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The Ionian Islands

The Ionian Islands

by Michelle Wood

The Ionian Islands are among the most beautiful places in Greece. Otherwise called the Eptanese islands (Greek for seven islands), Corfu, Kefalonia, Lefkada, Paxi, Zakynthos, Ithaka and Kithira are all blessed by nature with lush greenery and some of the most amazing beaches in the Mediterranean region. All the islands are popular with the yachting community, who often travel from one island to another; therefore it's not unusual, especially during the summer season, to see each and every harbour full of yachts and sailing boats. However it is still quite easy to visit all of them, even for those who are not lucky enough to own their own boat!

As many will agree, it is really difficult to determine which island is the most beautiful, despite the similarities they may have. However, each has something unique to offer.

The largest of the Ionian Islands is Kefalonia, the island of contrasts, which is well-known and appreciated for its tranquillity and unspoilt beauties such as its magnificent caves, its endless mountainous areas and breathtaking beaches which differ from north to south of the island, thus the reason for it being described as the 'island of contrasts'.

Second largest of the Ionian Islands is Corfu, very popular for its preserved Venetian-style buildings which have been restored after the earthquake of 1953. One can enjoy an evening walk through the town's centre, the Palia Poli (old town), with its narrow streets called Kadounia and their numerous little shops. Corfu is the liveliest of the Ionian Islands due to the variety of nightlife it has to offer. Kavos, which is a holiday resort, is very popular for its 'wild' nightlife! Many tourists, between the ages of 18-30 mainly, choose Kavos as their holiday destination in order to enjoy the wide variety of nightclubs!

Corfu remains quite lively during the winter as well. There is also a university, the Ionio Panepistimio, which contributes to raising the island's population during the winter. It is also a favoured destination for school trips. In Greece, all students who are finishing their last year in school are entitled to a 5-7 day school trip, where they are escorted by teachers and stay in hotels which they have booked, all according to their class budget; money which they have been saving, as a class, during their last three years of school.

The most common school trip destinations are Rhodos, Crete, Thessaloniki and, last but not least, Corfu. The reason is that the class must choose an area which offers some sights of educational value such as monuments, ancient ruins and museums. And, of course, there must be a fair share of nightclubs for the students to visit. It was around April of 1997 that an estimated 500 schools were on the island at one time. One can imagine how lively it must be when all streets in the centre of Corfu are occupied by 17-year-old students. Due to its location, Corfu is a favourite destination for schools of the other Ionian Islands, west Greece and Athens. It is reached by the port of Igoumenitsa where the boat trip is about one hour and 10 minutes. Igoumenitsa is about 450 kilometres away from Athens and almost the same distance from Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki.

To the south of Corfu, we find the small but equally beautiful island of Paxi and the tiny island of Antipaxi. It is quite exclusive still, with its small fishing villages, a few hotels and lovely villas for rent during the summer, offering a variety of quiet little beaches and peaceful tavernas where one can enjoy local specialities. It is ideal for those who would love to enjoy a summer holiday far away from everyone and everything, and for that very reason it isn't known for its lively winters. However it is a matter of personal preference.

Continuing south, we will find the wonderful island of Lefkada which is well known for its lush greenery and its wonderful beaches. From the small resort of Nidri, one can take a small cruise to visit the outskirts of Onassis's island, Skorpios, which is still privately owned by the family. Entrance to the island is forbidden and it has always been and continues to remain guarded. In the capital of Lefkada there is a bridge connecting the island to the mainland, providing easy access to and from the mainland, which is a very important feature. For that reason, many Greek tourists, especially those who live in the nearest mainland cities, visit the island regularly, even for a daily escape to Lefkada's wonderful beaches. Other than that, there are frequent boat trips, especially during the summer season, which connect the island to Kefalonia and Ithaka.
Lefkada is also a favourable destination for those who appreciate a quiet and beautiful environment.

To the south of Lefkada is Kefalonia, which was mentioned above, and to the north-east of Kefalonia is the island of Ithaka. There are frequent boat trips from Patra, Astakos (mainland), Lefkada and Kefalonia to Ithaka. This small island with its olive groves and beautiful little beaches offers a great deal of privacy as well as a sense of relaxation to its visitors. The capital of the island, Vathi, is also the main port which is filled with little fishing boats, yachts and sailing boats during the summer. There, one can enjoy a peaceful evening walk and fresh fish at the local tavernas. Fishing is the primary income source for most of the few permanent inhabitants.

Passing Kefalonia and continuing south, we find the island of Zakynthos, which, despite its size, is quite well developed. It is a very popular destination for many nationalities of tourist, due to its variety of resorts, offering many types of accommodation and activities. Zakynthos is well known among the Greek population for its traditional Easter celebrations - after midnight everyone gathers at the capital's centre and participates in activities, such as moving people's cars around and throwing certain ceramic vases from balconies, which many find most amusing. This event carries on until the early hours! Zakynthos is also well known for its traditional songs, Kantades, which one can enjoy in the traditional restaurants on the Bohali hill, along with the panoramic view of Zakynthos town and nearby resorts. Kantades are the characteristic songs of the Ionian island region, which have been influenced by Italian music and are sung by men with deep voices using Greek lyrics. The songs usually speak of the islands, comparing one to another in a most comical way, and have been passed on from generation to generation ever since Venetian rule. Each of the Ionian Islands has maintained its own Kantades up to a certain degree and they cherish them in their own way. However Kefalonia and Zakynthos seem to have kept them alive and to continue their tradition in a slightly more passionate manner.

After Corfu, Zakynthos is the second most popular of the Ionian Islands, as far as tourism goes. Much has been done for the tourist industry and it is a favourite destination for younger age groups due to the large variety of nightclubs it offers, compared with the size of the island. In fact, one might say that enough has been made in terms of tourism and from now on most people are focusing on building private homes and establishing other types of business not related to tourism. During the winter season, there is still some activity and in recent years both Kefalonia and Zakynthos have opened new university branches which have brought many students to the islands. In spite of the island's development, there are still many areas which remain absolutely unspoilt, especially to the north of Zakynthos. In the north western part of the island, after passing the small picturesque villages on the mountainside we reach a most breathtaking cliff, at the bottom of which lies one of the most beautiful beaches of the Ionian region, Navagio, otherwise known as 'Shipwreck'.

Continuing south, right below Peloponnesus, is the island of Kithira.
This island seems to be the most isolated and forgotten island in the Ionian Sea, mainly due to its position, which is almost equally close to Peloponnesus, Crete and Piraeus. For this reason, Kithira is the only Ionian island which has been as much influenced by the Venetian era as by Turkish rule which mainly spread through the Aegean Islands. This influence is obvious throughout the island's architecture, where one may see a combination of the Ionian characteristics, which involve a great variety of colours, and the Aegean characteristics, which consist of pure whites and blues.
One can get to Kithira by boat from Neapoli and Gythio (Peloponnesus) and from Piraeus. There are also flights from Athens.
Kithira, however beautiful, is the most underdeveloped Ionian island and for this reason there isn't a great deal of tourism. There is a lot of natural beauty which is the main attraction to the island. There are only a few places to stay, restaurants and cafes which are open mainly during the summer period. The island's permanent residents number around 3000, consisting mainly of elderly people. Much needs to be done to improve living standards and the island's quality of life in general, such as reconstruction of the electricity and telephone networks, among other things.
Nevertheless, Kithira, along with the rest of the Ionian Islands, still contributes to the unique beauty of Greece.

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