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As one of the largest of all the Greek islands, Corfu is a well-known spot for those wanting a sure-hit of vitamin D come sun-soaking season. Located in the Ionian Sea just across a narrow straight from Albania and mainland Greece, the island has boasted a steady stream of holidayers way before troops of package tourists crash-landed onto its rugged, fishing-boat bedecked coastline.
Gerard Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy and subsequent television adaptation are based on the British author’s experience of moving to Corfu as a child in the 1930s. The island is the birthplace of Prince Philip and second home to old-money families like the Rothschilds. It also lures in countless yacht owners longing for a low-key (within reason) summer break.
In the north of the island you can expect to find lush villas hidden from view in dense olive groves, while tavernas fill with retsina-slurred chat about ski chalets and the best prep schools to post the kids off to. There’s no doubting that “Kensington-on-Sea” (as the northeast region of the island has been nicknamed) has become a tourist trap for a certain type of Brit, while Kavos has earned the south an unfair reputation thanks to its booze-thirsty 18-30s crowd. Look beyond that tiny fluorescent strip far south of the island though, and you’ll find a Corfu that’s unspoiled, relatively tourist-free (even in high season) and rustic in all its white-washed glory.
Geographically benefitting from access to two contrasting coastlines, the narrow south allows easy access to both craggy, jurassic beaches on the west coast and pebble-lined crystal clear turquoise water on the east. Separating the two sides of the south are verdant hills, charming tumble-down villages and winding coastal roads that wrap around wild flower-flecked landscapes.
In the south, the ubiquitous souvenir shop is replaced by local bakeries offering up pastries laced with cinnamon and kafeneions where moustached men smoking packets of camels and swilling tarry Greek espressos spill out into the street. Restaurants are a family-run affair, with mums in the kitchen and bright-eyed sons trusted to take orders, in spite of their heart-quickening glances. Corfu is still wild and rugged, you only need turn your attentions down south.
For a luxury villa stay complete with tennis courts and waterfront location, Aphrodite Corfu Villas is the one to look to, where you can choose from a restored cottage in an olive grove location to traditional studios right on the water. Located between Messonghi and Lefkimmi, these villas are at the perfect mid-point to access all the south’s best bits. Different from your standard new build, these villas are lovingly restored stone homes, preserving the authenticity of the south down to the terracotta roof tiles.
For no-frills holiday apartments in a location that suits you, there’s no better option than Airbnb. Savvy locals have cottoned on to the listings website and the options on there will be better than those you might find elsewhere on the internet. Look to Boukari and Petriti area for a central south Corfu location that will allow access to most places, or opt for beach-front apartments at Santa Barbara or Petraki.
Step back in time on entry to San Stefano Estate, once an impressive mansion home to the family Giustiniani, the Venetians that built this house on a hill over three centuries ago. Stroll through rooms with book-lined walls and peer out of the windows here at the Ionian Sea. Everything in this home has been carefully curated to fit with the Venetian period, making it the ideal place to rewind to a simpler time.
What was meant to be a short lunch can be stretched out for hours at this cliff-edge seafood restaurant above Marathias beach. A firm fixture on the coastline since the 1980s, Nikos has been refreshed and revived by the hot young thing who has inherited the family business. Now, hunky young waiters in crisp Ralph Lauren shirts serve up even tastier dishes that diverge from the traditional taverna offering. Grilled octopus comes on a bed of punchy garlic fava and flavour pairings of goats’ cheese, honey and figs or watermelon and feta make it onto the menu. The wine here is very good, too. And cold. So cold.
Understated considering its impressive output, Perivoli village bakery serves up the best bougatsa (a traditional cream-packed pastry covered in icing sugar) on the island. Choose from feta-filled layered pastry to gut-satisfying sausage rolls and know that you have tasted what few other tourists ever will. A family-run place that opens from 7AM and is all out of goods by 10AM – this is where everyone starts their day. Find your way into the village and ask for directions to the fournos (bakery.) Maltas beach is then a 10-minute drive from here.
No Greek holiday is complete without the sampling of a well-packed pita gyros and thanks to its picture-perfect location in the centre of Lefkimmi village just next to the main church, Giasemi is an ideal place to partake. At Giasemi, spit-roasted pork and hand-cut fries are nestled into a flatbread mattress and covered in a thick duvet of creamy tzatziki. Aside from the odd tourist that happens to know a local in Lefkimmi village, this little spot is the preserve of locals – it’s barely locatable on a map, so make sure you ask for directions once you’re in Lefkimmi. Don’t forget that the Greeks enjoy dinner at around 10PM, so arrive a little earlier and stroll through the village pre-pita gyros.
This lunch location sits above its own private pebbled beach with a sun-bleached jetty that juts into aquamarine oblivion. Anyone visiting the eponymous taverna will inevitably end up having a soft-spot for its blue-eyed establishment owner, Savvas. Having run his restaurant for over four decades, Savvas knows it’s a smile and a twinkle of the eye that makes the difference between a satisfied customer and a loyal one. Look to this well-kept secret along the eastern coastal road for serenity and a seriously delicious plate of sardines.
