Greece: Laidback and loving it

The picturesque town of Nidri.
The picturesque town of Nidri.

Aside from the hum of cicadas, punctuated by the odd dog barking and cockerel crowing, it is completely silent. It's the same on the empty roads, where the signs are in a foreign language, with few of the customary English translations you so often expect to see in this part of the world.

There are no sprawling resorts and strips of neon nightclubs. Just picture-perfect towns occupied by a few tavernas, shops and hotels.

It's a far cry from the stereotypical image of a Greek getaway. Lefkas is the fourth largest Ionian island, but it's the unspoilt stuff of imaginations.

Our accommodation is the perfect example of the trademark seclusion of Lefkas. From our private poolside terrace we can sit with a glass of the local wine, enjoying views of the capital, Lefkas Town, and across the water to the mainland.

Once a working windmill, the stone building has been transformed into the perfect hideaway: the top floor is dominated by a huge bedroom, and a kitchen, bathroom and dining area occupy the ground floor.

The nearest neighbour is a few hundred metres away and the pool is hidden from view so it's the perfect place to relax and - literally - get away from it all.

But it's not just the peace and quiet that makes Lefkas different from other islands.

Just 34km long and 14.5km wide, Lefkas - which some people also refer to as Lefkada - was a peninsula of Arcanania until it was split by a 28m canal excavated by the Corinthians in 640BC.

Now, you come and go across a swing-bridge that joins the mainland to the island, enjoying the feeling and culture of being on a Greek island with the freedom to easily explore further afield.

Not that there isn't plenty to do on Lefkas.

Divided by the towering Mt Stavratos, each corner of the island has its own character - from the sheltered east coast with family-friendly beaches, to the crashing waves and steep cliffs of the dramatic west coast, with luscious rolling countryside dotted with deserted windmills and watermills in between. It's here, inland, where you can really soak up the unbelievably slow pace.

Kavalos, the sleepy hamlet where our windmill lies, is the perfect example. From morning to evening, nothing seems to change, except the addition of a few Greek men sitting outside the one establishment that appears to be a bar, drinking coffee, watching the world go by.

Lefkas Town is far from a bustling metropolis. We accidentally arrive during siesta time - still very much a thing here - and wander around the narrow streets, thinking we're in one of those films where the whole world has suddenly disappeared.

The low-key nature of the island brings its own low-key tourist attractions.

The beaches on Lefkas are family-friendly.
The beaches on Lefkas are family-friendly.

Near the windmill, we hunt for the Melissa Gorge, a small gorge opened by the local authority and given a paved route that runs past ruined watermills and windmills. After three days of searching for the "gorge", we finally find it, directed from the road by a tiny sign facing in just one direction.

The Rachi waterfalls are on the other side of the island, just outside the "tourist resort" of Nidri, a picturesque harbour filled with boats clamouring to take people on tours of the nearby tiny islands.

Forget Niagara levels, these are more a slow trickle with a small puddle at the bottom.
From Nidri, you can hire your own little vessel to enjoy a Swallows And Amazons-style adventure across the water.

Boating is just the start of the water-oriented action on Lefkas. The southern resort of Vassiliki is internationally recognised as one of the leading windsurfing resorts in Europe, so we decide to have a go.

We spend an afternoon trying to get the hang of first standing up, then actually moving and steering.

A few hours later our legs are aching, but I can see why people get addicted. There's something about the joy of standing up, sail in hand, feeling the wind propel you forward, without a clue about what will happen next, that brings back those childhood feelings of wobbling down the road on your bike for the first time.

A clifftop path leads down to Porto Katsiki.
A clifftop path leads down to Porto Katsiki.

The watery theme wouldn't be complete without an exploration of the island's beaches. A tour of the famous west coast takes in some of the most impressive sights, such as Kathisma Beach, where tourists can paraglide from a nearby hill on to the shore, and Porto Katsiki, where steps lead down to perfect white sands flanked by high cliffs.

We don't quite make it as far as Lefkada Cape, described by Byron as the "lover's refuge", where white cliffs rise 60m out of the beautiful surf below.

Known for human sacrifices in ancient times, it is also said that it was here that ancient poet Sappho threw herself into the sea after being spurned by lover Phaon.

Many more historical sites are on the mainland near Lefkas, from the ancient city of Nikopolis, built in 31BC to commemorate the victory of Octavius over Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Aktion, to Nekromanteion, on a hill above what in ancient times was the mouth of the River Acheron, the mythical River Styx, gateway to the underworld.

It's clear there's plenty to do and not enough time to do it.

So, our bodies aching from the exertions of windsurfing, we settle in for an evening lapping up the best of Lefkas.

With some local fish on the barbecue and a chilled bottle from the local winery, we take up residence on the quiet windmill terrace admiring the twinkling lights of Lefkas Town with just the cicadas for company.

Ellen Manning was a guest of Greece villa specialist GIC The Villa Collection.


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