The tiny French island of Cavallo is privately owned and, as a result, beautifully preserved

A mile or so south of the thrumming tourist-trap that is the Corsican clifftop town of Bonifacio, across turquoise waters dotted with tiny islets, lies a secret island called Cavallo.



Part of the Lavezzi archipelago, the wild little island is covered with maquis and its coastline liberally sprinkled with smooth granite boulders that put one in mind of the Seychelles, the Maldives or the West Indies. It’s as if an undiscovered Caribbean island has been dropped in the Mediterranean for the pleasure of moneyed Italians and French who don’t fancy the transatlantic flight. We went for a week last month and, on the ferry ride over from mainland Corsica, sat in the company of a French family – the parents hidden behind mirrored shades, their two children entertained by a nanny and, peeping from the handbag cradled in the mother’s lap, a tiny dog watching the blur of aquamarine.

Understated luxury, nature and extreme privacy are the watchwords on Cavallo. The tiny, 2km-long French island is owned and run by a small consortium of landowners, the Association Syndicale Ile de Cavallo (ASIC), which says it “guarantees security, discretion, and calmness”. Mooring in the coves is prohibited without permission and cars are banned, so the island’s sandy tracks are navigated by electric golf buggies.

There’s only one hotel – the four-star Hôtel & Spa des Pêcheurs – with a very good (and expensive) Italian seafood restaurant, a small pool and spa, and a friendly little beach bar. There’s one sparingly-stocked grocery shop, a small bar near the port (really a marina that fills up with yachts in July and August) and a brilliant little pizza place, La Ferme, perched atop the island’s only hill. That’s it.

Dotted around the rocks are houses built in a range of architectural styles. At the end of one promontory sits a sort of modernist fort, while some houses look like homages to Gaudí; others seem transplanted from mid-20th-century Palm Springs. One even played host to a hedonistic nightclub in the 1960s, when Parisian club-king Jean Castel owned the archipelago. Castel set aside the other islands as a nature reserve in return for development rights on Cavallo.

The jet set followed, including singer Petula Clark (who once said of Cavallo: “We lived like gypsies and washed in the sea. It was paradise on earth”), and actress Catherine Deneuve (who shot the 1972 film Love to Eternity there).

The archipelago changed hands, but the wealthy still came. Princess Caroline of Monaco is rumoured to have a place and Victor Emmanuel, Prince of Naples, lived in exile there. More recently, celebrities such as Beyoncé have visited to escape the paparazzi.

It’s not hard to see why the rich and famous – and the rich and secretive – come. The island is framed by a coastline seemingly built from a thousand Henry Moore sculptures – vast granite boulders that, like clouds, take on different shapes (is that a hippo? A lion?) as the light shifts. Sprinkled among them are little sandy beaches, and an azure sea.

After the boom in the late 1960s and 1970s, the island struggled through the 1980s and 1990s, cursed by corruption, too much building and a couple of bombing raids attributed to Corsican nationalists angry at the takeover of the islands by outsiders. Today, money is being invested in the long term viability of the island by the syndicate. A recent edict from the mayor has banned any further building and the shells of unfinished houses must be taken down if they don’t have a roof. It will mean the protection of the island’s character, ecosystem – and, of course, property prices.

This year, too, UK tour operator Simpson Travel began offering packages to the island (the first in the country to do so). It has two villas available, the Beach House – a Caribbean-style bungalow – and the more modern Maison Bleu, both owned by the mayor and stunningly situated.

Visitors can also stay in the hotel or in one of the self-catering apartment it runs, as my wife and I did. It was a comfortably appointed, very modern affair; our only gripe was that the kitchen was rather sparsely equipped. Still, the hotel restaurant was minutes away and our 18-month-old was welcomed at breakfast each morning like the island’s returning one true prince by the friendly Italian waiters.

We rapidly fell into a daily routine: breakfast, golf buggy to one of the beaches, a spot of sunbathing, snorkelling and sandcastle-building, lunch and people-watching in the breezy beach bar, followed by an afternoon on a different beach. Rinse and repeat.

Out of a sense of cultural duty one morning, we thought we ought to venture over to Bonifacio on the ferry. It’s a mere 15 minutes by boat to the port at Piantarella and a short drive in the hire car provided (that spent most of the week parked waiting for the return journey to the airport at Figari).

Bonifacio, perched precariously on the clifftops facing Sardinia, is breathtaking. Yet we only lasted a morning. A few hours spent wandering the tourist-filled streets had us scampering back to Cavallo for lunch. After all, when you have a private island at your disposal, you don’t leave.