Still based off mainland Greece’s west coast, the two southern most Ionian Islands on our itinerary have easily been our favourites. With sheer towering limestone cliffs on their weather beaten west coasts, one each of Greece’s two most impressive beaches, the bluest of blue oceans and charismatic seaside villages and ports – there was plenty to love about the islands of Kefalonia and Zakinthos.
Before I elaborate on our admiration of these islands, here are a few photographs from our last stop on Lefkas Island: Vassiliki was regarded as one of the world’s Top 10 windsurfing locations. We anchored for the morning, when breezes were perfect for beginner lessons. The professionals came out to play by mid-afternoon when the prevailing northwesterly kicked in. Those were the same winds we departed in for a brilliant afternoon sail south to our next destination of Ithaca – yes, as in Odysseus’ mythical Ithaca!
Our first taste of diverse Kefalonia was one night that turned into three at the popular yachtie port of Fiscardo. They couldn’t possibly cram any more yachts into the small cove, nor more outdoor café bars, restaurants or boutiques to line the quayside. The chic village was one of very few towns in this region to miraculously survive the massive 1953 earthquake that levelled much of the Ionian’s original architecture. Fiscardo’s low-set Venetian buildings were well kept, colourful and charming. One night was spent snuggled alongside about 40 other yachts and tethered to the shore by long stern lines. The next two nights were stern-to the atmospheric quayside. We could have happily wasted away a full week there.
Kefalonia (or otherwise known by its Italian name Cephalonia) was home to one of Greece’s most breathtaking beaches, so we again hired scooters as our preferred option to explore further and deeper where it was not feasible to take the boat. We stopped first for cold frappes (Greek’s love their frappes) at the peninsular of Assos and then continued south following the jaw-dropping high coastal road that hugged the island’s western shore.
A gathering of parked cars signalled the lookout spot for famous Myrtos Beach. Upon first laying eyes on the extraordinary beach scene far below, we all let out an audible ‘wow’ or ‘oh my’. Honestly it was that magnificent; with its towering flanks and impossibly aqua-blue water. And at that elevated level it was quite possibly the most superb beach scene I’ve ever been treated to. On descending to Myrtos Beach and stripping down to our swimmers, we found although most of the beach was sand, at the water’s edge the shore dropped away steeply causing the exposed ocean swell to stand up and beat the shore with small though consistent dumping waves. Rounded limestone rocks that lined the water’s edge were constantly rubbed together causing them to wear away. The ground limestone residue would turn the aqua-blue seawater a milky white where it collided with the beach. The result was somewhat surreal.
We zipped back over to the east coast and onto Agia Evfymia for lunch and then two interesting (though crammed by tourist buses) caves near the town of Sami. Melissani Cave contained an underground lake with a caved-in roof where we were rowed around gondola-style. Drogarati was a cavernous natural amphitheater with various stalagmites and stalactites – bathed in an artificial light. Headed next to the island’s interior, our scooters were pointed downhill to a rocky yet fertile wine-growing valley where we tasted the wine from the local white grape Robola – and the co-op produce of 300 Kefalonia farmers. Three tasty bottles of Robola were loaded into the backpack for the long trek home, the entire distance beating into an afternoon northwesterly head wind along the west coast.
As an immensely popular yachtie port – what made Fiscardo so scenic was also logistically its biggest downfall. Yachts jostled for vacant quayside berths and it was literally one-out, one-in through the day as one yacht departed another was patiently waiting to quickly take its place. With very few underwater laid mooring lines in Greece – the true Mediterranean moor is dropping a long anchor chain to secure the bow and reversing in to tie stern lines to the quay.
In a very tight, concave corner of Fiscardo’s southeast quay – which we found out later was aptly known as ‘anchor cross corner’ – in the rush to secure a spot, crossing anchor cable was difficult to avoid. This often involved the already docked skipper shouting at the arriving skipper and madly waving to the location of his laid anchor. To top it off, most evenings a superyacht would reverse into the one reserved berth (that was adjacent to anchor cross corner) and drop its massive anchor chain often further pinning in all the yachts and their anchors sitting at 90 degrees to his right.
We prepared ourselves for a potential fiasco when departing, though fortunately our anchor came up cleanly. That was, until the last few metres when our boat reached the bowline of the adjacent super yacht and our anchor winch started stalling. We were pinned by his anchor chain! As was another monohull who tried to leave before us and we were soon bobbing next to each other, fenders out and pinned in the middle of Fiscardo Bay. After a few stern but fruitless words shouted back and forth with the super yacht’s captain, dad was able to back up, drag the anchor free and leave the bay. The other monohull was not so fortunate and had to re-park for several hours waiting for the super yacht to depart and free his anchor.
