by Herndon Hasty (Digital Performance Manager)
I spent a semester in the UK my Junior year, interning at a PR agency and traveling every chance I got. If Dave lets me keep writing these, you’ll probably wind up hearing a lot more about it. To be fair I came away from it with a wife, PR credentials from Croatia, and at least one celebrity that by all rights owes me a drink, so there’s a lot to share.
Today, though, you get to hear about a must-do stop for a European backpacking tour or wandering vacation: Corfu, an island off of the West coast of Greece.
Normally when you hear about Greek islands, it’s the string of beautiful, anciently historic, made-for-tourist destinations in the Aegean, East of the mainland towards Turkey. Santorini – famous for white stucco houses, blue roofs, and maybe being Atlantis. Rhodes, previous home of the Colossus statue which guarded its harbor, inspiring George RR Martin’s Titan of Braavos. Mykonos, a small beachy destination where Zeus was said to have had it out with the Titans.
On the flipside is Corfu. Lonely little Corfu is out on the Ionian sea side towards Italy with nary a neighbor, let alone dozens of them in the super-sociable Aegean. It has its connections to ancient history and myth – it figures heavily into the Argonauts, and cases have been made that the island is Ithaca of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus struggled to return. It’s been a staging ground, but rarely a prized gem, of Greece and those who would conquer her for millennia. Still, no major tourist destinations, few major cruise lines, not much major about it at all.
Sizable enough to get there by ferry or airplane and with enough towns to make the necessities easy to come by, Corfu is still just far enough away from the rest of the world and sparse enough in the interior to enjoy hills, beaches, and olive groves almost all to yourself. If you’re traveling in style, it’s a quick flight from Athens or other major regional hubs. If you’ve got a little time or a lot less money, catch a ferry from Patras on the Greek side, or Venice, Ancona or Brindisi from Italy.
It’s main city, Kerkyra (the Greek name for the island) boasts about 39,000 people and all you need to base your operations: Hotels, grocery stores, and transportation. Perfectly good place to start, and unless you’re arriving by submarine, it’s where you’ll arrive. But, if you’re under 26 (or if they still feel pretty relaxed about traditional hostel ages), your real base of operations should across the island from Kerkyra, on the Agios Gordios beaches: The Pink Palace.
A hostel that took over a resort hotel, The Pink Palace sits right above the rocky beach, near hiking grounds, and especially compared with most ‘hostel’ experiences, is a paradise on Earth. For about $35 / night, you get a hotel room – not a shared row of bunks, an honest-to-goodness hotel room – breakfast, dinner, and access to relative luxuries like cheap rental cars, 4-wheelers, and kayaks. Depending on when you go – and what you’re looking for – it can be a massive party destination, or a tranquil haven. Go mid-summer for the former, or mid-September onwards for the latter.
I’ve been to Corfu twice, both times in the offseason. The first was about halfway through a 10-day run through Greece, Italy and Austria. A group of three of us, along with a Canadian we met at the train station made the trip. Our new friend carried a whole rotisserie chicken, condiments, and silverware in her backpack, and was kind enough to share. Together we took a train from Athens to Patras, enjoyed some midnight dockside gyros, and boarded an overnight ferry to Corfu.
The ferry played Law & Order reruns all night in the room where everyone slept. You could tell who the North Americans were by the reaction to the iconic DUNH-DUNH the first time it rang out – we all perked up like german shepherds hearing our owner say ‘hamburger’.
The next day we caught a short cab ride across the island to the Palace, where at 8:00 in the morning we were handed an ouzo shot apiece by the proprietor, and chased it with omelets, feta, and Greek yogurt. There were maybe a dozen other travelers staying at the time, and a couple were over 40. We rented a three-seater car for $20, packed the four of us into it, and set off exploring the island, stopping at ruins, cliffs, beaches, and snacking on fresh fruit from Kerkyra grocery stores.
That night, away from the mainland and towns of any size, laying on the roof of my hotel building I saw the stars clearer and brighter than I have ever since. The next day was spent on the beach below the hotel, hiking the nearby cliff trail, and taking an afternoon off in the sun. We left after that towards Rome, where we were meeting the woman who would one day be my wife. So, a happy departure. But part of me would have been just as happy for her to come out to us, and then for us to settle there permanently.
Later that year, as a reward for the semester’s worth of free work, the PR agency I was interning for picked up the airfare tab to go back, this time completely on my own, and taking the stylish route via air. It was December, and the crowd was down to 6 of us, counting the chef and manager. Between solo drives through the hills, stops in olive groves, naps on the beach, and long nights back on that hotel roof, it was as zen and thoughtful a weekend experience as I had experienced in 20 short years of life.
When people ask me if I could be doing anything in the world for a living what would it be, generally my response it’s the same thing I’m doing now, but on a quiet beach or a mountaintop. There are specific places I’m thinking of when I say that. Corfu is one of them.