The Ionian Islands: Where the blue really begins

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In the second instalment of our four-part series on Greek Islands, produced in association with Lonely Planet, Des Hannigan explores this cluster of western isles

Greece's Ionian Islands were where "the blue really begins" as far as writer Lawrence Durrell was concerned. Durrell had the mots justes, as always. Like legions of travellers and tourists before and after, he revelled in the intensities of light and colour that Corfu and its sister islands reflect from the mirrors of sea and sky.

The main islands of the Ionian chain, Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Ithaki (Ithaca) and Zakynthos (Zante) tumble down the west coast of mainland Greece like stepping stones to the larger Greek world. History has left the Ionian isles with a fascinating cultural legacy, the result of Corinthian, Byzantine, Venetian, French and British influences that extend from architecture to cuisine. Corfu Town – or Kerkyra, to give this handsome hub its proper Greek name – boasts the stateliest of Neoclassical buildings, legacy of the 19th-century British Protectorate of the Ionian islands.

During two short spells of Napoleonic occupation, the French left their mark, too. This influence is best seen in Kerkyra's arcaded Liston, a tribute to Paris's Rue de Rivoli and a sun-drenched venue for coffee and people-watching. It runs alongside the town's huge grassy open space, the Spianada. Before all this, the Venetians bequeathed all of the Ionian islands a distinctive landscape of Italianate buildings, silver-leafed olive trees and luscious vines.

Corfu, with its dozens of beach resorts and its lively bar and club culture, remains the major attraction for visitors. Yet, beyond the conspicuous tourism of the island's coastal strips lies a hinterland of soaring mountains and lush woodlands where a network of paths and trails will delight those seeking peace and quiet. About 20km south of Corfu is the beautiful little island of Paxi (Paxos), a relaxing day-trip break from the larger island.

A further 50km south of Paxi lies the more cohesive Ionian group of Lefkada, Ithaki, Kefalonia and Zakynthos. Lefkada's main town, Lefkas, is a cheery mix of tourism and daily Greek life while the rest of the island offers pine forests and a rocky coastline with a chain of superb beaches gracing the western coast.

South again is Kefalonia, with the smaller outlier of Ithaki hugging its north-east coastline. Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionians, an island of rugged mountains, towering coastal cliffs and golden beaches. Throw in Byzantine monasteries, subterranean lakes and fascinating wineries that produce the subtle, yet lively, Robola vintages and not even Captain Corelli's Kefalonian mandolin need distract you.

Neighbouring Ithaki, a coxcomb of rocky wooded hills, rises from a lake-like sea. Ithaki was the mythical home of Odysseus, and today it retains a reclusive charm, untouched by the sometimes frenetic beach culture of larger neighbours such as Zakynthos, the southernmost of the Ionian chain and known popularly by its Italian name, Zante. The bars, cafés and clubs of Zante's eastern and southern beach resorts are balanced by an interior of great serenity that merits the Venetians' description of it as the "Flower of the Orient".

The island of Kythira, suggested birthplace of the mythical Aphrodite, lies 12km off the southernmost peninsulas of the Peloponnese. Kythira may seem a long way from the rest of the Ionian islands but it lies within the Ionian jurisdiction and is a magical escape for those seeking a more Greek-oriented island. Many Greeks visit Kythira in high summer but in late spring and autumn it is a haven of uncrowded beaches, great walks and laid-back village life. There are daily flights with Olympic Air (00 30 801 801 0101; olympicair.com) from Athens to Kythira from April to October (not Thursdays for the rest of the year).

Such contrasts make up the enduring appeal of the Ionian islands. Above all, in the vibrant street life of island towns the spirit of an older Greece, the spirit of filoxenia, of unforced hospitality, endures.

For an active and unique way of exploring the Ionian islands, World Expeditions (020-8545 9030; worldexpeditions.co.uk) offers an eight-day "Ionian Islands Bike and Sail" programme visiting Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Ithaki and Paxi by sailing boat and bike. The price of £1,250 per person covers everything except flights, with departures on 28 September, 5 October and 12 October. Other tour operators offering hotel-or villa-and-flight packages include Ionian & Aegean Island Holidays (020-8459 0777; ionianislandholidays.com), Ionian Villas (01935 477196; ionian-villas.co.uk), Think Ionian Islands (020-7377 8518; thinkionianislands.com) and Olympic Holidays (020-8492 6868; olympicholidays.com). A long-standing Corfu-based travel provider is All Ways Travel (00 30 26610 33955; corfuallwaystravel.com), which can arrange accommodation and local tours.

Where to stay

On Corfu, the Marbella Beach Hotel (00 30 26610 711837; marbella.gr; doubles from €136, half board) has recently undergone a renovation. In Corfu Town, Bella Venezia (00 30 26610 46500; bellaveneziahotel.com) has attractive doubles from €100.

In Lefkada Town, the recently opened Boschetto Hotel (00 30 26450 24967; boschettohotel.com) has designer rooms which start at €90, including breakfast.

