Ionian Islands - Attractions
Homer's 'beautiful and rich land' is the best known of the Ionian Islands, a beguiling place of wildflowers and cypress groves, Venetian architecture and herb-scented mountains. Enough beauty remains for Corfu (Kerkyra) to be considered one of the most beautiful of the Greek islands, but much has been ruined in the past 30 years by unscrupulous and indiscriminate development.
The island's capital is the promontory city of Corfu Town, flanked by fortresses old and new. At the city's heart is the gorgeously gardened Spianada and its elegant row of cafe-filled arcades, the Liston, built by the French and modelled on Paris' rue de Rivoli. Corfu Town's Archaeological Museum is famous for its Gorgon Medusa sculpture, one of the best-preserved pieces of Archaic sculpture in the whole of Greece, and the town also has notable museums devoted to Asiatic art, Byzantine icons - and paper money. But the best thing to do in Corfu Town is to simply wander the narrow alleyways of the Venetian old town, past Georgian mansions, Byzantine churches and shuttered buildings stuccoed in muted shades of ochre and pink. Leave some time for exploring the two fortresses, gasping at the stunning views and sampling the nightlife at the Liston's people-packed cafes - by day they make excellent members stands for watching the cricket played on the nearby Spianada, a decidedly unique experience in these Greco-Italianate surrounds.
More than one million visitors descend on Corfu every year, the vast majority of them package tourists heading for the beach resorts that have all but ruined the island's east coast. Unless crowded beaches and rowdy bars have huge appeal, it's best to give the ugly resorts north of Corfu Town a wide berth and head northeast to Nisaki, with its tiny pebble beach and handful of tavernas and domatia (rooms for rent), and Agni, whose excellent tavernas are regarded by those in the know as the gourmet heart of Corfu. The beaches of Kalami are far more crowded than when Lawrence Durrell and his wife stayed there in the late 1930s, and the views wouldn't then have been marred by pink apartment blocks - but today's views of neighbouring Albania are still as good. Nearby there's the pretty little Venetian harbour of Kouloura and the harbour-resort village of Kassiopi, still bearing visible traces of its Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian past.
Mt Pantokrator is inland, at 906m (2970ft) the island's highest peak and a popular destination for walkers - the enormous radio antenna on its summit is a little unfortunate though. This mountain region is dotted with abandoned villages like Old Perithia, poignantly attractive in their state of decay. The beach at Almyros is a superb stretch of golden sand lapped by family-friendly shallow waters - facilities are limited but it'll only be a matter of minutes before the commercial activity of nearby Aharavi takes over. For a glimpse of the formerly idyllic appearance of resort towns like Roda and Sidhari, visit the tiny, unspoilt fishing village of Astrakeri.
The hook of land dangling 5km (3mi) south of Corfu Town is the Kanoni Peninsula, the site of the ancient capital. Ancient ruins are liberally sprinkled throughout this region, including the circular Tomb of Menecrates and Temple of Artemis (the original sites of the lion and gorgon now housed in Corfu Town's museum). The much-photographed offshore islets include the dazzling white monastery of Moni Vlahernas and Mouse Island, topped by a 13th-century church. Corfu's southern reaches can pretty much be ignored, although Ahillion Palace is worth a look, if only to scoff at its vulgar 19th-century aesthetics; it's near the village of Gastouri. Holiday hooligans used to head to nearby Benitses, until it was ruined, so now they head north to cut a swathe through the coastline's few remaining unspoilt coves and fishing villages. The Boukaris-Kavos stretch of coastline isn't bad, with pebbly beaches and just a few tavernas - but stop short of the lager-lout ghetto of Kavos.
Corfu's best beaches are on the west coast, and development here is surprisingly under control - for now. The 3km (2mi) golden-sand stretch of Agios Georgios is a haven for watersports enthusiasts, and nearby Afionas has Neolithic ruins and sweeping coastal views. The west coast's largest resort is the beautiful but increasingly developed Paleokastritsa (26km/16mi west of Corfu Town), with sandy and pebbled coves, a verdant mountain backdrop and unparalleled snorkelling in grottoes and caves. A couple of villages south of Paleokastritsa have nabbed the independent travel set, including hill-top Pelekas, with its spectacular sunsets and range of accommodation from pensions to a country club. Myrtiotissa is the island's unofficial nudist beach - complete with body painting and fresh-water pipe for freelance campers. Agios Gordios is heading the way of all resorts, but its beach and hostel continue to attract more backpackers than package tourists.
