The second-largest of the Ionian Islands was one of the first Greek destinations to embrace mass tourism. Yet Corfu has far more to offer than just sun, sea and souvlaki. It is located just west of the Greek mainland and the southern coast of Albania. Shaped like a sickle, with its hollow side facing inwards, the island is about 65 kilometres long and 32 kilometres across at its widest point.
There are 217 kilometres of coast, although anyone venturing inland will find that the interior has at least as much to offer as the shore. Much of Corfu is mountainous. At 906 metres above sea level, its highest peak, Mount Pantokrator, is visible from most places on the island.
These days, Corfu caters for everyone, including those who prefer to travel independently or who want to elude busy resorts.
Most definitely. Corfu Town is a thriving metropolis in comparison with most other Greek island “capitals”, and is also very attractive. The town was a target for several foreign armies in the course of its long history, and the two fortresses which now protect its harbour were built by the Venetians, who ruled the island for four centuries and whose influence continues to give the town an Italian feel. From the old fort, or Palaio Frourio, there is an impressive 360-degree view over the town and the coast beyond it.
Just behind the fortress is the Spianada, a pleasant green space that incorporates a cricket pitch, a legacy of the early 19th century, when the British conquered the island. Running along the Spianada is the Liston, an attractive avenue part-shaded by trees, partly covered by arcades. With its many restaurants and cafés, it is a perfect spot from which to watch the world go by.
Most visitors concentrate their attention on the coast, which means missing the opportunity to experience Greek island life untouched by tourism.
Corfu’s second-largest conurbation, Lefkimmi, is located in the middle of the countryside and its inhabitants seem oblivious to the crowds that descend on other parts of the island during the summer months. The streets are quiet and there are no tourist shops. Many of the houses have a lemon tree or a couple of vines outside; colourful flowers bloom in old paint tins and olive oil containers, and chickens peck in the yard.
In complete contrast is Corfu’s most popular inland destination, Aqualand Water Park in Agios Ioannis, about half way across the island heading west from Corfu Town. Contained within the park is a selection of slides, tubes, pools, rafts, pirate adventures – anything that can be turned into a water-related attraction.
This could be the moment to take a trip up Mount Pantokrator, the highest point on the island. Remarkably, considering it compares in altitude to the highest peaks in England, you can drive all the way to the top. Cyclists might want to pedal up the slope starting in Ipsos.
The road winds up and up, through a series of seemingly impossible curves that carve their way through the grey rock; in spring, the mountainsides are carpeted in flowers. The summit itself, bristling with radio masts, is a disappointment, until you look around and absorb the breathtaking view: the map of Corfu, with its bays and headlands, seems to come to life before your eyes.
If you don’t have a head for heights, the Korission Lagoon is a more down-to-earth destination. Take the main road south towards Kavos, turning off at the signpost towards Issos beach. A marked path to the right just before the beach leads to the dunes that surround the lake; from there it is a case of wandering where the fancy takes you.
One of the most dramatic spots on Corfu’s north-west coast is Paleokastritsa, a rocky promontory on the top of which is a ruined castle, the Angelokastro. Paleokastritsa itself is a rocky, densely wooded headland around which nestle a variety of different beaches and coves. Each beach offers different facilities, with a diving school in Ampelaki, and trips out into the bay on a glass-bottomed boat starting from the little harbour of Alipa.
The buildings that pepper the hillsides comprise a mixture of rooms for rent and small hotels, each with a path down to the beach.
Perched on a rock above the beaches is Paleokastritsa Monastery. Inside the gate is a lovely courtyard filled with plants, and a small, intricately decorated orthodox church. But the high point, in every sense, of a visit to this part of the island, is the Angelokastro. The road, which in places is barely wide enough for a single vehicle to squeeze along, winds through the picturesque villages of Lakones, Makrades and Krini before reaching a taverna, above which is the final slope to the castle.
Corfu regal associations began with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who chose the island as the location for a summer palace in the late 19th century. The result was the Achilleion, in Gastouri. After Elisabeth died it was sold to the King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who visited it regularly until the First World War.
The palace is open to visitors to explore a handful of ground-floor rooms. Far more interesting are the terraced gardens, with their classical statues, palm trees and walkways shaded with wisteria.
Corfu’s season starts with a weekend of celebrations marking the Greek Orthodox Easter and continues until October.
During the winter the island is extremely quiet, with many hotels and restaurants remaining closed. In the height of summer, temperatures average 30 C or more; the sun is slightly less fierce in May and September.
Wear good hiking boots. Footpaths are often broken at places with large potholes. Boat trips do not start until towards end of April and ends late October. People are friendly in general. If you are travelling with little kids, expect them to be cuddled by locals (especially old people). Please don’t be offended by this.
Shops open in the morning around 08:30-09:00 and then they close between 13:00/14:00 – 17:00/18:00 and then re open 18:00-21:00. If you want good landscape photos, walk upwards from usual tourist spots.