Travel review: Corfu

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The sun was most definitely over the yardarm as the young Greek waiter guided our small motorboat and its thirsty occupants into a mooring space on the simple wooden jetty.

It’s the way they do things on this steep-sided stretch of Corfu’s coastline, where the tavernas cater for as many arrivals from the sparkling waters of the Ionian Sea as they do from the challenging lanes leading down from the main road.

Tied up to the jetty with minimal fuss and shown to a table on the shady terrace, we were soon enjoying chilled rose and fresh seafood as our hired “wheels” bobbed gently up and down before us.

And after an excellent lunch, the ideal spot for a lazy afternoon is a mere step down from the taverna’s wooden deck: a small beach with complimentary sunbeds and parasols, plus excellent swimming in the clear blue sea.

Islands come in many shapes and sizes, and rarely do they offer beauty unmatched by blemish. It’s certainly the case with Corfu. Cast like a gnarled shepherd’s crook in the Ionian, the disfigurement caused by mass tourism is all too evident on some parts of its 135-mile coastline.

But thanks mainly to the efforts of one British woman, one expanse has resisted the developers and retained its rustic character, proving so attractive to prosperous British holidaymakers that it’s been nicknamed, half-jokingly, Kensington-on-Sea.

During a week spent exploring its magical bays and their enticing, impeccably-run tavernas, we drank many a toast to Patricia Cookson, who fell in love with this north-east corner of Corfu in the early Seventies and, spotting the dire need for foreign investment, began convincing owners to let her rent their properties out as holiday villas.

Soon the company she formed, Corfu Villas, had built up an enviable collection and, by turning the area into a haven full of high-end properties delivering good revenue for the locals, Cookson removed any threat of descent into tackiness.

Sadly, she died in 2012 at the age of 66, but the company she formed lives on under the name of CV Travel and is still responsible for the cream of the holiday villas in the vicinity, scattered across the hillsides an hour’s drive from the airport in Corfu Town.

Arriving in the harbour town of Kassiopi, where Cookson kept her own villa, we’ve been told to look for the CV sign pointing the way to our villa on a small road twisting its way up past a few simpler dwellings and their fruit and vegetable gardens.

After a few unexpected bumps and turns, the hired car nosed down the drive of our stunning villa, Lithari, the Greek word for the massive grinding stone unearthed when digging the foundations and now forming a feature in the immaculately-kept gardens which surround the house.

Set among the classic Corfiot landscape of olive, fig and pomegranate trees, the villa is raised above its 10-metre infinity pool and enjoys spectacular views across green countryside and blue sea to the grey mountains of Albania.

Yes, Albania. If you check your atlas, you’ll see that the northern half of Corfu lies not next to the mother ship of Greece but to its former communist neighbour, where tourism is still in its infancy.At their closest, Corfu and Albania are a mere three kilometres apart and the two rugged coastlines form an eye-catching attraction for the many cruise ships which ply this thin channel on their way from the eastern Mediterranean to the Adriatic.

Lithari’s long covered verandah gives entry to a spacious sitting/dining room and kitchen, with a tiled floor and high-raftered ceiling. Two ground floor bedrooms also open on to the verandah, while on the first floor, the master bedroom has its own balcony where swimming gear dries in minutes under the beating sun.

Outside there’s an excellent barbecue and a delightful dining pergola shaded by bright bougainvillea to one side of the house, while broad steps lead down to the pool with its sunbeds and covered seating area on wooden decking.

Any temptation to spend an entire week lazing within Lithari’s idyllic surroundings must, of course, be resisted - well, partially at least. Kassiopi, just a kilometre away down the hill, is a bustling little port with a fine selection of shops and restaurants.

By far the best way to really appreciate this stretch of coast is by going afloat and there are a number of boat hire companies who will rent you a decent little motorised craft for a day.

The spot we kept returning to was Agni, which basically consists of three tavernas clustered together in a small bay. They serve some of the best traditional Greek food in the area, and we feasted al fresco on sublime keftedes (meatballs) and stifado (beef stew with sweet onions).

Our only excursion inland was to the deserted hilltop town of Old Perithia, built to escape the ravages of pirates on the coast but gradually abandoned during the mid-20th century as the inhabitants moved back down to enjoy the benefits of tourism.

Abandoned it may be but amazingly, blending in among the ruins, are no less than five tavernas doing good business serving the tourists who brave the five miles of bumpy, twisty road up from the coast.

And that just about sums up this corner of Corfu: unspoilt and good-looking, and the locals keep a warm welcome in the hillsides.

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