When I tell friends, co-workers, and even my pedicurist that I'm off for my annual trip to Greece, they invariably nod authoritatively and say, "Oh, Athens is so crowded, but the islands . . . Santorini is just beautiful."
Given their dramatic appearance, it's easy to see why Mykonos, Santorini, and the other Cycladic islands have captured the American imagination. More overlooked, and less crowded, however, are the Eptanissia, the "seven islands" of the Ionian Sea, which my Greek friends and I favor in summer.
Every bit as lovely as the Cyclades, the Eptanissia are lush and green instead of stark and whitewashed, and have a distinctive culture that developed under 400 years of Norman, Venetian, French, and British rule.
I've been visiting family on Corfu, the best-known of the Eptanissia, since I was a child. On my most recent trip, I decided to get to know the six less celebrated islands. I discovered that they're like well-bred sisters: each alluring in her way. Finding your ideal match is simply a matter of taste.
Just eight miles long and 21/2 wide, rugged Paxos has three harbors, 2,500 residents, and as many as 250,000 olive trees, each one paid for by the Venetians during their rule here from the 14th to the 18th century.
Today, wealthy Italians still make up a significant percentage of visitors to Paxos, along with Brits and Greeks who can afford it; because the island has a poor water supply, food must be imported, resulting in prices that are high for the region. My cousin and her family came along with me to escape Corfu's hustle—a concept I found amusing, especially given the relatively high-energy scene at the Paxos Club Apartments Hotel, where my heart started racing at the sight of a shockingly well-muscled man across the pool. By the time the manager confirmed that the guest was, in fact, Jude Law, he and his friends had piled into jeeps and zoomed off.
My cousin and I drove around the island with a friend whose wife is a Paxos native. He pointed out sea caves that hid submarines during World War II and noted that to enjoy Paxos "you have to love nature—climbing, hiking. Here you don't just stroll from pool to beach." At the To Kentro Café in the village of Magazia, the owner served us caraway liqueur and gave me a calendar showing 12 of the island's 70 churches. "Churches were built on the sites of old temples, in places with the most natural beauty," he explained. "This makes them more spiritually uplifting." It was on the grounds of the two-domed Ipapanti church that I discovered the island's best feature: erimia, the elusive quality Greeks cite while taking in an amazing view, which inadequately translates as "peacefulness."
Lefkada's most renowned celebrity is the poet Sappho, who is said to have leaped to her death from the barren cliffs of Cape Lefkadas. But in the mountaintop village of Karya the local celebrity is Brenda Sherry, a Brit who came on vacation and decided to stay. Now the co-owner of the Café-Bar Pierros, she is famous for her "toasties," or grilled sandwiches. Sitting under the plane tree in the main square, I asked Brenda if she earned enough to survive. "I had a great computer programming job in England, but I chucked it all to come here," she responded, watching an old lady in traditional dress hobble by. "I'm much happier making toasties."
Brenda extolled the clean air and slow pace of village life, but I suspect that what drew her to Karya is its Twin Peaks mood. This is a town whose favorite daughter is Maria Koutsohera (a.k.a. Hollowhand), a one-armed woman who created the decorative Karsanika stitch in the early 1900's, turning Karya into a hub of the embroidery industry. Her school is now the Folklore Museum, where the owner, Theodoros, praises the woman who taught his mother to sew. "She was short, ugly, and handicapped," he exclaimed to me. "And look what she did with the gifts God gave her!"
The rest of Lefkada is just as idiosyncratic, except for the touristy windsurfing destination of Vassiliki, and Nydri, the starting point for boat trips to 10 tiny satellite islands. After wandering the pedestrian lanes of the town of Lefkada, which are lined with a jumble of chapels, tavernas, and cottages, I found my ideal spot in Agios Nikitas, a vertical village rolling into a small beach that offers few diversions besides watching kids splash and fishermen cast their lines off the rocks. Lefkada connects to the mainland by a causeway, so it's popular with vacationing Greeks. As I sat at a beachfront café, eavesdropping on chain-smoking matrons reciting a litany of scandals, Lefkada suddenly switched from Twin Peaks to Peyton Place.
