By Laurence Earle
So, we hear you ask, Cairo and Namibia are all very well, but where should we take the kids this summer? Look no further! The Mediterranean's best-kept holiday secret is right here. Yes, Corsica. More precisely, the south-eastern tip of Corsica - the bit where the best beaches are, a tiny corner of this intriguing island that seems hardly to have changed in decades. Or at least, since this writer was last here - aged six - in 1971. For while your correspondent may have declined beyond recognition in the intervening decades, the friendly coastline stretching north and south from the historic walled town of Porto-Vecchio has miraculously escaped the scramble for development that has disfigured many of southern Europe's sandiest spots.
Here are the same shallow and luminously clear waters, the same pristine, light-demerara beaches, the same sleepy beach cafés - the difference now being that, unlike much of the Med, the backdrop is not of half-built apartment complexes and high-rise hotels but of pine trees and olive groves, the famously pungent scrubland (or "maquis") filled with butterflies and wild roses, and in the distance, jagged high-mountain peaks, granite teeth silhouetted against the skyline. In this landscape, even today, villas are dots, rather then blots.
Corsica is - officially, at least - a part of France, though to many islanders the French are simply the latest in a long line of dastardly invaders stretching back to the Shardanes in 1100BC. The island's nearest neighbour is Sardinia, just 12km to the south across the Bouches de Bonifacio, and Italian culture feels almost as powerful here as French, not only with an abundance of Italian pizza outlets (I did say this was a family holiday) and place names, but even with "Grazie" and "Bunghjorno" taking the place of "Merci" and "Bonjour" in the local Corsu language. But whereas Sardinia is the playground of power-brokers, princes and flash-Harry billionaires, Corsica represents its relaxed mirror-image: a chilled-out, dressed-down backwater, where simple sand-between-the-toes pleasures can be enjoyed without recourse to a yacht or a wardrobe full of designer clothing.
It's ironic that the island's innocent nature can partly be ascribed to darker forces, but it is well-known that the desire of some Corsicans for autonomy from Metropolitan France has erupted in occasional acts of separatist political violence, and this, in turn, has worked as a brake on tourism. For the casual visitor, however, such concerns belong in another world - Corsica and its people could not be more accommodating, though the incongruous sight of mugs and keyrings celebrating "30 years of armed resistance", on sale alongside watermelons and ice creams at the ubiquitous roadside stalls, is a reminder that feelings run deep.
These days, most of the island's two-million-or-so annual visitors still come from mainland France and Italy, and it's particularly popular with Parisians looking for an antidote to the madness of Cannes and St-Tropez. But the tiny band of British devotees (around 3 per cent of tourist numbers) is growing - as we discovered when we bumped into a family we knew from back home strolling along the beach. Joy at our chance encounter was tempered on both sides by concern that the word may be spreading.
We'd rented a pretty house, Villa Funtanicia, in the foothills near the village of Cirendino, a few miles inland from the island's top beaches - Pinarellu, Palombaggia, Santa-Giulia, and our favourite, the perfect sheltered crescent of Saint-Cyprien. It proved to be the ideal base for exploring, with the added bonus of a private pool and views down to the coast, magical at night when the nearest of Corsica's landmark Genoese watchtowers (a sort of 16th-century early-warning system, and the legacy of another bunch of incomers) are illuminated on the horizon.
Though our aim was simple - to introduce four-year-old Gabriel and two-year-old Eliza to the kind of lazy beach holiday we remembered from our own childhoods - we soon discovered plenty more surprising diversions, from the natural freshwater swimming pools of Taglio Rosso to the wondrous movie-set citadel of Bonifacio, at the island's southern tip, perching precariously above one of Europe's most dramatic natural harbours - a must-see on anyone's itinerary. Not far from our villa, too, begins the famed GR20, the vertically challenging long-distance footpath that switchbacks along the island's stegosaurus spine and takes even hardened hill-walkers two weeks to complete. Well, we smiled, maybe next year...
As it was, this time we were content to leave the peaks to the ramblers and the mountain goats. Instead, we enjoyed what Corsica still does best, against all the odds, and relaxed into the very best kind of Mediterranean summer holiday. Our abiding memory? A beachside café. A cold glass of white wine. A setting sun reflected in a golden sea. And the children playing happily, safely and very quietly in the sand. Heaven. Really, who needs Namibia?
Corsican Affair has a wide choice of villas and apartments across Corsica. A seven-night stay in Villa Funtanicia will cost from £414 per person based on eight people sharing and including car hire and flights. Call Corsican Affair on 020-7385 8438 or visit www.corsicanaffair.co.uk
By Mark Wilson
In winter San Cassiano is an impossibly chichi Italian ski retreat. The summer, by contrast, is traditionally a lean period and that's a pity because you can avoid those Alpine perennials - broken bones, lukewarm Glühwein and panda eyes - while still enjoying the spectacular scenery. The village is in the heart of the Dolomites, hemmed in by startling teethlike crags that erupt from the forests below. As the sun crosses the sky the peaks put on a light show: from the burning red of dawn through the gentle violet of the afternoon to breathtaking red-gold sunsets (the "enrosadira").
