Sailing the Ionian Islands

A cove in Ithaca, Ionian Islands.
A cove in Ithaca, Ionian Islands.

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.


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…

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Sailing the Ionian Islands Sailing the Ionian Islands *Sailing the Ionian Islands