At first, the train ride into Corsica’s rugged outback seems nothing “to write home about,” said Seth Sherwood in The New York Times. The cars are creaky and the seats as uncomfortable as church pews. But as the train moves out of Ajaccio, the largest coastal city on the Mediterranean island, visitors can only stare in awe at the astonishing landscape thundering past—plunging ravines, snow-capped mountains, rugged villages, and the ruins of stone houses. No wonder the ancient Greeks “declared the island Kalliste: Most Beautiful.”

Corsica, midway between Naples and Marseille, is roughly the size of New Hampshire. Napoleon Bonaparte is its most famous son, and the island is part of France, though the ancient Corsican language is still widely spoken. The medieval citadel of Calvi lies on the northern side of the island. Among the houses in its warren of cobbled lanes is one that some locals believe to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (convention says he was from Genoa). A hillside cavern contains a museum of the French Foreign Legion, which maintains a base outside town, and “the old and eternally hip nightclub Chez Tao” is a popular haunt offering drinks, dancing, and “views from its citadel perch.”

In recent years, Corsica has emerged as a “discreet alternative to the south of France” for monied travelers. Near the staggeringly beautiful town of Bonifacio, on the southern tip, “immense chalk-white cliffs” are lined with enormous, stalactite-filled grottos, and rock formations as big as New York City apartment buildings “sprout mysteriously from the sea.” Nearby is the secluded community of Île de Cavallo, which the French press has dubbed the Isle of Billionaires, and “the glitzy town of Porto-Vecchio,” famed for Michelin-starred restaurants whose guest lists are filled with boldface names. After dark, the village’s ancient streets are transformed into a “nightlife mecca.” Clad in white linen, crowds drift in and out of art galleries and gelato parlors, or drink Corsican rosé as an outdoor DJ “spins electro-soul.”