Playing Castaway on Corfu

Paleokastritsa_8107Enjoy Timeless Attractions Alongside 21st Century Resorts

Story and photos by Amy Laughinghouse

Visitors to the Greek island of Corfu might well wonder why Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, was in such a rush to get away when he was allegedly shipwrecked here thousands of years ago. With its surreal blue seas, gnarled olive groves and patchwork of vineyards, Corfu has become a place folks escape to, not from. Perhaps if old Odysseus could see it today, with its all-inclusive resorts and charming capital of Kerkira, where labyrinthine streets are flanked by shops and al fresco cafes, he would have cooled his heels and stayed awhile.

Certainly, the ancient Greek king wouldn’t have minded being marooned at MarBella Corfu in Agios Ioannis Peristeron, where my husband and I base ourselves for five days. Carved into a lush hill extending upwards from the private beach, the resort is like a compact, gleaming white city, with 384 recently renovated rooms, six restaurants, four bars, seawater and freshwater pools, a kids’ club, spa, and evening entertainment ranging from traditional Greek dancers to sultry torch singers. I fear we’ll lose the will to ever leave, especially when we’re shown to our junior suite, where a huge outdoor whirlpool tub occupies a spacious terrace overlooking the water.

Cracking open a bottle of red Corfiot wine, we toast our spectacularly framed view of the sunset, which is unlike any I’ve ever seen before. It’s as subtle as a whiff of perfume, descending like a misty veil in gauzy shades of pink and purple. Eschewing the bold Technicolor strokes of Van Gogh, its an Impressionist’s masterpiece, rendered in pastel perfection.

We awaken the next morning to a blindingly bright sky, and while we’re sorely tempted to beach ourselves on a sun lounger, the spirit of Odyssean exploration eventually wins out. Fortunately, we can rent a car right there at the resort, and we spend two days darting around the island, traversing it from north to south.

We wander for hours around Kerkira, which is nestled between a pair of imposing, centuries-old forts by the sea. The capital is a maze of shops, housed within sunny-hued structures erected by the Venetians during their long occupation. After stocking up on our fair share of souvenirs—olive wood sculptures, jewelry, textiles and brightly-painted ceramics—we stroll past the colonnaded buildings of the Liston overlooking the grassy Esplanade and later pay a visit to Agios Spyridon Cathedral, where the remains of Corfu’s patron saint, Spyridon, rest in a silver casket.

Greek feast at The White House on Kalami Bay, Corfu_7762Along the coast, seaside resorts lure travelers with tavernas, touristy shops and rainbow-colored umbrellas that sprout like mushrooms above beaches composed of pebbles or sand. In Kalami, we take a break to assuage rumbling tummies on the vine-draped restaurant terrace of The White House (not to be confused with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), where movie stills from films shot here adorn a central pillar. The seafood couldn’t be fresher, as guests are welcome to choose their own lobster from the submerged cages beside a floating dock.

Continuing on past Kassiopi and Sidari—which feel like British oases transplanted to these Greek shores, given the number of pubs playing English “football” matches on big-screen TVs—we pause at Logas Beach to take in dramatic views of spectacular white cliffs rising straight up from the Ionian Sea. If you’re feeling bold, you can stroll to the end of a glass-bottomed platform to gaze down at the golden sand far, far below—or hunker down at 7th Heaven Café, where you can watch the sunset while sipping a drink in
a swing.

More panoramic vistas await in Lakones, overlooking the multiple coves of Paleokastritsa, one of Corfu’s most beautiful resort towns. After perusing the menu at two different restaurants in Lakones, both with lovely terraces, we’re ultimately wooed by the friendly, gap-toothed grin of a diminutive waiter at the Golden Fox, which boasts the added attraction of a pool. Gorging on chicken souvlaki, stuffed grape leaves and feta cheese chili dip, we find we’ve chosen well.

Beyond all of Corfu’s typical touristic attractions, one of my favorite experiences is motoring along its most obscure tracks, threading among shady olive groves and tiny towns where the stone houses haven’t seen a lick of paint in years. Here, we leave the throngs of sarong-clad, sunburned holiday-makers behind, too, exchanging them for timeless, almost typecast characters: a white-bearded Greek Orthodox priest in flowing black robes; a wrinkled old woman bent double over her cane, a black kerchief knotted around a face as brown and wizened as an apple core; and a wild-haired man with a roadside stand, selling homemade honey, olive oil, and painted souvenirs.

“No money, no money,” this backwoods entrepreneur says as he hands me a hand-painted rock emblazoned with a heart and the word “Corfu.” Pointing at my husband, waiting patiently in the car, he adds, “If things don’t work out with your friend…”

He pats his chest and waves as we drive away. I smile and wave back, watching his figure recede in the side view mirror. I’ve got this stranger’s painted heart in my pocket, and I’ve certainly left a piece of mine behind on my new favorite Greek isle. I’d happily play cast away here any day.

IF YOU GO Consider combining a trip to Corfu with a night or two in London, as Corfu is just over three hours from London Gatwick Airport. Classic Collection Holidays (classic-collection.co.uk) offers 7 nights at MarBella Corfu from £699 (about $1,123) per person. Price based on 2 adults sharing a deluxe room on a half board basis and includes round-trip flights between London Gatwick and Corfu (other UK departure airports available) and private transfers. stb