The local area is criss-crossed with a network of footpaths, chairlifts and buses. If you're so inclined you can call on the services of a mountain guide but that sounded like way too much exertion: we took a pair of chairlifts from the nearby village of Pedraces to the church of Santa Croce, hard against the Monte Cavallo, which rises vertiginously nearly 1,000m above it. After stopping for lunch we ambled (hiking is too strong a word) past the stations of the cross that line the path, and down, on the gentlest of descents, on a winding track through the forest and back to the hotel. Perfect, but for only one thing: the four o'clock thunderstorm was early. Each day, with Alpine efficiency, the clouds massed on the forests by 3.30pm and the rain fell half an hour later. Not this time. Just after two the weather broke and we were soaked. Luckily, a quick dash across a field brought us to a hillside hamlet and a helpfully positioned garage with awning. A couple of other families were already sheltering there and had phoned for taxis, so we cadged a lift for the five-minute drive back to the hotel. Oh, the rigours of mountaineering.
We were staying in the Rosa Alpina, a traditionally styled but luxurious boutique hotel on the main drag of San Cassiano, run by the Pizzinini family for three generations. The service is impeccable without being over-formal and the rooms go for rustic charm rather than pandering to the vogue for giant plasma screens and absurd plumbing: here there's pine panelling with local paintings on the walls and ceilings, and breathtaking views over the forest.
You're nobody in the hotel trade without a spa these days and Rosa Alpina's is one of the best. After all that exhausting strolling there are clay treatments, ultrasound facials and the chance to indulge your Cleopatra complex with the "special skin care for two with milk bath". If you're brave, a serene white-coated massage technician will pummel you to within an inch of your dignity with a full-body workout.
By this time you'll have worked up an appetite. How many villages of 750 souls can boast three Michelin-starred restaurants within five minutes' drive? Sadly, we had time to try only two of them, the first of which, St Hubertus, was in the hotel itself. Its chef, the splendidly named Norbert Niederkofler, serves up regional dishes with a "gourmet twist". If you're in a large party or an exhibitionist you can book the chef's table (actually a private dining room with picture window to the kitchen) for the full theatrical experience. Just up the road La Siriola offers a more modish gastronautical experience, with creations such as a medley of tomato dishes from jelly, through soup to sorbet; plus local specialities including mountain hay soup, which tastes like, well, hay. But in a good way.
San Cassiano is a three-hour drive from Venice, and as an extra treat on the way home we stayed at the Bauer Il Palladio hotel on the island of Giudecca. It's just across the water from St Mark's Square and next door to Sir Elton's humble palazzo but it's a world away from the miasma of a Venetian summer. Thick stone walls keep the interior cool and tranquil, and the front rooms give a spectacular panorama of the city.
By Terry Kirby
"I know a bank," says Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows..." Well, Andy Fraser can do better than that. He knows where the even rarer wild mint blows, and where the sweet cicely pod is abundant. He can even find you wild thyme, if you want it. But today, scrambling up a mossy floored bank, Andy is searching for wild mushrooms.
We are not in Shakespeare's Arden, but on a wooded hillside on the west coast of Scotland. To our right, a burn tumbles down between black granite boulders, and through the trees it is just possible to see the sunlight glinting on Loch Linnhe, at the bottom of the Great Glen.
It is a sunny September day and the scenery is stunningly beautiful, but Andy has seen it all before and besides, if he took his eyes off the ground, he might miss something. He moves swiftly along the path, head down, looking from side to side, occasionally darting into the undergrowth, bending double to examine some treasure, or poisonous trap. A microbiologist by training, he turned to foraging a few years ago and became instantly hooked. He still carries his reference books with him: "There are so many different types, I'm still learning."
Scotland is more celebrated for its smoked salmon and raspberries than its edible fungi. Andy is on a mission to change that, by leading small foraging parties such as this one, capitalising on an increased public interest in wild mushrooms. He also conducts wildfood forays for the chefs who are customers of his company, Caledonian Wildfoods, suppliers to the catering trade; a sister company, Wildfoods, supplies the public.
Once your eyes get used to it, there are mushrooms everywhere here. They come large and small, some as fresh and pristine as the Scottish morning, others rotting into the undergrowth or ravaged by maggots and slugs. They stand proud out of the grass, hide among the moss and cling to crevices among tree roots. The chanterelles cascade in orange rivulets, while the angel wings cluster around old tree trunks, their brilliant whiteness like a drift of snow.
Under Andy's careful instruction, we make tentative ventures into the undergrowth, eventually gaining in confidence, retrieving specimens for him like eager hunting dogs. While we scrabble among the leaf mould, Andy and one of his customer chefs, Paul Burns, inspect the haul. Paul is the award-winning chef at the Airds Hotel, a small hotel in nearby Port Appin that has organised this particular weekend. An enthusiast for all types of wildfoods and the fantastic local meat and fish, Paul later constructs an amazing four-course meal based around the array of mushrooms we have collected.
After breakfast the next morning, some go back out with Andy, while others in our party choose to walk the surrounding hills or relax in front of the open fire in the lounge. Liz Walsh, who runs Wildfoods with Andy, and I take the nearby foot ferry for an all-too-brief ride around bleakly beautiful Lismore island. Cycling is a good option on many of Scotland's less hilly moors and islands - in about two hours on Lismore, we were passed by just one car.
After our cycling trip, it's time to leave the Airds, each clutching a goody bag of assorted wild mushrooms. A couple of nights later, I make a wild mushroom risotto, an Italian dish, every mouthful of which transports me back to those glorious Scottish hillsides.
The Airds Hotel, Port Appin, Argyll (01631 730236) holds regular gourmet weekends and will be having another mushroom foraging weekend with Andy Fraser on 14-15 September. Contact Wildfoods on 0141-950 2412 for further detailsReuse content