The six core Ionian islands, shepherding their satellites down the west coast of the mainland, float on the haze of the Ionian Sea, their lush green contours, a result of heavy winter rains, coming as a shock to those more used to the stark outlines of the Aegean. The west coasts of the larger islands also boast some of Greece’s most picturesque cliff-backed beaches, whose sands are caressed by a band of milky turquoise water leading to the deeper azure sea.
The Ionian Islands are made up of the six archipelago's: Corfu, Zakynthos, Paxi, Lefkada, Kefalonia and Ithaki.
Although officially counted among the Ionians and constituting the seventh of the traditional eptánisos (heptanese or “seven islands”), rugged Kýthira is geographically quite separate from the six main islands. Only accessible from the southern Peloponnese.
Tourism is the dominant influence these days, as it has been for decades on Corfu (Kérkyra), which was one of the first Greek islands established on the package-holiday circuit, though the continuing downturn means it does not feel as swamped as in the past. And while parts of its coastline are among the few stretches in Greece with development to match the Spanish Costas, the island is large enough to contain parts as beautiful as anywhere in the group.
Zakynthos, also known as Zante, has gone down a similar tourist route to that of Corfu, particularly on the southern half of the island. Elsewhere, the island's pace is a lot less intense, keeping in mind the party-towns of Laganas are often brimmed with stag and hen parties. Popular beaches include Agios, Nikolaos and Navagio, the infamous sandy cove home to an iconic shipwreck.
Little Paxí lacks the water to support large-scale hotels and has limited facilities tucked into just three villages, meaning it gets totally packed in season. As the smallest of the Ionian Islands, Paxi is missing historical sites, however, it has some of the best swimming at its little sister island, Andipaxi.
Perhaps the most rewarding trio for island-hopping is Kefaloniá, Itháki, and Lefkáda. The latter is connected to the mainland by a causeway and iron bridge but still has quite a low-key straggle of tourist centres and only two major resorts, despite boasting some excellent beaches, strung along its stunning west coast.
Kefaloniá offers a series of “real towns” and stunning beaches, as well as a selection of worthwhile attractions. As the largest of the Ionian Islands, Kefalonia is home to some magnificent scenery and rich war history. Considered the best of the islands for its size and range of activities, Kefalonia might be your best pick.
Itháki, Odysseus’s rugged capital, is protected from a tourist influx by an absence of sand. The island makes for good hikes, with rocky cliffs for climbing. Residents admire it's lack of tourism, although despise that the island is officially considered a subsection of Kefalonia.
The Ionian Islands are similar in their scenery and activities, the key differences are the levels of tourism on each Island. Other than that, the contrasts are minimal. On much of the larger beaches, you will be spoilt for watersport choices. Everything from banana boats to jet skiing. For more extreme watersports such as sailing and kite-surfing, Vasiliki and Myli Beach on the Island of Lefkada are ideal with winds that are good enough whilst the waves are relatively safe.
For those who prefer to stay out of the water, there are well-marked trails through mountainous and coastal areas for walking and cycling. There are many beautiful waterfalls to be seen, and if you love nature the wetlands are perfect for birdwatching. Marine parks make a nice day out, where you can see Loggerhead Turtles and Monk Seals.
On the island of Corfu, you will find one of the biggest golf courses in Europe, a fun and challenging course at Ermones in Ropa Valley.
As with many Islands, seafood is a delicacy on the Ionian Islands. Freshly caught fish is mastered in culinary experience to produce traditional dishes such as Bianco (fish in a yummy white sauce) and Bourdeto (piquant fish stew).
In Corfu, ginger beer and kumquat liquor are favoured by locals and of course, the famous Ouzo liquor is also recommended to try on the island (or in Greece in general). Ouzo is a popular drink associated with Greece and is made using the aromatic anise seed. Most often, restaurants provide a mandatory shot of Ouzo to customers after their meals.
The Ionian islands were the Homeric realm of Odysseus, centred on Ithaca (modern Itháki), and here alone of all modern Greek territory the Ottomans never held sway – except on Lefkádha. After the fall of Byzantium, possession passed to the Venetians, and the islands became a keystone in Venice’s maritime empire from 1386 until its collapse in 1797. Most of the population remained immune to the establishment of Italian as the official language and the arrival of Roman Catholicism, but Venetian influence remains evident in the architecture of the island capitals, despite damage from a series of earthquakes.
On Corfu, the Venetian legacy is mixed with that of the British, who imposed a military “protectorate” over the Ionian islands at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, before ceding the archipelago to Greece in 1864. There is, however, no question of the Islanders’ essential Greekness: the poet Dhionyssios Solomos, author of the national anthem, hailed from the Ionians, as did Nikos Mantzelos, who provided the music, and the first Greek president, Ioannis Kapodhistrias.
Top Image: Zakynthos, Greece © Simon Bradfield
Rugged ITHÁKI, Odysseus’s legendary homeland, has yielded no substantial archeological discoveries but it fits Homer’s description to perfection: “There are no tracks, nor grasslands … it is a rocky severe island, unsuited for horses, but not so wretched, despite its small size. It is good for goats.” Despite its proximity to Kefaloniá, relatively little tourist development has arrived to spoil the place. This is doubtless accounted for in part by a dearth of beaches beyond a few pebbly coves, though the island is good walking country, and indeed the interior with its sites from The Odyssey is the real attraction. In the scheme of modern Greek affairs, the island is a real backwater and its inhabitants rather resentful that it is officially a subsection of Kefaloniá prefecture.
