I had a slightly anxious start to a short break in Corfu a few weeks ago. After flying down the coast of Croatia, which glittered under a clear sky, the captain announced that, unfortunately, there was “a bit of weather around”. We would be landing in the rain. Perhaps I was pushing my luck this late in the season?
In fact, after a wet first afternoon, the skies cleared and I woke up to the sun shimmering on the Mediterranean. The temperature edged up to 26C and - after a long, hot summer - the sea itself was at its absolute balmiest.
But I hadn’t just come to reassure myself that autumn is when Greece is at its best - not too hot, not too crowded, not too expensive. I had several reasons for being there. First to check out a new hotel - the Domes Miramare - which opened last summer on a long narrow beach just a few metres back from a beach on the east coast.
It was originally the site chosen by Aristotle Onassis in 1962 for one of his villas which was then converted into a hotel which, apparently, succumbed to the Greek financial crisis. Now it has been completely rebuilt as an upmarket, adults-only resort which hugs the beach so closely that nearly all rooms and mini-villas are just a few paces from the sea.
It is one of the latest in a new scattering of luxury hotels which are belatedly establishing themselves around the island and mainland coasts of Greece. It will, I’m sure do well. Not just because of the idyllic location, excellent food, competitive rates and properly professional service, but because Corfu has more to offer from a sight-seeing point of view than most Greek Islands. And two of those sights were my other targets for the trip.
First was the Achilleion Palace, on a hilltop a few miles south of Corfu Town. It was built in the 1890s by Sisi, the Austro-Hungarian Empress, as a retreat to mourn the death of her son Rudolf who had died in a suicide pact with his mistress in 1889.
Sisi was an inveterate traveller, heading off around the Mediterranean on the Imperial yacht - often leaving the emperor behind. She used to dock at a specially-built stone pier jutting out in the bay immediately below the palace. I can’t think of anywhere quite like it in Greece or anywhere else for that matter. It’s a grand, rather wonderful architectural fantasy - a sort of Hellenistic villa, with a slightly eccentric combination of Viennese and Pompeiian interiors.
You have to be a patient visitor - waves of coach trippers often swamp the downstairs reception rooms. But if you wait for the lulls, and best of all seek out the much quiet corners of the garden terraces, there is nowhere better to enjoy the sumptuous panoramas over the straits to the mainland, and across the green highlands of northern Corfu.
Then there was Corfu Town itself, one of the most engaging and sophisticated of all the Greek Island capitals. It too, in its way, is a sort of architectural fantasy, squeezed on a headland between ancient bastions built by the Venetians to protect the two harbours. As well as fortifying the town, the Venetians also laid the foundations of its streets, alleys and civic squares. Then it was aggrandised again in the early 19th century, first during the French occupation which provided the grand arcades along the Liston - the shady garden square on the eastern edge of the town, and then by the British whose contributions included a cricket pitch and splendid cast-iron bandstand.
The musical tradition had begun before, but flourished under the British. It still does. My dinner one evening at the Domes Miramare was accompanied by one of the island’s wind bands. Made up of musicians of all generations, they were excellent.
Nick Trend stayed at the Domes Miramare, Corfu (domesmiramare.com) now booking for next spring with double rooms from €196 a night.