring glee that far eclipses the pointlessness of rolling a ball towards a hole.
But our favourite is Favone – a hamlet positioned next to a long strip of soft, clean sand. Here, waves rush to shore with enough zeal for paddling to be a thrilling experience, ever fraught with the giggle-inducing threat of wet shorts – and for a water sports centre to be operating midway along the beach, surfboards propped against its sides to tempt older tourists.
I make a mental note of this for some future summer, then whisk us across the road to La Favone, one of several welcoming eateries pitched in earshot of the waves – where there are pizzas, colouring books, and portions of steak hache.
As the weekend approaches, we realise that the get-up-and-go required to visit even this idyll, eight miles from the villa, is unnecessary.
We slumber in our surroundings, nipping down to A Pizzetta, a food stall in Sainte-Lucie which proffers cheese-heavy margheritas and golden chips. And we drift to Pinarellu, Sainte-Lucie’s seaside companion, where there is another beach, further eateries – and the unexpected joy of Cinema A Ruscana, an open-air big screen, which is showing Cars 3 to a gaggle of juniors.
The incongruity of watching a Disney tale of talking Corvettes in a clearing of Corsican pines does not occur to me until Hal is asleep, dreaming of Lightning McQueen, and I am sitting on the porch thinking that our trip for two could not have gone better.
Getting there Connect to Corsica’s three main airports (Ajaccio, Bastia and Calvi) through France’s big three – Marseille, Nice and Paris. Both Nice and Paris have direct connections with the UAE.