Ancient Ithaca was Odysseus' long-lost home, the island where the stoical Penelope sat patiently weaving and waiting. Lying off the eastern coast of Kefallonia, and separated from its much larger neighbour by a watery strait of only 2.4km (1.2.5mi), the unspoilt island has a harsh eastern aspect and softer, greener west coast, with a classic mountainous interior of pine forests, cypress stands, olive groves and vineyards. Ithaki doesn't have great beaches, and the land is so bumpy it's hard to nail down a condo - which means it's a quiet and undeveloped place. Virtually every house on the island was reduced to rubble by the dreadful earthquake of 1953, and most of Ithaki's population emigrated to start a new life in the extremely Greek Australian city of Melbourne.
The port capital of Vathy is dominated by its fortified Venetian harbour. Attractive old mansions rise up from the seafront, and the centre is a photo opportunity of twisting streets and picturesque cafes. The hills surrounding Vathy hide the wine-producing town of Perahori and abandoned Paliohora, the island's original settlement, whose ruined medieval houses and churches still bear traces of frescoes. The old capital of Anogi is 14km (8.5mi) north of Vathy. It's surrounded by a monastery and lighthouse, and goat-filled roads that wind past vineyards, and its highlight is the frescoed Byzantine church of Agia Panagia. The island's archaeological history is displayed in a museum at Stavros, which lies northwest of Vathy and is believed to be the site of Odysseus' palace. Just a little northeast there's the depopulated fishing port of Frikes, one of the island's major ferry ports. Kioni, gorgeously draped around a green hillside spilling down to a tiny harbour, is a secret hideaway with a few tavernas and bars, but its beaches are bettered by those dotting the bays heading back towards Frikes.
The approach to Kefallonia by sea on a windy summer's day is marked by the delicious hint of wildflowers, thyme, oregano and rosemary wafting on the breeze. With the exception of Fiskardo, every town on the island was destroyed by the earthquake of 1953. The modern-day capital, Argostoli, is a lively modern port with a folklore museum and an archaeological museum devoted to the island's Mycenaean past. The loop of moonscape jutting west of Argostoli is the Lixouri Peninsula, with bougainvillea-clad hill-top hamlets, great views across the Argostoli Gulf and the popular beach at Xi. The region south of Argostoli is known as Livatho, a beacon on the the icon trail, with villages like Domata and Kaligata boasting gorgeously golden screens of the Virgin Mary.
Kaligata produces the island's famous Kalligas wine, its vineyards perched high above the steep cliffs of Ligia and Avithos beaches - if you're undertaking a Captain Corelli theme tour of the island, this unforgiving spot is the setting for several scenes from the book. Just a little inland, the village of Kastro is the stepping-off point for the 13th-century castle of Agios Georgios, one of the best-preserved fortresses in the Ionians, despite the extensive earthquake damage it received back in the 17th century. In the island's east there's sunbaking and watersports at Lourdata, plus horse riding and a 2.5-hour WWF nature trail to the ruins of the Monastery of the Virgin of Sissia. Inland the Ionians' highest peak, Mt Enos (1627m/5335ft), soars over a protected national park of Kefallonian firs, riddled with gorgeous forest paths, dotted with the famed Robola vineyards and home to a handful of wild horses.
Steer clear of Kefallonia's southernmost tip - Cape Mounda, Kaminia Beach and Skala - leaving it safe for the loggerhead turtles and their nests. Poros, round the cape on the east coast, is a spectacular 14km (8.5mi) coastal drive away from Skala, passing the Byzantine church of Agios Georgios, temple ruins and rocky coves, but the town itself is sadly overdeveloped. Sami, the island's main port, is further north, nestled in a perfect bay. The setting is pretty, and it starred in Captain Corelli's Mandolin: the movie, but the post-1953 earthquake rebuilding is pretty forgettable. Other than its ferries, Sami is notable for the Mellisani and Drogarati caves - subterranean seawater lakes that light up in myriad shades of opalescent blue when the sun is overhead. There are more-secluded caves dotting the coast between Sami and the picturesque fishing village of Agia Evfymia. Finally, on the island's northernmost tip, there's Fiskardo, the only village to escape the wrath of the 1953 earthquake. The ridiculously attractive harbour village is dotted with fine Venetian buildings and framed by cypress-covered hills. Assos, on the other side of the peninsula, is equally gorgeous, with whitewashed houses (sensitively restored thanks to a donation from the city of Paris) and the nearby sandy coves and turquoise waters of Myrto Beach.
