Where to go island-hopping around the Ionian Islands

With light winds, reliable sunshine and a plethora of idyllic beaches, the Ionian islands of Corfu, Paxi, Kefalonia and Ithaca off the west coast of mainland Greece make for the perfect island-hopping getaway.

The largest of the Ionian islands, Kefalonia is home to the beautiful Myrtos beach.

Photograph by GNTO
Published 16 Aug 2021, 11:26 BST

Imagine sailing across a shimmering emerald sea, bottlenose dolphins cresting the waves alongside your boat. Ahead lies a mountainous island thick with oak, hornbeam, cypress pine and olive groves. Closer in, a pastel-shaded fishing village tumbles down the hillside, its harbour quay lined with traditional tavernas. A nearby sheltered cove, fringed with a pale gold beach, offers safe anchorage and a refreshing dip in limpid lapis lazuli waters. It’s just another idyllic day cruising around the Ionian islands.

Located off the west coast of mainland Greece, the Ionian islands are one of Europe’s top leisure sailing and yachting destinations. Navigation is easy — the region’s 100 or so islands and islets are mostly within sight of each other, the winds are light and the sunshine’s practically eternal. The main islands of Corfu, Paxi, Kefalonia and Ithaca have strong historic and cultural links with the Venetian empire, which ruled the region for 400 years, but more recent French and British occupiers have also left a lasting imprint. Here’s what not to miss when visiting each one.

Kefalonia

The largest of the Ionian islands, Kefalonia is home to beautiful Myrtos and Petani Beaches. Guiding crews across azure seas towards the island is 5,341ft Mount Ainos, the Ionian Peninsula’s tallest peak — protected within a national park studded with rare black pines. The Port of Sami became globally famous when it appeared in the 2001 film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but it can’t compete with the Venetian architecture and cosmopolitan vibe of Fiskardo, the pick of harbours on the island’s east coast.

On Kefalonia’s western side, pray that the prevailing winds grant you access to the crescent-shaped cove that shelters the village of Assos, arguably the island’s most photogenic location. Also on this side of the island is the lively capital, Argostoli — some of its historic buildings were destroyed by an earthquake in 1953, but the town has been sensitively rebuilt and its quayside restaurants will draw you in for delicious seafood. Don’t leave the island without trying its Robola wines and fruity olive oils.
Don’t miss: Platia Ammos, near clifftop Kipouria Monastery, is a beautiful beach accessible only from the sea.

Cape Drastis, Corfu’s most northerly point, is home to sheer white cliffs and other dramatic rock formations.

Photograph by Getty Images

Corfu

The artist Edward Lear described Corfu’s seas as ‘peacock-wing-hued ... tipped with lines of silver snow’. Discover the second-largest island in the Ionian Sea by sailing through its waters in search of Venetian fortresses, royal palaces and stunning beaches. Corfu is mountainous in the north, low-lying in the south, and its main yachting harbour is Gouvia Marina, on the east coast, four miles from the international airport. Sail south to the Old Town of Corfu, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and drop anchor at Mandraki Harbour beside the stone walls of the 15th-century Old Fortress, the manicured lawns of Spianáda square and the French-built Liston promenade. Then, hike up to the New Fort, where tunnels and passages lead up to ramparts with views across the city. Protected from northwesterly winds, horseshoe-shaped Kalámi Bay on Corfu’s northeast coast is a lovely spot for waterfront dining.
Top tip: Cape Drastis, Corfu’s most northerly point, is home to sheer white cliffs and other dramatic rock formations. Achilleion palace (built in 1890 for Empress Elizabeth of Austria) is also a must-see, in Gastouri village.

The seaward approach to Paxi’s picturesque capital, Gaïos — through a fjord-like channel — is spectacular.

Photograph by GNTO

Paxi

According to Greek myth, Paxi was created when Poseidon slammed down his trident on Corfu, chipping off this eight-mile-long chunk of chalky, olive-grove-covered rock. Although it flies under the radar of many visitors to the Ionians, on a sailing itinerary it’s the obvious next stop on a route south from Corfu. The seaward approach to Paxi’s picturesque capital, Gaïos — through a fjord-like channel — is spectacular. On one side is the wooded islet Agios Nikolaos, crowned with a 14th-century Venetian fortress; on the other, colourful neoclassical villas.

If you’re looking for even quieter spots, then the smaller resorts of Loggos and Lakka at the island’s northern end are worth checking out. The scenery is most wild on the west coast, where limestone cliffs descend into aquamarine waters. Here, near Erimitis Beach, you’ll find the ‘blue caves’, so called because of the vivid colours reflecting on the rock walls.
Don’t miss: Anchor off the tiny island of Antipaxi, and you’ll have gorgeous Vrika and Voutoumi Beaches to yourself long after the day-trippers have departed.

Ithaca is essentially two islands linked by the Isthmus of Aetos, and is home to verdant mountain roads and turquoise seas. 

Photograph by sailingholidays.com

Ithaca

Ithaca is essentially two islands linked by the Isthmus of Aetos. It’s easy to believe this unspoiled island, with its verdant mountain roads and turquoise seas, was the home of the mythical warrior king Odysseus from Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The approach to the capital, Vathy, on the island’s east coast, is likely to be one of your most treasured memories of sailing around the Ionians. Tumbling down green hillsides at the end of a cerulean bay, this town is guarded by the wooded islet of Lazaretto. Cream- and mustard-painted houses are reflected in clear waters at the village of Kioni, an alternative anchorage in northeast Ithaca.

Step ashore to hike up to Anogi, the highest village on Ithaca, at 1,804ft, before continuing on to historic Kathara Monastery. On the island’s west coast, stunning Polis Bay provides access to the colourful village of Stavros. Nearby is an archaeological site that might just be the remains of Odysseus’s palace.
Top tip: Take a boat to Gidaki Beach for a day of sunbathing on smooth white pebbles and cooling off in turquoise waters.

For more information, head to visitgreece.gr

Find National Geographic Traveller (UK) on social media

Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Read More

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us

Subscribe

  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2016 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved