36 years later …
They say to avoid disappointment you should never go back. So it was with a little trepidation after 36 years that I returned to Corfu.
Aided by a photographer and a Greek accommodation contractor, I had previously scoured the island by jeep looking for new destinations for Greek specialist, Sunmed Holidays. Two weeks crisscrossing the island following every dirt track down to the sea from sunrise to sunset merely confirmed everything I had heard about Corfu: a verdant island of breathtaking beauty. Unspoilt interior villages, stunning landscapes covered in olive groves and towering cypress trees, wide sweeping sandy bays and small deserted pebbled coves, crystal clear aquamarine sea and, (apart from a few overdeveloped tourist spots not to my taste!) a beautiful island. The photographer, by the way, went on to bigger and better things in Hollywood shooting stills for Clint Eastwood movies, not sure what happened to the contractor but after a long career in travel I occasionally return to my first love – travelling in Greece and writing about it. So when renowned operator Simpson Travel offered me the chance to return to Corfu together with my husband – a Corfu virgin – I was delighted.
Arriving at a busy airport to collect a hire car can often be a poor start to a holiday: long queues, seemingly endless paperwork and insurance options, navigating the location of the vehicle and the pre-departure check. Exhausting! What a pleasant surprise to see smiling Simpson representatives on arrival who directed us to our waiting vehicle and with a quick signature we were good to go. Bottled water and maps provided in the car, clear driving instructions and off we went. Very smooth.
We were staying in the north-east of the island, about an hour’s drive along the winding coastal road where the steep tree-clad hills roll down to the road as it meanders through small villages teetering above coastal hamlets, hidden coves and the shimmering sea below. Long favoured by well-heeled British tourists, this is the Old Corfu of beautiful villas, upmarket tavernas, mega yachts and motor cruisers that nestle discreetly amidst traditional Greece and the stunning scenery for which this area of Corfu is famed. In short, this is very much the area to be.
We were staying firstly at The Saints Cottages in Nissaki and secondly at the Bella Mare Hotel in Avlaki Bay, about 20 minutes drive apart in this fabulous corner of Corfu.
The Saints, a cluster of six one and two bedroom cottages with a shared pool, take their name from the church next door. Cleverly designed to give complete privacy, each with a large terrace surrounded by vines and greenery, our two-bedroom two-bathroom cottage was stylishly rustic and extremely comfortable: a well equipped kitchen, indoor and outdoor dining, BBQ, two large lounging sofas and, stunning views of the coastline below and beyond to Albania. Best of all, the kitchen had been thoughtfully stocked by Debbie, the Simpson Concierge, with basic supplies and food, enough to make a meal should you be too tired to venture out after a lengthy day travelling. Not entirely necessary in Nissaki with the local bakery and tavernas, including the excellent Vitamins Taverna, just a few minutes walk at the top of the village, but nevertheless a very welcome, thoughtful, touch. At the bottom of the village, abutting the small beach and shimmering sea, Nissaki has three tavernas where we ate a traditional lunch at Mitsos Taverna. With sun peeping through the clouds and waves crashing around us we dined on tzatziki, Greek salad, butter beans in tomato sauce and Greek sausage, all washed down with local red wine that we thoroughly enjoyed.
We spent a happy few days touring the area: Kalami, made famous by the Durrells whose 1930s home, the White House, is now a restaurant; Kerasia the village closest to the Rothschild Estate; Agni Bay famous for its 3 upmarket tavernas – we ate at Nicolas Taverna, with outstanding seafood at London prices (but worth it). We also ventured a few miles inland into the hills to see the much acclaimed Rou Estate – a hamlet built in typical Corfiot style over 200 years ago now restored with 14 villas dotted amidst beautifully landscaped cobbled streets with breathtaking views of the coastline and Albania – another jewel in Simpson’s Corfiot gems.
Our next stay was at the Bella Mare Hotel in Avlaki Bay, a little further up the coast. I wasn’t expecting to find such a large unspoiled bay in Corfu reminiscent of my first visit all these years later. Avlaki Bay, however, is truly unspoiled and the Bella Mare, with its sweeping lawns and tranquil gardens running down to the beach, commands prime position. With a protected wooded nature reserve at the other end of the bay, two tavernas within a few minutes stroll, a handful of houses and a small watersports centre, this is old school Greece with the added bonus of the very stylish and relaxing Bella Mare Hotel – a perfect combination for confirmed Grecophiles (who now also love a bit of luxury).
All the spacious rooms and suites at this beachside hotel overlook the gardens and bay with either a terrace or balcony, some of which are extremely large. Each have their own discreet kitchenette equipped to make the odd cuppa or snack, a seating area with stylish décor and furnishings, with state-of- the-art bathrooms. For 2019 a further ten luxurious suites with their own pool and pool-bar will be added in the extensive grounds, a tennis court and kid’s clubs during the summer season, to make the Bella Mare an exclusive Simpson hotel.
Relaxation is the order of the day at the Bella Mare. After lunch and a glass of wine at the pool bar we stretched out on the sun-loungers overlooking the beach, waves gently lapping against the shore: immediate relaxation. Following an early evening aperitif at the pool bar we ate delicious sea-bass at the highly rated Cavo Barbero Taverna.
Breakfast at the hotel offers an excellent choice of cold foods, cheese pies, homemade cakes and jams and a daily changing hot dish, usually a delicious Corfiot speciality such as Strapatsada (eggs, feta cheese, tomato and oregano baked in the oven).
Ideally located between bustling Kassiopi and the sleepy hamlet of Aghios Stefanos, Avlaki is well positioned for the best of all worlds, if you can bear to tear yourself away. One day we walked to Aghios Stefanos (1½ hours) along the coastal path through the wooded nature reserve, had an excellent lunch at Eucalyptus Taverna before ordering a taxi back. Another day we drove to the northernmost tip of the island, Aghios Spiridon, to an unspoilt little-visited spot with great swimming and secluded bays. From here we drove inland to Old Perithia. Nestled just below the peak of Mount Pantokrator (the highest mountain on Corfu), Old Perithia is the oldest village on the island, mostly in ruins, but with several thriving tavernas where recipes have been handed down over the centuries to produce delicious dishes in a truly rustic setting. It was here, at Taverna Foros, that Rick Stein chose to learn a few traditional recipes that he included in his Mediterranean Odyssey series.
Corfiots are rightly proud of their traditional dishes and the food now is far superior to the standard ‘tourist’ fare offered on my previous trip. We ate fantastically well in a wide variety of tavernas, from traditional to fine dining in Agni Bay, where prices are reassuringly expensive – on a par with top London restaurants – for a real foodie experience. However, there are also still many great typical family-run tavernas with good food and wine that are reasonably priced.
Inevitably, there have been some changes since my last visit and, unsurprisingly, some areas are much more developed. One place that seemed little changed, however, was Corfu Town. Still a splendid mix of historical influences, particularly Italianate, with its Venetian architecture, fortress, museums, cricket ground (courtesy of the British occupation during the Napoleonic wars), Corfu Town has a vibrancy where tourists and Corfiots mingle happily together. A well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007, the old town should be on everyone’s list of places to visit.
I am happy to report that in spite of the intervening years of tourist growth, the north-east of the island still retains the essence of Corfu: lush green landscapes; stunning secluded bays; waterfront tavernas; small picturesque harbours and hamlets; friendly locals. In short, this fabulous corner of Corfu is the same captivating island I first visited all those years ago, its picturesque charm undiminished.
I absolutely loved re-visiting Corfu and will certainly not be waiting another 36 years to return.
Read more about Bella Mare Hotel.