The sun hasn’t fully come up over the mountains, so only a corner of the long, elegant pool is shimmering in the morning light. The loungers, arranged on tiered decking along the stone wall, are empty. Save for our friends the lizards and chorus of birds, we’re alone. Sleepily, I dip my toe into the unheated water and hesitate. Mr Smith, however, is already flexing his front crawl. That, and the promise of breakfast, is enough to coax me in. Some 20 laps later, and I know this is how I want to start every day at U Palazzu Serenu.
Wrapped in fluffy dressing gowns, we spy a huge tray making its way to a table on the terrace. ‘Let me know when you’re ready for your boiled eggs, Mr and Mrs Smith!’ calls out one of U Palazzu Serenu’s many lovely staff, who has brought us a breakfast of champions: freshly squeezed orange juice, muesli, fruit and yoghurt, followed by a basket of pastries and bread, jam and honey, washed down with bowlfuls of coffee. We tuck in, transfixed by the epic view below. We’d been drawn to Corsica for fabled Caribbean-esque beaches, but U Palazzu Serenu is prime location for the island’s other natural wonder: mountains. Isolated buildings – churches? tiny villages? – are perched at altitude (how does anyone even reach them?), while cottony clouds hide the lush peaks. Narrow roads wind down to the bay of St Florent, glistening under a clear blue sky.
Ah, the peace. A stark contrast to the previous day’s four-hour ferry crossing from Livorno in Italy, Kylie Minogue blaring out on a loop from the poolside bar. A precipitous diversion from the port of Bastia up those narrow roads to Oletta followed, an octogenarian overtaking us in a Twingo while I gripped the steering wheel for dear life. Coming from a wedding in Tuscany, we wanted more of the same from Oletta: romance, views, swimming, good food. Only when we arrived at U Palazzu Serenu, the heavenly front desk staff assuring me I could leave the car exactly where I’d abandoned it, did this seem possible. Some champagne on the terrace (dusky evening pinks replace the morning’s blues and greens), and peace is firmly back on the agenda.
The serenity after which the hotel is named continues inside. White walls, dove grey shutters and stone floors are the perfect backdrop for the Tom Dixon lighting and paintings from the likes of Anish Kapoor. Not that these reviewers can claim credit for identifying the artists; a list of each room’s painting is usefully presented alongside the evening menu, should I have wanted to engage my neighbouring diner – who had his nose in one of the many art books arranged on the shelves behind us – in conversation. Any preconceptions that this is all a bit highbrow are quickly dismissed, as our waiter waltzes into the restaurant, singing ‘bonsoir!’ and pulling funny faces at a well-behaved baby dining late with his parents. The menu is perfectly pitched: chef Jean-François Bonavita balances the ‘fine dining’ of a basil mousse with a hearty, simply fried local seabass.
But the best is yet to come. No, not the tempting pomelo tart. It’s the bed. The huge bed upstairs in our room. The biggest bed in the history of beds, surely? Even the frogs outside couldn’t inhibit its sleep-inducing powers. Space as luxury is clearly a theme here; even an enormous bed can’t dwarf the minimalist bedroom, which leads to an equally large bathroom, its marbled surfaces filled with Vrai products. The lack of a freestanding shower is initially a concern, but this leads to the ultimate in luxury: Mr Smith holding the shower head above me as I bathe.
As difficult as it is to leave the hotel, the next morning we set off on a 40-minute drive north to the pretty village of Nonza on the recommendation of another couple staying at U Palazzu Serenu. Nonza’s tower, from where troops would protect the tiny village until France’s conquest of Corsica in 1768, is the obvious attraction, but we are more concerned with fortifying ourselves ahead of the 600-step walk down to the deserted black pebble beach. So, we head to the restaurant for an early lunch of charcuterie, fish paté, cheese and salad. And a few glasses of rosé to soak up yet more views.
After an afternoon’s sunbathing and swimming, we head back via St Florent, where we stop for dinner. Mr Smith and I were keen to enjoy the sunset from a particular restaurant – La Marinuccia – recommended by the same couple who gave us the Nonza tip. So, after a quick dusting off in the back of the car, we swap our swimming togs for something smarter and head towards St Florent’s cobbled streets, behind the main harbour. We choose a table right on the decking, opposite the setting sun, above the gentle waves. If you’re feeling fancy, order the lobster, but with sand still between our toes, we opt for the local speciality: stuffed sardines. With over a half a bottle of wine still to go, we finish off the remainder back at U Palazzu Serenu’s small bar.
At the airport several days later, waiting for our flight back to London, we bump into the couple with all the recommendations. They are very pleased to see us. Turns out they felt guilty for recommending Nonza after finding out that some locals recently had to be rescued when they got into a bit of trouble in the sea. Well, in the words of Kylie Minogue, ‘if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a single thing.’