The Ionian Islands
These islands, also known as the "Eptanisa (7 islands)," are unique to Greece in their proximity to Europe and subsequent influence on them from continental powers. Venice, Great Britain, France, Austria and Serbia have all left their mark on these remarkable islands which are some of Greece's favorite travel destinations. The Ionians are much greener than most Aegean Islands, with weather patterns bringing heavy winter rains in from across the Adriatic to the west.
Because of their location off the west coast of the mainland, there are no ferries from Athens. Some people fly directly from their country of origin, some take busses after arriving in Athens, and some others make the manageable drive from Athens to the west coast (a very pleasant trip in and of itself which includes the passage of the stunning suspension bridge over the Gulf of Corinth at Rio-Antirrio.)
To keep from repeating this in every island overview, all of the Ionian Islands offer fantastic beaches.
Corfu, or, as the Greeks call it, Kerkyra, the furthest north of the Ionians, has been heavily influenced by Venice and Great Britain. Never conquered by the Turks, Corfu’s current vibe is distinctly British, with Italian architectural themes. About 10,000 Brits - 10% of the island’s population- live on Corfu as ex-pats. While the coasts of the island are heavily developed for tourism, its inner villages are remarkably traditionally Greek.
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Paxoi and Antipaxoi, just to the south of Corfu, are smaller, less-crowded destinations discovered by visitors who wanted a quieter stay compared to Corfu. Day trips to Corfu, just 15 km north, are available.
Jump 50 km south, and you come upon a tight group of 3 islands, Lefkada, Ithaca, and Kefalonia. Lefkada is only one of two islands in Greece accessible directly by car over a bridge (the other is Evia). It only has a couple resorts, so it’s a great place to get a taste of authentic Greek Ionian Island life. It has a number of smaller islands between it and the mainland, including Skorpios, the famous home of Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Ithaca, legendary home of Ulysses, has archeological ruins pointing to the ancient king’s presence, as well as numerous beautiful hiking trails. It is a generally quiet place and great for off-season, family vacations in June or September.
Kefallonia’s tourism took off like a rocket after the 2000 release of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which attracted a number of Hollywood stars to the island for a while as well. It features interesting geology, including caves, underground lakes, and a passage under the island through which water flows from west to east, coming out on the other side.
Zakynthos, off the Peloponnese, boasts perhaps the most beautiful, most photographed beach in all of Greece, Shipwreck or Navagio Beach. Zakynthos has protected beaches where endangered sea turtles lay their eggs, and a recent history of extraordinary courage, when the local Greeks, led by the mayor of Zakynthos and the local Orthodox bishop, refused to turn over the island’s Jews to the Nazis for deportation and extermination in WWII. Not a single Greek betrayed a single Jew on the island, and it was the only place in Europe which had a 100% survival rate of Jews during the war.
Kythira, 250 km southeast of Zakinthos, is the orphan of the Ionian Islands, located halfway between the Ionians and the Cyclades off the southern tip of the Peloponnese and really, geographically, not properly belonging to any island group. During August the island is flooded with returning Australians, descendants of emigrants who left the island for a better life in the mid-20th century. Kithira is also a favorite of Athenians (and reachable from Athens by boat), always a tip-off that it is worth a visit.