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An island at ease with itself; Just a few miles from the concrete hotels and wild parties, TOM ROWLEY discovers a more sedate side to Corfu.

Byline: TOM ROWLEY

OLIGARCHS' gently bopping yachts share the few miles of sea to Albania with the gaudiest of cruise ships and the finest restaurants have paper tablecloths.

The speed limit seems optional but even the ambulances pootle at lunchtime.

Welcome to Corfu, the island with multiple personalities. Part Kensington, part Blackpool, home to the rural jottings of My Family and Other Animals author Gerald Durrell and the international decadence of banker Nat Rothschild.

A mile from his sprawling villa is ours, looking down on the pinks and yellows of the houses of San Stefano, a small bay clustered round the Ionian Sea.

Like the village, the villa is as unpretentious as it is luxurious. Nestled among olive groves, its spacious terraces enjoy uninterrupted views down to the sea.

The first impression is of space. The house is supposed to sleep eight and does so comfortably, with up to a dozen spaces at each of two outdoor dining tables.

As we arrived, caterers were measuring up for a wedding reception a fortnight later and it is not hard to see why - this place would be perfect for a party. Even the bathroom could fit a game of five-a-side, if anyone could be persuaded not to sprawl by the private pool.

It is called Villa Damianos after its owner, the gregarious Corfiot who runs the bar in San Stefano.

