Greek Ionian Islands Travel Guide

Greek Ionian Islands Travel Guide

Kerry Murray

The Ionian Islands, like a string of emerald jewels scattered along the west coast of Greece are a lush and verdant chain of islands, dense and overgrown with olive, cypress, fig and pomegranate; a veritable Garden of Eden. Centuries of Venetian and Ottoman rule have left their mark on the culture, the food and the architecture, and combined with their natural beauty these islands are unique and enchanting, in a world of their own.

Things to do in Corfu

Corfu is the greenest and probably most well known of the Ionian Islands. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as there are areas of the island that are idyllic, sun-drenched paradise, and then there are other parts that should be avoided at all cost. The south is dominated by sports bars, 24-hour private clinics and full English breakfasts and it doesn´t take you long to figure out that this isn´t the paradise part. Avoid. There´s really nothing more to say about it than that.

Kioni Ithaka | Photo: Kerry Murray

Kioni Ithaka | Photo: Kerry Murray

The northwestern coast has long been known as the playground of the rich and famous, and the Paleokastritsa region is dotted with private villas boasting incredible views. Beaches on this coastline can be difficult to get to due to the mountainous landscape and narrow, winding roads but your efforts are rewarded by incredible olive tree sheltered coves such as Rovinia beach, with her smooth white pebble shoreline and crystal clear turquoise waters. The northeastern coastline is lush and forested and while much less mountainous, also home to many hidden beaches and rocky coves. Facing the Albanian coastline, this section of Corfu is well off the beaten track and probably the quietest part of the island. Villa Levina in Kassiope is tucked away amongst fig and olive trees with its own private beach a stone’s throw from the front door. A charming little place with stone walls and blue shutters, its cosy facade disguises the incredible range of amenities on offer; an infinity pool, home cinema, concierge service and private chef are just a few of the services on hand during your stay.

High up in the mountains of northeastern Corfu, the Merchant´s House Boutique B&B is a series of restored village houses dating back to the mid-1600´s. The houses are located in Old Perithia, the oldest permanently inhabited village on the island, and at the time of their purchase by Londoners Mark and Saskia, were derelict and in need of some serious TLC. The village had a definite sense of character that appealed to the husband and wife team, who decided to restore the buildings in the hopes that locals and other homeowners would see the potential in this heritage protected village and follow suite. Consisting of 6 luxury suites each with its own private entrance, The B&B is the first official accommodation in the village but as restoration efforts continue, the plan is to open more houses and self catering options.

Corfu Town is the urban hub of the island, and the Old Town has been designated a UNESCO heritage site. The narrow winding streets and pastel toned Venetian buildings defy the stereotypical postcard image of whitewashed Greece and hint at the island’s colourful and exotic history. Wander the streets and pick one of the many local tavernas for lunch. We chose the aptly named Old Town Taverna, hidden away on one of the narrow lanes and a bit removed from the bustle of the centre. The Greeks are famous for their culinary delights, and there is so much to choose from that it is sometimes overwhelming. But when in doubt, tzatziki and a Greek salad will never disappoint. If, after pounding the streets, you find yourself craving a caffeine hit then Earth Cafe is the perfect spot for an espresso or latte and something sweet to keep you going.

Ithaka | Photo: Kerry Murray

Ithaka | Photo: Kerry Murray

Things to do in Lefkada

Lefkada is not so well known and often overlooked in favour of the more mainstream islands such as Corfu and Kefalonia, but this is not at all a bad thing. The island is very mountainous, and the roads are quite rural, often not wider than a single winding track, but the landscape is breathtaking. Ancient olive groves and pine forests cling to the hillsides and steep limestone cliffs plunge into the most ridiculously blue waters you´ve ever laid eyes on. Wild thyme and rosemary grow rampantly, and the wild flower honey from this region is world famous, and in great abundance. Wooden stalls appear around every second bend in the road enticing you to stop and buy the local produce.

Many of the west coast beaches are below cliffs so steep that the access roads are quite the hair-raising experience (not for nervous drivers), and the road to the well-known Egremni Beach was closed during our visit because of landslides, but still accessible by boat. Further south, Porto Katsiki is also visited daily by the local cruise boats but is thankfully quite easy to get to by land, too. Renown for its white cliffs and azure waters, this beach is considered to be one of the top 10 in the Med and is one of Lefkada´s must do´s, particularly during shoulder season when you have the beach to yourself. Perfectly suited to the laid-back vibes of the island, Mindfulness Journeys run a meditation and yoga retreat from a private villa close to Porto Katsiki. The 7-day retreat focuses on hatha and vinyasa yoga, meditation instruction and macrobiotic cuisine to help you find balance and learn mindfulness to deal with the stresses of daily life.