Kythira epitomises the end of the line, the psychological thrill that comes from visiting somewhere far-flung. It's definitely the odd island out of the Ionian group: it's administered from Piraeus, as part of the Attica region; it can't be reached from the other Ionian islands; and it has more in common visually with the Cyclades. Even more so than Paxi and Ithaki, Kythira has largely escaped the untramelled development that has ravaged so much of Corfu, Lefkada, Kefallonia and Zakynthos. The island is curiously barren, with misty moors, winding lanes bordered by low stone walls and villages spread evenly across its 30km by 18km (18mi by 11mi) extent.
Kythira's major port is the northern town of Agia Pelagia, a friendly waterfront village with sand and pebble beaches. The commercial hub is 10km (6mi) inland at Potamos - visit on a Sunday and you'll bump into the island's entire population at the market. The pretty green village of Mylopotamos is further inland towards the west coast, with a much-photographed church on its central square and its magical Neraïda (water nymph) waterfall a short stroll away. The abandoned kastro (walled town) of Mylopotamos is downright spooky, its houses derelict and churches in a state of suspended animation.
Hora, the island's capital, is chock-full of whitewashed houses with blue-shuttered windows, its square awash with hibiscus, bougainvillea and palms. Hora's Venetian kastro is perched on the edge of a cliff and affords stunning views over to Antikythira on a clear day. On the ridge below Hora is Kapsali, with twin sandy bays and a curving waterfront; the town makes much of its safe and sheltered swimming and tourmaline waters. Other good beaches are around the cape at Kaladi and Fyri Ammos.
Inland treats include the old monasteries of Agia Moni, Agia Elesa and Moni Myrtidion; the rustic beauty of old stone farmhouses; the Byzantine Museum at Kato Livadi; the green village of Karavas, with its good beach nearby at Platia Ammos; and the spooky, windswept village of Aroniadika, reputed to be haunted on dark winter's nights and home to the cooperative that bottles the island's famously potent thyme-flavoured honey.
In a pedant's world Lefkada (Lefkas) isn't an island at all, as it's joined to the mainland by a causeway. It's a fertile, well-watered, mountainous place, covered with olive groves, vineyards and conifer forests. Tourism is ever intensifying, but older women still wear traditional costume and English is less often heard than on other northern Ionian islands. The pebbly eastern beaches are the domain of package tourists, even though the much more spectacular but inaccessible west coast has some of the best sandy beaches in the Ionians. Lefkada has 10 satellite islets, including tranquil Meganisi, with its pebbled beaches and unbelievably turquoise bays; steep Kalamos, where forests of pine and cypress go right down to the sea; and the popular yachtie port of Kastos, where accommodation is limited to your sleeping bag. The Onassis-owned island of Skorpios is off-limits, though from offshore you can see the cemetery where Ari and his sister Christina are buried.
Lefkada Town, the island's capital, is primarily a yacht port. Despite the devastating earthquakes of 1867, 1948, 1953 and 1971, the festive town has a couple of buildings of note, including some opulently decorated 18th-century churches featuring work by leading artists of the Ionian school. More recent construction has been strengthened with sheet metal and corrugated iron, creating a strangely attractive effect. To witness that oh-so-photographable phenomenon of clouds appearing like neon-lit islands in the sky, head to Agios Ioannis Beach at sunset, just to the west of town. It's best to ignore the east-coast resorts, with their sunbeds, umbrellas, minimarts and chip butties, and even the once-sleepy fishing village of Nydri is a commercialised cruise and watersports centre nowadays. Poros makes a better alternative, with a good beach and unassuming tavernas.