In Ithaki, the Hotel Perantzada (00 30 26740 33496; arthotel.gr/perantzada) has doubles from €115, B&B.

On Kefalonia, Vivian Villa in Argostoli (00 30 26710 23396; kefalonia-vivianvilla.gr) offers bright, well-kept double rooms from €60, some with kitchens, in a quiet residential street.

In Zakynthos, the Peligoni Club (020-8740 3001; peligoni.com) has charming villas and boutique rooms from £280.

Classical heart

Corfu Town's showpiece Neoclassical building, the Palace of St Michael & St George was once the residence of successive British High Commissioners (00 30 26610 30443; closed Mondays; admission €4). The building overlooks the Spianada and the palace's lavish 19th-century interior incorporates the fascinating Museum of Asian Art.

Zakynthos Town's Byzantine Museum (00 30 26950 42714; entry €3) in Plateia Solomou, offers visitors a thrilling feast of ecclesiastical art, while Kefalonia's Focas-Kosmetatos Foundation museum (00 30 26710 26595; closed Sunday; €3) in Argostoli's Valianou Street, paints a vivid picture of the island's cultural and political history.

Beach reads

The Ionian archipelago has inspired literary greats to write island-specific books, such as Lawrence Durrell's lyrical Corfu memoir Prospero's Cell. Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals describes his childhood on the island. Emma Tennant's A House in Corfu is an elegant, engaging take on expatriate life during the slower, more relaxed 1960s.

Kefalonia is, inescapably, Louis de Bernière's. But besides exploring the settings for Captain Corelli's Mandolin (above), hunt through bookshops such as Corfu Town's Plou Bookshop (00 30 26610 32200; 2 Parados/ 14 N Theotoki) for local history and wildlife books to enrich your stay.

Food of the gods

The Italian-influenced cuisine of the Ionian group has given the islands a unique genre of cooking. Corfu Town especially is noted for such fine eateries as La Cucina (00 30 26610 45029; mains from €10) and its nearby annexe, where authentic hand-rolled pasta dishes and creative mezes are complemented by dazzling wines.

Modern Greek cuisine is strongly featured in such places as Fiskardo, on Kefalonia. Celebrity chef and food writer, Tassia Dendrinou, has a restaurant here, pictured, which offers such delights as seafood pasta in a sauce with a dash of cognac (00 30 26740 41205; tassia.gr; mains from €7).

Kefalonia's main town of Argostoli has a number of excellent restaurants including Arhontiko (00 30 26710 27213; mains from €7). Here, traditional dishes are presented with modern flair and include starters of spinach soufflé and hefty mains such as Kefalonian meat pie.

Offshore action

All the islands offer superb watersports. Lefkada's Vassiliki Bay is custom-made for windsurfing and sailing. Its mountains create gentle morning breezes for beginners, but by afternoon the thermals blow down to create serious crosswinds for pros.

Club Vassiliki Windsurfing (pictured; 0844 463 0191; clubvass.com) has sessions from €25. The tour operator Wildwind (0844 499 2898; wildwind.co.uk) has all-inclusive one- and two-week action holidays that start at £645 with flights from Gatwick. Its associate outfit, Healthy Options (0844 499 2909; healthy-options.co.uk) offers yoga holidays in Vassiliki from £695, cycling tours and guided walks. The Nautilus Diving Club (00 30 69361 81775; underwater.gr) has snorkelling and diving from €45.

Off the water, keen walkers should try Ithaki's Island Walks (00 30 69449 90458; islandwalks.com) from €15, while Kefalonia Elements (00 30 69 7998 7611; www.kefalonia-elements.com) runs kayaking and 4x4 safaris from €50.

Travel Essentials

Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos are the only islands with airports. The main scheduled airlines from the UK are easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), with flights from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Bristol to Corfu and from Gatwick to Kefalonia and Zakynthos; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), serving Corfu from Manchester, Newcastle, East Midlands and Leeds/Bradford, and flying to Zakynthos from Manchester and Leeds Bradford.

Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk), Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; thomascook .com) and Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com) also serve the three island airports – and the nearest airport to Lefkada, which is Preveza (linked to the island by road).

Olympic Air (00 30 801 801 0101; olympicair.com) and Aegean Air (0871 200 0040; en.aegeanair.com) have year-round daily flights from Athens to Corfu and Zakynthos, but these tend to be much more expensive and slower.

KTEL (00 30 210 810 8221; ktel.org) long-distance buses run between Athens and Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos.

Local ferries run regular daily connections between Corfu and Paxi, and between Lefkada, Kefallonia, Ithaki and Zakynthos and mainland ports such as Patra. Times vary; it's best to check with local offices first. A useful general website for ferry information in the Ionian Islands is Greek Travel Pages (gtp.gr).

Des Hannigan is a Lonely Planet author. Lonely Planet's Greece guide is available from lonelyplanet.com, priced £16.99

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