The northbound drive from Corfu airport doesn’t immediately augur well for the expectant traveller. But after 20 years of plotting the same path, it’s one that I’ve come to cherish.
Corfu Town itself is an alluring waterside metropolis, its architecture reflecting 400 years of Venetian rule, where imposing arcades flank cobbled streets filled with ornate churches, artisan shops and buzzing restaurants. It could easily be a Secret Trip in itself. But, alas, the hour-long route to your destination circumnavigates this overlooked gem. Another time, perhaps.
Instead, once past the old-town fortress and busy commercial port, you’re forced to contend with more prosaic urban features: dense, dusty carriageways, reeking refuse bins and idiosyncratic local driving habits. This is the bustling road that leads to Palaiokastritsa on the western coast, though not, one surmises, the kind of welcome given to a shipwrecked Odysseus when he was taken in by the local Phaeacians.
Once you hit the scruffy harbour town of Gouvia, a right turn redirects your journey up the eastern ridge of the island. Should you be tempted to sample the delights of Ipsos, a small and slightly sleazy seaside resort with a palpable Anglo-Celtic flavour, you’ll find much to refresh you at any time of day or night in popular watering holes such as Dirty Nellies. We prefer to push on.
Soon the route becomes more demanding as the vertiginous seaboard road winds its way around precipitous coastal lines. But while your taxi wheezes and whines as it negotiates a succession of steep hairpins, so the sublime views begin to enliven the spirit and enhance the anticipation of arrival. Corfu is the greenest of all the Greeks islands. The verdant cypress and olive trees that cover the mountainside sit in sharp contrast with the sapphire sparkle of the Ionian, and the rough white render and fired earth of village buildings. It’s a view unmatched by anything this side of Athens. Things begin to look up.
The journey quickens: a scenic rollercoaster, the air warm and blusterous on the face, the smell of sea salt and wild oregano prompting a thirst for cold Hellenic beer. Eventually the hard climb eases and the road begins to yield views over the sea towards the mainland – this far north, it’s not Greece but Albania. Once past the picturesque Agni Bay, the village resort of Kalami comes into view, a small but popular spot notable for its waterside White House, home to the author Gerald Durrell as a child and given a starring role in My Family and Other Animals.
A few miles further on and you finally reach Sinies: a nondescript hill town featuring a bar, a bakery, a mini-market, and not much besides. Sinies is the kind of unremarkable place you drive through en route to somewhere new from somewhere else. Yet here you take pause before turning right. You ignore the main sign for Agios Stefanos (a picture-postcard harbour and fishing village in its own right) and instead take the narrow road past the clapped-out car that has been used as someone’s makeshift greenhouse for as long as I can remember. You continue as the tarmacked road becomes a mess of beige dirt and hardcore, while taking on a dangerously steep downward trajectory. You think twice, but you carry on regardless. The brakes squeal and the suspension creaks. Then, after you’ve followed this hairy descent for a mile or two, traversing its crooks and potholes, you finally reach sea level.
There before you, at long last, is a panoramic cove – tranquil, iridescent and of staggering, humble beauty. I can see it now and think of it often. Unblemished by development, an old olive press, now home to the shoreline’s one taverna and sole concession to business, is there to welcome you. You have arrived at Kerasia. And you are in my happy place.
Kerasia – the name means “cherry” – is not a secret per se, but it’s still a Secret Trip to me. When we first came here at the start of the millennium, the very idea of Corfu still sounded tainted to English ears, evoking images of 1980s package holidays, hordes of drunken revellers, dodgy moussaka and Shirley Valentine affairs. The better acquainted, however, knew that the island’s north-east coast, stretching from Agni to Agios Stefanos to Kassiopi, was home to some of the most beautiful and gloriously unspoilt coastline in Greece. Unfortunately, this led to an altogether different but equally irksome stereotyping as the area became known to some as Kensington-on-Sea.
It is true that some visitors to this part of the world are of the sort who choose to wear down gilets and red trousers in less clement weather. It was just off Agni bay that Peter Mandelson and George Osborne were infamously seen enjoying the hospitality of a Russian oligarch on his yacht in 2008. The Rothschild family has a private estate just around the corner. The general area, it’s fair to say, is no stranger to visiting wealth. And yet, this is to mischaracterise the place. My experience of life in this remote and secluded part of the world is markedly different.
Upon arriving at Kerasia, we will invariably be greeted with a warm embrace from Petros, a sheep farmer by trade, who during the warmer seasons doubles as a convivial waiter and front-of-house face at the taverna. Then Adonis, son of the original owners and now ostensibly in charge of the business. Both will ask about my parents by name, despite having not seen me for a year, nor them for well over a decade. They will take us to a small table at the sea’s edge and bring over a couple of small beers in frosted glasses, followed by a carafe of local rosé. They will do this despite not being asked, because they know that this is what we like. To be clear, we are not special customers here, nor friends with benefits. These are just good, sincere people.