The star of the south coast is the formerly pretty fishing village of Vasiliki, considered Europe's top windsurfing location. The west coast is the stuff of calendars and travel brochures: turquoise seas, pale-gold sand, donkey transport, and roads lined with stalls selling honey, wine and olive oil. Agios Nikitas is the island's most tasteful resort, if perhaps a little twee, with the classic beaches of Milos and Kathisma nearby. Inland, the sprinkling of traditional farming villages are overshadowed by the lace and embroidery village of Karya, which has a museum devoted to these traditional crafts.
Tiny Paxi (Paxos) is separated from Corfu's southernmost tip by only 11km (7mi) of water - but the fact that the island has largely escaped the horrors of package tourism makes it feel a world away. Paxi's visitors may be more discriminating but they also need to have more money, as accommodation is at a premium and costs are high due to the island's dependence on imports. The island has a captivating landscape of gnarled, centuries-old olive groves, dry-stone walled terraces, abandoned olive presses and derelict farmhouses. Pebbled beaches dot the east coast, while the more rugged western side is marked by soaring white cliffs with jagged grottoes and caves. Olive groves cover around 80% of this extremely walkable island, and the oil is reputed to be among Greece's best.
Paxi has only three coastal settlements. Picture-postcard Gaïos is the island's attractive capital, with a Venetian harbour, a ruined fortress and red-tiled buildings of pink, cream and yellow stucco. The fishing village-cum-resort of Longos is 5km (3mi) to the north. It's little more than a cramped square and winding waterfront, and makes a wonderfully quiet escape. The pretty harbour at Lakka is a popular yachties' call, and there's some excellent tavernas to cater for them. Inland villages like Bogdanatika and Magazia have a Venetian air, and their traditional tavernas are a welcome sight when exploring the island's rugged west coast by foot - or by sea, as the best views are from the water.
The Venetians dubbed this once-sublime island 'the Flower of the East', but earthquakes and package tourism have destroyed much of the island's former beauty. Prior to the 1953 earthquake, Zakynthos (Zante) was a sea-girt gem of Venetian architecture; the seismic rubble has since been replaced by rapacious resort development by concerns who display an equal disregard for independent travellers and the island's precious population of endangered loggerhead turtles and Mediterranean monk seals. The island's capital and major port is Zakynthos Town, whose layout of wide, arcaded streets, imposing squares and neoclassical buildings has thankfully been preserved. The town's Byzantine Museum documents the earthquake devastation and highlights the sympathetic nature of the post-1953 reconstruction. The central square, Plateia Solomou, bears a monument to the memory of former mayor Pavlos Karreris. When ordered to present a list of all Zantiot Jews to the occupying German commander during WWII, Karreris presented a list with just two names: his own and that of his willing colleague, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Zakynthos.
The beaches north of the capital have been transformed into densely populated resorts, crammed with lines of sunbeds and umbrellas. Watersports are the main attraction of Alikes, in particular windsurfing, though why anyone would want to build a resort on salt pans is anyone's guess. Crowded Argasi is south of Zakynthos Town, and is best known for its live music scene. Kaminia, Porto Zoro, Banana Beach and Agios Nikolaos further south are better places to worship sun and sea. Walkers can try the day walk to nearby Mt Skopos for great views across to the Peloponnese and the small whitewashed church of Panagia Skopiotissa at the summit, with its frescoes, mosaic floor and carved iconostasis. Just about everything south of Argasi is best avoided: the ghastly resort scene of Mavratzis Beach and loggerhead turtle nesting sites at Gerakas and Laganas, the latter the lair of lager louts - an unholy combination!
Keri, the cape on the opposite side of the Bay of Laganas, is extremely pretty, lined with vineyards and olive groves, fishing harbours and narrow pebble beaches. A similar antidote to coastal overdevelopment is to rent some wheels and head inland to remote farming villages like Maherado, Kiliomeno and Exochora, whose terraced olive groves, orchards, Byzantine churches and other ancient buildings have survived both seismic and tourist activity. Gyri is a special little village in the centre of the island, with just one taverna that pulls in those in the know. The west coast is remarkably tranquil, thanks to its sheer cliffs, and no number of adjectives can adequately describe the sea at stunning Shipwreck Beach, but here they are anyway: crystalline, aquamarine, opalescent, azure and downright kind of blue.