Corfu + the Ionians See And Do
The only redeeming quality of the 2001 film Captain Corelli's Mandolin may have been that it showcased the gorgeousness of Cephalonia, the largest of the Ionians. As the movie made clear, beaches are the main reason to come here—especially the pine-tree-lined Anti-Samos, on the mid-eastern coast, and the white sandy crescent of Myrtos, just north of the capital city of Argostoli (both had cameos in the film). Also worth a visit are two dramatic underground caves: Melissani Lake, where the blue water is surrounded by overarching limestone walls; and the stalactite-festooned Drogarati Cave, which is so large that Maria Callas once gave a concert in its chamber. Persa's Tours runs trips to both (30-267-108-1075; www.persas-tours.com), as well as to the 5,341-foot Mt. Ainos in the center of the island, where you can go hiking and sometimes see herds of wild horses. Of the many charming villages that dot the coast, the most compelling is Fiskardo, at the northern end. The only town on Cephalonia that remained untouched by the devastating 1953 earthquake (which registered 7.3 on the Richter scale), Fiskardo is full of preserved tile-roofed Venetian-style buildings and adorable tavernas. The capital city of Argostoli is even more cosmopolitan; it's chockablock with shops, cafés, and bars.
The most heavily visited of the Ionian Islands, Corfu draws sun-worshippers and resort-hoppers (and is a good jumping-off location for more islands), but it also attracts history and architecture buffs. Corfu Town retains the hodgepodge cultural elements brought over by the French, British, and especially the Venetians—all of whom ruled at different points over the past eight centuries. Venetian architecture abounds: Instead of the usual white sugar-cube-style buildings endemic to Greece, structures here tend to be ocher or dark pink, with shutters and red-tile roofs. The most venerable Venetian structures are the town's two fortresses: the Palaio Frourio, or "Old Fortress," originally a Byzantine structure that was renovated by the Venetians between the 13th and 15th centuries (30-266-104-8310), and the Neo Frourio, the "New Fortress," built by the Venetians between 1576 and 1589. Both are open daily to tourists for a small admission fee.
Two other sites that attract culture vultures (and buses of package tourists—unless you arrive early) are the palaces-turned-museums of Mon Repos and the Achilleon. Mon Repos, the closest to town, was once the summer house of the Greek Royal family; it has two Doric temples on its grounds, a beach, lovely gardens, and a theater (30-266-103-0680; closed Mon). Slightly farther afield in the village of Gastouri is the Achilleon, a rococo palace built in 1890 by a hypochondriac Austrian empress who settled on the island to take advantage of the clean air (30-266-105-6245; open daily). More recently, the property served as a backdrop for several scenes in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Corfu Town has tons of restaurants and cafés, making it the easiest place to stay if you're only here for a bit. The waterfront is dominated by a grassy esplanade called the Spaniada, which includes a cricket ground and is ringed by the Liston—a gorgeous stone pedestrian walkway that's the best place to while away the afternoon with a glass of wine. For shopping, head to M. Theotok Square and the streets around the church of St. Spyridon.
Beaches! Yes, Corfu has dozens, but they're a pebbly bunch. The best are Glyfada, a sceney favorite of wealthy Greeks; Sidari, which has rock formations such as the hyped Canal D'Amour (where the cliffs form a canyon in the sea that you can swim through—very romantic); and rocky Paleokastritsa, overlooked by a cliff-top monastery whose museum contains what monks claim is the skeleton of a sea monster.
The legendary home port of Homer's Odysseus, this tiny island draws few tourists apart from yachties who've stepped off their pleasure boats in the ports of Frikes or Kioni. The capital of Vathy, near the middle of the island, has cafés, quaint bars, and a few surprisingly chic shops. The only other real "attractions" are a few Odyssey-related sites, including Dexia Bay, at the southern end of the island, where Odysseus is said to have landed when he returned to Ithaca, and the nearby Cave of the Nymphs, where he ostensibly hid treasure after returning from Troy. There are no organized tours to these sites (nor are they signposted), but looking for them is a good excuse for wandering the island.
The southernmost of the Ionian Islands and the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, Kythira was once considered all but inaccessible. Though it's still remote (you can reach it by plane from Athens or ferry from the Peloponnese), it's worth the trip. The few tourists here tend to be quiet sorts who've come to enjoy the stark, ruggedly beautiful scenery. Though there are walking trails all over, your best bet is to rent a car or moped and tool around (there are lots of rental options in the island's single resort town, Kapsali, on the southern end). You can check out the gorgeous (and usually empty) beach at Agia Pelagia on the northeastern coast, or take photographs at the windswept medieval villages of Aroniadika and Pitsinades, which are rumored to be haunted. Other sights include a ruined early-16th-century Venetian castle above the lovely capital of Chora; the Cave of Agia Sophia, with its 11th-century wall paintings; and the picture-perfect main square and nearby Neraida Waterfalls at the inland village of Milopotamos.
A cove-laden coastline and balmy thermal winds make this island a mecca for wind- and kite-surfers. Windsurfers head to Vasiliki, a wide, wind-whipped bay at the island's southern end; it's one of the prime windsurfing spots in Europe (www.greeka.com/ionian/lefkada/island/lefkada-windsurfing.htm). Kite-surfers make for the northern tip of the island (near the bridge to the mainland); the most popular spot is Milos Beach (www.milosbeach.gr/en/academy/kite/index.php). For some simple beach downtime, the southernmost point of the island, Porto Katsiki, offers a dramatic spot at the base of soaring cliffs. (You'll need to walk down a staircase of 50 steps before you can stake out a spot on the sand.) Evening time, the best place for dinner and drinks is the island's capital (and point of entry by car), Lefkada Town. Its winding lanes are lined with tavernas, and the waterfront promenade is packed with street performers and artists displaying their wares.
This eight-mile-long island might just as well be called Anti-Corfu; it's as sleepy and lush as its more popular neighbor is thronged and developed. Not many tourists even come to Paxos; those who do tend to rent villas and stay for a while to enjoy the olive groves and the craggy coastline with sea caves so large they hid submarines during World War II. The unpopulated landscape cries for exploration; Ita's Cars, in the port of Gaios, rents the four-wheel-drives needed to reach many of the hilltop hamlets (Gaios; 30-697-340-1658; www.paxos-greece.com/itascarhire.htm; closed Sun). Conversely, Captain Nikos Boat Hire, in the port of Loggos, rents motorboats; after a quick boat-handling lesson, clients are set loose for the day (Loggos; 30-266-203-0059; www.paxos-greece.com/niikosboathire.htm; closed Oct–April). If you'd rather not do your own navigating, hitch a ride on one of the fishing boats that leave daily from Gaios (just ask around at the docks) to the islets of Agios Nikolaos, which has the ruins of a 1423 Venetian castle. Boats also run regularly to Antipaxos, which has a few tavernas and summer homes, two sandy beaches, vineyards, and not much else.
Two kinds of visitors are drawn here, and they're wildly different. On one end are party-hearty twentysomethings who come to lose what few inhibitions they have left in the southern resort town of Laganas. (Unfortunately, endangered loggerhead turtles use the same southerly beaches as their nesting grounds.) On the other end are the nature-loving types who head for the amazingly verdant and pristine northern coast. Two extraordinary sites are here: the Blue Caves of Cape Skinari—huge, light-filled sea caves large enough to swim in or take boats into—and Shipwreck Beach, a remote, cliff-surrounded crescent of sand where cigarette smugglers ran aground in the 1970s and left behind a boat carcass half-buried in the sand. The brothers who run the Potamitis Brothers Windmills Accommodation in the northerly town of Volimes operate tours to both.