Corfu: summer's hottest deal?
As Europe's biggest low-cost airline launches flights to this multi-faceted Ionian island, Simon Calder reveals the holiday highlights
Wednesday 06 July 2011
Only in a few hot spots, such as Kavos in the far south-east of the island, and Ipsos in the bay north of Corfu Town. The rest of the northernmost Ionian isle – known as Kerkyra in Greek – offers everything from layers of history to unspoilt natural beauty. The island has handled five decades of tourism with style, and still offers plenty of opportunities to escape: peace and pleasantness tend to increase proportionately to the distance from the airport.
Corfu is the size of the Isle of Wight (of its sister islands, only Kefalonia is larger), and packs in plenty of reasons to make it top of the list of Greek isles to visit. Corfu Town bears evidence of the Romans, Normans, Venetians, French, Turks, Germans and British waves of influence, while the interior of the island is full of scenic interest – topped by Mount Pantokrator, 906m above sea level.
There are plenty of good-value packages to locations beyond the raucous resorts. Indeed, Corfu is likely to provide some of the best bargains of the summer. The strife in Greece over the past 14 months has depressed demand, leading to price cuts from big tour operators – including Britain's biggest, Thomson (0871 231 4691; www.thomson.co.uk), which has a self-catering package to the Antigoni Apartments in Pyrgi for £228 return, with flights from Gatwick, transfers and a week's accommodation, based on two sharing. That works out at less than £33 per person per day.
An independent approach?
Corfu becomes even easier to reach from tomorrow, when Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) becomes the latest airline to include Corfu, with a new link from Stansted. Even for this month and next, one-way fares are available for less than £60. In addition, easyJet flies from Bristol, Gatwick and Manchester; Monarch flies from Luton; and Jet2 flies from East Midlands, Leeds/Bradford and Newcastle.
As a result of equally excellent links to airports close to Corfu, you can also tailor a trip to suit your travelling style. For example, you could follow in the wake of Oscar Wilde ("The sea was sapphire coloured, and the sky burned like a heated opal through the air. We hoisted sail; the wind was blowing fair for the blue lands that to the eastward lie") and sail there from Italy, or combine Corfu with other Ionian islands such as Zante or Kefalonia. Another option, given the short flying time, is to make for a short break on the island.
You'll find plenty of it in Corfu Town, which is most unlike the capitals of other Greek islands in its mix of architecture and open space. The Campiello quarter, a warren of tottering houses in honey-coloured stone, is a joy to wander through; so too is the only slightly newer Jewish quarter. The dark red bell tower of St Spyridon's church dominates the town. Most visitors, though, converge on the Esplanade, a diamond-shaped open space edged with gently crumbling Venetian palaces in Dalmatian marble along the western side – known as the Liston, lined with cafés and shaded by trees. The northern part of it is occupied by a rather forlorn cricket pitch. Beyond it, protruding offshore, is the old fort, or Paleo Frourio – offering a great 360-degree view of the town, the sea and the mainland beyond.
There are some rewarding set-piece attractions. The Archaeological Museum is a good place to escape the heat of the day, while Mon Repos is an elegant villa built in 1831 for the British High Commissioner. After the Empire left, the Greeks took it over; Prince Philip was born here.
In the capital, the Corfu Mare (00 30 26610 25804; www.corfumare.gr) combines luxury and a plausible pool with an urban location, close to the port and a five-minute €5 cab ride to the centre. The hotel's website is a pain to navigate, but www.laterooms.com has plenty of availability at £99 per double, including breakfast.
Corfu has two beaches called Agios Stefanos: one on the east coast, which is nothing special, and another at the extreme north-west of the island, just above Agios Georgios bay; this is a largely unspoilt V-shaped beach, that rarely gets crowded.
For a stay somewhere outstanding, consider the White House (00 30 26630 91040; www.white-house-corfu.gr), where the brothers and authors Lawrence and Gerald Durrell lived for a time. The beautiful property overlooks Kalami Bay. It sleeps eight, and is available for just €1,000 a week from 6 September. For bookings sooner than that, the Athinaios family – who have owned the White House for generations – can offer alternatives overlooking the same stretch of water.
Villa accommodation is available elsewhere in the sparse north of the island; James Villas (0800 074 0122; www.jamesvillas.co.uk) has a range of properties sleeping six or more.
Exploring Corfu's interior is richly rewarding. Almost as soon as you leave the coast you start discovering villages that seem to have been slumbering for decades. An excellent base is Strinylas, above Pyrgi, from which you can straightforwardly climb Mount Pantokrator. The alternative approach is from Perithia, a fascinating ghost village – with a thriving taverna.
To discover this part of the island in good company, consider the eight-day Corfu Trail to the North tour from Explore (0845 527 6846; www.explore.co.uk). It departs on 10 September and 8 October, price £791 – including flights from Gatwick, accommodation with breakfast, some dinners, and guides.
The other Ionian islands are accessible by ferry from the capital's busy port, just north of the centre of Corfu Town. You can also reach Igoumenitsa on the mainland. But for a day with a difference, sign up for a trip to Albania. At its closest point, Corfu is just over a mile from southern Albania, and taking a day trip is an excellent way to get a taste of the least-known country in Europe. Petrakis Lines (00 30 26610 38 690; www.ionian-cruises.com) operates a boat service from Corfu Town to Saranda in Albania, costing €38 return.
Saranda is an interesting and relaxed port in its own right, but the main attraction – a few kilometres inland – is the ancient city of Butrint. The ruins survived four decades of Stalinism, and remain one of the most impressive – and under-visited – classical sites in Europe.
What Google will tell you...
"Such is the variety of Corfu's scenery that walkers spend no more than an hour in any one landscape; indeed, around every corner a new scene stuns the eye. From the vast beaches and juniper dunes in the island's south, through the rolling olive groves of the central section, to the karst plateau and rugged gorges in the north, the Corfu Trail reveals an island paradise ideal for walkers" – www.thecorfutrail.com
What Google won't tell you... until now...
Corfu's rickety old airport is barely fit for purpose, especially on "changeover days" – in particular Fridays, when there is the main influx of British jets. But at least it has the advantage that you can walk to or from town in about 40 minutes.
Who said that?
"Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen"
— Gerald Durrell (My Family and Other Animals)
"Get dressed up in your school uniform and join in the games as Future Club will be cheesing it up all night long" – Club 18-30, promoting the "School Disco" night at the resort of Kavos
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