It’s not for nothing that the northeast coast of Corfu is often referred to as ‘Kensington-By-Sea’. With its lush, green landscape and unspoilt shoreline, this stretch of the Greek island has long been a secret escape for sun-seeking celebrities and royalty, who come for the hidden beaches, the warm, crystalline waters and the picture-postcard-perfect villages. But it’s the villas which really set this Ionian island apart, with their lavish design, infinity pools and sweeping sea views. Here’s why the northeast coast of Corfu makes for the most magical of holiday destinations.
“My childhood in Corfu shaped my life,” the author Gerald Durrell once said. “If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood.” Durrell’s tales of growing up on the Greek island in the late-1930s are wonderfully evocative. The idyllic little bays with their pebbly beaches, the silvery olive groves and cypress-covered valleys, and the abundance of wildlife of which he wrote – and which inspired his lifelong love for the natural world – are every bit as beguiling today.
Nowhere is this truer than along the rural northeast coast which, as I discover during my recent visit, is home to some of Corfu’s most beautiful and unspoilt scenery. Here, on the second largest of the Ionian Islands (a chain off the west coast of Greece), the off-the-beaten-track beaches are pleasingly uncrowded, the warm sea is crystal-clear and current-free, and pretty, white-washed fishing villages dot the shore. If you are looking for understated luxe, this quieter, lesser-known stretch of coastline is your place.
Dubbed ‘Kensington-By-Sea’ for good reason, it is home to the most beautiful vistas on Corfu and hugging the pine- and lemon-scented shoreline are some of the island’s most luxurious and secluded villas. The Rothschilds have an estate here (you can spot their pale pink villa from your boat), while the fashion set – Rita Ora, Poppy Delevingne, Alice Temperley – as well as royalty – HRH Charles and Camilla – all head to the area for sun-drenched R & R.
“Corfu has become this quite understated destination,” says Nick Cookson, founder of Villa Collective, which has an exclusive portfolio of curated villas across the Mediterranean, with a focus on Greece, as well as the Balearics, France, Italy and Morocco. “We do get a lot of high-profile people coming here, who want to be under the radar. Plus they appreciate the exceptionally high quality of the villas and the fact they’re on the water – a lot of clients don’t rent a car, you travel everywhere by boat. ”
Each of the properties across the Villa Collective portfolio is a private home – and therefore unique – and has been hand-selected by Cookson himself, whose criteria has always been a tucked away location and exceptional design. And so, you have luxury masserias in Puglia, palatial Provencal farmhouses, mansions in Marrakesh and sprawling villas across Ibiza and the Greek islands, including new properties in Patmos, a place which Cookson describes as “really very special. And it’s so different as well.”
But it’s Corfu which has Cookson’s heart. Having spent summers here as a child – like Durrell – he returns regularly to the family house, Villa Yeraki, which his parents (who also ran a villa company) bought in 1978. I’m here to stay in two of the 55 Villa Collective properties available to rent on the island.
The first is Villa Pashalia, a relaxed family-style affair. Just a 100-metre stroll from a quiet beach, it has all the makings for a perfect multigenerational holiday including five air-conditioned bedrooms all with their own bathrooms, a spacious sitting room, impeccably equipped galley kitchen, media room and a small gym with a cross-trainer and running machine. But it’s alfresco which is the scene-stealer. An inviting L-shaped swimming pool takes centre stage in the beautifully maintained garden, surrounded by big terraces dotted with comfy loungers, sofas and hammocks – some in the shade, others for basking in the heat of the day. The outdoor dining area has a bbq and a long table that’s perfect for cocktails and views across the tops of the olive trees to the sea beyond.
Our days here drift by in hazy bliss, thanks in no small part to the calm and efficiency of the housekeeper Natalia. In between sunbathing, we snorkel at nearby Avlaki Beach (the villa also comes with a paddleboard), where the seafood pasta at the beachside taverna is a must, and explore the local fishing villages of Kassiopi and St Stephano at a leisurely pace. Coffee in the shady square, followed by a swim, before a warm Corfiot welcome and long lunch of fresh fish and chilled rosé at one of the little, family-run restaurants. And repeat.
