It was stone that first brought attention to Cavallo. In the second century, the Romans extracted granite for both sculpture and construction.
You can still see the remains of their quarries. Locals boast there are statues in Rome carved from Cavallo granite. And it is stone that first impresses a visitor today. The ferry from Corsica rounds a point of colossal rocks, elephantine in size, shape and color. Only later are you aware of the bristly scrub of the maquis that covers the interior and is filigreed with footpaths.
The genteel Mediterranean island attracts low-key boaters and offers the luxury of not much to do, except enjoy the food and scenery
The island is French, the southernmost limb of metropolitan France, though you would never know. It is almost wholly owned by Italians. That’s because, in the Eighties, Cavallo was easier to reach from Rome than it was from Paris, despite it being less than two miles from Corsica. It was said you could leave Rome at 5pm, fly to Olbia on Sardinia, and be ordering dinner on Cavallo by nine. The workforce, food and language are still predominantly Italian; I met a barman from the island’s hotel who professed not even to understand French.
But it was in the previous decade that the island underwent the big bang that created its celebrity. A Parisian nightclub owner bought it and opened a disco, a hedonistic hideaway where, assured of privacy, the celebs de ces jours could simultaneously let their hair down and return to nature. An airstrip was built, and some simple houses; donkey carts were the only transport. Deneuve came; Petula Clark called it paradise on Earth: “We lived like gypsies and washed in the sea.” Today, the island that was invented as a stars’ playground.
Catherine Deneuve once visited Cavallo. Photo: REX
It had been an elaborate journey. We flew from Heathrow to Figari on Corsica, and collected a rental car for the 40-minute journey to catch a ferry from the tiny harbour of Piantarella, near Bonifacio. There the rental car was abandoned. You will find no cars on Cavallo; you bump around in electric golf carts. One woman was met off the ferry in one by her chauffeur.
Big villas – long, low, lavish buildings – have been pressed discreetly into the sides of the island. One is said to belong to Princess Caroline of Monaco. Discretion is the better part of Cavallo. Ours, Maison Bleu, owned by an Italian accountant, was capacious. It had four ensuite double rooms, in two “wings” either side of an expansive living room with panoramic sliding windows back and front. On one side they opened on to a Mediterranean garden; on the other, to a view of a gorgeous bay clasped by headlands of more abraded rock. Decked terraces, one with a big Jacuzzi, led to a small beach, whose water was too weedy to be inviting.
But there were plenty more beaches – the map shows 10 main ones – all sandy and, with one exception, all wild. Which means there’s no shade, never mind beach bars. The exception was the Shore Club at the hotel, where a small lagoon is so immaculately ringed by rocks it could be a designer pool. Non-residents can use the sun beds if they patronise the chic beach restaurant.
Decked terraces at the Maison Bleu lead to a small beach
The 50-room Hotel & Spa des Pêcheurs is the smart place. Besides the spa, gym and outdoor pool – all available to non-residents for €20 a day – there are bikes for hire and a pricey seafront restaurant. A plate of pasta can cost €27.
The hotel is at the center of The Port, the grand name given to a yacht marina; a balconied frontage of holiday apartments; a pizzeria-cum-café; and a small, fairly limited shop which, in June, is open for just four hours in the morning. Cavallo is a sort of pop-up island, which only really comes to life in July and August. Then the ferry is more frequent, the shop opens in the afternoon, and a second pizzeria – the island’s hotspot – lights its wood-burning oven on top of Cavallo’s only hill, all 105ft of it.
It’s a beguiling place that still wears an understated couture of exclusivity, one of those stylish little islands where luxury is defined as having not much to do, but costing a lot to do it.
In 1990, Corsican nationalists firebombed some new villas because they feared the place was being spoilt. Last year new building was banned: any half-finished house without a roof has to be demolished. Cavallo’s wildlife, including a rare orchid, is now protected by law. It’s not just the orchids that are being preserved, but a patch of the Mediterranean as it was a generation ago. In that respect, my “new” island is really a very old one.
Peter Hughes was a guest of Simpson Travel (0845 322 8767; simpsontravel.com). Maison Bleu costs from €1350 per person, based on eight sharing, and includes the hire of a golf buggy. Prices for the Hotel & Spa des Pêcheurs start at €2800 per person half-board, based on two sharing. A Marina Apartment costs from €2000 per person with two sharing. All prices are for seven nights and include charter flights via Figari, car hire and ferry transfers. The hotel is open from early May to late September; the villas and apartments until September 14.
Recommended Place To Stay in Cavallo, Sardinia