Exploring the ‘Scented Isle’: A Sea Kayaking Adventure in Corsica


We were in a rush to get to the ferry. A highway closure added to our already slow pace. Laden with boats and gear, our truck is better suited for gravel roads than smooth highways. But we made it, and by the time we debarked four hours later, we had already adopted island time and all urgency melted away.

Corsica welcomed us with sunshine, palm trees and Genoese Baroque-style architecture. It was time to get a lay of the land and a taste of the island. We found a café overlooking a busy square in the port city of Bastia and spread out the map, anchoring the corners with empty mugs and glasses of Cape Course liquor. Some people plan their holidays in advance. We let the weather guide us. Parked a few hundred meters away, our truck stood out against the tanned tones of the stone buildings. Strapped to the roof like torpedoes were our sea kayaks. And keeping them company, our comparatively chubby whitewater boats. With no precipitation in the forecast, the sea kayaks would get wet first.

Our priorities in trip planning directly complimented the perks of sea kayak travel. Where can we go, that no one else can get to? How can we see the most with the least amount of effort? What can we see from the water, that can’t be seen from the car? With roads that circumnavigate the island, you can drive along the kilometers-long beaches of the east coast, or wind along the cliff-top roads of the west coast. Turn inland and you’ll find 2,000+ meter (almost 7,000 foot) mountain passes with towering Corsican pines, their flat-topped silhouettes layered by thin whips of clouds, the result of warm air from the sea meeting the cold air of the mountains.

A land of mountains and sea, Corsica has changed hands often throughout history. Recorded history of the island dates to around 560 BC when Greeks settled on the east coast, followed by the Romans, and then the Byzantine Empire. The Republic of Genoa took control of the region from 1284 until the native Corsicans sought independence in the 18th century. By 1755 they partially succeeded and their leader, Pasquale Paoli, declared an independent democratic state and created a constitution. But pockets of the island, including the fortress towns of Calvi and Bonifacio, remained under Genoese control. By 1769 France had conquered Corsica. Ironically, France received the island from the Genoese, to pay off the debt accumulated while enlisting French military support to suppress the Corsican revolt. In that same year, the future Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte, was born in the current capital of Ajaccio.

But the Corsicans are resilient people. You can see the defiance of what some perceive as French occupation on every road sign and roadside wall. “Go Home France” was the first and most easy to decipher, which I saw once we were back in the truck, zig-zagging up the mountain pass, Col de Teghime, to swap the city for the beach.

We crossed the island at its most narrow point, leaving the beachy east coast for the rugged west. Corsica sits off the coast of France and Italy in the Ligurian Sea. From its longest point to its widest, it measures 183 kilometers (114 miles) long and 83 kilometers (52 miles) wide with 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of coastline. To the south is Corsica’s big sister, the Italian island of Sardinia which is almost three times the size and just 15 kilometers away at their closest point.

Corsica’s shape roughly resembles a face pointing west, with a feather or bandana sticking out vertically from the back of the head. The unique and easily distinguishable silhouette is visible all over the island, used in business logos, bumper stickers and a black head with a white bandana is the official emblem and flag of the island. Year-round the main ferries arrive from Toulon and Nice, France and Livorno, Italy. In the summer months, people on yachts arrive from all directions, seeking the secluded coves and secret beaches that you can only access via water.

We took the beach day to prep boats and acclimatize. Napping on the beach after we rigged the sails on our kayaks, I watched the seagulls circling in the sky and the ants circumnavigating feet with the soothing symphony of crickets and waves keeping the beat. After the flurry of wrapping up work and packing, the more I slowed, the more I saw, felt and heard. Senses come alive when you aren’t moving fast.

We drove to the settlement of Galeria, about 20 kilometers south of the city of Calvi, where the beach is the main attraction. The quaint downtown had all we needed: a boulangerie (deli), a patisserie (bakery), and a brasserie (brewery), where we stocked up on supplies. Corsica’s history shines through the modern-day sights and tastes—a mix of French and Italian with a Corsican flavor. Pick-up trucks with hunting dogs in the back depict their appetite for wild boar and the friendly-with-a-tough-exterior personality of the locals. My rudimentary French got me through the shopping mission, but the true Corsican language—formally identified as “Italo-Dalmatian”—includes elements of Italian which I lack.

An end-of-April trip meant that the weather and water were still cool so that we could keep the boar salami, goat cheese and Corsican beer cool in our kayak hatches. Yet, it was warm enough to paddle in long sleeves and a shorty drytop, which we wore more to protect from the sun and salt than for warmth. We took our time packing and Rok ensured that he had all the lures to fish at different depths, while I packed enough rice to accompany the protein.

Hauling the loaded kayaks down to the water was the most arduous part of the trip. Here, on the Ligurian Sea, clear water took on a new meaning, and we gazed at sea urchins and rounded pebbles under our boats as we pushed off shore. Paddling out, we could still see reefs and boulders under us, even when we were hundreds of meters from shore. A fisherman’s dream.