Vasiliki is one of the islands prettiest little places, a laid-back beach town tucked away in the corner of a wide bay. Narrow roads are lined with colourful houses and cute shops, and the idyllic little harbour has bars and restaurants right at the waters edge. One Fifty Five is a bar and lounge tucked away in the centre of town, famous locally for their cocktail selection, and a great spot to have a few sundowners before dinner or a cheeky cocktail afterwards. Further north, the San Nicolas Resort Hotel is ideally located on the eastern coastline, sheltered from the prevailing winds and central enough to be able to easily reach the rest of the island. Tucked up against a verdant hillside and facing across the tranquil Mikros Gialos bay, the resort is a short stroll from the beach and the town of Poros.

Myrtos Beach Kefalonia | Photo: Kerry Murray

Myrtos Beach Kefalonia | Photo: Kerry Murray

Things to do in Kefalonia

Kefalonia is the biggest of these emerald isles and thanks to the blockbuster success of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, also one of the most famous. Dominated by tall mountains that rise up out of the sea, this too is a place of dramatic cliffs, picturesque beaches and quaint harbour towns hidden away in sheltered coves. Fiskardo in the north is a glamorous little seaside village well known within celebrity circles. Spared by the 1953 earthquake, the quaint, colourful houses and bougainvillea-draped alleyways maintain their old world charm and the calm sheltered waters make for the perfect natural harbour. The Emelisse Hotel is a short stroll from the town centre facing the sea with panoramic views in all directions. Designed with the rugged rocky landscape in mind, the hotel blends into its environment with natural materials and minimalistic design. Peace and relaxation are top priority here and a day spent pampering yourself at their Elemis Spa is the perfect retreat to switch off and rejuvenate the body and mind.

Head south along the western shoreline and follow the winding roads through olive groves and wild cypress to the village of Asos, another postcard-perfect fishing village with tumbling bougainvillaea and aquamarine water lapping at the shore. If you´re feeling energetic, hike up the hill to the old castle for sweeping views across the village and south towards the characteristic white beaches, dwarfed below the steep limestone cliffs. Myrtos beach is one of the few along this stretch that is accessible by land, and the winding road makes for a dramatic view down to one of the most famous beaches in the archipelago. In stark contrast to the rocky cliffs and rugged coastline of the eastern shores, Antisamos beach on the east coast is lush and green, surrounded by dense vegetation and protected by a natural bay. The Kefalonia Grand is a luxury boutique hotel in the heart of Argostoli, the island´s capital and a short drive from some of the islands best beaches. The hotel is elegant and modern with minimalist styling and an emphasis on impeccable service and comfort during your stay.

Ageri Ithaka | Photo: Kerry Murray

Ageri Ithaka | Photo: Kerry Murray

Things to do in Ithaca

Ithaca is by far the smallest and quietest of all and prides itself on having, so far, managed to slip under the radar. Life happens slowly here, and while tourism is apparent, it isn´t overwhelming, and you get the sense that without the visitors, life would carry on just the same. The sun shines, the fisherman fish and then sell their catch off the back of the van in Vathy town square as and when they get anything worth selling. Roads are narrow and scooters reign supreme to make it up and down the tightly winding tracks. Vast areas of the island are uninhabited and unreachable by road, which gives a certain sense of wildness to the place. At night the stars seem so close you could reach out and pluck them from the sky, and the silence is almost overwhelming. The Perantzada Hotel is centrally located in the port town of Vathy and is a stone’s throw away from the harbour and town centre, where shops and restaurants line the central square. Originally a neoclassical 19th-century mansion, the hotel decor is inspired by the great names of contemporary design and the clean, modern interiors perfectly complement the laid-back island lifestyle. Almost all the beaches worth visiting here are wild, and their crystalline waters are a welcome respite from the summer sun. Ten minutes drive from Vathy, Filiatro and Sarakiniko beaches are hidden away in protected coves, and their emerald waters are an absolute sight to behold. By far the prettiest two beaches on the island, Filiatro has a few amenities, but Sarakiniko is completely wild, aside from the handwritten sign stating “Nudists”, which nobody dared to defy.

On the northern side of the island are the sleepy little fishing towns of Kioni and Frikes, where life only seems to get a bit busier when the sailing crowd pulls in and docks for the night. The waterfronts are lined with the typical tavernas and coffee shops, and in Frikes we stopped in at Ageri for lunch. Recently opened, the emphasis is on traditional Greek flavours with a modern, updated twist. The chef and owner went through the menu with us, and his passion for food was visible in the way he presented our dishes and took care of everyone at their tables as though they were family. The food was, without a doubt, some of the best we had during our time in the islands. If you´re looking for something a little bit different, then try Tzatzamini around the bay. Specialising in Italian fare, they are well known for their pizza and pasta dishes and while it´s not exactly Greek, sometimes you just really need pizza in your life. Villa Kalos up in the hills above Frikes is a charming house with a lot of history. In 2007 is was a ruin, bought by a South African couple who took on the project of renovating and converting it into a luxurious but understated boutique villa, complete with infinity pool, olive groves and the requisite stunning views. Four years of hard work, patience and lots of love has transformed it into an idyllic retreat that you´d simply never want to leave.

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