Below, a slight moving tide deposited perfectly sculpted ripples in the sand. They danced and glistened as sunlight refracted. The turquoise bay was so clear that boats appeared to be suspended in air.
In that moment, floating off Voutoumi Bay on Anti-Paxos, the smallest isle in Greece’s Ionian group, I’d found my idea of paradise.
Two weeks into our sailing trip through the Ionian archipelago, I was perplexed when my mother innocently asked: “When will we get to the real Greek islands?”
In her defence, photogenic Cycladic isles such as Santorini and Mykonos, the tourism poster-children for all of Greece, had long stolen the limelight. Packaged and marketed heavily to Australians, their iconic scenes of rocky moon-like landscapes, windmills, circa BC ruins and whitewash sugar cube homes characterised the essence of a Greek holiday.
In contrast to the barrenness of the Cyclades, the Ionians comprised lushly wooded landscapes and fertile valleys. Scattered west of the mainland, the wind was less harsh than the irritating seasonal meltemi (prevailing northerly) that hammered the Aegean.
Often overlooked, the captivating Ionians are deserving of a place on any Greek island-hopping itinerary.
CORFU, PAXOS AND ANTI-PAXOS
To the north, Corfu received the highest rainfall in all of Greece. Verdant hillsides were blanketed with cypress, olive groves and orchards. Corfu Town, the commercial hub, bustled with a hefty cruise ship market and exhibited legacies of French, British and Venetian occupation in leafy town squares and boulevards.
A smattering of pretty ports lay along neighbouring Paxos Island’s perimeter. Lovely Lakka Bay offered shelter for yachts, while Gaios’ harbourside village was a twist of colourful backstreets. We lingered late to mingle with the night-owl locals socialising on the waterfront.
A short hop from Gaios, the sublime waters of Voutoumi, otherwise known as Emerald Bay, was the prize drawcard on tiny Anti-Paxos Island.
Connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, Lefkada’s lively main town was a haphazard collection of wood and corrugated iron-roofed buildings, built in haste following two devastating earthquakes. Nearby, a string of superb beaches such as Egremni dazzled under fortress-like cliffs on the weather-beaten west coast.
In the south, Vassiliki Beach was famed as one of world’s top 10 places to windsurf. Amid gentle morning breezes, sails from beginner lessons resembled colourful insect wings dancing on the horizon. As the afternoon prevailing wind kicked in, adventurous experts created a spectacle as they zipped across the bay.
Fashionable yachtie port Fiscardo was one of few settlements to miraculously survive the 1953 earthquake that levelled much of the Ionians’ original architecture. Awash with fuchsia pink bougainvillea, its elegant Venetian style was lovingly preserved in the facades, lacework and shutters.
Circumnavigating Kefalonia, a precarious coastal drive brought us to Assos Peninsula. Pausing to savour a frappe-coffee, the romantic cove was encircled with sprawling pastel-hued villas and overlooked by ruins of a 16th-century Venetian fortress.
Further south, a busy roadside refreshment cart indicated where to catch our first glimpse of Myrtos Beach. Far below, towering limestone flanks and a turquoise sea created a dramatic scene to impress even a spoiled Aussie beach bum.
With relentless waves beating the exposed shore and eroded limestone shingles, the resulting milky aqua-blue run-off was somewhat surreal.
The agricultural heart of this tourism-driven region was located in a fertile valley to the island’s interior. Unique to Kefalonia, we tasted wine from the rare Robola grape – the primary produce from the intriguing winery co-operative of 300 local farmers.
Otherwise known by its Italian name Zante, the island garnered fame for Navagio, an idyllic beach setting often featured in worldwide top 10s.
Aptly dubbed Shipwreck Beach, sheer coastal cliffs encircled the haunting skeletal remains of an ill-fated cargo ship. Alleged to be smuggling contraband cigarettes, the vessel ran aground during a wild storm in 1981.
Thirty years on, day-tripper boats disgorge tourists daily to this remote cove – where eroding limestone bluffs had extended the beach and further isolated the wreck. And as our guide cheerfully declared, the smugglers’ misfortune was “the best thing to ever happen for tourism on the island”.
In the northern port of St Nicholas, with a loyal following of local diners, the weekly Greek dancing night was a rare find. Under moody lighting and a near-full moon, a dozen long tables spilt across the sand. Fuelled by a lively bouzouki band, we were still dancing several hours and three exuberant rounds of Zorba the Greek later. The restaurateur’s wait staff and extended family added to the festivities and we gushed over the adorable grandkids, who knew every step to every song.
St Nicholas was also the stepping off point for Zakynthos’ own Blue Caves. Among exquisite scenery, tiny boats manoeuvred through natural arches, smooth caves and along a pockmarked coast.