The Ionian islands lie off Greece’s western coast in a line from Zakynthos in the south to Corfu in the north. Part of the latter is closer to Albania than to the mainland.
All the Ionian islands reflect the influence of nearby Italy, but Corfu also has a distinct British tinge. It was a British protectorate during the 19th century, but nowadays the UK feel is thanks mainly to its long history of package tourism. The island is big enough to cope with this, though, especially in the off season, and still contains some gems.
Paxi, consisting of two small islands, Paxos and Antipaxos, is where adventurous tourists moved on to as Corfu became busier, but these can now get pretty overrun, and are once again best avoided in August. The beaches of Antipaxos are more than worth the effort of getting there.
Lefkada is much less touristy, perhaps because it sometimes feels like part of the mainland (it is connected by a bridge). It still manages to sport great beaches – some claim they are the Ionian’s best.
Ithaka lacks the stunning sands of some of the other Ionian islands. The upside of this is that it also lacks the overdevelopment. The island does boast some great hiking trails, and the association with Homer’s Odyssey adds to the romance.
Kefalonia is known to millions from the best-selling novel, and later film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Before the film’s release, it had few visitors, but is now a well-known destination that some return to year after year. Its beautiful landscapes seem untroubled by their new-found fame.
Zakynthos could act as a distillation of the whole Ionian – bits of the coast have been overtaken by package tourism, but away from these there are still isolated coves and a mountainous interior.
All prices are for one week’s accommodation for two in August, and include breakfast, unless otherwise stated. Prices earlier or later in the year can be considerably lower. Greek taverna prices are remarkably similar, and if anything have gone down in the past few years. You can usually expect to eat well for €15-20pp. If eating places are cheaper/more expensive than this, it is stated in the text.
Where to stay: Siorra Vittoria
This boutique hotel with nine rooms is one of the best options if you want to be at the heart of Corfu’s atmospheric old town (a Unesco world heritage site). A restored 19th-century mansion, it even has a garden in which you can escape the bustle.
• siorravittoria.com, +30 26610 36300, €1,050 (£845)
Where to eat: Taverna Ninos
There is plenty of fine dining to be had in Corfu Town. The Ninos, tucked away on a side street off Theotoki (the old town’s main drag), is something different. It supplies gyros, (kebabs), to the town’s students, but also has a range of daily baked dishes on display. The pastisada, a Corfiot pasta dish, is particularly good. It can be a bit chaotic and cramped here, but the atmosphere and food are authentic.
• +30 26610 46175
Don’t miss: New Fortress
Of the two forts that lie at either end of the old town, the so-called New Fortress is probably the more fun to explore, and provides great views over the town and the Old Fortress.
Where to stay: Nikolas Taverna
The north-east coast of Corfu is sometimes known as “Kensington on Sea”, and there are plenty of high-price villas about, many with their own butler. A cheaper option is these simple studios attached to one of the three tavernas that line Agni Bay.
• agnibay.com, €850 (£684), no breakfast
Where to eat: To Fagopotio
One of the joys of this coast is hiring a small boat and chugging from bay to bay. One of the best places to moor is the jetty of this taverna in the bay of San Stefano. Christos, who runs the show, is a character and knows his stuff; the octopus is grilled to perfection. It is also reliably open in the off season.
• +30 26630 82020, slightly expensive
Don’t miss: Mount Pantokrator
Mount Pantokrator, at 906m, is Corfu’s highest peak. You can hike up here, but there is a serpentine road that leads all the way up. A monastery perches incongruously among the radio masts, but the chief reason to come is for the views, which encompass most of Corfu, and a fair bit of Albania.
Where to stay: Ionian Villas
Fewer than 100 people live on Antipaxos, and accommodation is hard to come by. If you go, however, you will feel like you have the pretty 2km-long island almost to yourself, especially in the evenings when the boat tours have departed. Ionian Villas has three properties here.
• ionian-villas.co.uk/antipaxos.aspx, from €1,250 (£1,005), sleeps five; no breakfast
Where to eat: Bella Vista
You may have to climb a bunch of steps to get there, but the Bella Vista certainly lives up to its name, with azure waters below. The food is standard taverna fare, but the fish is tasty and fresh.
