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The sapphire waters of the Ionian Sea welcome you to paradise. Kefalonia, Corfu, Zakynthos (Zante), Lefkada, Ithaca, and Paxos. all are wonderful holiday destinations off the west coast of Greece that you’ll adore discovering. The major islands of Greece’s Ionian Sea lived for centuries under Venetian rule and it shows in their castles and churches. Carpeted with olive trees, pines and vineyards, the Ionian Islands are fertile and green, a stunning setting for award-winning white-sand beaches and peacock-blue waters. You’ll also find that the hospitable citizens have music in their souls.
On land, you can explore monasteries and mountain villages and seek out waterfalls, hiking trails and scenic routes by car or motorbike. Nature lovers can head to the wetlands for birdwatching or the marine parks for glimpses of elusive Mediterranean monk seals and Loggerhead turtles. Kite- and windsurfers regard the Ionian Sea islands as a prime location for their sports. And as for sailing or cruising, there’s no better place in Greece, with favourable winds and safe anchorages.
The beaches of Lefkada – Engremni, Porto Katsiki, Kathisma – and Shipwreck Beach on Zante are famous the world over. Voutoumi and Vrika on Antipaxos are beloved by boat owners, while Schinos on Ithaca is where the elite meet. Myrtos, on Kefalonia, appears on many posters, its white crescent lapped by milky blue waters and framed by towering cliffs. Then there’s Kaladi on Kythira, and of course Corfu’s much-photographed Paleokastritsa. And there are countless other large and small beaches on all the islands in the Ionian Sea, with a full range of facilities and water sports.
Medieval castles and monasteries, storied buildings and excellent museums – all are testaments to the rich culture and history of the Ionian Islands.
On Corfu, Homer’s kingdom of the Phaeacians, the city’s Old and New Venetian Forts, Achillion Palace (built by Empress Sissy of Austria) and Mon Repos are all popular sights. Outstanding museums include the Asian Art Collection in the Palace of St Michael and St George, the Archaeology Museum and the Municipal Gallery. And look out for Corfu’s marching bands in full regalia, as well as the island’s unusual Easter customs and processions in honour of patron Saint Spyridon.
On Lefkada, you will find one of the most impressive medieval buildings in Greece and the Ionian island’s most significant cultural attraction, the sturdy 14th-century castle of Santa Maura, which guards the entrance across the lagoon from the mainland. Throughout the main town, you’ll notice wonderful examples of 17th and 18th century Ionian baroque churches.
Kefalonia the biggest of the Ionian Sea islands, also has impressive attractions, such as Venetian fortresses, Mycenaean tombs, Roman mosaics and baroque churches, while Argostoli’s Corgialenios Museum and Library are among the best in Greece.
On Zante, the basilica and bell tower of Agios Dionysios are reminiscent of Venice, and the monastery of Agios Georgios ton Gremnon above Shipwreck Bay is beautifully preserved. Fans of Byzantine architecture will also want to venture to the Strofades islands, 37 nautical miles off Zante, to see the impressive 13th-century monastery fortress there.
The larger Ionian Islands are champions when it comes to water sports. Every year Lefkada draws more and more wind- and kite-surfers who find their nirvana at the beaches of Vasiliki and Myli, ranked by some as the best in the Med. Sailors based in Nydri, set off for the nearby islets of Meganisi, Kalamos and Kastos. North of Corfu, the Diapontia islands are popular destinations with sailors who then head round to Corfu before heading south to Paxos.
Antipaxos, Kioni on Ithaca and Kefalonia’s Fiskardo are beloved destinations for sailing in the Ionian Sea. Indeed, the whole region is a magnet to sailors. And for those who love to walk or cycle, each island has well-marked trails through green mountains and varied scenery, including the fabulous 220km long Corfu trail. Corfu also boasts an 18-hole golf course at Ermones, in the Ropa valley which, besides being challenging and fun, is also one of the biggest in Europe.
The Ionian Islands will surprise you with their wealth of culinary flavours. These islands stand out for their cosmopolitan and sophisticated tastes. The most famous dishes from the Corfiot kitchen are sofrito (slow-cooked veal with garlic and parsley), bianco (fish in a white sauce), bourdeto (piquant fish stew) and pastitsada, a rich ragout of veal or chicken with thick pasta. Keep a lookout for locally produced ginger beer and kumquat liqueur.
In Lefkada and Zante, dinners are frequently accompanied by strolling musicians, who fill the air with delightful Italian-sounding cantadas. On Kefalonia, the piece de resistance is a rich meat pie with lots of extras; and on Zante it’s salsa, meat stew with cheese. Here the locals will also offer you a nougat delicacy called mantolato. If they don’t, just ask for it!
Unforgettable images on Kefalonia start with your first glimpse of the hamlet of Assos and its Venetian castle, almost overgrown with pines and cypresses, followed by delightful Fiskardo and the ‘rival’ towns of Argostoli and Lixouri. For natural wonders, don’t miss the caves: Drogarati, 150 million years old, and Melissani with its underground lake.
The sea and coast around Zante were picked for Greece’s first marine park. This is where the rare caretta caretta sea turtles lay their eggs. In spring, these endangered creatures set off from the Libyan Sea and the southern Adriatic to lay their eggs in the sands of Gerakas, Dafni, Kalamaki, Marathonisi and especially Sakania, east of Laganas.
The homeland of Homer’s Odysseus. You’ll want to visit the listed settlement of Kioni and medieval Anogi, built right on a mountain ridge.
Corfu’s sights include the islets of Vlaherna and Pontikonisi (Mouse Island), Sidari (with its famous Love Canal beach), Paleokastritsa, Kassiopi, Lefkimmi and also Kouloura and Kalami, made famous by the Durrell brothers’ books. The Old Town of Corfu should be top of your list, with its cobbled alleys, Liston Arcade, Spianada (where you could happen upon a cricket match) and dozens of buildings and monuments left by Venetian, French and British rulers.
Off Lefkada, the legend of shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis endures on the islet of Skorpios, opposite Nydri, one of the Ionian’s biggest yachting centres. Here among the most breathtaking sights is the lighthouse at Cape Lefkada and Sappho’s Leap, while the most popular is the Faneromeni Monastery. Traditional Agios Nikitas on the west coast is another favourite, flanked by great beaches.
Make a point of taking a close look at the castle of Ai Nikolas, a listed monument which was first built in 1423 and is the most famous attraction on the island. It was renovated by Venetians in 1510 according to plans drawn up by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.
Different ports on the western coast of Greece have boats departing to the Ionian Islands daily or every other day. From Patra, you can reach Kefalonia or Ithaca; from Killini you can reach Kefalonia or Zante; and from Igoumenitsa you can reach Corfu and Paxi.
Three Ionian Islands (Corfu, Zakynthos and Kefalonia) have airports, receiving seasonal international flights as well as domestic flights from Athens throughout the year. Aktion airport, by Preveza, is just 20km from Lefkada, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge.
The Ionian Islands are favourite summer holiday destinations and are particularly popular in July and August. Some smaller islands, like Ithaca and Paxos/Antipaxos do not get too busy, but the larger islands (such as Corfu and Zakynthos) are at their best in the months either side of peak summer. Spring and early/late summer are perfect times to enjoy the greenery of the Ionian Islands, especially if you enjoy nature activities.
The Ionian Islands were named by the ancient Greeks after Io, one of the mortal lovers of Zeus who, in Greek mythology, swam across the archipelago.
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