Visit the Sanguinaires islands in Corsica, on foot and by boat

Today, let’s take a boat and visit the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica. The Sanguinaires are a small archipelago at the entrance of the Gulf of Ajaccio. With deep blue waters, walking paths, and views of the blue ridges of Corsica, it doesn’t take much to disconnect while staying in France!

How do we take a boat and what is the price to get there from Ajaccio? Can we visit the islands on foot or enjoy them at sunset? Is there a restaurant on the spot, and what are the things to do on the Sanguinaires islands? I’ll provide some answers in this article!

The Sanguinaires Islands: a surprising name

The name of the archipelago can be surprising, as it suggests bloodthirsty barbarians rather than a pleasant travel destination. So, where does this name come from? Opinions differ, and four hypotheses are circulating on the subject!

The first hypothesis states that the name was inspired by the sunset, when the sky takes on a blood-red tint.

The second hypothesis suggests that it comes from the local flora. Indeed, on the Sanguinaires islands, there is sea heather, the frankenia, which forms a real carpet on the ground, and whose flowers, usually pink, turn red when autumn arrives.

The third is a more historical explanation: the archipelago, being a stage on the road to the city of Sagone (a small seaside resort in southern Corsica), may have been nicknamed “Sagonares insulae” (“The islands that announce Sagone” = the Sagonnaire Islands = which eventually became the “Sanguinaires Islands” over time).

Finally, the fourth hypothesis establishes a link with the nickname given to coral fishermen long ago, “i sanguinari” (those with black blood), who had to stay in quarantine establishments on their return from Africa.

Whether the Sanguinaires islands take their name from nature or history, they have many assets to please visitors!

Lazaretto of the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica
The lazaretto of the Sanguinaires Islands from a distance

Where are the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica?

The archipelago marks the entrance to the Gulf of Ajaccio, located west of the Corsican capital. To the best of my knowledge, it is very close to the coast, with less than a kilometer separating the Parata point and the nearest islet, i Porri.

The Sanguinaires Islands consist of four main islets:

  • Mezu Mare (or the Great Sanguinaire), the largest and most distant from the coast, is approximately 1.3 mile long with a maximum altitude of 262 feet. This is where the main buildings of the archipelago are located.
  • Cala d’Alga, 165 feet long and 30 feet high, is the second largest.
  • Isolotto, the smallest of the four, 135 feet long, appears as you approach the coast.
  • Finally, there is i Porri (also known as “the islet of leeks”), 171 feet long and 102 feet in altitude, located near the coast.

There is also a large rock, U Sbiru.

Indissociable from the Sanguinaires Islands, the Parata Point is just in front of the archipelago, but on the “mainland” (I hope some Corsicans won’t get angry with me for calling Corsica the “mainland” ;) ). I’ll tell you more about it, but it hosts a Genoese tower, the Parata Tower, which used to communicate with an identical tower located on Mezzu Mare, forming a network with a terrestrial tower (Sanguinera di Terra) and a maritime tower (Sanguinera di Mare).

If you plan to visit the Sanguinaires Islands soon, you can find the weather forecast for the archipelago here.

What to do in the Sanguinaires Islands?

Considering the small size of the islands, you may wonder what you can do there. Here are some tips!

Discover the Parata Tower

Before venturing out to the Sanguinaires, take a walk to the Genoese tower of La Parata. Built by Giacomo Lombardo in the mid-16th century, it served to protect the boundaries of the Republic of Genoa. Imagine that in those days there were great “maritime republics”, areas of influence – especially commercial and military – like the Republic of Genoa.

The Genoese towers were often around 50 feet high and housed between 3 and 6 men who kept watch at all times. The Parata tower was part of a much larger system of 90 towers that protected the Corsican coast. There is a cistern to collect rainwater and two floors, one with a cannon embrasure.

In the 18th century, the tower, having lost its defensive role, had a Chappe telegraph installed, allowing communication by semaphore with the boats arriving in the Gulf of Ajaccio and with the “twin tower” located on the island of Mezzu Mare.

Genoese tower in Corsica - Pointe de la Parata on the Sanguinaires Islands
Genoese tower in Corsica – Pointe de la Parata on the Sanguinaires Islands

The Parata Tower is currently undergoing a major restoration and is not open for visits. As of this writing, it can only be admired from the outside. There is a small and easy hike to discover it, which can be done with the whole family.