+30 26620 31766
Don’t miss: Vatoumi
The cove below the Bella Vista is as good as it looks, and is linked to the golden sands of smaller Vrika beach by a clifftop path. Get to these early or late in the day to avoid the boat trips coming from Paxos.
Where to stay: Rouda Bay
Tourism in Lefkada is much more low-key than on some of the other Ionian islands, but there are still plenty of studios and apartments to rent. Rouda Bay ticks all the boxes – spacious, if simple, rooms, friendly staff, an attached taverna, and right by the beach.
• roudabay.gr, €780 (£627), family studio sleeps 4
Where to eat: Pirofani
The next bay up from Rouda is Dessimi, and it is one of the most attractive beaches on the island. Right in the middle of it, and almost on the sand, is the Pirofani taverna. The setting alone would make it worth visiting, but they also manage to serve delicious Greek classics.
• +30 26450 95700
Don’t miss: Cape Lefkatas
If you can tear yourself away from the beaches and tavernas, Lefkada has some dramatic scenery, particularly its white cliffs (whose colour gives the island its name). The most stunning are at Cape Lefkatas, the southern tip of the island. Among other legends, the lovelorn poet Sappho is said to have ended her life here.
Where to stay: Serenity Boutique Hotel
Set high above the sea in the mountain village of Athani, this hotel has only five rooms, each of which is individually styled. Despite its small size it boasts an infinity pool with a view, and offers spa treatments.
• serenity-th.com, €1,370(£1,102)
Where to eat: Panorama
Mountain tavernas in Greece always seem to be more friendly than their beachfront companions; perhaps they have to try harder to attract diners. Panorama, also in Athani, is no exception, and also offers the views its name promises.
• +30 26450 33291
Don’t miss: Yialos beach
A slightly tortuous, but dramatic, road leads down from Athani to the sea, where Yialos beach awaits by the deep-blue water. Only in the height of August will you find many crowds here.
Where to stay: Hotel Familia
Located in the island’s pretty capital, Vathy, this small hotel was built in a restored 19th-century olive press. Each of the seven rooms has its own style, and the overall atmosphere justifies the name. Lovely little touches include a varying breakfast of home-baked treats and free bicycles for the guests to explore the island.
• hotel-familia.com, €1,050 (£845)
Where to eat: Kohili
The habourside is where to hang out in Vathy, and this traditional taverna is the best of the ones that line it.
• +30 26740 33565
Don’t miss: Homer sights
Ithaka makes much of its connection with Homer and there are various sites around the island that are speculatively connected to locations in the Odyssey. Walking trails lead to many of them, such as the Arethoussa Spring. They are well worth hunting out, if only for the joy of the hikes themselves.
Where to stay: George Molfetas
Just to the east of the island capital of Argostoli, with views down to it, is the traditional village of Faraklata. It is home to an old mansion house that has been turned into this boutique hotel, named after a poet ancestor of the owner, Katerina. She has put her heart into the place, and the results are clear to see.
• kefaloniaheritagevilla.com, €1,010 (£812)
Where to eat: Kiani Akti
Down in Argostoli, this fish taverna has an enviable location, with tables on a pier over the water. Seafood is clearly the way to go, and the razor clams are particularly renowned.
• +30 2671 026680
Don’t miss: Ayios Georgios
The medieval capital of the island was at Ayios Georgios, a few kilometres inland from Argostoli. It was destroyed by one of the many earthquakes that the island suffers, but the Venetian castle remains remarkably intact. Great fun for the kids, and the young at heart.
Where to stay: Karavomilos Beach Camping
Not far from Sami – the old capital of the island, where much of Captain Corelli was filmed – this campsite is set on a good beach and the pitches are nicely shaded by eucalyptus and mulberry trees. It has all the facilities you’d expect, including a taverna and free Wi-Fi.
