Although the Caribbean is very alluring, you don’t have to cross an ocean to land on a sun-drenched French island. Corsica is perhaps the most obvious piece of the Gallic coast puzzle – the fourth largest outcrop in the Mediterranean and the largest flying the Tricolore. It’s a beast; 3,368 square miles of picturesque harbors, mountain ridges and rolling beaches. The first category – all waterfront restaurants and chic boutiques – is filled by northern Bastia and a west coast capital, Ajaccio, which was the birthplace of Napoleon (the Maison Bonaparte – musees-nationaux-malmaison.fr/musee-maisonbonaparte – takes up this story). The second dominates the skyline in the central Monte Renoso massif and northwestern Monte Cinto peaks—playgrounds for both hiking and cycling breaks. The third are everywhere, along a coastline that stretches 620 miles — but perhaps their most attractive form is to the south-east, in the sandy coves that line Porto-Vecchio.
Essential Sight: Bonifacio, the medieval citadel at Corsica’s southernmost tip, where you can stroll to the cliff-top Place du Marché and marvel at Sardinia seven miles away.
How it goes: Corsica’s size and geographical diversity lend itself to all types of escapes. If cycling is your forte, ‘Corsica, The Beautiful Isle’ – an eight-day route running from Bastia to Porto and back via the Cinto slopes – might appeal. Saddle Skedaddle (0191 265 1110; skedaddle.com) can arrange it as a private ride (as well as an escorted tour) from £2,145 per person (with bike hire; flights extra). Less energetic, a week at Villa Contemporanea, a five-bedroom retreat in Porto-Vecchio (ref: 13405), arriving 30 July costs from £8,729 (additional flights) via James Villas (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co .uk ).
September to October
There’s a second group of French islands, of course, in warm, azure waters — and they’re a lot further from the mainland than Martinique. In fact, a whopping 9,750 miles away. That’s the distance between Paris and Papeete – the capital of French Polynesia and the largest settlement on its fabled promontory, Tahiti. However, ‘biggest’ is a relative term in the South Pacific, a region less developed than urban sprawl but blessed with soft beaches and whispering palms. And while Tahiti is beautiful, the length of the journey means you’ll surely want to cruise island-to-island to Mo’orea next door, where Mont Rotui rises like a conspicuous serpent. And to Taha’a, 150 miles north-west; A jewel fringed by coral reefs and excellent snorkeling opportunities as well as luxury resorts.
Essential Sight: Bora Bora. Taha’a’s neighbor is the picture-postcard picture of the South Pacific in all its glory – the main island encased by a barrier reef and shallow lagoon.
How it goes: European autumn is an excellent time to visit Tahiti – the French Polynesian dry season runs from March to November. Luxtripper (020 4538 2013; luxtripper.co.uk) offers an 18-day “luxury Tahitian island-hopping” holiday, also staying at five-star properties on Moorea, Taha’a and Bora Bora. From £9,608 per person including flights.
The Frioul Archipelago
If Tahiti is half a planet from France’s mainland mass, the Frioul Islands are much closer to the mother ship – two miles west of Marseille’s main port. Yet despite their proximity, they bear little resemblance to the country’s second largest city, which is overcrowded. They are low and desolate, suntanned and pale when viewed from the door of Marseille’s hilltop basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde. But her flint face has a tough appeal. The second smallest of the four outcrops, If, houses a 16th-century fortress that holds an intriguing place in Gaulish mythology; forever associated with the mysterious “Man in the Iron Mask”. The connection is apocryphal – this infamous 17th-century political prisoner was never held indoors (the association likely stems from Alexandre Dumas using it as the cage for the titular character of his 1844 thriller The Count of Monte Cristo). But you can enter the cells of a prison – France’s Alcatraz, if you will – that was used until the 1890’s.
Essential Sight: Plage de Saint-Estève, a horseshoe bay on the second island of Ratonneau.
How it goes: The archipelago can be an ideal afternoon element of an autumn getaway to Marseille. Ferries (lebateau-frioul-if.fr) depart regularly from the Vieux-Port. A three-night stay at the four-star NH Collection Marseille hotel costs from £798 per person via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com), including flights, transfers and breakfast.