Whether your destination is Sicily or Sardinia, Majorca or Corsica, it's really exciting to arrive by boat. If, like me, you don't own an ocean going yacht, take a ferry; they operate all over the med
The view from the water
Most people who visit the Mediterranean islands arrive by air. While there, they are likely to hire a small boat or join one of the many motorised launches for a trip around the coast. It's well worth doing. You certainly get a different perspective from the water. For an even fuller picture, try arriving by ferry. Ferries are the life-blood of these islands. You will not only see your destination in its full scenic context, but by sailing into port, you will see much more of what makes each island "tick".
Propriano, Corsica - a port of call
I fell in love with Corsica while sailing to Sardinia. We had taken an overnight ferry from Marseille to Porto Torres on the north west coast of the Italian island. Not expecting to dock until late the next morning, I was surprised to be woken by the clunking of chains in the depths of the hold. Going up on deck, I came face to face with Corsica. Rising from the early morning mist that hung over the water were enormous mountains of such sheer beauty that I gasped in awe. We were soon casting off again, carrying new freight and passengers on the final leg to Sardinia. As we left the small Corsican port of Propriano, with its palm fringed marina and elegant boulevards, I vowed to return.
We did return, crossing the very mountains that we had seen from the boat. The landscape was wild and stunning. We ate delicious sea-food brochettes at a brasserie on the edge of the harbour. The fish was really fresh and grilled over charcoal. Menus from €20: Coco d'Ile (7 Quai l'Herminier, Propriano; +33(0)495732785).
Porto Torres, Sardinia - our original destination
It would be wrong to hide the downside of ferry travel. Rising winds at Porto Torres made entering the harbour so perilous that a tug had to come and nudge us away from threatening sandbanks. The port itself was unprepossessing, and the exit road sleazy. I tried to imagine the beautiful island that lay beyond the cranes. It was, however, an aspect of Sardinia that I will always remember. As we followed the coast road east, the wind dropped and the sea settled from a turbulent grey to clear turquoise. We stayed near the pretty granite town of Santa Teresa di Gallura on the north east coast, swimming from small bays of blinding white sand. We visited the archipelago of La Maddalena on a chain ferry. Wild pigs foraged in the garrigue around Garibaldi's tomb, and the sea shimmered in the heat. Close to the famous Costa Smeralda, playground to the wealthy, there is space and beauty enough in this region for us all to enjoy, whatever our means.
Specialities of this region include a flat crisp bread, pane carasau, and suckling pig. We sampled this succulent delight at a traditional style restaurant, which also serves excellent local fish and pizzas cooked in a wood fired oven. Ristorante Canne al Vento (Via nazionale, Santa Teresa; +39(0)789754219).
A narrow strait separates Sardinia from its French neighbour. Unable to resist the allure of the distant Corsican mountains, we took the small car ferry that leaves Santa Teresa several times a day. In less than an hour we could see Bonifacio ahead of us, set on top of vertiginous cliffs. Many of its houses appear to have been hewn from the rock itself. As we drew closer to the towering walls of rock, and the enormous citadel that dominated the harbour inlet, our ferry seemed to shrink to the size of a toy boat.
Bonifacio is the most visited town in Corsica, with its narrow medieval streets, steep stone stairways, harbour restaurants, and expensive yachts that throng the marina. I pity those tourists who don't arrive by sea, for they miss an overwhelming experience.
Hotel Marina Di Cavu (Route de Catalogne, Bonifacio) is a delightful hotel, sharing Bonifacio's stunning cliff top location. I particularly like its traditional feel.
Having explored the south of Corsica we were keen to return. This time we took the ferry that runs between Marseille and Ajaccio, the Corsican capital. As we approached harbour we could see the bustle and early morning activity around the port. It felt as if our ferry was going to sail right up the palm-lined main street ahead of us. We disembarked so close to the centre of town, that we were soon having breakfast in one of the many pavement cafes.
Ajaccio is a vibrant and cultured city. It resembles other French towns on the Cote d'Azur, but due to its Corsican heritage it has not been overdeveloped, and has a very special atmosphere.
Ajaccio boasts a fantastic art collection, housed in the most beautiful building in the centre of town. It reopens in June 2010, after renovations: Palais Fesch (50-52 rue Cardinal Fesch; www.musee-fesch.com). I have to say this is one of my all time favourite museums. Also worth a visit is the house where Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1796: Musee Maison Bonaparte (Rue St Charles; admission €6/€4.50, free admission first Sunday of month). There is a pretty garden to enjoy here too.
There are a number of restaurants overlooking the port and the mountains beyond. Whichever you choose to eat at, you can enjoy excellent locally caught fish. They all offer good value, especially at lunch time.
Hotel Fesch (7 Rue Fesch) offers reasonable but comfortable accommodation in a historic building in the heart of town.
Hotel Demeure les Mouettes (9 Cours Lucien Bonaparte) offers a beautiful sea-side location, pool and private beach, but is within easy reach of town.
Palma, Majorca - a new departure, a new island
The biggest problem in sailing to Majorca from Barcelona is in negotiating the Spanish port, which lies near the centre of this great city. Each port seems to have its own procedures, and those at Barcelona seemed particularly confusing. Once on board however, it was "plain sailing". As we approached Palma, it looked much nicer than we had imagined, with its gothic cathedral juxtaposed against the stylish white hotels around the bay. On leaving the docks, we immediately found ourselves on a wide corniche, lined with palm trees. We were planning to head north to the Tramantura Mountains and the small towns of Deia and Port Soller. In spite of our prejudices, and tales of over-development, the harbour area of Palma offered us a very pleasant gateway to this fantastic island.
For a real touch of luxury, stay at Gran Hotel Soller Mallorca Island (Romaguera, Soller). Less than a thirty minute drive from Palma, this hotel is situated amongst what I consider some of the world's most stunning scenery. This is a world away from the high rise developments which gave Majorca its bad reputation.
And back again
When returning to Barcelona Docks it is an amazing experience to stand up on deck and watch the comings and goings of the various ships in port. An excellent vantage point for some of the famous sights, such as Montjuic Hill and the Columbus monument at the foot of Las Ramblas, this really does make a fantastic finale to one's journey.
Where to stay in Barcelona
For me it's got to be Hotel 1898 (Las Ramblas). It is so relaxing, in spite of its central position.