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Sailing the Ionian Islands

Our journey in search of rare wines, Venetian villages and heroes in mythology.

After the decade-long Trojan War, Odysseus and his crew sailed home to the Ionian Island of Ithaca. According to Homer’s ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, they encountered a race of one-eyed giants, only to find themselves trapped in a cave serving as snack food for the Cyclops, Polyphemus. To escape, Odysseus served Polyphemus wine until he fell asleep drunk, then blinded him with a sharpened stake. Today, sailing the Ionian Islands entails fewer risks of encountering mythical beasts. Instead, this verdant rocky archipelago promises rare and enchanting wines, heart-stopping beaches and idyllic anchorages in old Venetian ports.

Nestled off the western coast of mainland Greece, the six core Ionians, plus a splatter of satellites, starkly contrast the Cyclades’ tidy cubic lines and arid landscapes. Stretching as far north as Albania down to the Peloponnese Peninsula, each island has a distinct personality stemming from history, culture and natural beauty.

Sailors – novice and accomplished alike – flock to this sapphire sea for easygoing conditions and festive ports of call. One Greek wine importer and avid sailor, Ted Diamantis of Diamond Wine Importers, calls it ‘the bathtub of Greece’ for its gentle breezes and calm conditions. Short distances between the islands make navigation straightforward, allowing passengers and captains to spend more time on land.

Though myriad islands deserve visiting – including Corfu in the north – a tried-and-true sailing route starts in Lefkada and weaves down around Ithaca, Kefalonia, Zakynthos and back. The sailing season runs from April through October and charter boats book a year in advance, so plan accordingly.

Lefkada

Porto Katsiki beach. Credit: Lauren Mowery

While still mainly under the radar with international travellers, Lefkada connects to mainland Greece by a narrow causeway and features a rugged coastline with Greece’s most spectacular beaches. Most of the islands have a similar western coast topography: steep limestone cliffs eroding into the waves, the calcareous sediment leaving dazzling white sand beaches kissed by a band of milky tourmaline water separating the deeper cobalt sea. Accordingly, most ports sit inside protected harbours of the north, east and south coasts.

Sail Ionian, a popular family-run charter outfit on Lefkada, operates out of Vliho Bay. It offers different lengths and sizes of yachts for 7-day, 14-day and 21-day charters, whether skippered, flotilla or bareboat. The company is not a yacht agent; it care for its boats and hire staff personally.

Arrive a day or two before your scheduled departure to experience Lefkada. Most travellers rent a car in Athens and drive the four-hour trip west. Sail Ionian offers complimentary parking near the boat berths while you’re away.

One needs a car in Lefkada to visit the famous beaches of Porto Katsiki, Egremni and Kathisma and to dine out in Lefkada Town. Thymari restaurant offers modern regional cuisine and a good wine list. Another popular activity – popular enough to require a table reservation – is to catch a sunset drink at one of several cliffside bars such as Fly Me and Amente.

Though Lefkada doesn’t have the recognition of its southern neighbour Kefalonia, its wine industry spans six active wineries which supply restaurants, bars and grocers with wine from indigenous varieties. Island-wide production falls under PGI Lefkada.

The local red grape Vertzami is arguably the island’s most important variety, typically fashioned into a lighter, slightly rustic, cherry-scented red. With a slight chill, Vertzami suits languorous days on the bow of a boat. White grape Vardea produces light, bright quaffable table wines that pair well with fresh grilled fish and hearty Greek salads. The easiest way to taste local wines is to visit Lefkaditiki Gi winery, where walk-ins are welcome. At the tasting bar, you’ll find a line-up of stainless steel, skin-contact and oak-aged Vardea, rosé from Vertzami, a dry red, and a sweet wine called Melidonos, produced by blending partially dried grapes of Vertzami and Patrino.

Book a visit or look for the wines from Siflogo winery at restaurants. Vasilis Papanikolopoulos makes certified organic wines from classic varieties Vardea and Vertzami, a pink-skinned Mavropatrino and an orange wine from Chlori.

Ithaca

Tsiribis restaurant. Credit: Lauren Mowery

For its outsized personality in Greek mythology, Ithaca surprises with its quiet appeal and diminutive ports. While indigenous grape varieties exist, they’re found mostly in small garden plots for family winemaking.

Vathy and Kioni, the two main settlements, welcome sailors seeking overnight berths. Pretty houses with tiled roofs, old mansions, and stone-paved paths reflect Vathy’s Venetian influence. The settlement is believed to be the Homeric harbour of Phorcys, where the Phaeacians left a sleeping Odysseus. Fanned out in a deep-water amphitheatre, Vathy eclipses Kioni in size, providing a good base for hiring a car or scooter, replenishing provisions, and dining out. Family-owned Tsiribis restaurant, on the northeast side of the harbour ten minutes out of town and close to Loutsa beach, attracts repeat sailors year after year for fresh fish and reasonable prices.

Kioni, a picturesque jewel box of a port, dates to the 16th century. Stone mansions with blue shutters and red tile roofs interspersed between waterfront tavernas compose a postcard-worthy image from the vantage of a sailboat.

