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A New Odyssey

Ionian Islands, Greece

You’ve probably heard the story of Odysseus (or Ulysses, to give the guy his Latin name). After playing a leading part in the Trojan War – he thought up the neat idea of the wooden horse of Troy – he sets off in his ship, with his men, to his home island of Ithaca, which lies today as it lay then off the south west coast of Greece. However, because his cunning trick had aroused the anger of the sea god Poseidon, Odysseus wasn’t allowed to go straight home. Instead he and his men were condemned to wander the seas for ten years, enduring many hardships and adventures. When they finally arrived home, Odysseus found that his beautiful wife, Penelope, was besieged by hundreds of suitors who believed Odysseus was dead and wanted her hand in marriage. Odysseus killed them all – which may seem a tad unreasonable to us, but if you’re an ancient Greek hero that kind of thing is practically expected.

Modern cruises take a lot less than ten years to reach the Ionian islands, of which Ithaca (or Ithaki as it’s called these days) is one. The chain of islands stretches from Corfu in the north to Kefalonia in the south. Each island is different from its sisters, and all share some fantastic qualities. A cruise is definitely the best way to see the Ionian islands: most cruise lines that run itineraries in the area allow for stops at each of the major islands in the group.

Overview of Corfu

Corfu has long been an immensely popular holiday destination with Europeans. However, it’s a good idea to look beyond the bar-and-beach culture and enjoy some of the beauties of the island that can be found inland. Corfu is probably the most lushly verdant of the Ionian islands, and, if your cruise timetable permits, you should definitely make the effort to explore the hills and olive groves of the interior. The island is not Corfu Nausica Beachparticularly large – about thirty miles long by twenty wide – and the good local bus service will take you around pretty efficiently. The capital, Kerkira, is where your ship will most likely dock. A charming town that hasn’t been as spoiled by mass tourism as it might have been, it is well worth a look around. Although a lot of the town was destroyed in the great earthquake that wrecked the islands in 1953, you can still spot areas where traditional Greek architecture mingles with buildings put up by the British in the days when the island was a major Mediterranean base for the Royal Navy.

Your probable next port of call – Ithaki – is rather smaller and quieter than its larger neighbors. It has also been much less affected by the depredations of mass tourism, and, if you can get a sense of ‘authentic’ Ionian life anywhere on the islands, Ithaki is probably it. In common with all of the islands, Ithaki’s economy still benefits from a substantial fishing fleet, and the island is a great place to sample some local seafood. Those of a squeamish disposition might like to stay away from octopus and calamari (squid) – though if you can summon up the courage to include tentacles in your lunch you might find the sensations involved something of an anticlimax. Although some people find great flavor in the sucker pads, for most diners the meat of these least appealing of sea creatures tastes distinctly rubbery.

Myrtos BeachKefalonia (sometimes spelt ‘Cephalonia’), your likely next port of call, is the largest island in the group. At one time it was very much a secondary tourist destination – most vacationers headed for Corfu, and some cruise ships missed Kefalonia altogether. This is probably because of all the islands in the group, Kefalonia suffered most from the 1953 earthquake – full rebuilding wasn’t really complete until the 1990s.

In recent years, however, Kefalonia has enjoyed something of a renaissance in its tourist trade, and it is now a regular stop on all cruise itineraries of the area. This is largely a result of the island’s role as the setting for Louis de Berniéres’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – which was released in 1996 and quickly made into a movie of the same name starring Nicholas Cage as the eponymous hero - an Italian army officer stationed on the island during the war as part of the occupying force. This story of love, loss, betrayal and redemption is by turns funny and tragic, and it has moved many original readers and viewers to explore the island of Kefalonia for themselves.

All of the Ionian Islands are worth exploring. They make for a great cruise destination, and are often strung together as a short journey leaving from Athens or one of the eastern Italian ports. Why not go cruising there yourself? Find your way to the romantic islands of Ionia without all the time-consuming hard work and stress Odysseus had. Just be careful not to go upsetting any sea gods, now…

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