For most sun-seeking travellers, exploring the Greek islands by cruise is the ultimate dream holiday. After all, who doesn’t love the idea of hopping between powder-white beaches, fascinating ancient sites and picturesque sugar-cube villages?
Scattered across the emerald and indigo waters of the Aegean and Ionian seas, it’s no wonder these islands are so popular. But a little further afield from the well-trodden destinations of Santorini and Mykonos lies one of the most beautiful island groups in the world – the Ionians.
Basking in endless sunshine, these islands offer everything from rugged mountains and lush vegetation to colourful, cobbled old towns and sprawling sandy beaches – not to mention fresh seafood and mouth-watering Greek cuisine.
At the centre of the region is Corfu, one of the most famous Greek islands of all, with its historic UNESCO-listed Old Town. And from here you’re just a ferry ride from surrounding outcrops such as Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos – with some the most stunning landscapes you’ll ever see. So why not make the dream a reality and plan yourself a Greek islands cruise?
Sitting on the aquamarine Ionian coast, Corfu is served by its modern and bustling cruise port of Kerkyra. Unlike the rest of Greece, the island never fell under Ottoman rule and was governed instead by the Venetians, French and British, who left it with a rich heritage of Renaissance, classical and baroque architecture – as beautiful today as it has ever been.
Visitors can also admire the Spianada – the celebrated town square adorned with 19th-century French architecture – as well as the incongruous Regency-style palace of Saint Michael and George.
Packed with more sights than most other islands combined, Corfu is home to cultural hotspots including the Museum of Asian Art and the Archaeological Museum, housing finds from the Temple of Artemis. And when you’ve had your fill of history, you can wander the island’s hidden sandy coves, seek shade under orange trees and indulge in local treats such as mantolato honey-and-almond nougat and tsitsibira ginger beer.
The Ionian gateway
For all its beauty and bustle, Corfu is only the beginning of your Ionian adventure. Heading south, the beaches get even whiter and the coastlines more mountainous.
With myriad bays and inlets, Lefkada is connected to the mainland by a tiny bridge, with a quaint port that’s open to the occasional small cruise ship. Lefkada Town is the island’s capital, a maze of taverna-lined alleys, vibrant squares and traditional houses, surrounded by a canal and an indigo lagoon.
While strolling its cobbled streets, travellers should stop for soumada – a drink made with fragrant almonds – and sample the famous local salami and home-made Greek pies, stuffed with aromatic fillings.
Those visiting this picturesque island in August will experience its International Folklore Festival, a memorable meeting of folk bands and artists from all round the world, dancing, playing and celebrating the world’s musical heritage together.
Beaches and forests
Further south still is the largest island in the Ionian Sea. An oil painting of aquamarine ocean, green forests and pale-yellow sands, Kefalonia is nothing short of spectacular. Pine, cypress and olive trees cover rolling hills, vineyards cluster round the craggy coastline, and the main town, Argostoli, is rich in cosmopolitan charm.
Many cruisers visit Kefalonia simply for world-class beaches such as Myrtos – awarded the title of ‘best beach in the Mediterranean’ – pebbled Petani, framed by lush vegetation, and Antisamos, so beautiful that it featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
But tear yourself away from the warm Ionian waters to travel inland and you’ll find that Kefalonia is littered with unique towns and villages – from cliffside Assos in the north to Argostoli in the south, with its boutiques, beach cafes, bars, and the old town of Krani where you can see the Cyclopean Walls – towering fortifications dating back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.
Just a 90-minute ferry trip from Kefalonia brings travellers to the white-fringed coastline of Zakynthos, a leafy island that’s home to more than 7,000 flower species. Here, the soft sands are lined with dark caves, transparent waters and secluded coves – including beautiful Navagio Beach with its iconic shipwreck.
Those drawn to this paradise island by the wildlife can watch endangered caretta sea turtles hatching on its shores. And no trip is complete without a visit to Askos Stone Park and Helmi’s Natural History Museum – stopping to sample fruits from the famous dopia olive trees.
With their crystal-clear bays, fragrant forests, enchanting towns and harbourside tavernas, the Ionian islands must surely be the most cruise-perfect destination in the Mediterranean – if not the entire world.
For more about Greece, see visitgreece.gr.