We will sit and soak in the vista – a vast expanse of glittering cobalt water, ebbing and flowing to a gentle rhythm, enclosed by rocky peninsulas and ancient olive groves, the shimmering silhouette of Albania on the horizon. A rustic jetty made of wood, old scaffolding poles and rough concrete juts out into the water, a couple of small boats tethered to its sides. Apart from that, there’s really not much else to take in. But never has a thought of boredom ever entered my head. I can stare out into this luminous nothingness for hours on end, my mind transfixed yet fluid. It’s the closest thing to meditation I know.
Lunch is simple and inexpensive. Bread from the hilltop bakery; some cooling tzatziki with the rasping hum of raw garlic; a salad of succulent tomatoes, cucumber, tuna, olives, local vinegar and olive oil. Then a large heap of calamari, fresh out of hot oil, the squid caught by Adonis’s uncle, Nikatsas, in the water beside us. The meal will be slow and unhurried. Another carafe of wine might be ordered. I will pick up my book, occasionally stopping to gulp another drink of the view, or else exchange a joke and a shoulder slap with Petros – this is not a place to break sweat. And then, when it is time to leave, we might pay, or we might forget. It doesn’t really matter. We’ll be back tomorrow.
There are some lavish properties in this part of Corfu, invariably built into the steep coastal hillside, with breathtaking views across the strait. You’ll find many of them at cvvillas.com, an agent that has long cornered this part of the market here. Others are private residences, the homes of expats who came, returned, fell in love with the place, and eventually decided not to leave. But invariably these are not the kind of people who have sequestered themselves in luxury, away from the travails of everyday life – the Rothschilds excepted. The ones I know have become part of the community, who find themselves invited to local christenings and weddings, who join in with Easter festivities, who know how Petros’ daughter is faring on the mainland, or how Dinos’ water taxi business is doing in the next village.
However, most of the villas here are basic. Not rustic, just basic. Beds can be on the hard side, while bathroom and kitchen facilities are often tired. The local plumbing infrastructure is such that used toilet paper must be placed in bathroom waste bins rather than flushed down the lavatory, which clearly is not for everyone. None of which is to say that such accommodation is cheap – the Corfiots know well what they have on their doorstep here and aren’t about to miss an opportunity to capitalise. To be blunt, you could visit Portugal or Spain and enjoy a considerably higher level of comfort and cosmetic splendour for considerably less. But none of this bothers us overly much. There’s an altogether different kind of luxury on offer here. The coastal road being high up in the hills behind means that the most efficient way of hopping from bay to beach is by boat. Small vessels with four-stroke engines and requiring no prior handling are available for hire in most villages. It is an exhilarating way to travel, with much of the romance one might find on Italy’s Amalfi coast, albeit with less show or formality.
On any given day we might skirt northwards around the rocky coastline to Agios Stefanos for breakfast provisions, then later seek out some underwater caves for a spot of swimming and snorkelling, and perhaps moor up at the small fishing harbour of Kouloura for a late lunch of grilled octopus and souvlaki. One time we found ourselves doing precisely this, with the company of just one other couple in the small restaurant perched above the water. Suddenly, an alarm was raised. Two women fled the kitchen while the waiter readied his car. Evidently there was some kind of family emergency nearby. Within minutes, the owners had left its few customers alone in their restaurant with an assurance to help ourselves should we need more wine. A few hours later, crisis averted, the family returned to a well-refreshed clientele, took our honesty money in good faith, then dropped us home themselves. Everyone was happy. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s that kind of place.
Should you be less inclined to suffer modest accommodation and services for the sake of unparalleled location and human kindness, there are other options. In nearby Kalami, San Antonio (sanantoniocorfuresort.gr) is an affordable, adults-only boutique hotel built into the hillside at one corner of the bay. With two pools, three restaurants and a selection of sea-view suites and balconied rooms across multiple levels, it offers understated hotel glamour in an area mostly occupied by rental apartments and local houses. Kerasia is a 40-minute walk away on the coastal path (watch out for the tortoises) or five minutes by boat.
Alternatively, for real seclusion, there’s the option of taking to the hills and seeking out Old Perithia, high above sea level near the top of Mount Pantokrator. Perithia is Corfu’s most ancient village and for much of the last 50 years has been largely uninhabited and in disrepair. When tourism began to hit Corfu in the ’60s, locals quickly abandoned the area in search of new fortunes by the sea, and it earned its reputation as a ghost village. But in recent years, a slow process of rejuvenation has taken hold, with both locals and visitors investing in the restoration of dilapidated stone buildings and mansions to former glories. The superbly, sympathetically appointed luxury B&B, the Merchant’s House (themerchantshousecorfu.com), is one such example, and there are now as many as five fine tavernas operating in the village.
The trip to this part of Corfu is one I’ll continue to make while its secrets – inasmuch as they remain relatively unknown – continue to hold their allure. I suspect that will be for some time. People will come and people will go. But the very things that make it so special are indelible.
Toby Wiseman is editor in chief of Men’s Health magazine and a columnist at The Sunday Times, among others. You can follow Toby on Instagram here: @tobywisemanuk