This is the latest selection for our series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
Having been born in Greece and lived all of my life here, one might think that I have seen most of this beautiful country. Yet, this is practically impossible. With around 100 inhabited islands (and more than double if we count the deserted islands which you can visit with your boat) and more than 15,000 km of coastline, Greece offers a huge variety of beaches and crystal clear waters. It would take me a lifetime if I were to visit a different place each summer.
Yet the islands in the Aegean Sea are usually the ones that attract most tourists, with Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, Rhodes, and Crete being featured in most travel publications. Greece however, is not just those fancy islands where celebrities usually choose to go. On the west side of the country, between Greece and Italy, and south of Albania, are the Ionian Islands, also known as the Seven Islands.
Though often neglected by international travel writers, they are considered the country’s hidden gems, with gorgeous blue waters, golden beaches and the greenest landscape which you will hardly find in other islands. Those are only a few good reasons to fall in love with them. And if we count the intense nightlife, the Ionians have nothing to be jealous of.
I’ve been meaning to travel to the area for so long , but since I live in Athens traveling to the Aegean was always much easier. To visit one of the Ionian islands means that you can either take a flight or you have to drive across the country and then take the ferry to the island of your choice. Once you are there though, it would be wise to do some island hopping as there are daily boat cruises that can take you to all the nearby islands.
A few weeks ago, invited by close friend and local journalist Eleftheria Antypa, I had the chance to finally visit one of them for two days: Lefkada, the only one that is connected to the mainland by a long causeway and a floating bridge. This was my first trip outside of Athens after the long lockdown in Greece ended about two months ago and the timing to visit Lefkada could not have been better. According to official reports the Ionian Islands lead the vaccination rates against COVID-19 in the country and, as a half-vaccinated person in a country that not long ago reopened to travelers worldwide, I felt much safer. Especially now that the Delta variant is raging across the globe.
I hate driving long distances, so I took the early morning bus from Athens and almost five hours later—with a couple of stops on the way—I was there. What struck me the most upon my arrival was the huge labyrinth-like marina at the town of Lefkada. It was full with hundreds of sailing boats of all sizes, so many I swear it was the most I have seen in my life gathered in one place. As I later found out, Lefkada has one of the longest and most modern marinas in the whole Balkans and that is why many prefer to sail there.
I was staying at the southern part of the island, so I had to take the local bus and literally cross the whole island, which took less than an hour, to reach Vasiliki, a small seaside village. It has an amazing view on the mountains of Ithaca, the beloved homeland of Odysseus, and Kefalonia, the biggest of the Seven Islands. Vasiliki is also considered a wind surfing heaven because of its ideal location and the winds that normally blow in the area. When I arrived, the weather was perfect for a swim in the sea, which was cold but refreshing after a long day.
Despite being on an island, I decided to start exploring it from the inside out. One of the first places my friend Eleftheria suggested to visit were the waterfalls at Nydri, near her hometown. “Be careful, the ground is very slippery” she warned me. “The first time I went there I almost did a split.”
After a 20-minute drive from Vasiliki you will find yourself in an oasis. No matter how warm the weather is outside, the microclimate there is different and much cooler. You definitely need good shoes, because the pathway full of rocks leading up to the three waterfalls is indeed very slippery. You can swim under the waterfall as it creates a small lake, but be prepared as the water coming down from the hill is extremely cold even during the summer.
Despite the fact that I fell in love with the waterfalls, nothing can be compared with the island’s beaches. The reason anyone goes to Lefkada is to swim in the crystal-clear waters of Porto Katsiki, Kathisma, Mylos, and Agiofylli—to name just a few of the more than 15 beaches. However, Egremni is considered as the most beautiful beach in Greece. So, that was my plan for my second day on the island.
Not far from where I was staying is one of the most breathtaking places in the world: Egremni beach. In 2015 an earthquake damaged large parts of the beach, as the slopes over it collapsed, bringing down soil and huge rocks. Thankfully, this didn’t take away of its beauty, as the beach was quickly restored, and in 2019, Egremni topped the Travel and Leisure list of the bluest waters in the world, leaving further down other tourist favorite destinations, such as the Maldives and the islands of Palawan and Samoa.
Being there is an experience of its own. Looking down from the hill the incredible blue water of the whole Ionian Sea lays right in front of your eyes. The sky and the sea become one; there is nothing to interrupt them in the horizon. Going there though, is a bit tricky. Once you park your car you have to walk for a bit less than a mile and then with the breath you have left, go down roughly 350 steps to the beach. You can also go by cruise boat, which is much easier, but you don’t have the freedom to stay for as long as you like. Be prepared to have enough water and food with you for the time you stay, because there are no canteens, mini markets, or even a kiosk anywhere close. But once you’re down there, it is totally worth the trouble.
On this side of the island, the side closer to Italy, you often tune in to Italian radio stations on the car, so, if you’re not a big fan of the Italian music, you are going to have to bear it as Eros Ramazzotti or Raffaella Carra will definitely keep you company at some point on the way.
Wherever I traveled on the island, I saw quite a few tourists despite COVID, but it was nowhere near packed. Most of them though are wealthy Italians, as the neighboring country is only a couple of hours away with a sailing boat. Many of them have now bought property on the island, which allows them to travel anytime they like. The love of the Italians for the Ionian islands is not something new. Lefkada was the last to fall under the Venetian occupation during the 18th century, when it was renamed Santa Mavra. The Venetians stayed on the island for almost a century, something that is reflected in the architecture of several buildings, mostly in the old town of Lefkada. The Venetian architectural style is all over the Ionian islands, with Corfu being the greatest example of it.
What has always fascinated me, is a tiny small island just a few yards away from Nydri in Lefkada, called Skorpios. The small private island belonged to the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who bought it in 1963, reportedly for mere thousands. Onassis was one of the richest men in the world at his time and a famous heartthrob. He was connected with the Greek soprano Maria Callas and later married the widow of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline, known to the Greeks as Jackie O (Onassis). Actually, the scandalous paparazzi photos of her being naked on the beach that took the media by storm in 1972 were taken on this exact island.
Today the island belongs to the Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev and his eldest daughter Ekaterina after they bought it on a long-term lease in 2013. It has always been a dream to visit the island, but it’s impossible nowadays and I could only admire it from far away.
“I’ve been to Skorpios a couple of times” Eleftheria told me. “When the island belonged to the Onassis family, they used to allow people to visit one beach on it and swim there. Now that the Russians have it, you can’t even go near the island with your boat”.
So, I packed my stuff and my disappointment at not being able to feel rich for a day, and just before I hit the road again back to Athens, I treated myself with a mouthwatering shrimp spaghetti, cooked with just a zip of ouzo, enough to let the aroma of the anise-flavored Greek aperitif take me back to the seaside again. The only thing that I regret is not having enough time to do a trip to the rest of the Ionian islands. But now I have a good excuse to go back again soon.