Secret Hotels of Greece's Ionian Islands
A welcome contrast to the glitzy, white-walled resorts of the Aegean, the intimate, family-run hotels of Greece's western islands offer something significantly more appealing: authentic Mediterranean heritage in homespun settings.
With five brightly painted cottages and two studios clustered around a paisley-shaped swimming pool, Casa Lucia forms a self-contained community in the hills seven and a half miles northwest of Corfu Town, the largest city in the Ionian Islands. English expat Val Androutsopoulos and her now-deceased husband opened the complex 30 years ago; these days she—along with her daughter Zoe, son-in-law Marcello, and their two children—focuses on providing all the homey touches. Each cottage has its own private balcony, patio, or garden, and English-language paperbacks in the rooms offer a compelling reason to call off the day's excursion in favor of a quiet afternoon at the compound. There isn't much that area experts can't deliver right to your doorstep, anyway. Holistic healers and aromatherapists commonly cater to guests' needs on-site, and weekly tai chi, qigong, yoga, and Pilates classes are offered for about $7 per session. (Zoe leads the tai chi classes.) There's no restaurant or breakfast buffet, but the kitchen of each cottage is stocked with yogurt, bread, and homemade orange preserves, and there's a sign-up sheet near the front desk for organic vegetable delivery. Those who opt not to cook can enlist Jo's Catering to supply Mediterranean dinners for $38 per person, including everything from olives to almond cake. Val dispenses advice for outings both nearby (the rustic islet of Vidos just off Corfu Town) and farther afield (the impressive ruins of Butrint in neighboring Albania). There's one caveat Val might issue before directing you to the narrow, picturesque lanes of Corfu Town, however: "It's a 15-minute drive, but allow yourself half an hour to find parking," she says. Sgombou, Corfu, casa-lucia-corfu.com, from $84.
If there's any doubt whether Spyros Spathas values his heritage, just look at the reception area of his Fundana Villas, where a 200-plus-year-old stone olive press serves as a reminder of the Spathas family's six generations of local history. It's been 29 years since Spathas converted his farm's stables and outbuildings into 12 guest bungalows, but the accommodations have been updated with flat-screen TVs and modern kitchenettes. And the views from the rooms are as glorious as ever: Number 10 has two wrought-iron balconies that look out on the Ropa Valley, and Number 12 takes in the green slopes of Mount Pantokrator to the northeast. A guide for the Greek National Tourism Organization for more than 35 years, Spathas maintains a half-mile hiking path to the 18th-century Monastery of St. Onoufrios, open every other Sunday, and leads weekly botanical walks through the area. His 26-year-old son, Foivos, just opened a traditional Corfiote restaurant on the grounds, serving dishes such as veal with garlic sauce and pan-fried artichokes from Fundana's gardens. If you feel inspired to venture off-property for dinner, stop in at Elisavet's taverna in the nearby village of Doukades. There, the grandmotherly proprietress sits in front of her establishment encouraging visitors to try the kokoros pastitsada—rooster over macaroni—a local specialty she's been making for 20 years. Km 15 on the road to Paleokastritsa, fundanavillas.com, doubles from $63, breakfast $8.
The Doukakis family can't take credit for discovering the stellar vantage point at the top of the 935-foot-high Pelekas hill where, in 1990, they built the 25-room Levant Hotel. Kaiser Wilhelm, who summered in this part of Corfu 110 years ago, used to picnic on the rocky observatory (now known as the Kaiser's Throne) just in front of the building site. What the Doukakis clan can claim: the good sense to put down roots in a spot that has ocean views in every direction. Still, the family didn't neglect their hotel's interiors. Its sitting areas are filled with heirlooms—wooden chaise longues, antique china, and portraits of the Kaiser—and stately, wrought-iron bed frames anchor the guest rooms. (To get a sea view, ask for an odd-numbered room on the first floor, or an even-numbered room on the second.) Most days, Mr. Doukakis sits at the bar, teaching guests Greek phrases. As for Mrs. Doukakis, she's everywhere at once: sweeping leaves from the geraniums, shooing away cats that wander up from the village, and managing the kitchen of their restaurant, Sunset. "I have two cooks, but I oversee them all the time," she says, adding, "I'm old-fashioned." With that kind of dedication, it's no wonder the dining room draws such a regular crowd. The wide terrace invites guests to linger over dishes like pastitsada (spicy pasta) and bourdeto (fish stew) until the sky turns from blue to gold over the ocean each evening. Any of the family members can give you directions to three spectacular beaches, all within a 10-minute drive: Kontogialos and Glyfada have deck chairs for rent and tavernas right on the sand; and for those looking to leave without tan lines, Myrtiotissa is frequented by nudists who camp out scandalously close to the whitewashed chapel next to the shore. Pelekas, Corfu, levanthotel.com, from $105 including breakfast.