While it seems everyone went Greek this summer, the best time to truly enjoy Greece is in the early fall. And one of the best spots to indulge in Greece’s warm hospitality, culture, history and venerated vistas of greenery and sea is on the island of Corfu. Often referred to as the “least Greek of the Greek islands,” this large, 230 square mile island sits in the Ionian sea: Italy is to the west and the coasts of Albania and mainland Greece dot the easterly horizon. Towering hills, awe-inducing cliffs, celestial coves, cypress clusters, olive trees and water that is so crisp, clear and blue make it a must on the fall itinerary. And yet, Americans have leaned towards the more barren beauties of the Cycladic archipelago of Mykonos and Santorini. The tide is changing.
Steeped in a cultural genealogy that has been influenced by Venetian, French and British occupations, Corfu has long been the stopping ground for British royals, international celebrities and Greek VIPs like Aristotle Onassis. The late Duke of Edinburgh, married to Queen Elizabeth II, was born in Corfu. And then there’s the addictive TV series, “The Durrells,” (Amazon Prime) which was mostly filmed on the island. The series follows the true story of a British widow who transplants her unruly family to Corfu. No surprise how days—or weeks—here seem to unfurl in cinematic form.
The pulse of the island is the charming Old Town–a UNESCO World Heritage Site–with its Venetian arches, Neoclassical architecture, old and new shops that beckon along the quaint labyrinth-looping streets. Favorite Old Town stops include the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, the Liston Arcade, the Ionian Parliament and the Kapodistrias family mansion. On a balmy summer night, Old Town is thronged by an international sea of tourists, locals and summer regulars, all too happy to hop between bars, tavernas or plazas where musicians spin traditional and contemporary songs. But in fall, there is more room to breathe and explore the charming alleys and the historical artifacts; there is space to reserve a table at the popular restaurant and on the private boat charter that will take you to uninhabited islands, coves and caves. The more striking beach coves dot the western and northern spine of the island, while along the interior there are plenty of hikes that were too hot for summer, but perfect for a fall morning or afternoon.
As more Americans succumb to Corfu’s charms–something our European friends have long kept under wraps–the island has responded with a line-up of newer hotels (and renovated, all-time favorites like Kontokali Bay Resort), restaurants and activities. Fall is prime time for an escape—whether solo or with the unruly family in tow—to Corfu.
Kontokali Bay Resort & Spa, minutes from Corfu Town, this multi-level mid-century resort is surrounded by olive trees, oleander shrubs and cypress. Excellent restaurants with stunning views.
Olivar Suites, larger suites set along a tranquil 300-year-old olive grove. For those looking for the ultimate in privacy without sacrificing modern luxuries.
Domes Miramare, adults-only resort, part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection, and once part of the Onassis family. It recently went through a multi-million-dollar renovation.
While there are so many amazing beaches on the island, go West for the best. Paleokastritsa is the most famous with its green cliffs and see-to-the-bottom crystalline water. Rent a boat for 50-100 Euros and cruise around the many sea caves and idyllic coves that can only be visited by sea. Don’t forget snorkeling gear or goggles–although you really can see to the bottom without them. Other great beaches include Rovinia, Barbati and the Sidari Canal d’Amour beach–one of the most photographed spots on the island. A must. You will see many jumping from the Canal’s cliffs into the cool waters.
Old Perithia (Palea Perithia). Old Perithia is a ghost village located on the slopes of Mount Pantokrator, the highest mountain in Corfu. Although mostly uninhabited today, it’s a highlight for its Venetian architecture and cool factor.
Angelokastro Castle: The name of Angelokastro means the “castle of the Angels” in Greek. Atop a steep cliff overlooking the sea, near Paleokastritsa. It’s not an easy hike, but the views are mythical.
Diapontia islands: The mostly uninhabited islands north of Corfu are ideal for diving and fishing. You can even spend the night at the Hotel Erikousa, on the most populous island (meaning: a whopping 450 people live there!).
Paxos and Anti-Paxos: Two islands not more than a handful of kilometers apart. The larger, Paxos, delights with lovely cafes, shops and homes. Thymari, in Paxos, is a favorite taverna among locals. Next door, the island of Anti-Paxos is uninhabited. Swimming in its clear waters, the undulating shades of turquoise are unbelievable. You will need to arrange a boat tour (they usually leave from the new port) or charter a private yacht to take you there.
In Old Town: Rosmarino for fine Italian, Elia and Fishalida for traditional ‘Corfiot’ taverna food and Papagiorgis for the best gelato and baklava in all Old Town. I think the owners must have Italian ancestors. Corfu Sailing Club Restaurant, located in the Old Fortress is a unique experience, one literally walks through the old Venetian fortress. The views and food are top-notch. (Skip the Venetian Well, the atmosphere is pretty, but our shrimp appetizer was raw inside and the service was pretentious).
In Agni Bay: Toula’s Seaside is a great seafood spot where all the beautiful yachts and sunbathers stop in. Road is a bit hairy by car, but the setting, lobster pasta or grilled seafood will make you forget what felt like a one-way street!
In Kontokali Bay: Asterias, famed chef Spiros Voulismas blew us away with his Corfiot interpretations of Greek Salad, grilled baby calamari and pistachio-cream baklava. The setting above the sea is deeply romantic and the service worthy of its five-star resort. Roula’s Fish Taverna is for when you crave an honest, homestyle taverna with fresh fish and Corfiot favorites.
Fish, fish and more fresh fish. Hit up the local tavernas in the small villages where you can pick a whole fish that was swimming earlier in the day.
Other local favorites include pastitsada (beef stew in a rich, spiced tomato sauce with pasta), sofrito (battered beef in olive oil and wine) and bourdeto (fish stew). The olive oil in Corfu is outstanding, as is their local honey.
The island is also known for tsitsibira, a Greek ginger beer.
And for dessert of course, galaktoboureko (filo pastry with custard filling) and kumquat everything–liquor, jams and desserts.
Sure there is local transportation, but this is not NYC transit. We advise renting a car at the airport or hiring a driver. Inter Corfu is a great, family-owned car rental company. Keep in mind that most cars are manual transmission, so if you don’t drive stick, let them know asap.
Dayboat rentals are a must. There are many boat rental spots, including Corfu Explore Boats. It’s the best way to see the different parts of the island and hit the best beaches.
Bring or buy (they are quite inexpensive) slip-on water shoes. Many beaches are full of pebbles.