Greece - Ionian Islands← Back to all destinations
Swathed in olive groves and cypresses, the Ionians are more Italianate, more luxuriant than the stereotypical Greek island. Bathed in a softer, golden light very different from the Aegean, a mild damp climate in winter is rewarded by a breathtaking display of wild flowers and luxuriant vegetation in spring and autumn.
Despite their enduring pre-Byzantine political affiliations, connections between the islands are poor and a yacht the ideal way to painlessly visit the “Eptánissa”, the Seven Islands.
Whether you want to boogie the night away in Zákynthos, windsurf beneath the cliffs of Lefkáda or laze in the olive groves of bijou Paxi, the Seven Islands have something for every taste; subtler, more refined and, without the blazing spotlight of the Cycladean sun, a cruise to be filed away in the memory bank of favourite places.
Corfu is well served by air from cities around Europe and the historic town well worth exploring. Labelled as the perfect blend of Venice without the canals and Naples without the degradation, Corfu Town is one of the loveliest in Greece backed by gentle slopes where pastel villas and traditional farms suggest an almost Tuscan landscape. Immortalised by Homer and appropriated by Shakespeare as the setting for the Tempest and immortalised more recently as the boyhood home of Gerald and Lawrence Durrell, the island has so inculcated itself into the English heart that cricket is almost the island national game. The yacht sails in the afternoon for Paxos.
The island of twenty fabled secrets, Paxi or Paxos is the tiniest of the Eptánissa and the capital of the olive. 300,000 trees have won the island plaudits and many gold medals. Considered to be the friendliest of the Ionians, Paxos is a small-is-beautiful upmarket escape from the mass tourism that has blighted neighbouring Corfu. The capital, Gaios, named after the disciple of St Paul is a car-free toy town of handsome waterfronts and streets so narrow that neighbours can reach across to shake hands. The brilliant blue sea grottoes are a breathtaking sight before sailing south for Lefkáda whose unprepossessing northern coast metamorphoses into the spectacular southern white cliffs. Rounding the lovers’ leap of Cape Doukáto revelas beautiful beaches and lush green coves and bays. Regular winds make this a renowned spot for windsurfers and hang gliders soar from the cliff tops, emulating the unrequited lovers in ancient Greece who tied feathers - and occasionally live birds – to their backs before plunging into the sea; having first taken the precaution of alerting a rescue party to haul them out. The yacht heads for the wild island of Kalamos and its pretty south facing port.
After overnighting in this delightful fishing port – unspoilt and virtually undiscovered – it is time to head for the picture postcard port of Fiskárdo on the island of Kefaloniá. Spared by a quirk of geology from the devastating 1953 earthquake Fiskárdo is a living museum of typical architecture and beautiful villas in the local style have sprung up on the hillsides around the town. Heading down the east coast the Captain calls in at the port of Sami, transformed into a mock-venetian waterfront for the film of Louis de Bérnieres’ “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. A busy port it is not perhaps the best place to overnight and just three miles southeast is the perfect bay of Andisamos.
It is a 30 mile sail to Zákynthos, its town destroyed in 1953 but rebuilt with some charm; low rise buildings are wreathed in bougainvillea and the main streets are sheltered by colonnades, just as they were before the quake. To the south is Laganás bay where loggerhead turtles breed and the site of disputes between environmentalists and developers which lead to the creation of a national park protecting these ancient mammals. To the north are some pretty bays and a magnificent blue Grotto cave for a peaceful overnight anchorage near Agios Nikólaos.
Arriving in Ithaca port one is confronted with the Homeric sign “Every traveller is a citizen of Ithaca”. Just as described, Odysseus’ home is indeed “narrow” and “rocky” and with a jagged and indented coast it has few exceptional beaches but its harbours make it a big favourite with sailors. The main town of Váthi is built at the end of a long horseshoe bay and its beautiful harbour, dating back to the C 16th, includes a C 17th quarantine station on a tiny island called Lazaretto. Two ruined forts stand guardian on either side of the harbour entrance and the town was reconstructed after the quake in the traditional style. One of the few buildings to survive was the neo-classical mansion of the Drakoúlis family, who brought the first steamship to the island. The yacht anchors in the delightful bay of Frikes to the north of Váthi for the night.
The Captain heads from Ithaca for the island of Meganisi and a relaxing day swimming and snorkelling. Spectacularly wild and rocky, the island is a throwback to pre-tourist Greece with the male population engaged in fishing and the females in lace-making. The capital, confusingly also called Váthi, is in reality a small pretty port with a terrific choice of good fish tavernas. The yacht steams round the headland giving guests the chance to walk the island’s only paved road leadings up to the pretty flower-filled hamlet of Katoméri and on to rejoin the vessel at the only other habitation, the hamlet-port of Spartohóri with a couple of good tavernas and a few rooms to rent. A delightful island to wander around and a lovely example of the real Greece.
Leaving Meganisi over breakfast a three hour steam takes the yacht to Antipaxi, a tiny island off the cost of Paxos with its sixty-four inhabitants. This is paradise on earth, with none of the sophistication of its namesake neighbour, but two tavernas and a pair of delightful beaches, Voutoúmi and Vríka with sand “as soft as silk”. An early evening steam takes the yacht across to Paxos to anchor in the harbour. The tender takes guests across to the private islet of Mongonissi, where the owners run a small but exquisite restaurant, and an evening of good food, singing and dancing.
The next morning an early start takes the yacht back to Corfu. If there is time, immediately opposite the island lies time-warped Albania and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint. Sailing up the inlet to the lake on which the island city stands is a magical experience and an irresistible opportunity to sample a middle European way of life unchanged for hundreds of years. One of the most complete and important archaeological sites in the Adriatic, Butrint is a must-see. It is a short passage across the straits of Corfu back to the sophistication of Greece and international connections home.
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