A quiet corner of the holiday island of Corfu is the perfect place to escape says Graham Bright.
The sun was most definitely over the yardarm as the young Greek waiter guided our small motorboat and its thirsty occupants into a mooring space on the simple wooden jetty.
It’s the way they do things on this steep-sided stretch of Corfu’s coastline, where the tavernas cater for as many arrivals from the Ionian Sea as they do from the main road. And after an excellent lunch, the ideal spot for a lazy afternoon is a mere step down from the wooden deck: a small beach with sunbeds and parasols, plus swimming in the clear blue sea.
While the disfigurement caused by mass tourism is all too evident on some parts of Corfu’s 135-mile coastline, one expanse on the north east of the island has retained its rustic character thanks mainly to the efforts of one British woman. During a week spent exploring its magical bays and their enticing, tavernas, we drank many a toast to Patricia Cookson, who fell in love with this corner of Corfu in the Seventies and, spotting the dire need for foreign investment, began convincing owners to let her rent their properties out.
Soon the company she formed, Corfu Villas, had built up an enviable collection and, by turning the area into a haven full of high-end properties delivering good revenue for the locals, Cookson removed any threat of descent into tackiness.
Sadly, she died in 2012 at the age of 66, but the company she formed lives on under the name of CV Travel and is still responsible for the cream of the holiday villas in the vicinity. About an hour’s drive from the airport in Corfu Town, after a few unexpected bumps and turns, the hired car nosed down the drive of our stunning villa called Lithari, the Greek word for the massive grinding stone unearthed when digging the foundations and now forming a feature in the immaculate gardens.
Set among a classic landscape of olive, fig and pomegranate trees, the villa is raised above its 30ft infinity pool and enjoys spectacular views across green countryside and blue sea to the grey mountains of Albania.
Yes, Albania. If you check your atlas, you’ll see that the northern half of Corfu lies not next to the mothership of Greece but to its former communist neighbour, where tourism is still in its infancy. At their closest, Corfu and Albania are a mere three kilometres apart and the two rugged coastlines form an eye-catching attraction for the many cruise ships which ply this thin channel on their way to the Adriatic.
Lithari’s long covered verandah gives entry to a spacious sitting/dining room and kitchen, with a tiled floor and high-raftered ceiling. Two ground floor bedrooms also open on to the verandah, while on the first floor, the master bedroom has its own balcony where swimming gear dries in minutes.
Outside there’s an excellent barbecue and a delightful dining pergola shaded by bright bougainvillea to one side of the house, while broad steps lead down to the pool with its sunbeds and covered seating area on wooden decking.
Any temptation to spend an entire week lazing within Lithari’s idyllic surroundings must, of course, be resisted – well, partially at least. Kassiopi, just a kilometre away down the hill, is a bustling little port with a fine selection of shops and restaurants.
And unlike so many other settlements on Corfu, this one has history. Kassiopi was fortified by the Romans – the emperor Tiberius had a villa here, and the town was visited by both Cicero and Nero. The remains of the Roman fort, recently renovated with EU funding and beautifully floodlit at night, look down on the harbour and can be reached by a ramshackle path skirting washing lines and gardens. Apparently, the money ran out before steps could be completed.
The town really comes alive at night, when the restaurants clustered around the harbour attract visitors from the surrounding area, including yachting parties and villa-dwellers like us. It’s a pleasant spot and later on, there are some lively bars which keep going until the small hours for those who have the energy.
By far the best way to really appreciate this stretch of coast is by going afloat and there are a number of boat hire companies who will rent you a decent little motorised craft for a day. We hired ours in scenic little San Stefano, just a 10-minute drive from Kassiopi, and spent a wonderful day cruising up and down the coast, making frequent stops to swim or enjoy a cold beer at a taverna.
It’s a veritable K-club in these parts: Kerasia, with its quiet beach and rustic taverna; Kouloura, with its pretty harbour and excellent fish restaurant, and Kalami, where the White House once inhabited by poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell is now holiday accommodation and a thriving restaurant.
The spot we kept returning to was Agni, which basically consists of three tavernas clustered together in a small bay.
They serve some of the best traditional Greek food in the area, and we feasted al fresco on sublime keftedes (meatballs) and stifado (beef stew with sweet onions).
Our only excursion inland was to the deserted hilltop town of Old Perithia, built to escape the ravages of pirates on the coast but gradually abandoned during the mid-20th century as the inhabitants moved back down to enjoy the benefits of tourism.
Abandoned it may be but amazingly, blending in among the ruins, are no less than five tavernas doing good business serving the tourists who brave the five miles of bumpy, twisty road up from the coast. And that just about sums up this corner of Corfu: Unspoilt and good-looking and the locals keep a warm welcome in the hillsides.