Kefalonia

Credit: Lauren Mowery

Within the Ionian archipelago, Kefalonia has the most robust wine industry. It’s also the chain’s largest island and the sixth largest in Greece. Winemaking dates to ancient times, with archaeological findings suggesting that wine was produced on the island from 500 BC, according to Kostas Bazigos, director of the Robola Cooperative of Kefalonia. However, the modern industry started in earnest in the 1970s.

The main grapes of Kefalonia are Robola, Vostilidi, Muscat and Zakynthino for whites and Mavrodaphne for red. Robola of Kefalonia is the only white grape to earn a PDO; the rest fall under the PGI classification. PDO Mavrodaphne of Kefalonia covers a historic sweet red fortified style; winemakers leaning into modern dry styles hope the PDO will eventually encompass those, too.

Many Robola vines grow ungrafted at more than 300m on the limestone slopes of Mount Ainos (or Aenos). The light, bright, herbal and citrusy wines reflect the soil through a chalky flintiness. Vostilidi has a soft creaminess, lemony salinity and orchard fruit notes. Winemakers use Mavrodaphne to create various styles, from a youthful crunchy, fruity expression akin to Beaujolais to a more structured wine aged in oak.

The Strait of Ithaca separates Kefalonia to the west and Ithaca to the northeast. The strait is approximately 20km long and 4-6km wide, offering an easy, protected crossing from Ithaca to Kefalonia. Fiskardo, located at the northern tip of Kefalonia, has evolved from a quiet fishing village into a wildly popular summer stop for mega yachts and sailboats. No matter the class of one’s transport, everyone eats, drinks and revels equally along a strip of bay-hugging restaurants and bars, including at the oldest and most famous – Tassia – which has an excellent local wine list. Though the village has a cosmopolitan burnish, it remains one of the quaintest ports in the Ionians, having survived the archipelago-wide earthquake of 1953 with its colourful mix of Venetian and Neoclassical architecture intact.

At around 800km², Kefalonia has a plethora of glittering bays and deep blue inlets for mooring, many accessible only by sailboat. However, as a base to explore the island’s wineries and picturesque beaches, head for the sheltered capital city of Argostoli on the island’s southwest coast, where cars hires are plentiful.

There are two trails for visiting wineries. The first follows the fertile plains and hills of Paliki, a peninsula jutting down the west coast. The quickest route to the peninsula crosses the narrow gulf by car ferry from Argostoli to Lixouri. During summer, the ferry runs every 30 minutes. On Paliki, stop for the natural, biodynamic skin-contact wines of Sclavos Wines. Reservations are preferred, especially if you want to sample a local charcuterie and cheese board. Nearby, Haritatos Vineyard cultivates indigenous varieties and accepts visitors by appointment amidst the vines at its country stone estate.

The second longer trail covers a wider berth, starting just outside Argostoli and heading up and around Mount Ainos to the plateau of Omala. Boutique producer Gentilini Winery showcases Robola of Kefalonia’s range through bottlings of high-altitude vineyard sites, old vines, wild yeast ferments, barrel ageing and extended lees contact. Orealios Gaea, the Robola Cooperative of Kefalonia, welcomes around 80,000 visitors a year to its cellar door to taste mountain Robola wines.

Zakynthos

Navagio beach. Credit: Lauren Mowery

Though Zakynthos earned a reputation as a hard-partying destination for British holidaymakers, the island has matured into a mix of rustic and upscale experiences. Dip into its rural side by anchoring in the sparely populated north. The port in the settlement of Agios Nikolaos overlooks mainland Greece. Consider heading to the overrun but justifiably famous Navagio beach in the morning. The draw here is a rusted hull of an old shipwreck trapped in a cove between towering cliffs. Nearby, the blue caves offer a stunning collection of sea grottoes. Sunlight reflects off calcareous walls to turn the water an iridescent blue. Moor south in Zakynthos main port to experience a new crop of restaurants and bars from island tastemakers, tucked into narrow streets between Venetian buildings. However, you’ll have one of the best dining experiences at a hotel, Olea All Suite. Book a table for sunset at Flow Dine & Wine to sample the island’s most sophisticated Greek-inspired food with wine pairings.

PGI Zakynthos covers the tiny but fascinating indigenous wine industry. White wines include a long list of grapes though winemakers blend Robola, Skiadopoulo, Katsakoulias and Pavlos to make a traditional ‘green’ or high-acid wine called Verdea. Vostilidi of Zakynthos makes dry modern whites and sun-dried sweet wines, offering citrus fruits and white blossoms aromas.

Red grapes include Avgoustiatis, Katsakoulias, Mavrodaphne and a few others. Avgoustiatis produces dry rosés and reds with berry fruit, spice and violet notes.

Three wineries see the most visitors. The cute but kitschy Callinico Winery Museum, founded in 1918, pours over 15 local wines. Set in a verdant spot of the Zakynthian hinterland, Goumas Estate hosts visitors in a 19th-century building and pours several styles of Vostilidi of Zakynthos and Avgoustiatis. Grampsas Winery serves lunch and dinner, focusing on local dishes like ladenia (flatbread) with ladograviera (Zakynthian cheese) and open ravioli boutridia (Zakynthian ratatouille) with langoustines. The rustic property sits near the semi-mountainous village of Lagopodo.

With breathtaking landscapes, singular wines and rich history, the Ionian Islands offer a sailing experience unlike anywhere else in Greece. So, hoist the sails, set a course, and let the archipelago enchant.


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