• camping-karavomilos.gr, €180 (£145)
Where to eat: Il Familia
Right on the habourside, this restaurant manages to blend an authentic atmosphere with tasteful decor and an interesting menu, which includes fresh local fish with an Italian twist.
• +30 693 7613637
Don’t miss: Melissani cave
Named after a nymph who drowned herself here as the god Pan did not return her affections (somewhat unusually for him) this cave consists of two lake-filled chambers, one of which has a collapsed roof. Small boats ferry visitors through the cave, and the best time to come is around midday, when the sunlight illuminates the incredible blues of the water.
Where to stay: Pansion Limni
A lot of the accommodation on Zakynthos gets block-booked by package tour companies. To get away from these, you need to aim either for the budget end of the market, or the very fancy. This set of studios, in the quiet resort of Limni Keriou, is a good example of the former. Simple rooms with everything you need, and right by the beach.
• pansionlimni.com, €385 (£310)
Where to eat: Arekia
There are a few places to eat around the bay, but for a more traditional night, head to Zakynthos Town, where this taverna offers local specialities as well as the chance, later in the evening, to hear live kantadhes – Italian-influenced folk ballads.
• +30 26950 26346
Don’t miss: Loggerhead turtles
The beaches of the southern coast of Zakynthos are a breeding ground for the endangered Loggerhead turtle. You are unlikely to see one, as they come on to the sands at night, when the beaches are reserved for them alone. If you want to know more, visit the Sea Turtle & Wildlife Infomation Centre at Gerakas, where you can also enjoy one of the prettiest beaches on this coast.
Where to stay: Potamitis Brothers
The brothers run boat trips (see below), but also own some rather special accommodation perched on the cliffs of Cape Skinari on the northern tip of Zakynthos. Two old windmills have been restored into quirky, but comfortable, apartments with spectacular views.
• potamitisbros.gr €630 (£507)
Where to eat: Nobelos Bio
Just to the south lies the little working port of Agios Nikolaos, where this restaurant occupies a great cliffside location overlooking the sea. The Bio bit of its name refers to its preference for organic ingredients, which are mixed with fresh seafood. A selection of homemade ice- cream for dessert is a must.
• +30 69441 48283
Don’t miss: boat trips
Cape Skinari is the best place to organise boat trips to Zakynthos’s two most famous locations. The Blue Caves, to the east, are exactly what they say, and great for snorkelling. To the west lies Shipwreck Bay, which will already be familiar from countless postcards and internet lists of the world’s best beaches.
Corfu: Easyjet (easyjet.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) now run direct flights to Corfu from several UK airports starting from around £100 return. There are also plenty of charter options in summer. Domestic flights are available year round from Athens and Thessaloniki for £50-60. Ferries are also available from the Greek and Italian mainlands (greeceferries.com, aegeanspeedlines.gr.
Paxi: The easiest way to approach the islands is the hydrofoil that runs in summer from Corfu Town. The timetable and costs vary year to year, but in 2013 were around €16 each way, and took 50 minutes. paxos-greece.com/paxos-ferry-times.ht
Lefkada: The most convenient approach is via the airport at Preveza, 20km away over the bridge on the mainland. Charter flights start at around £250 return with thomson.co.uk.
Ithaka: Ferries run from Fiskardo in Kefalonia, among other places. A crossing with car costs about €80 each way and takes an hour, fiscardo.com/ferries.htm.
Kefalonia: Ryanair, as well as several charter airlines, fly to Argostoli from the UK from £100 return. Domestic flights from Athens and Thessaloniki start at £50 return. Like with Corfu, ferry links are available from various Greek and Italian ports.
Zakynthos: Easyjet, and the usual charters, fly from the UK to Zakynthos in season, once again starting at around £100 return. Year-round flights from Athens start at £60. There is also a good ferry link from Kyllini on the Peloponnese (90 minutes), which itself has a bus link to Athens, zakynthos.net.gr/English/ferry_en.php.
• Note that flight prices from the UK are very variable, and can be much more expensive in August, and much cheaper when booked well in advance. The author flew to Corfu in April 2014 for £50pp return
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