In search of unspoilt Corfu
Locating blissfully umbrella-free beaches, climbing a fortress for an awe-inspiring view and revelling in the Venetian splendour of the Old Town
Photos by Carlo Raciti
September is one of my absolute favourite times of year to sneak in a late sun getaway on one or two of Greece’s gorgeous islands and unwind without the summer crowds.
The days may be considerably shorter than the longest, most languid of the year, those of late June, but the sun is out shining brilliantly and the seas are calm and deliciously warm, having been thoroughly heated through all summer, so they are absolutely perfect for swimming.
If you can get away in September, another huge plus is the fact that the cost of accommodation on the islands and coastal mainland drops considerably.
But just make sure you book early because, judging from the enormous difficulty I had finding decent accommodation on the Ionian island of Corfu in mid-September last year, more and more travellers are catching on to this late-season booking trick. September and through about mid-October are great times to book a last-chance beach break, particularly for solo travellers and couples.
So, this is exactly what Carlo and I, together with my sister Popi who was visiting from Sydney, did. We decided to spend five days on Corfu, a day on the tiny sister isles of nearby Paxos and Antipaxos and then three days on a quiet sandy stretch of Mykonos.
Speaking with Corfu hoteliers, even they were taken aback by the sudden, significant increase in September bookings last year. Arrivals at Corfu’s airport totalled 1.07 million last September, up an impressive 13.1 percent, from 948,606, the previous year.
A chance work meeting led to us being very generously hosted at the MarBella Corfu resort, a sprawling property built amphitheatrically on a verdant slope on the eastern coast of Corfu. Situated right above peaceful Agios Ioannis Peristeron beach, it is an easy 15.6km drive south of the island’s capital.
We booked our car rental ahead of time with a small local company run by a sweet young couple, who delivered it to us at the airport. I always recommend hiring a car when visiting any destination in Greece, with the exception of Athens, Thessaloniki and smaller islands like Spetses and Hydra (on the latter two, cars are not permitted anyway), so that you can be completely independent and free to explore as much as possible.
Contrary to what some assume, Greece’s roads are fairly good and some of the main highways have seen great improvements and extensions in recent years, making driving much more comfortable and reducing travel time considerably. As well as being a wonderful country to island hop by sea or by plane, Greece is also ideal for road tripping.
So, back to Corfu. To be very honest and upfront, as we drove our way around the island, I felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment at the way in which the island has been developed over the decades, particularly in certain parts. Aesthetically, there are towns in Corfu that are in dire need of a complete and utter overhaul. Let me hit you with the bad news before the good, that is, before I move on to what we singled out as what we consider to be the highlights of the island.
We made it a point to drive to the south of the island, to see the town of Kavos, a magnet for young UK summer partygoers interested in cheap beer and good times. Like the town of Laganas in Zakynthos, Kavos’ main street is lined with unattractive British pubs, souvenir shop eyesores and cheap-looking restaurants.
Having seen images of the Canal d’Amour, I was hoping we would take a dip in the sea there between the rock ledges sculpted by the sea to smoothness, but the opaque waters and tourist trap Sidari, the town in which it is located, were anything but enticing.
Ok, so let’s look at what we consider worth seeing on Corfu.
One of our very favourite beaches turned out to be one of the last we visited. Agios Georgios Pagon is long, attractive curve of a beach stretching across five kilometres in the north-west of the island, flanked by forested slopes.
Considering it was rather windy on Corfu during our stay – very unusual for September, we were thrilled to find that this is one of the most well sheltered swimming spots on the island when it’s blowing elsewhere.
We would definitely consider staying at one of the small basic hotels or studios located right above the beach, as it such a lovely, peaceful part of the island which has seen very little development apart from a few tavernas and cafes overlooking the sea. We weren’t surprised to find that most of the travellers who choose to stay there were Germans and Italians.
I recommend you bring your own shade if you prefer to sit beyond the small organised beach area, which has umbrellas and sun loungers. Despite the latter, it does feel very unspoilt and there’s plenty of space for beachgoers to stretch out.
Swimming in Agios Georgios Pagon’s crystalline waters was a dream and we quickly realised that it is also a goodspot for snorkelling as it has a small reef with a surprising variety of marine life.
Families enjoy this beach, as do windsurfers when the winds pick up. And, considering its location, it’s also an ideal spot to watch the sun set.
Driving out to the west coast, we stopped in at Ermones bay, a lovely sandy beach surrounded by sheer cliffs and greenery. It feels like a million miles from Corfu’s popular resort areas and we would definitely consider staying there, as it is home to one of the island’s best hotels – the Grand Mediterraneo Resort & Spa. The Rosa Bella appears to be a good alternative, particularly for those with a smaller budget.
Having seen images of Arkoudilas beach, we were curious to experience what appeared to be one of Corfu’s most remote beaches. Situated in southern Corfu, it’s actually just 4km from Kavos yet you would never guess.
Park your car close to Kanoula beach and from there, be prepared for a somewhat lengthy walk along a pothole-filled dirt road. We had to slosh through some mud as there was a heavy storm the previous night. Skirted by high cliffs, Arkoudilas feels wild and undiscovered, and the day we visited, there were few fellow beachgoers around and the wind had turned the sea a milky shade of cappuccino. We cooled off in its shallow waters while twentysomethings on the shore covered themselves in mud.