Frank and Nick on Dominos had been moored a few boats down from us and later told of the gong show that unfolded in the next few hours. In attempt to depart, the before mentioned monohull had collected up about four other anchor chains into a nest on the seabed. A diver was in the water for over two hours trying to untangle the mess – including physically disconnecting some anchors from their chains and returning to the surface in attempt to locate the rightful owners. Dominos had their anchor lifted to the surface twice by other departing boats and could not leave the bay until the following day when the motorboat beside them also left, as they too were crossed. What a schmozzle (I know, first world problems) and no doubt a daily source of entertainment for the local taverna owners and staff.
Yet again catching the favourable prevailing winds, for about three hours we sailed south under the Parasailor. We crossed from our overnight stop in Poros at the bottom of Kefalonia, to the top of Zakinthos and its northeastern port of Ay Nikolaos. Before reaching Nikolaos we coasted past the island’s own set of blue caves – with the humorous directional signage that invited us to ‘come in and take a look’. Which we did the following morning in a local boat, for a closer look inside the caves and through the natural rock bridges.
Our original intentions were to stop just the night in Ay Nikolaos as a stepping off point to nearby Navagio Beach. Though this tiny port with few tavernas and food markets was surprisingly inviting. Its waters were crystal clear and given it had been a while, we (including Nick from Dominos) SCUBA dived right off the back of the boat whilst moored side-on to the pier. The water clarity was impeccable and there were all manner of interesting bits and bobs on the harbour floor; including a sunken dinghy in 10 metres of water that dad proceeded to pretend he was rowing!
Greek dancing nights are promoted regularly in the tourist areas and no doubt there are many sub-par ones on offer. Yet with 200 people booked in at the small, family run restaurant nestled at the end of the harbour – probably double Ay Nikolaos’ local population – and most of the tables spilling out onto the beach, there was good indication we were in for a lively night. Whilst admittedly Mike and I were party poopers, Nick, dad and mum were quite the opposite. Crowd participation was essential and so ensued several hours of music, dancing, carafes of local rose wine, a mandatory bout of plate smashing and at least three rounds of Zorba the Greek and. The late-to-rise Greeks can be an animated bunch and I can only imagine the merriment of a full-blown Greek wedding.
Possibly the most photographed beach in all of Greece – Naviago Bay was otherwise promoted as Shipwreck or Smugglers Cove. As the story goes, in 1980 the illegal cargo ship Panagiotis carrying contraband cigarettes ran aground in a wild storm. The entire crew escaped by tying ropes and scrambling the surrounding cliffs. The authorities only became aware of the abandoned loot when several local fishermen begun smoking Marlboro cigarettes stamped ‘duty free’.
This may be the tale they tell tourists, whilst other research summarised an innocent cargo ship ran aground by the coast guard when mistaken for a vessel smuggling goods. Whatever you choose to believe, it was a pretty cool sight to behold. The ship washed ashore when the beach was much narrower, though over the last 30 years the eroding limestone cliffs have extended the beach and further isolated the rusting wreck.
The perfectly upright and mostly intact wreck on a ridiculously scenic and remote beach is, as one local explained, the ‘best thing that ever happened for tourism’ on the island. We’d planned our arrival time purposefully, with an early 7:30 am departure from the nearest port of Ay Nikolaos. We pulled into the bay at 9:00 am and the exact same time as three other small private yachts. The first with our dinghy in the water, the four of us momentarily embraced the solitude of the magnificent beach setting all to ourselves.
Within minutes of landing on the beach the first two tourist motorboats appeared at the head of the deep bay – so I jogged around on the sand to snap the beach and wreck while it was still deserted. Within 15 minutes there were 50 other people on the beach, by 30 minutes there were 200! Whilst we would’ve loved to see the wreck bathed in sun (it was in full shadow during those morning hours), the bodies on the beach quickly became somewhat suffocating so we departed once we’d had our fill.
Most promotional photographs of Navagio Beach are taken from a viewing platform high on the cliff above the cove. Before arriving I had full intentions to hike up there to capture the view for myself. Although we quickly realised we had two options to visit Smugglers Cove – by boat at sea level or by wheels from above. With no way up or down the sheer cliffs, we could not do both. Instead click HERE for a taste of this gorgeous elevated view.
Attractive as a holiday destination to some, but undoubtedly not to us, nearby Laganas Town was merely a crowded, dirty sand beach and the longest stretch of trashy bars and clubs I think I’d ever encountered (except perhaps Phuket). Hardly worth a mention here, but an entertaining visit for a few hours enroute out of the bay. Sadly, the large bay of Laganas was also an important breeding and nesting ground for Loggerhead turtles. Stats claim local monitoring groups had already counted over 800 nests. One thing was for sure, the conservation groups had their work cut out in safeguarding the carettas (turtles) during the sensitive breeding cycle, as nature clashed with one very unsustainable tourism town and its operators.
Our last few nights in the Ionian Islands were moored in Zakinthos Town’s harbour, to shop for provisions and veg-out before our departure ENE towards the Gulf of Patras and eventually via the Corinth Canal to Athens.
We are currently close to completing our transit to Athens so will let this little expedition become the subject of our next blog post.