Nearby, you can also see the Saint-Antoine Chapel, built in 1954. Behind the chapel, there is a dirt road that marks the start of a challenging hike. This hike leads first to the Vignola scientific center (1 hour walk) and then on the path of the crests that dominates the Gulf of Ajaccio (an additional 3.5-hour walk). This path is exposed to the sun and is not recommended when it is very hot.

The Sanguinaires Lighthouse

You can take a boat and land on the largest island of the Sanguinaires, Mezu Mare. There are several buildings that represent a fragment of the archipelago’s history.

We start with the Sanguinaires Lighthouse, which was built during the first half of the 19th century. At that time, steamboats were booming and there was a need to make navigation along the coast safer. So, five lighthouses were planned, including this one. Given the configuration of the site, the construction was complex, to say the least! The materials had to be transported from the construction site by boat, then by donkey. The lighthouse, about 61 feet high, is built on the site of the old twin Genoese tower of La Parata.

You can admire it from the outside but it’s not possible to visit it. It is still in operation but is controlled by remote control. Like many lighthouses, it was electrified in the 1950s, automated in 1984 and a year later, the last occupants left it.

Sanguinaires Islands Lighthouse in Corsica
Sanguinaires Islands Lighthouse in Corsica

The Remains of the Lazaretto of Mezu Mare

Another emblematic building of Mezzu Mare is the Lazaretto. The lazarets began to flourish around the 14th century, especially near the large ports. These buildings were intended to accommodate the crews and passengers of ships coming from regions where major epidemics such as plague, leprosy, or cholera raged. They were used as “quarantine” zones to try to avoid the progression of epidemics on land.

The Lazaretto of the Sanguinaires Islands, built at the very beginning of the 19th century, was essentially used to accommodate coral fishermen. They docked on board their gondolas, which were installed on holds during the fishermen’s “stay” on the island. Placed under the supervision of a surgeon, a nurse, a sanitary inspector, and a janitor, the sailors remained on site for 40 days. If they were in good health, they could then return to shore.

This lazaretto was finally built late in the great history of lazarets, so it was not used for very long. Today it is a ruin, and preservation work has been done so that the public can see the walls of the building as they were at the time.

Lazaret of the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica
The Lazaretto

The Sanguinaires Semaphore

The Sanguinaires Semaphore was inaugurated in 1865 and was used for 90 years to communicate information to ships sailing at the entrance of the Gulf of Ajaccio before being replaced by the La Parata Semaphore.

The Lazaret of the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica
The Lazaret

The Castellucio Tower

The small tower you can spot on Mezzu Mare Island completed the defense system of the archipelago. It already existed in the 18th century and is one of the must-see attractions if you decide to visit the Sanguinaires Islands on foot.

The Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica

Visit Mezu Mare on Foot: Fauna and Flora

The Sanguinaires Islands are a classified Natura 2000 site. Nature lovers will be able to observe a great diversity of plants (more than 150 listed), including wild leeks (from which the island of i Porri, also known as “the island with the leeks”, got its name), as well as maritime heather, marine fennel, arums, cistus, and helichrysums.

As for the fauna, there are numerous birds, from ospreys to cormorants, as well as gulls, royal kites, warblers, grey herons, and peregrine falcons. You can easily observe some of these species around the Castellucio Tower.

There are also lizards and geckos on the archipelago, as well as black rats (which are not usually seen during the day because they come out at night) and non-venomous snakes (which hunt rats and help prevent their population from proliferating).

Visit to the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica

Swimming and Snorkeling

It’s possible to swim around the Sanguinaires if you visit. The clear waters are perfect for observing the seabed.

During the summer season, the local agency JPS Aventure offers a full-day discovery tour of the west coast of Corsica by boat, which includes must-visit places such as the Calanques de Piana, the Sanguinaires archipelago, and the Scandola nature reserve, as well as time for swimming. You can depart from Porticcio or the Tino Rossi port in Ajaccio.

Those who prefer to be underwater can turn to the diving club called A l’eau plongée. They offer small group outings, including snorkeling and first dives, as well as excursions for more experienced divers. The team is small, friendly, and professional, so don’t hesitate to contact them.

