Published: 17 May 2016 by: Despina Meris

Italthai shoreline

With its shimmering blue waters and iconic landscapes it's no wonder why Santorini is such a tourist hot-spot, but not far away are three of Greece's lesser-known islands that are truly worth discovering. Go on a Greek odyssey and explore these little island gems for a holiday that's impossible to forget.

Ithaki

Ithaki is a quaint little island overshadowed by neighbouring giants of the Ionian, Kefalonia and Lefkada. As picturesque as a small sailboat bobbing in the blue sea, the island is feted as the home of Homer’s Odysseus and hosts some sites linked to his epic tale.

Even its unspoilt scenery seems mythical. Tall verdant mountains climb out of the small land mass, ringed by small pebbly coves and charming villages. A 16th-century monastery perches on the mountaintop overseeing the island in all directions.

Ithaki is refreshingly uncommercial. Two main roads running north-south offer incredible views and the opportunity to trip over archaeological ruins and Byzantine icons without a tourist brochure in sight.

Begin with southern Vathy, the island’s capital, a charming, colourful village. Its Venetian buildings have been painstakingly restored by residents, and if you book a 

boutique hotel, you are likely to be staying in one of these period homes.

From Vathy, hike the scenic trail to the location of The Odyssey's Fountain of Arethusa, a spring used as a signpost to find the swineherd.A short drive away is the Cave of the Nymphs, where the returning Odysseus is believed to have hidden the gifts of King Alkinoos.

Historical Venetian buiding

Further north, the Monastery of Panagia Kathariotissa, the island’s patron saint, was built on a mountain top
and offers a birds-eye view of the island. Nearby is the forgotten mountain village of Anogi, an atmospheric ghost town known for the 12th-century Agia Panagia church that houses priceless Byzantine hand-painted icons.

There are plenty of places to refuel along the way, including the postcard-perfect village of Kioni and stunning pebbled swimming spots like Agios, Ioannis and Sarakiniko.

A must-see is the archaeological dig of an extensive three-story building complex matching the description of the Palace of Odysseus.This recent discovery has fuelled debate about whether Odysseus was, in fact, real.

Finding these significant historical spots is like following
a trail of breadcrumbs; there is little signage and hardly anyone to point you in the right direction. But that’s part of the charm of Ithaki, it holds the clues to a mystery, and it’s up to you to solve it.

The breathtaking views of Ithaki

Leros

This little-known Greek island gem hits the trifecta with glorious neoclassical architecture, quiet swimming spots and tasteful taverns.

Prepare yourself for a fairytale backdrop brought to life. The 11th century Castle of Leros is perched high on the peak, a watchman over the lolly-coloured Italian neoclassical buildings that spill down the surrounding hills.The well- preserved castle, along with the adjacent five windmills, is dramatically lit by floodlights in the evening.

Make your way here at sunset. Set at a high altitude with expansive views to Panteli Bay, Agia Marina and Alinta Bay, the lookout offers one of those pinch-me moments, a watercolour painting come to life.

Italy's occupation of Leros during World War II explains the dominance of Italian architecture. So, if you want to do Leros right, explore on a Vespa.

Agios Isodoros chapel built on a rock formation in Leros

The port town of Agia Marina and neighbouring hilly Platanos and Panteli are brimming with restored Italian mansions. Agia Marina is deeply atmospheric, inviting you to stroll to its tasteful boutiques and creperies.

For a five-star meal, don't miss Mylos restaurant with its romantic water setting and views of the castle. Seafood taverns on Panteli Bay also ooze with ambience, luxury yachts floating on the serene sea.

There is a beach to suit everyone. Crystal-clear sandy Alinta, bohemian Dio Liskaria, pine tree-lined Blefuti and organised Vromolithos. Most of them are in obscure private coves, so you don't have to share them with crowds.

For perspective on the island's military past, see the War Museum carved out of an underground military tunnel. Visit the main port of Lakki, where stunning examples of Italian Rationalist architecture, including Mussolini's summer mansion, a cinema and clock tower, can be found.

You’ll pass at least one of over 100 churches and chapels on ever y outing. Agios Isidoros is a stand-out, a tiny chapel built on a rock formation at the end of a narrow causeway.

Leros is that Greek island secret that everyone is searching for. Get here before everyone else does.

Traditional windmills in Leros

Lefkada

It’s an enigma to me, but Lefkada has managed to avoid most of the “Top Five Greek Islands” lists. Boasting some of the best beaches in all of Greece, a rugged mountainous centre, remote villages and adrenaline sports to boot, there is never a dull moment on this Ionian island.

The east coast of the island is dominated by package tourism along easily accessible beaches and rows of umbrellas, but for me, the beauty lies in the natural beaches of the west coast. Impossible sheer white cliffs meet the electric blue sea that is unique to this region of Greece. Perfect semi-circular bays create the feel of a grand natural swimming pool of impeccably clean waters.

The best beaches are the hardest to get to. 100 narrow steps take you to Porto Katsiki, over 300 nerve-wracking stairs down a cliff-face get you to Egremni, and Milos Beach can only be visited via a 20-minute walk down a rocky path or by taxi boat. The rough terrain isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the reward is extraordinary.

After glorious swimming and a challenging climb back up to your car, you’ll have generated an appetite worthy of a traditional Greek meal. There is an abundance of choice in many of the villages, such as Vassiliki and Nidri, but my pick is the remote OasisTavern near Porto Katsiki beach. A memorable meal awaits, made from organic vegetables from the garden and slow roasted rooster from the farm.

And then it’s time to get your heart rate up. The winds on the east coast create ideal conditions for windsurfing, wakeboarding and sailing to satisfy the adrenaline junkie in both of you. Snorkelling, diving, kayaking and paddle boarding are also on offer in more sheltered bays or you can go inland and mountain bike your way around.

Whichever way you choose to explore Lefkada, you’ll be left in awe of its unspoilt natural beauty and dramatic landscape. Stay in Agios Nikitas, a quaint little car-free town with a lane of intimate taverns leading to its own small beach. It makes a fantastic base for embarking on your daily dose of adventure.

Portokatsiki beach in breathtaking Lefkada

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