For years a package holiday playground, the island is now, as John Gill reveals, returning to its roots. The Durrells would be delighted
TRAVELLING through the Ionian Islands last year, I worried about Corfu and its interior. I was a lover of neighbouring Paxos, and all the stories I had ever heard about Corfu were bad. There were the drunks who drowned on boat trips (and that was only the rep); tavernas wrecked; villages terrorised; donkeys stabbed with cutlery snatched from restaurant tables; rumours of armed vigilante patrols.When I bit the bullet, I was prepared for the worst.

What I wasn't prepared for, however, was to find Corfu in the middle of a tourism slump: one with dreadful consequences for the tourism industry, but one that was already beginning to transform the island. Not only had the crowds disappeared, but the slump was making islanders rethink the type of tourism they want to attract. After decades of exploitation by chancers in the tourism racket, Corfu appears to be reverting to the lush, green island that attracted the Lears and Durrells in the first place.

Say the word ``Benitses'' to old Corfu hands and most will mimic vomiting. In the 1980s it was a pied-a-mer for Millwall fans and their molls. The round-the-clock bars resembled the last hours of Brecht and Weill's Mahagonny. Since then, however, the party animals have fled to Kavos in the south, where E is the psychotropic substance of choice, and in Benitses the new mayor has imposed restrictions on the bars and implemented traffic calming and improvements to its centre. It is slowly returning to the prelapsarian state of a whitewashed coastal village splashed with bougainvillea, although the family holiday-makers who built the island's tourism economy have yet to return. Last summer, at the height of blazing July, one Benitses hotelier reckoned that of 8000 beds in the area only 300 were occupied. Another surveyed his deserted hotel foyer and gloomily concluded: "Benitses is dead."

Around the compass points of the island, I encountered similar complaints, and wherever the slump hits there are two remarkable side effects: bargains in accommodation for independent travellers, and the chance to enjoy large areas of the island unusually free of crowds (off-season, at any rate).

In Benitses, you can be in virgin woodlands veined with streams a few minutes walk from the seafront, and elsewhere the ``real'' Corfu is only a few minutes from the nightclubs and video bars. Along the worst-hit south-east coast, most of the tacky tourism developments are actually independent of the villages that name them - unspoilt Moraitika and Messongi, for example - and because the main road turns inland at the latter, there are whole swathes of the south-east coast that might be termed The Land That Tourism Forgot. Villages such as Petreti and Boucari are beginning to show signs of tourism development, but the passing of Corfu's boom has left them unscathed.

The woody interior behind Boucari's lovely coastal lane is, to plagiarise Brian Eno, another green world, and one where tourists who make it - particularly on foot - might well have arrived from a different planet. As in the north of the island, whose dramatic mountainous interior is also rarely visited, island life in these places continues almost oblivious to the tourism racket on the coasts. The southerly town of Levkimmi, second largest after Corfu, actually seems to have taken the decision to resist tourism, and its handsome architecture and pleasant canal-side tavernas are overlooked by most tourists. Yet the filoxenia, or welcome, shown to those who do visit is remarkable.

Corfu still has the best and some of the biggest beaches in the entire Ionian, notably on the south-west and north coasts. Unfortunately, as few of the resorts here are based on pre-existing villages - most were built to exploit their beaches - they are the most likely places to be developed to death. Despite its rather ramshackle sprawl, Aghios Georgios in the south can lay claim to 15 miles of sandy beach, ending in the desert- shore dunes that surround the Lake Korission nature reserve. Mirtiotissa, Lawrence Durrell's "loveliest beach in the world" from Prospero's Cell, has long been discovered by the crowds, but is still worth the precarious trek down the cliff path. The lesser visited bays of the north, such as Ayios Stefanos, offer vast bucket-and-spade beaches, and beyond Aharavi on the north coast, Almiros Beach is almost as deserted as Korission's dunes.

The austere and mountainous north-east coast, which attracts the smart villa set and has more than its fair share of bad weather thanks to glowering Mount Pantocrator, seemed the least likely to be affected, but even here people euphemistically allowed that things were "quiet". This is the most typically Greek part of the island: rocky hills, olive groves, and pebbly coves like Nissaki, where the water begs to be compared with a Hockney pool. Here, too, is Durrell's Kalami, where you can eat and even stay in the White House, where he wrote Prospero's Cell. The next bay hides the sublime green whorl of Kouloura bay, untouched except for its one taverna. Further north, the other Ayios Stefanos (in the east) has vistas of water, olives and rock that compare with the most secret parts of Paxos.

The slump has also seen subtle changes overtaking the once-reviled capital, and even the aiport, once described by this newspaper, as "European air flight's answer to the Black Hole of Calcutta". The extensions to the airport for the 1993 economic summit on Corfu, which were closed immediately after the summit, have now been re-opened, easing the pressure on its overcrowded glasshouse terminal. The renovations to the town for the same event have continued, and new art galleries, restaurants and bars give this former dump an air of renewal. Corfu's Venetian fortress town is emerging from the tide of T-shirts covered in swear words, to resemble the most elegant island capital in the whole of Greece. Having spent 15 years cheerfully ready to nuke it, I find myself grown rather fond of this medieval town exploding into the 21st century.