"This is a small island with a large history," said Gerassimos Morfessis, who runs the Calypso Apartments above the main port of Vathy. "It has so much natural beauty. And it's a place everyone thinks of as home." If not everyone, then at least the many Ithacans who have followed Odysseus' example, emigrating to make a living, then returning. Little affected by tourism, Ithaca has been modernized by its emigrants; it was the first place in Greece to get electrical power, paid for by wealthy shipowner George Drakoulis. Sitting in the courtyard of his grand mansion at the Drakoulis Café, I watched kids on mopeds speed past old men on donkeys. In the minuscule town of Frikes, I checked e-mail at an Internet café as Gypsies sold ropes of garlic to crones leaning out of stone houses. The constant mingling of ancient and modern made me think of life's soothing patterns: people are born, leave, return, live, die, and it just keeps repeating itself, so you might as well relax and have an iced coffee.
Other than hiking, swimming, and lotus-eating, Ithaca doesn't have much in the way of excitement. The Homeric sites—including the Cave of the Nymphs, the not very epic beach at the Bay of Phorkys, and Arethousa's Spring—are mostly disappointing. My personal Odyssey moment occurred at Taverna O Nikos, when the priest at the next table yelled to his young daughter as she raced around on her scooter: "Penelope, come back here and wait for your brother." Penelope rolled her eyes as if thinking, "That's all I ever do, sit here and wait for some man."
Brutally occupied by the Nazis in the 1940's, and almost leveled by an earthquake in 1953, Kefallonia was not having a good century. Then in 1994 came Corelli's Mandolin, the wildly popular novel about Italian troops on the island during World War II, and Kefallonia's charms were recognized. The recent film version flopped, but the island's landscape stole every scene. Busloads of Germans clutching paperbacks now wander Sami, where the movie was shot, but Kefallonia seldom feels crowded. The largest of the Eptanissia, it has enough beaches for armies of sunbathers, from white-sand Myrtos to tree-lined Antisamos. There are also 365 villages, "one for every day of the year," as my taxi driver put it.
I dutifully checked out the island's sights—riding a boat around the lake in Melissani Cave, tromping through the clammy Drogarati Cave, sipping coffee in the beautifully rebuilt waterfront village of Assos. Still, my main activity was digging up Hollywood dirt. At Garbis jewelers in the capital of Argostoli, the owner shared photos of the Corelli filming—his son had been tapped as an extra "because he's skinny, like people during the war." I was more engrossed by the man's real-life drama: the story of how, at 13, he ran home during the '53 earthquake, and an icon of the Virgin Mary fell into his hands as a building buckled beside him.
The only town untouched by that quake was Fiskardo, whose lovely harbor is now filled with yachts. There I chatted with the owner of Nicolas Taverna, who dances with customers when not serving patrons like Tom Hanks. Had business increased post-Corelli?"More people want to visit, but some should wait a year or two," he replied. "I don't want to work so hard I give myself a heart attack."
In Sami, the waiter at Akrogiali Taverna was similarly nonplussed by Kefallonia's flirtation with Hollywood. "Madonna's boat docked last summer, and she came ashore for ice cream. TV cameras were everywhere," he recalled. "What a mess!" As I fed crumbs to the cat under my table and watched waves lap the shore, I realized that everything people come to Greece for was right here. Clearly, I'm not the only one who thinks so: the waiter said the Corelli production company is returning to film a Tom Cruise movie, and a Lord Byron biopic is also in the works.
On Zákinthos I decided I was doing this wrong. Instead of hopping from island to island, collecting them like charms on a bracelet, I should have chosen just one and taken it easy. So I sunned on Gerakas, a long beach that's a nesting ground for loggerhead turtles, and avoided the commercial resorts that mar the other beaches on Laganas Bay. My only activity was going into town to hear arekia, a form of a cappella singing that evolved here during Venetian rule. At Taverna Arekia, patrons harmonized with musicians as the owner, a cluster of jasmine threaded through a buttonhole in her shirtdress, sat down with me to describe the specials.
The next day I drove to Cape Skinari to stay in a converted windmill, a tiny suite with a colossal view of the ocean. After me, it was booked by a man planning to propose, said Dionisios Potamitis, one of three brothers who own the windmill and the nearby Faros Taverna. They also run boat trips, so I hopped into a dinghy with Nikos. He stopped to let me swim in the series of blue caves (which dwarf Capri's puny grotto), and took me to climb the abandoned freighter on legendary Shipwreck Beach.
