Grace and I had a four day break in Corfu early in June as guests of Ionian Estates. It was my second time to this Greek island and Grace’s first. We left the U.K. as the weather spiralled down into a week of torrential rain and high winds and, after a very convenient afternoon flight of three hours on Easyjet, we arrived in Corfu to a warm and clement early summer evening. We were met at the airport by two representatives of The Ionian Estates and whisked off to the old quarter of the east-coast capital, Corfu Town, for an alfresco meal in the Town Hall square, which was full of stunning bougainvillea and jacaranda blossom. We were surrounded with the friendly chatter of visitors, like ourselves, and the many Corfiots enjoying the authentic and delicious food that the restaurant serves.
Corfu Town has been designated a Unesco heritage site and, as with the rest of the island, is “open for business” from (Orthodox) Easter (usually in April) until October. It is a wonderfully warm and welcoming city full of secret alley ways leading to hidden squares or you can simply sit outside one of the many coffee shops or restaurants on The Liston. This elegant colonnaded area was constructed in 1807 during French rule, it was designed by the French Engineer Lesseps, to be a copy in miniature of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. There is a constant buzz of social activity here, where both locals and tourists converge to meet or watch the world go by.
There is also plenty to see on the rest of Corfu, one of the greenest of the Greek islands – thanks to intermittent but torrential rains from September to June, and the thousands of olive trees that carpet the landscape. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, one of the more rural, sleepy islands away from the touristic honeypots.
Of course we have all been entertained and delighted by the recent TV series, The Durrells, and, as we were staying on the North East coast of Corfu near Kassiopi, we had to visit The White House in Kalami bay. This is where both Lawrence and Gerald Durrell lived. No-one quite knows where the original family house was but they think it may have been knocked down at some point. The White House restaurant is an idyllic place to enjoy lunch under a canopy as, even in June, the midday sun is quite strong, gazing out over the horseshoe-shaped bay. However when you wend your way down to Kalami you must first take a sharp left down a very windy road and visit the picturesque little harbour of Kouloura which is a fishing village, not a resort. However there is a taverna which would make a welcome break giving you time to gaze at the beauty of this much-painted spot. A gated villa stands at the end of the road; the holiday home of the Agnelli family – picture-perfect with its white-washed walls and ocean-blue shutters. It was once a 15th-century fortress, built by the Venetians to keep the marauding Turks at bay.
Tourist development is quarantined on certain coastal patches, and once inland you really seem to be on another island, even another era. In remote glades, Corfiot villagers still celebrate summer-and-autumn panigýria (religious festivals-cum-fairs) with music and merchandise stalls – look out for posters (usually in Greek) plastered onto olive trees, and don’t expect much action until after 8pm as a rule. Olive culture was traditionally rather desultory – the Corfiots for years didn’t prune, or pick the fruit, local patron saint Spyridon having forbidden the practices in a vision – and many groves still retain a romantically half-wild aspect. However these days both the olive groves and vineyards are now thriving and the latter produces some very good Greek wine. However it does not travel well so is only ever sold in Corfu and so is well-worth trying while you are there. We visited an off-licence, Cava Tzortzatos, on the coastal road to Kassiopi (a new addition since my trip five years ago) which has a fabulous range of Greek and other European wines and very knowledgeable staff to help you make your selection.
However it is accommodation that will often make or break a holiday. Grace and I were staying in a beautiful 4 bedroom villa, Jacaranda, on the north-east coast, close to Kassiopi, overlooking the Ionian Sea towards Albania.
This villa was designed by the popular and respected design team, Skinner and Skinner, a husband and wife team who have designed and built 64 villas to date. Dominic Skinner grew up holidaying in Corfu where he met his Dutch wife, Claire who specialises in the interior design. While their home is England, they have very much become part of this thriving island, employing local craftsmen to work on all of their properties. Their love of the island spills over into their houses. They have a style which can be best described as ‘thinking of everything that a holiday-maker would need’. We wanted for nothing – everything you would expect to find in a luxury home was here. Natural holistic bathroom products by Apivita made long lazy baths feel like heaven. We sipped on frothy cappuccinos made in the Nespresso machine. We enjoyed good wifi so we could read a daily UK newspaper on our iPads or Skype our families. There was every possible piece of equipment in the kitchen – including a Nutribullet. The mattresses were super comfortable and supportive, the maid service faultless. And best of all we immediately felt at home because the efficient concierge service to helped us with booking outings, restaurants and guiding us to the best beaches.
One of the most fascinating places we visited was the Rou Estate. It is a mountain village above San Stefanos that Dominic and Claire discovered. It had been abandoned since WW2 and was lacking in proper road access as well as any modern amenities. After years of negotiation, as Corfu follows Napoleonic law, this enterprising team eventually completed the purchase in 2003 and renovated the entire village, creating a sublime holiday complex the like of which I have never experienced elsewhere. “Number 1 best mountain escape” Harpers Bazaar
The old stone farmhouses were brought back to their former glory and Dominic added four newly built villas which are almost indistinguishable from the restored originals. The old village wellhead remains a centrepiece of the site. Rampant vegetation – plumbago, honeysuckle, wisteria, climbing rose, lavender, pomegranate – covers the villas, while olive, cypress and mulberry trees provide vertical accents. Each of the villas on the tiered hillside is different, but all have a private pool or plunge pool. There is also a 20m infinity pool with some of the most breathtaking views across the sea to Albania.
In fact Dominic has made sure that every single villa enjoys magnificent views. There is a feeling of extreme peace in this village perched on top of the mountain. However company can easily be found as everyone is so friendly at Rou. Everyone has one thing in common – they have all found this small piece of paradise. There is a little café which is open most days and the chef Michael prepares traditional food utilising all the locally grown fruit and vegetables. There is also a small spa run by beautician Vanda – you only have to read the comments book while waiting for an appointment to know that you are in special hands. The air-conditioned mini-gym is equipped with cross trainer, power plate, exercise bike, treadmill and rowing machine – you can have a workout as you admire the amazing views.
I have since been back to stay at the Rou Estate, this time at a cooler time of year i.e. the autumn and, while Corfu is quieter than the peak summer months, all the restaurants were still open and very welcoming. The Rou Estate would make the perfect destination for a group of artists or photographers, as the light is spectacular and wherever you go there are breathtaking views.
A yoga retreat, where you practise on a specially designed rooftop platform overlooking the azure ocean, can be organised by Ionian Estates. Just imagine doing your tree pose gazing out at this view…
An Estate Manager is always on call to advise on food deliveries including regional delicacies from the local taverna, bakery, butcher and supermarket; or to hire a chef, recommend tavernas, book a spa treatment, personal trainer, walking guide or hire a boat or car – in fact anything that will make your stay even more memorable.
I have already been talking to my Bridge playing friends and suggested we go for a week to play bridge, relax, drink wine and enjoy the ambience – of course the more energetic in the group can take to the mountain paths for a long walk. The café has perfectly sized tables to sit at and play while enjoying Michael’s healthy salads and a glass of Whispering Angel!