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.
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
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
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, home made 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
northern most 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 (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
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.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends SimpsonTravel – Greek Islands.