Itháki’s main port and capital is VATHÝ, enclosed by a bay within a bay so deep that few realize the mountains out “at sea” are actually the north of the island. This snug town is compact, relatively traffic-free and boasts the most idyllic seafront setting of all the Ionian capitals. Like its southerly neighbours, it was heavily damaged by the 1953 earthquake but some fine examples of pre-quake architecture remain. Vathý has a small archeological museum on Kalliníkou (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; free), a short block back from the quay. Near the corner of the quay behind the Agricultural Bank, there is also the moderately interesting Folklore & Cultural Museum (April–Oct Mon–Fri 10am–2pm & 7.30–9.30pm; €1).
Three of the main Odysseus sights are just within walking distance of Vathý: the Arethoússa Spring, the Cave of the Nymphs and ancient Alalkomenae, although the last is best approached by moped or taxi.
LEFKÁDHA (Lefkás) is an oddity, which is exactly why it is some people’s favourite Ionian island. Connected to the mainland by a long causeway through lagoons and a 30m pontoon swivel bridge, it barely feels like an island, at least on the busier eastern side. Lefkádha was long an important strategic base and approaching the causeway you pass a series of fortresses, climaxing in the fourteenth-century castle of Santa Maura – the Venetian name for the island. These defences were too close to the mainland to avoid an Ottoman tenure, which began in 1479, but the Venetians wrested back control a couple of centuries later. They were in turn overthrown by Napoleon in 1797 and then the British took over as Ionian protectors in 1810 until reunification with Greece in 1864.
The whiteness of its rock strata – lefkás has the same root as lefkós, “white” – is apparent on its partly bare ridges. While the marshes and boggy inlets on the east coast can lead to a mosquito problem, the island is a fertile place, supporting cypresses, olive groves and vineyards, particularly on the western slopes. The rugged west coast, however, is the star attraction, boasting some of the finest beaches in the archipelago.
Lefkádha remains relatively undeveloped, with just two major resorts: Vassilikí, in its vast bay in the south, claims to be Europe’s biggest windsurfing centre; Nydhrí, on the east coast, overlooks the island’s picturesque set of satellite islets, including laidback Meganíssi. The capital’s superb marina also appeals to yachties in large numbers.
Lefkádha has been home to various literati, including two prominent Greek poets, Angelos Sikelianos and Aristotelis Valaoritis, and the American writer Lafcadio Hearn. Fittingly then, each summer for over fifty years, Lefkádha has hosted two parallel and wide-ranging cultural festivals, which these days attract performers and visitors from around the world. These are the International Folklore Festival and Speech & Arts Events. Originally only lasting for two to three weeks in August, they now extend from June to September, and troupes come from eastern and western Europe, South America and elsewhere, performing mainly at Santa Maura castle near Lefkádha Town, but also in villages around the island. The island and mainland Greece respond with troupes of their own musicians, dancers and theatrical companies. You can usually enjoy occasional performances of world music and jazz too, as well as art exhibitions and special cinema showings. For details, contact 26450 26711 or see lefkasculturalcenter.gr.
Fourteen kilometres south along the main road from Atháni, barren Cape Lefkátas drops abruptly 75m into the sea. Byron’s Childe Harold sailed past this point, and “saw the evening star above, Leucadia’s far projecting rock of woe: And hail’d the last resort of fruitless love”. The fruitless love is a reference to Sappho, who in accordance with the ancient legend that you could cure yourself of unrequited love by leaping into these waters, leapt – and died. In her honour the locals termed the place Kávos tis Kyrás (“lady’s cape”), and her act was imitated by the lovelorn youths of Lefkádha for centuries afterwards. And not just by the lovelorn, for the act (known as katapondismós) was performed annually by scapegoats – always a criminal or a lunatic – selected by priests from the Apollo temple whose sparse ruins lie close by. This purification rite continued into the Roman era, when it degenerated into little more than a fashionable stunt by decadent youth. These days, in a more controlled modern re-enactment, Greek hang-gliders hold a tournament from the cliffs every July.
Unusually verdant and still largely unspoilt, PAXÍ (Paxos) has established a firm niche in Greece’s tourist hierarchy, despite being the smallest of the main Ionian islands at barely 12km by 4km, with only mediocre beaches and no historical sites. Yet it has become so popular it is best avoided in high season. It’s a particular favourite of yachting flotillas, whose spending habits have brought the island an upmarket reputation, making it just about the most expensive place to visit in the Ionian islands. The capital, Gáïos, is quite cosmopolitan, with delis and boutiques, but northerly Lákka and tiny Longós are where hardcore Paxophiles head, while by far the best swimming is at Paxí’s little sister island, Andípaxi.
Less than 2km south, Paxí’s tiny sibling ANDÍPAXI has scarcely any accommodation and no facilities beyond several beach tavernas open during the daytime in season. Andípaxi’s sandy, blue-water coves have been compared with the Caribbean, but you’ll have to share them with kaïkia and sea taxis from all three villages on Paxí, plus larger craft from Corfu and the mainland resorts.
Boats basically deposit you either at the sandy Vríka beach or the longer pebble beach of Vatoúmi, although quieter bays are accessible to the south. Paths also lead inland to connect the handful of homes and the southerly lighthouse, but there are no beaches of any size on Andípaxi’s western coastline and thick thorny scrub makes access difficult.