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Insider’s Guide to Greece’s Ionian Islands: Historic, Authentic, and So Close to Italy

by WendyPerrin.com | April 20, 2021

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Greece: Mina Agnos and Faye Mantzari of Travelive.

Trusted Travel Expert
Mina Agnos and Faye Mantzari

Childhood trips back to the homeland with her Greek-American family gave Mina a passion for Greece; now based in Athens, she regularly road-tests a dizzying array of islands, experiences, and places to stay. Her deputy Faye—who was born in Canada but has lived in Greece since childhood and worked for a decade on Santorini as a hotel manager—keeps things running in the office. They are great for first-timers to Greece who want to navigate the country’s tricky logistics as easily as possible, avoid the pitfalls of peak season on Santorini and Mykonos, and ensure they take in many of the country’s highlights as well as less-touristed delights. Their knowledge of reliably good places to stay extends to rental villas, yacht charters, and an organic agritourism farm in the Peloponnese where you can pick olives, stomp grapes, and make pastries with the village ladies. Mina and Faye each have two kids (from teens to toddlers), so they are especially helpful to families and even create scavenger hunts. For grownups they offer unusual experiences too, from working on real archaeological digs to training alongside runners who competed for the home team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. If you insist on combining Greece and Italy in the same trip (which is not recommended unless you have at least two weeks), Faye can help a lot with logistics.

Trips start at $600 per day for two travelers from October through mid-June, or $800 from mid-June through September.

Island Intel

Porto Katsiki beach on Lefkada Ionian Islands Greece

Greece’s Ionian Islands are known for their beautiful tucked-away beaches and bright blue waters, like Porto Katsiki beach on Lefkada. Photo: Shutterstock

While much of Greece is very dry, the Ionian Islands see quite a bit of rainfall (mostly outside the summer months), which gives these islands a greener, more lush appearance that stands in stunning contrast to the clear blue sea. The Ionians also have more of a Venetian influence—versus the Ottoman influence of islands to the east—and are known for their artistic and cultural scenes. Corfu’s Old Town, for instance, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the islands are lauded for their long history of folk music.

Things to Do

Hidden Gems

The shores of Ithaka Island are dotted with secret coves and beaches ideal for swimming and snorkeling, and some of the best are only accessible from the water. For that reason, it’s a great place to hire a private boat for the day and let the captain steer you to his favorite spots.

Don’t Miss

For the best views on Corfu, drive to the top of Mount Pantokrator. On a clear day, you can see not only the rest of the Ionian islands and the Greek mainland, but also Albania, and even as far away as Puglia in Italy (80 miles distant).

view of ocean from peak of Mount Pantokrator Corfu Greece Ionian Islands

Don’t miss the view from Mount Pantokrator on Corfu. Photo: Pixabay

Don’t Bother

Spending precious time on a glass-bottom boat ride. You’ll get a very generic tour and won’t actually see much of the underwater world.

Most Underrated Experience

Zakynthos may be perceived as a mass-tourism magnet, but most of the island is still very much untouched and can deliver a taste of the Mediterranean as it once was. Porto Zante Villas & Spa, for instance, can deliver an extraordinary Greek island getaway with all the bells and whistles, plus a private beach away from the crowds.

Bragging rights

Visit the mythical home of wandering Odysseus: Ithaka is a hilly island off the coast of Kefalonia and the most rustic one in the archipelago. Mina and Faye can arrange for an archaeologist to accompany you to a few of the island’s dozens of excavation sites, which go as far back as Neolithic times. Don’t miss the ancient Acropolis or the Cave of the Nymphs, where Odysseus supposedly hid the gifts the Phaeacians gave him.

Cheap Thrills

Ionian beaches are famous for their deep blue and turquoise waters, their dramatic rock formations, and the verdant greenery that surrounds them. Some of Mina and Faye’s favorites are Issos and Kanoni Kassiopi on Corfu, Porto Vromi on Zakynthos, Porto Katsiki on Lefkada, and c. Animal lovers should check out the Zakynthos Marine Park, which was established to protect several local species, including loggerhead sea turtles and monk seals.

Pick one of the many hiking trails that have crisscrossed the islands since ancient times, such as the Battery trail in Kefalonia. Or take a walk around Korission Lagoon on Corfu, where you might even spot flamingos.