If you’re heading here on a Friday or Saturday evening, prepare for a very Greek dinner accompaniment of a live bouzouki band. Set right on the water on the south western coast of the island, Kafesas is decked out in fishing nets and nautical accoutrements and family portraits line the walls. It’s a photographer’s dream, if only for the excessive maritime-themed decor. Mezze is the one to go for here, but do try the stifado – a Corfiot dish of slow-cooked beef stewed in bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon, red wine and super sweet shallots.
Cult seafood restaurant Boukari, located on the water at Petriti village, is the salty name on everyone’s lips when it comes to fresh fish. Peak summer months see a steady stream of British tourists driving (or sailing) in from the moneyed spots in the north to dine on lemon-drenched sea bass and weighty red snappers in the dappled shade of eucalyptus, right on the water’s edge. A stripped-back aesthetic complete with paper Corfu map-stamped table cloths make this the best restaurant on the island with the least pretensions. Drink wine from a tumbler here and forget your airs and graces in favour of diving into a pile of fish and salty, hand-cut chips. Trust us, the Greeks do it better.
Hit up Sirens any day of the week for potentially the best summer soundtrack you’ll find anywhere on the island. Head straight to the beach from the turning into Marathias village and follow the signs for Sirens if it’s a beach day hangout you’re on the hunt for. Located between the craggy cliffs of south Corfu on the island’s southwest, Sirens is a beach bar conducive to languid slumbers in swinging hammocks and cocktail-punctuated sunsets. Banana-plant shadows dance across the sand and white canopies float lazily in the breeze as reggae and hypnotic Balearic beats filter out from the bar. Sunday is the day to party with DJs being flown in from all over Europe to head up trance-inflected house sets that have the entire beach vibrating from sundown. Sirens’s cocktails and hot, salty skinny dipping after dark are highly recommended.
Usually working in collaboration with Sirens beach bar, La Perla starts to heat up post midnight on Saturday and Sunday nights. Locals hop on their mopeds at Marathias and make the journey north to Saint George South to keep the party going way into the early hours. Sit entranced by the flames of the fire pit in the pretty, lantern-lit garden or sway to Balearic house in the boiler room.
Drinking in Kavos is usually not advisable for anyone with discerning taste, but set just off the Kavos strip, Home is worth a visit. Owner George has restored his grandparents’ village home and added a cocktail bar to the ramshackle living room full of mid-century furniture. The best part is that his Pappou (grandfather) still lives upstairs. Again, this place is so under the radar that it has no place on Google. Ask a local – it’s worth the journey, if only for the fiery mezcal chilli pepper infusion George will happily shake up for you once you’re there.
To experience a charming Corfiot village that’s managed to resist the allure of beach-front property in favour of fertile land up on the mountainside, head to Argyrades. The best time to see the village is after 7PM, as the hill’s inhabitants wake from their afternoon siestas. There’s no better time to mix with the locals than sunset, when the village shakes off its slumber. Park your car and head up into the old village on foot, asking for directions to Saint Ioanni (pronounced Yi-An-Ni) church. Expect a pretty pastel wash that’s guaranteed to end up on your Instagram. Climb up the steps to the church atop the hill and soak in the panoramic views of the glorious south.
Soak up the rays on horseback as you ride through the dunes at Issos if you’re looking for a little more active than turning the pages of your book. The horses live at the entrance to Issos beach, the beginning of miles of sandy land impassible on wheels and exhausting to cross on foot. Taking to your stead means being able to canter over to the huge lagoon Lake Korission and onto Halikounas beach, an ultra quiet strip of sand that separates salty seawater and freshwater lake.
South Corfu is home to countless beaches that are yet to be discovered by throngs of tourists. If you hit the right season, you may well find yourself on a near-deserted beach. Hiring a moped or motorbike is a fun way to nip around the best beaches South Corfu has to offer. Start at Alykes Beach in Lefkimmi, up onto the cliff-lined west coast of Gardeno beach through Bitalades village. On from there, choose sand on the west coast and head to Santa Barbara beach at Perivoli village (the locals call it “Maltas”) and walk right the way down the beach for wild vistas and a cheeky skinny dip. When wet, the grey clay on these cliffs can be applied to the skin as a natural mud mask – for anyone in need of a facial. On the other side of Perivoli village, buzz along the road down to Kalivioti beach and then along the coast up to Notos for views of the Greek mainland and crystal-clear water.
On Corfu, you don’t need a sailing license for a boat of up to 50 horsepower, so anchor away if you’re keen to get on your sea legs. This is potentially the best way to take in the scenes of the southeast coast and with a seafood taverna handily positioned at the end of every jetty, you can make a very good attempt at a calamari-crawl of the south. Messonghi Boats are the people to talk to for your one-day odyssey. Make sure to book ahead.
Unbeatable for views and a dose of Corfu’s regal history, the Achilleion Palace and museum sits at the end of a nail-biting steep, hair-pin bend road into the mountains. Built in 1890 as the palatial summer home of Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria, the Achilleion was inspired by the myth of Achilles for its architecture and interiors. This explains the huge statue of the hero in the gardens. The museum was once used as a set for the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, but we suspect the apple cake served up at the teeny taverna just next to the museum is what really attracts visitors.
You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.
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