Prior to departing, Rok had used Google Earth to scout out camp beaches along with deep sections for fishing. The cliffy west coast of the island appealed to us for its remoteness. The weather forecast looked amiable, so the exposure and associated wind, waves and swell were far from our minds. After years of expedition-paced trips—hiking, ski touring, canoe tripping and river kayaking—sea kayaking held a different appeal. These boats were designed for distance, but also for comfort. We knew we could push it if we needed to. But enjoying ourselves and taking the time to explore the coves, caves, beaches and villages was the real allure.

The novelty of paddling with a skudder (foot-pedal-operated rudder) was only outshone by the sails attached to our kayak bows, which we used to explore Scandola Nature Reserve. Corsica takes conservation seriously and has six nature reserves which cumulatively cover about 40% of the island. Scandola has strict no-debarking rules and forbids anchoring between the hours of 11 pm and 6 am to deter yachts.

It was still off-season, so we had the reserve to ourselves, and the morning light lit up the red walls we paddled under. We could have cut across the bay, but like many times on this trip, we chose the long way around, lining the coast to get a real idea of scale and details. The rock formations changed from bubbles to spires to boulders, like even the stones were confused if the island is Mediterranean or mountainous. Our leisure pace allowed for observation and contemplation. A chick from an Osprey nest high on a spire peaked out to say good morning, its momma circling overhead. We politely moved on.

Each point offered something to look at, something to look forward to, and something to gauge our progress. We kept an eye on the paper map and carried phones within reach for emergencies but had them tucked away on airplane mode.

By the second day, we were well accustomed to the freedom of movement on water. We paused to watch seabirds overhead. A flock of fearless Great Shearwaters dove and danced as they hunted surface fish. We admired tiny jellyfish, translucent purple discs that blanketed the water, glittering on the surface.

According to the map, a rural fishing village was tucked into the back of the next cove. Accessible only by boat or footpath, paddling up to Girolata transported us back in time, though the village seemed only half awake from winter slumber. We had arrived weeks before the usual tourist boat traffic. The shutters remained closed on most houses and many of the restaurants were still boarded up. A little luck gave us an open café, and a beer and coffee later, we were back on the water, waving goodbye to the village kids who were making seaweed sand cakes on an old windsurfing board.

Each evening, well before sundown, we would select a pebble beach, pull our kayaks on shore and lay out sleeping bags and mats. With a beer and a book, or a rod and hood we occupied the last hours of light. We ate barracuda one night and pasta the next. We left only footprints and removed any garbage. Each night, cloudless skies treated us to a cinema of stars, and the moon was so bright we didn’t need headlamps.

As much as we reveled in the remote spots we could reach, somehow civilization continued to draw us in. Maybe it was the ancient architecture…or maybe it was the artisan ice cream. We sailed into Porto, taking in a vista worthy of pulling out the camera. Castle ruins camouflaged with the surrounding red rocks in the direct mid-day light and old eucalyptus trees towered above where the Porto River meets the sea. We took advantage of the freshwater to wash our bodies and salt-encrusted clothes, refueled on ice cream and restocked on water, bread and wild boar salami.

We departed and paddled beneath the cliff-side town of Piana, a popular stop for motor tourists but all but invisible to us. There were almost no signs of humans at water level, save for the occasional buoy marking anchors points for the million-dollar yachts that pepper these coves in the summer. We had the caves to ourselves. The calm seas and our kayaks allowed us to explore each one, some so narrow you could barely get a paddle blade in the water.

We were riding a lucky streak of weather, but on the occasional afternoon when the waves or wind kicked up, we simply found a beach and waited it out. One afternoon we rounded a rough point and were accosted by a sweet aroma. We looked up to see the bright yellow flowers of the island’s maquis (macchia) shrubs blanketing the south-facing slope. This fragrant but basically impenetrable scrub brush covers much of the island. It’s said the fragrance of the yellow flowers can be smelt out at sea, earning Corsica the name, “the scented isle.”

Under the backdrop of yellow macchia, we used a piece of driftwood as a cutting board and sliced a fine charcuterie lunch. “We could put in a long day, if we needed to,” we kept telling ourselves. We just never needed to. Once the wind direction changed, we set sail again. Staying close to shore lost its appeal as the geography became less extreme and roads and houses reached the sea.

We did a couple longer crossings bypassing big bays where the beaches started to get larger and longer. It felt good to rest my eyes on the green strips of a sheep field perched on the flank of a mountain ridge, something lush after days of rocks and scrub bushes against sun-bleached cliffs.

We woke on the fifth and last day, to waves and swell, as if the sea was reminding us that she had gifted us incredible weather. After a two-hour crossing—our biggest yet—my right foot was cramping from constant pressure on the skudder as we fought to hold our angle against the waves and wind. The Liamone River delta was our destination, but we didn’t quite make it. With the swell picking up, we headed for shore, the most northern point of the beach about a kilometer before the river. We were both revived by the sensation of catching some long surfs into the sand.

Lounging on the beach to a soundtrack of waves and seagulls, we watched the weather turn, and sought refuge in a rundown wooden beach hut and let it set in…the coastal adventure was over.

There is a Slovenian saying, “The carefree farmer gets the thickest potatoes,” and it rang true for this trip. Potatoes being superb weather, calm seas and fresh fish. Our paper map later informed us that we covered 150 kilometers over the course of five days. But we counted this trip in fish caught, caves explored and naps taken in the sand.