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Originally published Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 7:05 PM

Head for the hills of Corsica

When people find themselves at a loss for words to describe Corsica, it's usually the island's staggering beauty that trips them up. But my guide and...

The New York Times

If You Go

Corsica tourist office

www.visit-corsica.com/en

quotes As a yearly visitor to Corsica, I love my time there and one of the main features of... Read more

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When people find themselves at a loss for words to describe Corsica, it's usually the island's staggering beauty that trips them up.

But my guide and I were grappling for synonyms to describe another defining feature: its vertiginous and ever-twisting mountain roads. "Dangereux," he groaned as he swung his black Nissan 4X4 around one of many unforgiving bends. "Trop difficile."

Jacky Marie, a spry 54-year-old from the tiny town of Favalello (population about 20), was driving us from a remote forested mountain region known as Le Boziu, to the Vallée de la Restonica, where we would spend a half-day hiking up to a pair of glacial lakes and back.

When Americans think of Corsica, they probably picture what it and other Mediterranean islands are known for most: seaside resort towns. And yes, Corsica owes much of its reputation to postcard-perfect beaches that seem almost Caribbean with their white sand and sapphire water.

Towns like Bonifacio, with its towering citadel and buzzing waterfront cafes, or Porto-Vecchio, with its yacht-filled harbor and night club scene, have become Corsica's better-known destinations.

Corsica's wild side

But another Corsica lies tucked behind the mountains that many visitors only glimpse from their beach towels. This is wild Corsica.

Peaks as craggy as a set of broken teeth scrape the sky. Streams of rushing river water slice through deep gorges where boulders the size of cars rim the shores of perfectly still lakes. Sheep and pigs range free, fattening themselves for the cheese and charcuterie that are staples of the central Corsican diet.

At just 3,400 square miles (Washington state is more than 71,000 square miles), this French island territory is easily explored by car — if you have a stomach and nerves of steel.

My partner, Brendan, and I spent five days on the island, and our goal was to see as much of the interior as we could, from little towns to trails. With this in mind, we mapped out half-day hikes through several of the island's most famously beautiful valleys, each one (as we would discover) more removed and spectacular than the next.

We flew into Ajaccio, which with roughly 65,000 residents is the closest thing Corsica has to a large city. After we picked up our rented hatchback Peugeot, we took off up a two-lane highway that would lead us toward our destination for the first two nights: the tiny town of Mazzola in Le Boziu.

The first thing that struck us was how quickly the topography changed. Corsica is an island of many micro-regions, and over the course of a half-day you can travel from lush and forested mountains, to rocky gorges, to coves of sparkling sea and soft sand.

I drove well under the accepted Corsican speed limit, somewhere between dangerously fast and death defying, not just because I feared plunging off a cliff, but because the scenery was impossible to ignore.

Only about 20 miles as the crow flies separate the coast and Monte Cinto, Corsica's highest peak at almost 8,900 feet. After barely half an hour in the car, we were marveling first at the barren rocky landscape near the ocean, then at the dense pine forests as we drove deeper into the interior.

In late afternoon, we arrived at Mazzola and found our bed-and-breakfast, the Casa di Lucia, perched on a hillside where many of the buildings bore inscriptions from the 16th century. We were promptly met by the owner, Jean-Charles Fabiani, a painter who grew up in one of the neighboring towns and, along with his wife, Martine, had opened the B&B several years ago.

As we were about to sit down for the four-course meal Jean-Charles had prepared, Jacky, the hiking guide, arrived to review our itinerary for the next day and read through a checklist of what we would need. Backpack? Check. Raincoat? Check. Water bottles. Check. Hiking boots?

Would tennis shoes suffice?

There was a long pause. Then a smile.

No matter, he said, and asked us for our shoe sizes. He promised to bring two pairs of boots with him when he returned in the morning.

Kindness to strangers

Corsicans have a reputation in certain quarters for being brusque and sometimes unfriendly to tourists. Yet we found nothing further from the truth, whether it was Jacky lending us hiking boots or Jean-Charles complimenting my French (barely passable).

This generosity toward foreigners (or at least toward us) can belie a fierce streak of nationalistic pride, especially for those who live in the island's center, where the capital was based during a brief period of independence in the mid-18th century. Corsica has been ruled variously by the Genoese and the French, and is now officially considered a territorial collectivity by the French government, giving it a state of semi-autonomy that preserves some self-government.

Judging from some of the graffiti we saw as Jacky drove through the town of Corte (or Corti, as Corsicans spell it) toward the Restonica valley, at least some Corsicans would like to cut France out of the equation entirely.

But thoughts of ugly conflict were far from our minds. Soon we arrived at the trailhead to Lac de Melo, a glacial lake about 840 feet above sea level, nestled among snow-capped peaks.

Jean-Charles and Martine had packed picnics in our backpacks of couscous and niçoise salads, baguettes and cheese. How often does roughing it involve having a niçoise salad strapped to your back?

Our ascent to the lake was fairly simple. A steel ladder here and a link of chains there helped us navigate the steep rocks. The lake, with its still black surface reflecting both the soot-colored rocks directly surrounding it and the barren peaks soaring higher above, had an otherworldly, almost lunar aspect to it.

Jacky decided not to continue on to another lake, Lac de Capitello, because he didn't like the look of some approaching dark clouds.

The next day, after a breakfast of French-press coffee, bread and fig jam at the Casa di Lucia, we packed our Peugeot and drove toward the north-central town of Ponte-Leccia, passing Corte along the way.

Dramatically poised atop a protrusion of rock that rises from the valley floor, Corte commands panoramic views of mountain ranges in every direction and is popular with tourists. Partly for this reason, we didn't stop, but headed on instead toward Ponte-Leccia, where we had a hotel reservation.

I came across the website for our hotel in Ponte-Leccia before it had even opened, curious to witness a fledgling business trying to get a toehold in one of Corsica's most remote regions.

But when we pulled into the Ascosa Ecolodge's parking lot, I was sure I'd made a terrible mistake. More storage trailer than the sleek boutique eco-hotel I had seen online, the exterior looked like something that should have been hitched to an eighteen-wheeler.

When I walked inside, however, my concerns were eased. The lobby's design had modernist flair. Globe lamps that looked like an Italian designer's version of Chinese lanterns dangled from the ceiling, casting a soft light. Small bistro tables were arranged around the bar, which featured an impressive wine list scrawled on a blackboard. Large windows overlooked the rolling hills of a vineyard just a few yards away, one of Corsica's highest.

Our room was similarly low-key — a spare, bright, open space brought to life with design flourishes that included a cone-shaped sink rising up from the ground, and a chair and mirror made from tree branches. (This cost us, by the way, just 70 euros a night, the kind of bargain we had been delighting in ever since we arrived in central Corsica.)

More and more views

In the morning we prepared for our final valley — the Asco, described in one guidebook as a place of "breathtaking landscapes."

"More of them? Really?" wondered Brendan, as we set off for a 1 ½-hour hike to the base of Monte Cinto.

The trail — more of a natural stone staircase that helped us easily negotiate the steep terrain — wound through a forest of giant pines that was as lovely on the nose as it was on the eyes. Aromas of pine needles hit us when the wind picked up.

When we got near our destination, we climbed on top of a boulder the size of a Hummer that allowed us to see over the treetops toward Monte Cinto and its smaller sibling peaks. These were the biggest mountains on the island, and it is difficult to do justice to their imperious, snow-capped majesty. We were lost for words.

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