Best spot to see and be seen

On Kefalonia there’s a fabulous beach club on Makri Gialos Beach, frequented by visitors and locals alike, called Costa Costa. Servers bring snacks and cold drinks to the sun beds and cabanas set up on the sandy beach; the club plays chill beats and stays open until sunset.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Springing for an all-inclusive resort package. If you’ve prepaid for everything at the resort, you might be tempted never to leave it. But you will gain a much better understanding of the authentic island lifestyle if you leave your hotel to wander the cobbled, vibrant streets of Corfu or Kefalonia, stroll through the laiki (farmers’ market), or just while away the hours in an old-fashioned kafenio (café).

Where to Stay and What to Eat

private pool villa at Rodostamos Hotel Corfu Ionian Islands Greece

The Rodostamos Hotel & Spa in Corfu offers private villas with pools. Photo: Rodostamos

Best-Value Splurge Hotels

Corfu makes for an ideal home base, thanks to its easy connections to the mainland and other islands, its rich history and cultural heritage, its storybook mountain villages and hiking trails, and its unique blend of Greek and Venetian flavors.

The Grecotel Corfu Imperial sits on a peninsula with three sandy beaches and offers a wide array of accommodations to suit everyone from honeymooners to families, at a variety of price points. The hotel also runs a boat from its pier to Corfu Town. Mina and Faye can sometimes nab room upgrades for their travelers when space is available.

Elsewhere on Corfu, Mina and Faye favor the Ikos Dassia, the Rodostamos Hotel & Spa, and the adults-only Domes Miramare, but they’re watching carefully as several new luxury hotels are due to open on the island in 2021.

Ikos Dassia hotel villa with pool Ionian Islands Greece CR Ikos Resorts

The Ikos Dassia is one of several luxury hotels on Corfu. Photo: Ikos Resorts

Restaurants the Locals Love

On Zakynthos, Ampelostrates Stables and Restaurant is an agritourism project in a mountainous spot surrounded by vineyards. Come for a farm-to-table experience with a warm atmosphere, long-forgotten local recipes, and a friendly welcome from the owners, Andonis and Mika.

On Kefalonia, Kamaroules Stamatelatos has an idyllic location with tables set right along the water, shaded by leafy trees. The local fish here is excellent, but they also have a great selection of vegan options among the Mediterranean-themed dishes.

On Lefkada, ERGON Lefkada is an outpost of a company that sells artisanally produced goods from all over Greece: everything from olive oil and wine to marmalade and honey. The restaurant’s menu changes daily, and you can choose your own steak or fish from what’s on offer. It’s also a sort of artisan supermarket, where you can purchase goods or have them shipped home for you.

Dishes to Try

Pastitsada. This braised beef, pork, or rooster dish cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and served with rigatoni pasta has a very distinct flavor in Corfu, thanks to the addition of cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaf—and in some villages even cumin and nutmeg. Porta Remounda in Corfu Town serves Mina and Faye’s favorite version.

For a meatless option, order aubergines skordostoubi. The eggplant is slowly pan-cooked in a rich tomato sauce with potatoes and carrots, and generously seasoned with paprika, vinegar, and loads of garlic cloves and local extra virgin olive oil. Order it at Agnadi in Zakynthos. Kali orexi!

 

Best Times to Go

May, June, September, and October see lovely weather but without the peak summer throngs.

Worst Times to Go

July 15 to August 30, when it can be crowded, and wintertime, when most of the islands shut down, with the exception of Corfu.

The Souvenir

The kumquat liqueur that is produced only in Corfu. The darker variety is made from the rind and is stronger and sweeter; the yellow-tinted digestif is made from the juice of the fruit. You’ll also find a number of other kumquat-based treats on Corfu: sweet kumquats drenched in syrup, kumquat marmalade, fruity kumquat cookies, and even a kumquat perfume!

Can’t-Miss Photo Op

The entire west coast of Zakynthos is jaw-dropping, but the best Instagram shots come from Navagio Beach (a.k.a. Shipwreck Beach). Shoot your photo and then leave the crowds behind by heading to the Blue Caves (you’ll need a boat to get there, but the colors inside the cave are worth it) and Cameo Island or Agios Sostis, where in-the-know locals head for their beach time.

Airport Intel

When a flight or ferry arrives in the Ionians, taxis are in high demand. Reserve one in advance for the ride to your hotel, so you’re not stuck at the curb waiting for hours.

Tipping Tip

Locals typically round up a bill or leave 5% at a café and restaurant, though travelers often leave 10% or 15%. Always tip in cash to ensure that your goodwill goes directly to your server.

Don’t Forget to Pack

A light jacket or cardigan for the windy nights, and comfortable shoes—thin heels don’t mix well with the cobblestone streets.

Scam to Avoid

Use only official taxis, which you can identify by the markings on the vehicles; otherwise, you could end up paying quite a bit extra for an unwanted tour of the island on the way to your destination.

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