CORFU: Homer’s ‘beautiful land’ gets the nod

Not every holiday is perfect, but every holiday should have its sweet spot.

After months of slogging and saving, we were determined to find that sweet spot in Corfu. Basing ourselves in a self-catering resort on the north coast, we knew we wanted to spend as little time as possible in hedonistic hubs like Acharavi, Ipsos, and Kavos. But we couldn’t exactly hide away in an exclusive villa or slinky yacht either. Our plan was to find somewhere inbetween.

We found it — or them, I should say — in a series of white-pebble coves chopped into the north-eastern coastline. Stretching between Nissaki and Kassiopi, this winding stretch of road offers a turn-off every couple of kilometres, descending via a tangle of hairpin bends towards one glistening, cypress-bracketed cove after another. Every one would make a magazine cover.

Sure, the beaches at Roda and Acharavi are sandy. But comparing them to these pebbly slices of perfection is like comparing feta with EasiSingles. At Kouloúra Bay, we kicked back under the shade of pine and olive trees. At Agios Stefanos, a chirpy tavern offered morning coffee and pastries just a few steps from a wooden jetty extending into the sea. Kalami Bay had the curves of a scallop shell.

“A brilliant speck of an island in the Ionian [Sea],” is how Lawrence Durrell described Corfu, and Kalami Bay is where he moved to escape the grim weather and suffocating culture he termed “the English death” in the 1930s. The White House still sits “like a dice in a rock” overlooking the water, and the upper-floor where Durrell made notes for Prospero’s Cell, his Corfu memoir and travelogue, can be rented in the summer months (white-house-corfu.gr).

Thanks to the Durrell association, of course, Kalami Bay is no longer a quaint fishermen’s cove, and its sprinkling of tavernas charge some of the higher prices in the area. A five-minute drive north brings you to Kouloúra, however — where the smooth stones and clicking crickets haven’t changed in decades.

At Agni Bay, we lay on loungers close enough to have our feet tickled by the wash of passing yachts, catamarans and pleasure craft. We allowed our bodies to cook, before jumping off the jetty or grabbing snorkels, masks and fins to play Finding Nemo.

At first, the kids were wary. But gentle coaxing (and the carrot of a nearby ice-cream freezer) got them in a little deeper, and once they’d seen the shoals of silvery bream, the curious combers and the rainbow-coloured wrasse, there was no stopping them. In summer, the water is 24-degrees.

The more we dived down, the more there was to see. As eyes become accustomed to the blues and greens of the underwater world, we learned to pick out the hiding places of bright orange starfish and brilliantly disguised stonefish — with their dangerous back-barbs.

I was happy playing around in five or six metres, but if you’d like to get to some of the bigger reefs offshore, dive shops like the one in Acharavi (tauchenkorfu.com) brings snorkelers and divers on daily trips from around €25pp. Try dives are available, and more serious divers can explore Corfu’s wrecks, caves and walls. Barracuda, grouper, octopus and more are all on the cards offshore.

Sea swimming gives you a dream of an appetite, and so it became part of our routine to leave towels drying around lunchtime and make for one of the tavernas nearby. Trial and error was key with these, but after a couple of hits and misses, we found the reliables we could return to for fresh seafood, friendly service and prices that didn’t take the proverbial.

Nikolas Taverna was one, huddled into a century-old building in the corner of Agni Bay. Here, we found third-generation owner Perikles Katsaros greeting customers off his jetty. On the walls, clippings document the stream of celebrities who have stopped off, amongst them are Roger Moore, who filmed For Your Eyes Only (1981) nearby, Peter Mandelson and George Osborne, who shared lunch here in 2008.

The real stars, mind you, are on the menu. Sitting under a shady canopy we picked through baskets of fresh bread, salty olives, steaming mussels and fresh fish hot from the grill. A steady stream of Greek specialties was devoured — gooey tzatziki (oozing yoghurt and cucumber), chewy saganaki (fried cheese), octopus and scorpion fish in spicy red sauces, and lashings of tomatoes, cucumbers and Greek salad.

Another gem was unearthed in Kassiopi. Apparently the Roman emperor Tiberius once kept a villa here, and were he around today, I’d recommend he eat in Porto, a beautifully humble restaurant set just back from the harbour. Everything clicked… the shade, the staff, the prices (€6.50 for a Pizza Romana, €7.50 for crispy calamari with chips), and the seductive presence of a smiling old man watching over everything, a clean shirt hung by his till for the evening service.

Idyllic as it sounds, of course, Corfu doesn’t always impress. Greece is battling some pretty brutal austerity right now, and visitors can’t fail to notice the boarded-up shopfronts, graffiti and empty apartments. Throw in a roadside bin system which sees rubbish overflowing a couple of days before collection, and a persistent population of stray cats (an annoying presence at many restaurants), and things aren’t quite so lustrous.

Corfu (in Greek, Kerkyra) was Homer’s “beautiful and rich land”. Its inland is still awash with olive groves, sleepy villages and Corfiots watching passers-by from their porches. But these are testing times for tourism.

Our single worst experience was at Hydropolis — advertised as ‘Corfu’s newest waterpark’ on the Gelina Village & Resort’s website (gelinavillage.gr). When we arrived, we spotted just a single lifeguard, nobody was supervising the top of the slides, a supporting bolt had come loose in one of the younger children’s slides, and several small slides had calcified like kettles. I was shocked it remained open. We left shortly afterwards, with two very upset kids.

A day-trip very much worth taking, by contrast, is the charming Corfu town. From the fortress of Palaio Frourio to the Venetian mansions, café-crammed Liston promenade and boutique shopping, this is a worthwhile diversion — you may find yourself making comparisons to Dubrovnik — but make sure to travel early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The midday heat is thumping.

Once you find that sweet spot, you won’t want to leave.

Flights

Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Corfu every Sunday. Going to press, one-way fares were available from €168pp in August, falling to €105pp in October.

Where to stay

We stayed at the four-star Century Resort in Acharavi, where clickandgo.com has seven nights departing August 25 from €279pp. Packages with clickandgo.com range from €449pp, including flights with Aer Lingus and seven nights at the two-star Evridiki Apartments in Messonghi, to €879 for flights plus all-inclusive accommodation at the four-star Sunshine Corfu Hotel & Spa.

Getting around

There are bus services on Corfu, but renting a car or moped is a must if you want to eke out the best beaches and coves. Hertz, Europcar and other big brands operate from the airport, but we found Value Plus (corfucarrentals.com) to be more flexible with drop-offs and collections. Seven days rental on a fairly basic Peugeot 207 cost us €270 in July.

Where to eat

The restaurants we kept returning to were Porto by Kassiopi’s harbour, and Nikolas Taverna (agnibay.com) in Agni Bay. Both rolled out friendly service and snappy dishes (from grilled sea bass to chilled tzatziki) with very affordable prices. Freddo’s in Acharavi offers homemade ice-cream and waffles (facebook.com/dolcefreddocorfu).

Day-trips

If you don’t want to spend a full day at Aqualand (aqualand-corfu.com; €25/€17), it’s worth noting that entry prices drop from to €18/€13 after 3pm. Ferries can also be taken from Corfu town to nearby Paxos island. It could be the start of a whole new holiday adventure . . .

Travel tips

Many of Corfu’s beaches are stony, and sea urchins are common, so bring (or buy) beach shoes for swimming. If you’re staying in a villa or apartment, it may be worth bringing small containers of salt, pepper, sugar and olive oil to avoid the inevitable waste when you leave.

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