Undoubtedly one of the major highlights of our journeys round the island was Halikounas beach, in the southwest. Long and untamed, this wind-whipped beach graced with gently rolling dunes attracts kitesurfers, windsurfers and those who prefer a serene spot to swim, chill out with some yoga or simply take a long, soul-reviving walk.
When we reached this beach in the early evening as the sun was setting, casting a beautiful, burnt orange glow on the coarse golden sand beach and the rippling water, I had this irresistible urge to run down the beach, so that’s exactly what I did.
Apart from a kitesurf rental shack, there’s a gorgeous little beach bar that fits right in with the bohemian vibe there. Behind the beach is the Korission Lagoon, a protected wildlife habitat where you can spot some 120 species of birdlife.
On the northwest coast is the hilly resort area of Paleokastritsa, which was considerably less busy than I imagine it is in the summer. I adored the drive through olive groves and citrus orchards in a part of the island that reminded me of some of Italy’s coastal towns. Indeed, we stumbled upon quite a few Italians sunning themselves on the beach there.
From up high we spotted some amazing little beach coves accessible only by sea, so definitely consider hiring a motorboat to go exploring there. We took a dip at a small beach below the Paleokastritsa monastery, and discovered it’s a great spot for snorkeling. We swam among schools of sizeable fish darting around the rockbed close to shore, where you will find a dive centre.
I particularly adore the northeast of the island, as do a great many Britons, where spacious villas can be found hidden among covered in thick forests of pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees that trickle down to the sea.
After checking out several rather busy beaches, including Barbati – which had a bit of a tropical vibe, we ended up finding a priceless jewel of a spot, that is not even listed on the map.
We turned off at a small side street that takes you down to Kouloura beach. Instead of Kouloura, we chose to lay down our towels at umbrella-free Houhoulio beach, in the early afternoon shade of a giant eucalyptus tree.
There was only a handful of fellow bathers enjoying this serene little stretch of sand, where the Ionian Sea is shared with Albania. No sun loungers and not a beach bar in sight. Bliss.
Having heard that large flocks of flamingoes were spotted at the Alikes salt pans near the town of Lefkimmi, south of Corfu town, we headed out there and happened upon two British some-time birdwatchers.
They pointed out a small flock for us far in the distance, noting that greater numbers could be found there in the morning hours, rather than the afternoon, when we arrived.
Alikes attracts egrets, herons, spoonbills and many migratory birds, while over 270 bird species have been recorded throughout the island.
We were relieved to see that, on an island which has undergone such extensive tourism development and receives so many visitors each year, such vital ecosystems are protected habitats.
In fact, Alikes is home to the Corfu Environmental Education Centre, where students, volunteers and members of the public gather to learn how they can contribute to efforts to protect the local birdlife, particularly considering that bird hunters continue to prove a threat to the survival of rare and threatened species.
We consider Corfu’s Old Town, a Unesco world heritage site, to be one of the most beautiful in Greece and can spend hours strolling through its narrow alleyways, known as kantounia, below clotheslines strung between balconies, that are reminiscent of Naples.
The Venetians, French and British who once ruled Corfu have left their distinctive mark on the town, where neoclassical mansions sit alongside treasure-filled museums, lovers dine al fresco at bistros on hidden squares, and cobblestoned staircases lead to all sorts of wonderful finds.
Liston Arcade and its row of stylish cafes is the perfect spot to order an espresso and take in views of Spianada Square, where cricket, a sport handed down by the Brits, is played with fervour.
When in Corfu town, we make a beeline for the classic Papagiorgis patisserie for the most authentic, creamiest pistachio gelato we’ve ever sampled outside Italy.
One of the highlights of this visit was the Old Fortress, or Palio Frourio, formerly Byzantine fortifications that the Venetians replaced, which is situated on the eastern edge of the city that one reaches via a small bridge over a moat.
An outdoor museum of sorts, there you will find two winged lions of St Mark, the Tower of the Sea and Tower of the Land, the British barracks and the church of St George, which features Doric columns.
After we passed through the barracks, we were fortunate enough to be treated to a gloriously melodic accompaniment; that of a piano being played with great skill, the notes floating through a window. Corfu, which has a long music tradition, is home to the Ionian University, whose music students are fortunate to take classes in a department building situated within the fortress grounds.
Hiking up to Tower of the Land, we were just a little bit awestruck by the bird’s eye view of the Old Town and the wide deep blue expanse of the entrance to the Adriatic Sea, dotted with yachts and various other seagoing craft on a blissfully sunny day.
Before we departed the fortress, we stopped in at the Corfu Sailing Club’s café-restaurant, located within the fortress grounds at Mandraki Harbour.
While it was recommended to us for lunch, we chose to quench our thirst with fresh juice and cappuccino freddo while admiring the row of sailboats. We even spotted a tiny locals-only beach where the water was surprisingly clear.
Last but certainly not least, one of the culinary highlights of our stay involved a drive up to the inland village of Doukades, for an early evening meal at Elizabeth’s Taverna.
This unassuming little family-run spot specialises in authentic Corfiot cuisine, served in generous portions, including a rich pastitsada (rooster in a tomato-based sauce and pasta) and tender sofrito (pan-fried veal in a wine-based sauce). The red house wine proved the perfect accompaniment for a meal that cost us 46 euros for three persons.
There are only a few tables, inside and out, so head there early as it’s not exactly a secret, judging by the clientele, which included German and Russian visitors, as well as one long-term cycling traveller.