Having Damianos on hand is perfect. He is not intrusive but was at our side taking a fish order before we had even thought of having a barbecue. His bar is lively and the best place to chat with the locals over one of his justly famous mojitos. Regulars line the bar - no surprise, given Damianos opened it in 1984 aged just 16 and has since become friends with thousands of Brits. Both his children's godparents are English customers. But he suddenly became less jovial when we talked politics. He was scathing about Athens' austerity measures and said tax rises are crippling local firms. Like hundreds of Corfiots, he did not vote in recent Parliamentary elections, which left extremist parties holding the balance of power. Despite these ripples of resentment towards the mainland, Corfu is an island at ease with itself. Even though it was just a few days before the election, as we walked round Corfu Town politicos lazed at their street stalls, sipping drinks. Saving the economy can wait, their iced coffees can't. After all, the island caters for such different tastes - from our upmarket corner of the north east coast to the brash bars nearer the airport - the only thing that is compulsory is relaxation. The invitingly calm Ionian circling the bays round San Stefano makes achieving this easy. It is so tempting hard to keep out of it and we soon chartered a yacht with a Greek captainr. Potis Theofilakos, the engaging owner of Dolphin Yachts, came aboard with us as we sailed from Gouvia marina, a few miles out of Corfu Town, to Kassiopi, a beautiful village in the far north. There is nothing quite like the joy of yachting on a calm sea - especially when Potis is in charge, leaving us with little choice but to sip his chilled beer and lounge like the stars of a Ralph Lauren commercial. He stopped in a deserted bright blue lagoon to let us plunge off the back and splash around. It is not hard to see the appeal of the week-long charters Potis offers. One English couple even rented a yacht from him for four months, he tells us. During an enjoyable and wide-ranging chat, he said that he enjoys the order and energy of Britain. But as he dropped us off in San Stefano, we knew where we would rather be. We dined in the bay at Taverna Galini, set up 50 years ago by the grandfather of the current owner, Nikos. We enjoyed a delicious meal enlivened by Greeks at the taverna next door striking up some traditional choruses. My friend Claire, a restaurant consultant joining me on a busman's holiday, said the menu's Famous Steak deserved its title. The feta pie, drizzled with honey, is also a must-tr y. After a little more pace, we took a motorboat from the knowledgeable Giannis of Giannis Boats in our bay the next day. He gave us a coolbox and a map and sent us on our way, twisting and splashing from one uninhabited but beautiful bay to another. We whizzed past Rothschild's ugly squat villa, scene of the famous yacht meeting between oligarch Oleg Deripaska, Peter Mandelson and George Osborne a few years ago, and moored at Agni, one of the island's most picturesque bays. We ate at Taverna Agni on a table on the beach, surrounded by vivid potplants and olive trees. The traditional Greek mezze was never-ending and top quality. The stifado - meat stew with cinnamon and orange presented in a terracotta bowl - was gorgeous, while the platter of white fish caught by owner Theo that morning did not disappoint. But it is the prawns that are standout - insanely rich with cinnamon and tomatoes but, somehow, they work. Family-run since From 33 1973, this is probably the best restaurant on the island. The trouble is, there is too much choice. Taverna Kerasia, where we ate on our first night, and Taverna Panorama both not only offer fine food but compete for the best view. The former, the only taverna on Kerasia bay, is the closest to the sea. It was thrilling to watch the sun set on Albania and stroll along the deserted sand - effectively your private beach. The seafood spaghetti, with mussels, prawns and calamari, is particularly recommended. Meanwhile, Taverna Panorama is not a misnomer. Five minutes' drive from our villa, it is the only restaurant not on the sea. But, if anything, it affords even betterviews, with a stunning vista to the olive groves below. It is cheaper than the other tavernas and its expertly grilled food was a welcome break. But getting about the island on land is also relaxing. We had the privilege of a rented car and I had the greater privilege of not driving it on Corfu's famously testy roads. But I did not entirely escape taking the reins and one afternoon we drove to Agios Markos for a horse trek. None of us is a natural horse rider, but Sally, who runs Trailriders, expertly matched us with horses to suit our personalities and we had a brilliant time trotting through the hills. Clopping along atop my steed Tyson, it was hard not to feel profoundly relaxed. On his yacht, Potis told us fewer Germans are coming to the island, scared by flag-burning in Athens after recent budgetary wrangles. But it is politics that frustrates this proud nation, not people - those we met could not have been more welcoming. Whatever Greece's financial travails, this enchanting island has a richness that defies deficits. FACTFILE BOTH Thomson and Jet2 fly to Corfu from Newcastle Airport. We booked our villa through Sanderson Young estate agents, which offers a selection of luxury villas throughout Europe. The full range is at www. sandersonyoung.co.uk Villa Damianos is pounds 1,400-pounds 3,500 a week for up to eight people. Duncan.young@sanderson young.co.uk, 0191 223 3500. We hired our yacht from Dolphin Yachts. Weekly charters start at pounds 950. See www.dolphinyachts.gr, or call 00 30 21049 61033. Our motorboat came from Giannis Boats in San Stefano, www.giannisboats.gr, 00 30 26630 81532. The horse trek was organised by Trailriders, www.trailriderscorfu. com, 00 30 26630 23090. In San Stefano, we ate at Taverna Galini. www.galini taverna.gr, 00 30 26630 81492. In Kerasia, we tried Taverna Kerasia. kerasiataverna @gmail.com, 00 30 26630 81521. Try Taverna Agni by boat. www.taverna-agni.com, 00 30 26630 91142. We also ate at nearby Taverna Panorama. 00 30 26630 81306. LUXURIOUS Rothschild's villa STUNNING Taverna Kerasia's view READER TRAVEL - HOLIDAY OF THE WEEK Cyprus - Aphrodite's Ancient Isle Departs November 28, 2012, eight days from pounds 699pp An ancient land of mystery, legend, beauty and love, especially in and around Paphos, your holiday base. Our hotel in Paphos has indoor and outdoor pools, restaurants, cocktail and poolside bars, but is also close to the town's archaeological museum and Roman mosaics. Paphos is much more than a beach resort! We also visit the island's capital, Nicosia. The price includes: ?e Return flights from Newcastle Airport ?e Return airport to hotel transfe rs ?e Seven nights half board accommodation at the four-star Athena Beach Hotel, Paphos (single room supplement applies) ?e Paphos orientation walk ?e Excursion to Nicosia For a free, colour Cyprus - Aphrodite's Ancient Isle brochure telephone The Journal reader travel department on 0191 2016000 or call into our offices at Groat Market, Newcastle, NE1 1ED.

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WELCOMING The spacious Villa Damianos is named after its owner, a Corfiot who runs the bar in San Stefano
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 1, 2012
Words:1495
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