Ionian Islands: Greece A La Carte - My Family Travels

Follow a British family of explorers as they roam the Ionian Sea of Greece in the tailwinds of Odysseus, and finally settle on Kephalonia for their beach vacation.

From London, we landed on Kefalonia in the Ionian Sea, the only Greece-bound travelers who didn’t have a holiday destination. For this outrageous stance, we became famous (or perhaps infamous – we will never know) on a plane full of package tourists heading for the major island resorts, villa vouchers in hand.

We weren’t worried about finding a place to stay. The offering of budget holiday “villas” can be viewed or booked through any travel agent in the islands; in our experience, Simply Travel offered a good selection that we could peruse upon landing as easily as we could have before departure.

Settling Into Fiscardo, Kefalonia

We headed for Fiscardo (named for Robert Guiscard who died there in 1085), a pretty, traditional fishing village that escaped the devastating earthquake of 1953. Most of the island had to be rebuilt after it, but you can visit the Corgialenios Historical Museum (+30 26710 28835) in the capital of Argostoli to see reconstructions of houses, costumes, and photos capturing Kephalonia’s proud old spirit.

On the plane we had assumed a “Rooms to Let” option might be a possibility. We were counting on Greek hospitality and community (that spirit of xenia) to ensure we didn’t go homeless. On the way to the north coast port of Fiscardo in May, the spring flowers lined the road as though for a festival.

From Argostoli, we crossed a single-lane British-built bridge (ca.1814) which hadn’t yet been repaired after the winters’ storms. As the road wound along the sides of the arid western mountains, the flowers disappeared. In their place were goats with their neck bells clanging, terraced bee hives, and stands of cypressa conifers (peculiar to the island).

The coast is steep, and below we see the long sandy beaches of Greek postcards and the deep blue Ionian Sea. In Fiscardo, we went straight to the Captain’s Cabin (+30 26740 41007), owned and run by Tassos and Rowena Matsukis and home for many years for visiting yacht crews. The Captain’s Cabin was full (of course) but Tassos’ partner Demitri (who helped us in all sorts of ways, including currency transactions) arranged for us to stay in an apartment overlooking the harbor entrance.

Cool and white inside and out, it had two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and best of all, a balcony facing east with a fine view of Ithaca. Here we ate Total Yoghurt with local honey in the morning sun, and ouzo and olives before going out in the evening. The Captain’s Cabin is typical in a town that has taken itself up-market in the nicest possible ways. (While we were there, the old cobblestones were replaced with better cobbles.) It still serves local wine and moussaka, rabbit pie, tiropida (cheese pies), and tsatsiki (garlic and yogurt dip) with a real bite to diners, though now with comfortable chairs under a new blue awning.

In the Wake of Odysseus

We expected to travel around more: to Assos, with its Venetian fortress and tiny, exposed harbor, to the caves at Melisanni, to the connected underground lakes, and to the cave at Droarati.

Instead, with the boys we walked to Fiscardo’s lighthouse at the entrance to the bay and swam from little stony beaches — always avoiding the spiny sea urchins in the crevices — do take or buy plastic beach sandals or “jellies.” We spotted lizards, cicada, octopus, and butterflies. In the evening we ate on the harbor wall at Tasos and listened to Greek dance music drifting across the bay from Nicolas Taverna.

Eventually, we island-hopped, too. The old Greek-tourist way is still very much a possibility. We packed up our boys and took the ferry to Levkas, made our way to Sivota, and descended on the Taverna Delfinia, an original feature of the bay.

Sivota is where Odysseus came ashore after his 15 years at sea, and having anxiously looked ourselves for the narrow entrance to the bay, he gets points for navigation. Yanni, Spiro, Moma and Maria supply, cook and serve all the food for the restaurant as they have for years.

We traveled on to Vassiliki, home of many windsurfing schools spread out along the bay. At the Surf Hotel (+30 26450 31572; Ponti Vassiliki, 310 82 Lefkada), our host Margelis Fotis, took us up to the balcony of his flat to meet his wife Katerina, and two beautiful boys Makis and Spiro.

At once, our four children, with no working knowledge of either native tongue, were playing and sharing crisps. We drank strong coffee, and looked over the roofs of tourist apartment blocks at windsurfers of every color, sprawled on the shingle beach waiting for the afternoon breeze to kick in.

Meli Traditional House, about 6 kms from the town of Egremni, has come recommended to us as well. It’s a small, old stone villa¬†on a hillside overlooking the sea but the boys love being near to the water.

Sailing Home

Waiting in the heat for our ferry, we washed our faces in the crystal spring water of Vassiliki’s stone washing place, rarely used in the last few years as electricity and machines take over.

From this small port one can take a boat to Lefkada, where Sappho committed suicide for love, and where Apollo of Lefkada was worshipped. Instead, we went back to Fiscardo on the open top deck of the ferry, surrounded by sea and islands, life as it should be.

Details, Details

* The Greek islands welcome visitors between April and November, with July and August having the best weather. Although the greatest number of accommodations are open in the high season, it can be very difficult to find a room at the last minute.

* Watch out for the sun. Even in mid-May, the sun was very hot in the middle of the day, though it was good to have a pullover for the evening.

* Rest in the shade. We usually tried to be eating between noon and 2pm (this is not hard to achieve with the Greek laid-back approach to service), because tavernas provide big umbrellas to drink big beers under.

* Use sun protection. The heat did not slow the boys down at all, so big hats, plenty of drinks, and high SPF factor sunscreens were the order of the day.

* Kids are welcome everywhere. The Greeks will look out for (and spoil) your children.

* Relax and allow children some freedom. The only real health risks are falling into the harbor when watching fish swim under the boats, or filling up on bread, yoghurt and Fanta before the food arrives. Neither had dire consequences.

* Getting there is easy and inexpensive. Many European airlines connect directly to Argostoli. Call Olympic Airlines ( +30 21096 66666 in Athens) about domestic flights. Argostoli and the port of Sami are served by regular Greek ferries from Patras, Piraeus or Kyllini, and by indirect service from Brindisi, Italy.

* Call the nearest Greek National Tourist Organization office for more information at (+30 21087 07000)

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