Kanoni, Pondikonisi & Achilleion
Although these sites and destinations are not next door to one another and have little in common, they are grouped here because they all lie south of Corfu town and all could be combined in less than a full day's outing. Everyone who comes to Corfu town will want to visit these places, even if you go nowhere else on the island.
Kanoni is approached south of Corfu town via the village Analepsis; it's well signed. Ascending most of the way, you arrive after about 4km (2 1/2 miles) at the circular terrace (on the right). The area is known as Kanoni (after the cannon once sited here). Make your way to the edge and enjoy a wonderful view. Directly below in the inlet are two islets. If you want to visit one or both, you can take a 10-minute walk down a not-that-difficult path from Kanoni; with a vehicle you must retrace the road back from Kanoni a few hundred yards to a signed turnoff (on the left coming back).
One islet is linked to the land by a causeway; here you'll find the Monastery of Vlakherna. To get to the other islet, Pondikonisi (Mouse Island), you must go by small boat, which is always available (3€ round-trip). Legend has it that this rocky islet is a Phaeacian ship that turned to stone after taking Odysseus back to Ithaka. The chapel here dates from the 13th century, and its setting among the cypress trees makes it most picturesque. Many Corfiotes make a pilgrimage here, in small boats on August 6, for the Feast of the Transfiguration. It's also the inspiration for the Swiss painter Arnold Boecklin's well-known work Isle of the Dead, which, in turn, inspired Rachmaninoff's music of the same name.
A causeway across the inlet to Perama, on the main body of the island (the Kanoni road is on a peninsula) is for pedestrians only. So to continue on to your next destination, a villa known as Achilleion, you must drive back to the edge of Corfu town and then take another road about 8km (5 miles) to the south, signed to Gastouri and the villa of Achilleion. The villa is open daily from 9am to 4pm. Admission is 6€. Bus no. 10, from Plateia San Rocco, runs directly to the Achilleion several times daily.
Achillein: A Villa with Many Tales to Tell -- The Achilleion has enough back stories to support a TV miniseries. To begin with, the personal life of the Empress Elizabeth, who built it, is one of extravagant eccentricities; look her up in an encyclopedia or online. She was the mother of Rupert, the young prince who in 1889 was found dead at his hunting lodge at Mayerling, Austria, along with his mistress; it was assumed to have been a double suicide, though many questions about their deaths were never answered. In any case, Elizabeth identified Rupert with Achilles, and so the villa is really a memorial to him -- you'll see many statues and motifs associated with Achilles (including the dolphins, for Achilles' mother was the water nymph Thetis). In 1898, Elizabeth was assassinated by an anarchist -- for no other reason than she was a royal. The villa sat unused until 1907, when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany bought it as a summer home. It was appropriated by the Greek government after World War I; the Germans used it during their World War II occupation; it then reverted to the Greek National Tourist Organization, which, in 1962, allowed the top floor to be used as a casino (seen in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only). This closed in 1992, when the casino was moved to the Corfu Holiday Palace . Now it remains a destination for tourists, with more than its share of tales to tell.
Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary built this villa between 1890 and 1891. Approaching the villa from the entrance gate, you will see a slightly Teutonic version of a neoclassical summer palace. Take a walk through at least some of the eclectic rooms. Among the curiosities is the small saddle-seat on which Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany sat while performing his imperial chores.
The terraced gardens that surround the villa are lush. Be sure to go all the way around and out to the back terraces to see the most famous of the statues Elizabeth commissioned, The Dying Achilles, by the German sculptor Herter; also, you cannot miss the 4.5m-tall (15-ft.) Achilles that the Kaiser had inscribed, TO THE GREATEST GREEK FROM THE GREATEST GERMAN, a sentiment removed after World War II. But for a truly impressive sight, step to the edge of the terrace and enjoy a spectacular view of Corfu town and much of the eastern coast to the south.
If you have your own car, you can continue on past the Achilleion and descend to the coast between Benitses and Perama; the first, to the south, has become a popular beach resort. Proceeding north along the coast from Benitses, you come to Perama (another popular beach resort), where a turnoff onto a promontory brings you to the pedestrian causeway opposite Pondikonisi . The main road brings you back to the edge of Corfu town.
If you can make only one excursion on the island, this is certainly a top choice. The drive here is northwest out of Corfu town via well-marked roads. Follow the coast for about 8km (5 1/2 miles) to Gouvia, then turn inland. (It is on this next stretch that you pass the Pottery Workshop and the Wood's Nest.) The road eventually narrows but is asphalt all the way as you gradually descend to the west coast and Paleokastritsa (25km/16 miles). There's no missing it: It's been taken over by hotels and restaurants, although some of the bays and coves that make up Paleokastritsa are less developed than others. Tradition claims it as the site of Scheria, the capital of the Phaeacians -- so one of these beaches should be where Nausicaa found Odysseus, though no remains have been found to substantiate this.
Continue on past the beaches to climb a narrow, winding road to the Monastery of the Panagia at the edge of a promontory. (The monastery is about 1.6km/1 mile from the beach, and many prefer to go by foot, as parking is next to impossible once you get there.) Although founded in the 13th century, the monastery has no remains that old. It's worth a brief visit, especially at sunset. The monastery is open daily April through October from 7am to 1pm and 3 to 8pm.
Taking a Dive on Corfu -- All of the bays and coves that make up Paleokastritsa boast clear, sparkling turquoise waters. Both Korfu Diving (www.dive-centers.net; tel. 26630/41-604) and Achilleion Diving (www.diving-corfu.com; tel. 69327/29-011) offer courses for beginners, as well as day excursions for advanced divers.
More interesting in some ways, and certainly more challenging, is a visit to the Angelokastro, the medieval castle that sits high on a pinnacle, overlooking all of Paleokastritsa. Only the hardiest will choose to walk all the way up from the shore, a taxing hour at least. The rest of us will drive back out of Paleokastritsa (2.5km/1 1/2 miles) to a turnoff to the left, signed for Lakones. Warning: Don't attempt to drive this road unless you are comfortable pulling over to the very edge of narrow roads -- with sheer drops -- to let trucks and buses by, something you will have to do on your way down. There commences an endless winding ascent that eventually levels out and provides spectacular views of the coast as the road passes through the villages of Lakones and Krini. Keep going until the road takes a sharp turn to the right and down, and you'll come to a little parking area. From here, walk up to the castle, only 200m (656 ft.) away but seemingly farther because of the trail's poor condition. What you are rewarded with, though, is one of the most spectacularly sited medieval castles you'll ever visit, some 300m (1,000 ft.) above sea level.
If you've come this far, reward yourself with a meal and the spectacular view at one of the restaurants or cafes on the road outside Lakones: Bella Vista, Colombo, or Casteltron. At mealtimes in high season, these places are taken over by busloads of tour groups. If you have your own transport, try to eat a bit earlier or later.
On your way back to Corfu town from Paleokastritsa, you can vary your route by heading south through Ropa Valley, the agricultural heartland of Corfu. Follow the signs indicating Liapades and Tembloni, but don't bother going into either of these towns. If you have time for a beach stop, consider going over to Ermones Beach (the island's only golf club is located above it -- an 18-hole course) or Glifada Beach.
Where to Stay and Eat -- If you want to spend some time at Paleokastritsa, it's good to get away from the main beach. I've enjoyed the unpretentious 70-unit family-run Hotel Odysseus (www.odysseushotel.gr; tel. 26630/41-209), high above the largely undeveloped cove before the main beach. A double in high season goes for 75€; in low season, the rate is 55€. Rates include buffet breakfast, and the hotel has a pool. The Odysseus is open May to mid-October. I've not had occasion to eat there, but guests have recommended its restaurant.
On its own peninsula and both fancier and pricier is the 127-unit Akrotiri Beach Hotel ★ (www.akrotiri-beach.com; tel. 26630/41-237) -- completely renovated between 2008 and 2010; an air-conditioned double in high season goes for 120€ to 150€, including buffet breakfast. Half board can also be arranged. All rooms have balconies and sea views. In addition to the adjacent beaches, it has two pools and a tennis court and offers Wi-Fi in the lobby. It's open May through October.
The restaurants on the main beach in Paleokastritsa are definitely touristy. The Vrahos is probably the most stylish. However, if you like to eat where the action is, the best value and most fun at the main beach is at the Apollon Restaurant, in Hotel Apollon-Ermis (tel. 26630/41-211). Main courses are 6€ to 16€. I prefer someplace a bit removed, such as Belvedere Restaurant (tel. 26630/41-583), just below Hotel Odysseus, which serves solid Greek dishes at reasonable prices. Main courses range from 5€ to 16€. The restaurant is open mid-April to late October from 9am to midnight.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.