Picture a mountain the colour of red ochre, its sides fluted and crevassed with razor-back ridges drapped in spiny green scrub. Now imagine that mountain rising from a sea of lapis blue, edged by a line of frothing white water, where turquoise coves fringe the feet of giant cliffs.
The combination of vivid colours, dramatic rock forms and a serene setting at the wild, northwestern tip of Corsica has earned the Scandola Nature Reserve a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Forming the northern arm of the Golfe de Porto, the peninsula is a mysterious, remote world – one as inaccessible as it’s beautiful, particularly in the dreamy light of a Mediterranean evening, when its rock glows molten red.
The French government zealously protects this geological gem: there are no buildings of any description; no one is allowed to walk or climb on it. To see Scandola close up, you have to approach from the water on one of the fleet of small excursion boats that bob around it in the summer months, probing hidden inlets in search of sea caves, rock arches and dazzling blue-green coves.
The source of the site’s extraordinary appearance is a rare form of granite known as porphyry. Formed more than 250 million years ago by lava flows from the nearby Cinto massif, the rock is made up of large-grained crystals set in finer-grained groundstone. Porphyry was prized for its decorative and magical properties by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. In the Great Palace of Constantinople, successive Byzantine empresses gave birth in a special room lined with it. One of the reasons Napoleon is said to have invaded Egypt was to search for the ancient porphyry quarry in the Eastern Desert (he never found it, and may have been surprised to learn a huge chunk of the stuff rose from the shores of his home island).
The uniqueness of the area’s geology is mirrored by its wildlife. Most iconic of all the endangered residents is the gypaete barbu, or bearded vulture, a bird with a giant wingspan that builds nests of driftwood on high ledges. Dolphins are frequent visitors, and routinely spotted from the boats.
Deep beneath the waves of Scandola lies another treasure. Each year, a handful of locals are licensed to dive for scarlet Gorgonian coral. Set in silver, finely polished pieces of the precious red polyps make the ultimate Corsican travel trophy.
Air Corsica is now operating flights from Stansted to Ajaccio, Bastia and Figari, allowing great flexibility for any itinerary. The service operates from early May to early November, with up to nine flights per week from June to September. Fares start from £49 one way and that price includes a generous 23kg hold luggage allowance, 12kg cabin bag and free seat selection. Car rental is available at each airport and Air Corsica has a preferred arrangement with Hertz so you can book your vehicle at the same time as your flights. aircorsica.com