Visit to Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica

Rock Climbing

On the peninsula, on the side of the Parata tower, there is a climbing site in a natural environment, A reta. It includes 9 routes with quite variable levels, ranging from grade 4c to grade 7a.

Experience a sunset on the Sanguinaires Islands

Remember, it is the glowing sky of the sunsets that contributed to giving their name to the Sanguinaires Islands. Even today, it’s popular to take a sunset cruise with a guide to enjoy the exceptional landscape of the place.

You can check out this sunset cruise experience by Corsica Marittima, usually available between April and August. It’s a three-hour boat ride with a one-hour stopover on Mezu Mare, including cured meats and Corsican wine.

JPS Aventure also offers a 2.5-hour cruise with the same program, as does Nave va for four hours with a tasting of Corsican specialties.

Be sure to book in advance, especially during school vacations like summer.

Sunset on Sanguinaires
Sunset on Sanguinaires | Photo © Petr Slováček – Under Unsplash license

The Customs Path: a beautiful place for hiking

On the peninsula facing the Sanguinaires, you can enjoy a very nice 2.5-hour hike on a path once used by customs officers to patrol the coastline and ensure their surveillance. Access to the path (“Sentier des Douaniers”) is from the parking lot of La Parata, near the house of the Grand Site de France of the Sanguinaires Islands. The path leads to the beach of Sevani.

Visit of the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica
Visit of the Sanguinaires Islands in Corsica

How to Visit the Sanguinaires Islands?

Nave va offers boat trips of approximately 3 hours to the Sanguinaires Islands, starting from Porticcio or Ajaccio. You will dock at Mezu Mare for about 1 hour, which is enough time to explore the island on foot or go swimming. The cost is just over 30€ per adult, half-price for children from 4 to 12 years old, and free for the youngest.

To visit the “terrestrial” part of the site on the Pointe de la Parata side, several options are available to you:

  • By car, you can take the RD111 (a 25-minute drive from Ajaccio), where you will find large paid parking lots.
  • By bus, by taking line 5 from Place De Gaulle in Ajaccio.
  • By small tourist train or panoramic bus (Ajacciovision), from Place Foch in Ajaccio. You can book tickets for the panoramic bus in advance.
Departure from Ajaccio by boat to the Sanguinaires Islands
Departure from Ajaccio by boat to the Sanguinaires Islands

Where to stay near the Sanguinaires Islands?

Regarding accommodations, the coastline leading to the Parata Point and its Genoese Tower is dotted with quality establishments. You may want to check out the superb Hotel Le Week-End with its infinity pool overlooking the sea and the Sanguinaires Islands, Cala di Sole with a swimming pool, private beach, and views of the archipelago, Dolce Vita, which also offers a very nice swimming pool facing the sea, or Hotel La Parata for tighter budgets.

You may also stay in Ajaccio itself because that’s where the boat shuttles leave from. The San Carlu Citadelle Hotel, located in the historical district of Ajaccio, is worth a visit. For those on a budget, you may consider the Ibis Styles Napoleon Hotel with an outdoor swimming pool.

Are there restaurants in the archipelago?

There are no restaurants on the Sanguinaires Islands themselves, which is why most of the guided boat trips offer drinks and Corsican specialties.

There is a brasserie near the Parata Tower, i Sanguinari, with a breathtaking view of the archipelago. Otherwise, you will have to have lunch either on the road to the Sanguinaires (for example at Pech’s), or near the Tino Rossi Harbor in Ajaccio, for example at the brasserie L’Instant, at Don Quichotte, or at A Cantina Di Ghjulia.

The Sanguinaires Islands have seduced many travelers, the most illustrious of whom was writer Alphonse Daudet, who was a regular visitor. “It was on this enchanted island that, before having a mill, I used to lock myself up sometimes when I needed fresh air and solitude,” he wrote.

Although solitude is less present today when one decides to visit the Sanguinaires Islands, the fresh air and the beauty of the place undoubtedly have kept the same charm as in his time and allow for a magical experience!

Hello! I am on maternity leave until summer 2023. I take this time to focus on my family so the comments are temporarily closed on the site :)

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