Explore the history and culture of Britain's favourite Greek island, Corfu
The UK's love affair with Corfu is well established. Hollie-Rae Brader visits during the pandemic, when fewer tourists allowed her to fully embrace the island.
During an evening stroll along the shoreline, I find myself strutting. With a huge hat perched on my head, sunglasses as big as my face, a sarong draped over my swimsuit and a fruity mocktail in hand, I’m not sure whether my newly acquired swagger has been caused by the simple delight of being able to travel again, or whether the prior occupants of my new home-from-home have rubbed off on me.
Either way, there’s no denying the slight swing in my step as I walk along under the swaying palm trees that tower above, with a dusty pink sky gradually replacing the bright cobalt I’d enjoyed just hours earlier. The perfectly clear sea water gently brushes the path I walk along; I pause for a second, taking a mental note of this moment of complete and utter happiness and continue strutting.
I’m in Corfu, enjoying a cheeky overseas jaunt for some much-needed R&R and desperately hoping the travel corridor with Greece isn’t pulled, grounding my trip to an early halt.
The love affair between the UK and Corfu is well established, but I’m a first timer. I’d shied away previously, favouring other islands and slightly put off by the sheer number of Brits that usually retreat here each summer.
But I was certainly intrigued, knowing the island has been attracting illustrious guests for years; empresses once fled here, celebrities set up home here, naturalists flocked here and princes were even born here.
Even my abode at Domes Miramare, located 45 minutes south of Corfu Town, has ties with the elite. It was once the family playground and summer house of the famed Onassis family, hosting royals and celebrity friends back in its 60s heyday. Nowadays, the home-turned-hotel is one of the island’s top five-star properties, and it has retained many features from its previous life with centuries-old olive trees throughout the estate and subtle touches of Greek culture running through its veins.
Prior to arriving in Corfu all I could think about was the beach; I was dreaming about pushing my toes into the sand and paddling in the opal waters. That’s what lockdown life in London does to you!
But soon after I arrived and learnt a little about Kerkyra – as the island is known by locals – I realised what I actually craved was a big dose of culture. I’d missed having the opportunity to experience how others live and learn about the heritage they hold so dear.
The perfect blend
Having travelled around many of Greece’s ‘mainstream’ islands (Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, Crete etc), I had preconceptions of what Corfu would be like. White-washed buildings with bright blue domed rooftops cascading down cliff edges, almost colliding with the translucent cerulean water below. How wrong I was. This is Greece, but not as you know it.
Beautiful Corfu has attracted countless suitors over the years. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Normans, Venetians, Napoleon and the British Empire all staked claims on the island at various points in history. Each has had a lasting influence here, with the various empires leaving their mark and shaping Corfu into what we see today.
It’s this rich blend of influences that makes the island unique. Wandering through the cobbled backstreets of Corfu Town’s Old Town, with lines of drying washing stretching from one tan-coloured home to another, plus countless small, secluded squares, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a southern Italian town or village. Closer to the Old Fortress – a Byzantine-meets-Venetian ruin – you’ll find Parisian-inspired architecture. The Liston, a 19th-century arcade, was built by the French and drew its design from the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.
The Palace of St Michael and St George is also worth visiting. Built to house British commissioners and later used as a summer residence by Greek royals, this Regency-style palace is now home to the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, two municipal art galleries and a manicured garden.
You’ll find a melting pot of cultures throughout the island, but for a slice of Greek mythology, head to the Achilleion. Around a 20-minute drive from Corfu Town and 15 minutes from Domes Miramare, this palace perched on top of a mountain is full of sculptures dedicated to Greek gods and goddesses. Built in 1890 as the home of Elizabeth, the former Empress of Austria, the home pays homage to ancient Greece, but particularly Achilles whom she held in the highest regard. After a stint occupied by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the palace is now a museum, and visitors will find countless artistic tributes to Achilles dotted throughout the property and its gardens.
It’s no surprise that Brits adore Corfu – it’s the closest Greek island to the UK and also the most diverse. It’s greener than many of its sister isles, with a lush mountainous landscape running through its heart, and its history is beguiling.
But it’s the beaches that will no doubt be the biggest factor for holidaymakers considering Greece this summer and beyond. There’s a plethora of beaches, many of which are child-friendly with gently sloping sand leading into shallow waters.
Among my favourites are the sandy shores of Agios Stefanos and Kalamaki beach. Agios Georgios is equally lovely and tends to be quieter than other beaches, even in high season. It’s a popular hangout for windsurfers and there are a few tavernas nearby for refreshments. You won’t be able to take your eyes off the colour of the water at Barbati beach. A perfect shade of turqouise hugs the shoreline, suddenly turning into a deep ultramarine out towards the horizon.
Corfu took me by surprise. I never expected to find a Greek island so unique. Its multicultural heritage, impressive monuments, verdant landscape and crystal-clear seas have all drawn me in. I admit it, I’ve started my own love affair with Corfu. Until I return to this perfect place, I’ll keep dreaming of strutting alongside the water’s edge. Jackie O, eat your heart out.
Where to stay
The luxury hotel footprint is already well established here – from Domes Miramare to MarBella and an abundance of luxury villas in between, choice has never been an issue.
But there are some exciting new additions to the high-end hotel scene and the popularity of Corfu will no doubt grow among the affluent set over the coming years. Perfect timing given Greece looks likely to be among the first destinations welcoming Brits this summer.
Domes Miramare’s parent company Domes Resorts took on management of the island’s Grand Hotel at the end of the summer season last year, while Ultima Collection opened its first Greek outpost – a stunning seven-bedroom villa complete with two swimming pools, a cinema room, a gym, a hammam and a 24-metre private yacht. The Angsana brand is also heading to Corfu, with a property boasting 159 rooms and suites, plus an additional 37 villas across a hilltop estate.
There are an abundance of hotels springing up across the Greek peninsula and its surrounding archipelago. Here’s a selection of our favourite new openings.
The Rooster, Antiparos
A retreat for the discerning traveller, The Rooster is located on the under-the-radar island of Antiparos. The property and the island both embrace a ‘slow living’ mantra through sustainable practices, organic food and wellness. The Rooster has just 17 suites, villas and houses, all of different sizes and each offering views of the Aegean Sea.
Mykonos is an island Brits know well, but this gorgeous new property is all about low-key luxe, allowing affluent clients ultimate privacy and seclusion.
Located above Ornos bay, this cluster of 25 suites and villas is super stylish and uber chic in design. Each room has a sea-view terrace and private heated pool. The owners are successful restaurateurs, so expect the cuisine to be out of this world.
Originally a Casa Cook hotel, this bohemian property is relaunching under the new Oku brand. It’s achingly cool. All rooms and suites look impressive, but the private two-bed villas offer ultimate secluded luxury. We’re already picturing ourselves at the Kima Beach Club – divine locally sourced food on our plates and a chilled glass of rosé to wash it all down!
Hollie is editor of Aspire’s print and online products. She is responsible for the running of the club and ensuring the content produced and the events organised are relevant to the Aspire audience. She was previously deputy news editor and cruise writer for sister title Travel Weekly. She loves exploring new destinations and is gradually ticking new countries off her list. She most enjoys writing about cruise, South America and Japan. Before working in the travel industry she held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star.