Our second villa, Gaia Sea, is a recent addition to the Villa Collective portfolio and one of two newly built properties tucked away on the hillside Skinos Estate near Nissaki (the other property, Gaia Rock, is a smaller but no less luxe version of Gaia Sea). The owner is the creative director of her family’s furniture company and an interior designer, and it shows. Her keen eye for design comes into play throughout, from the clever blend of traditional Corfiot craftsmanship and natural materials (think oak, marble and local stone) and minimalist modern chic, to the objets d’art and bespoke furniture dotted around the villa.
There are four spacious ensuite bedrooms. The master suite upstairs is very private, with its own indoor and outdoor shower, and a huge bath that looks out to sea. The rooms downstairs have their own outdoor areas, and two lead out to the freshwater infinity pool with its wraparound coastal panorama. It’s blue as far as the eye can see – look hard enough and you might even spot dolphins at play.
The villa comes with a housekeeper and a private chef, who honed his skills in five-star hotels in London. You can specify exactly what you’d like to eat or, as we do, ask for his recommendations of traditional and contemporary dishes. As plate after plate of exquisite Greek and Corfiot mezze dishes roll out the kitchen, it feels like the ultimate luxury to be eating a meal so skilfully prepared especially for us. With the pink sunset glowing across the water towards Albania, I savour this special moment in more ways than one.
The villa’s gently sloping garden has seating under the olive trees – known as the “ouzo terrace” – which quickly becomes our sundowner spot, while a small path winds its way to a series of coves, with a ladder for entering the water and a small mooring buoy. Following the path a little further, we find ourselves in Nissaki bay with its watersports and tavernas; alternatively, charter a boat and head to the cobbled charm and Venetian architecture of Corfu’s Old Town.
A day out on a speedboat exploring the coastline is a must. George, who runs a boat company (and proudly tells us he played the boat driver in the recent television show The Durrells) takes us through the waves to Agni, cruising past both the Getty’s house and the Durrell’s place. Our destination is Taverna Agni, a favourite spot of famous politicians we’re told (though don’t let that put you off, it’s gorgeous). After lunch, he whisks us off to some secret coves where we spend a blissful couple of hours snorkelling. Other tavernas recommended to us during the week are Toula’s, also in Agni, and Cavo Barbaro further along the coast. “The tavernas are really authentic,” Cookson says. “They’re not overly fancy; just good Greek food, done well, in beautiful settings.”
One night, on Cookson’s recommendation, we head to Taverna Glyfa, arriving by speedboat, having been picked up by the restaurant owner from the private jetty outside our villa. As we zip across the water at high-speed, James Bond-style, he tells us it’s standard service for all customers – it’s certainly the only way I want to travel to dinner from now on. Just as we take our seats at one of the pretty white tables, Liz Hurley and her son Damien turn up with friends, seemingly as taken as we are by the sweeping views. The menu is delightfully traditional – moussaka, Greek salad – and as a magnificent full moon lights up the sea, we’re all entranced.
With Cookson’s in-depth knowledge – “I can confidently say that we know Corfu better than anyone else” – and love of the island, comes an innate understanding of the importance of having a good management team, both in London and on Corfu (many of the villas come with their own in-house team of housekeeper and chef) to ensure the smooth running of every guest’s stay. Whether you want to be whisked to your villa by speedboat on arrival; a week-long itinerary planned with boats, tavernas, everything booked; or you just want to take each day as it comes, service is exemplary. It is, what Cookson describes, “a well-oiled machine” which takes “an incredible amount of organisation.” After all, with some villas costing £130,000 a week in high season, there’s no margin for error.
Our time in Corfu has been a dream. All the space and privacy that comes with staying in a villa over a hotel has meant we’ve really, really relaxed. Not to mention the housekeeper who does all our shopping and is on hand to help with anything we might need, while the personal chef has meant we haven’t had to eat meals at specific times, instead setting our own pace. As Grecian odysseys go, this has been both magical and memorable.
A week at Villa Pashalia costs from €8,000 to €25,000 per week; a week at Gaia Sea costs from €11,500 to €29,000 per week.