That night, back at the Faros Taverna, I listened to the brothers tell of island dramas, such as the canonization of Saint Dionysios, a monk who lied to the police to spare his brother's murderer. "He became holy the moment he sinned," Nikos said. They described life in Korithi, which had no electricity until 1970. "In winter, we fish or play cards with the sailors at the lighthouse—they rotate every fortnight so they don't go crazy from isolation," Dionisios said. "In November, monk seals give birth in the caves, and in April, flowers bloom." Next time, I'm definitely picking one island and staying awhile.
With a population of 3,100, Káthira is the kind of place where, when I forgot my bag at a taverna, the waiter let me know by calling the cell phone of the cabbie he saw pick me up. Traditionally difficult to get to, since it lies far from the rest of the Eptanissia, south of the Peloponnesus, the island is now served by flights, ferries, and hydrofoils. Yet somehow it remains almost entirely undiscovered—most foreign visitors are descendants of islanders who emigrated to "big Kíthira," Australia.
I was practically the only one around as I wandered through the whitewashed, bougainvillea-covered capital of Hora and climbed the Venetian fortress to see Kapsali's long beach through a hole in the wall. At the ruined Byzantine city of Kato Hora, I had the sunset all to myself. For true recluses, I learned, the satellite island of Antikthira, population 70, has 10 rooms to let—but that sounded a bit too lonely for me.
With Hora closed for siesta, I sat down to write postcards in the square. A Greek traveler passed by and asked, "Miss, where is everybody?" Despite—or, rather, because of—Kthira's solitude, Greeks who want peace and quiet along with their sunbathing are starting to visit the island. It may even be developing its own version of a scene. In Hora, I heard a handsome young man snarl into a pay phone, "Why aren't you here?You're not going to Mykonos or some jerk-off place like that, are you?"
Eleni N. Gage, a contributing editor for InStyle, is currently living in northern Greece and writing a travel memoir, to be published by the Free Press.
The northern Eptanissia are well connected to each other by ferry and high-speed catamaran, and the southern islands are similarly linked. You must return to the mainland to catch ferries to Káthira. The only easy way to see the entire archipelago is to charter a boat. For villa rentals throughout the islands, contact Simply Ionian (44-208/541-2202, fax 44-208/541-2280; www.simplytravel.com).
A classical music festival is held on the island each September (September 3 to 12 this year). See www.paxosfestival.org.uk for information.
Paxos Club Apartments Hotel Near Gaios; 30-6620/32450, fax 30-6620/32097; www.interdynamic.gr; doubles from $100.
To Kentro Café Magazia; 30-6620/31906; snacks for two $5.
Odysseus Hotel Agios Nikitas; 30-6450/97351, fax 30-6450/97421; www.odyssey-hotel.gr; doubles from $85. A small hotel with a pool in a picture-perfect village.
Café-Bar Pierros Karya; 30-6450/41760; snacks for two $5.
Omerikon Residence Vathy; reserve through Simply Ionian, above; doubles from $1,680 per week. Ten new, pastel seafront suites.
Calypso Apartments Vathy; 30-6740/33138, fax 30-6740/23934; www.ithaca-calypso.com; doubles from $37. Humble rooms high above town that are rich in views.
Drakoulis Café Vathy; 30-6740/32045.
Taverna O Nikos Vathy; 30-6740/33039; dinner for two $13.
Garbis Villas Lourdas; 30-6710/31418, fax 30-6710/28900; www.garbis.gr; doubles from $93. Four new villas that share a pool and view of the sea.
Nicolas Taverna Fiskardo; 30-6740/41307; dinner for two $28.
Akrogiali Taverna Sami; 30-6740/22494; dinner for two $18.
Nobelos Luxury Suites Agios Nikolaos; 30-6950/27632, fax 30-6950/31131; www.nobelos.gr; doubles from $237. Some of the most expensive—and loveliest—rooms in the islands.
Taverna Arekia Zákinthos; 30-6950/26346; dinner for two $22.
The Windmill and Faros Taverna Korithi; 30-6950/31132; doubles from $82.
The Web site www.greekexperience.com is helpful for planning a trip to Kíthira.
Margarita Hotel Hora; 30-7360/31711, fax 30-7360/31325; www.interdynamic.gr; doubles from $78. A converted mansion.
Guest House Pitsinades Pitsinades; 30-7360/33877 or phone and fax 30-10/417-3702; www.greekhotel.com/ionian/kythera/pitsinades/home.htm; doubles from $80. Atmospheric villa in an inland village.