Greek tourism is booming, and Americans are playing a pivotal role in its growth. By May of last year, over half a million Americans and counting had spent or planned holidays in Greece. The country saw a surge in tourism revenue of 342% in the first 3 months compared to the prior year, albeit much of that year-over-year growth is owed to the subsiding pandemic. Nevertheless, popular island destinations in the southern and southeastern Aegean saw tourism operators increasing flights and contracts to prepare for 2023. As summer 2023 approaches, Greece is expecting nearly 1 million Americans to flow through the country, many of them heading to the same island groups while ignoring the string of gems known as the Ionians.
Surrounded by azure seas and sun-kissed shores, Lefkada Island in the Ionians off the mainland of Western Greece offers an enchanting getaway that remains under-the-radar for American tourists. The lack of global hotel chains marketing in the United States may account for its low-key status. Most hotels on Lefkada, also called Lefkos, are small and intimate which in turn preserves the sense of community created between locals and returning travelers. Additionally, the star power of Santorini and Mykonos overshadows other destinations in Greece, like Lefkada, just as worthy of travel media coverage yet persistently underrepresented.
I visited Lefkada last September to pick up a sailboat for a four-day trip through some of the smaller islands nearby. I, too, had never heard of Lefkada and research yielded few words written in U.S. publications about the destination. Given the mythological status of the Ionians, notably Ithaca as the home of Odysseus, I found the sparse coverage surprising. As such, I expected a quiet destination worthy of a day or two before catching the boat. How naïve.
First, getting to this Grecian paradise is simple. Rent a car in Athens, drive 4.5 hours on a long toll road across the northern Peloponnese peninsula (yes, lots and lots of tolls but credit cards are accepted), cross a tiny bridge, and you’re there. No ferry coordination required.
Lefkada town, a picturesque spot on the northern tip of the island, greets you with cute boutiques, waterfront cafes, alleyway tavernas slinging homemade Greek classics, and a string of canal-side bars perfectly positioned for sunset cocktails. A compact, mountainous island, Lefkada’s not especially large – it takes about 2.5 hours to drive the perimeter on well-paved roads with good signage. Heading into the mountains poses more challenging driving mainly on switchbacks but the effort is rewarded with stunning views, especially if you combine dinner and drinks at one of the island’s famous hillside bars like Amente Bar and Utopia. Warning: reserve a table long before your island arrival, as these spots attract big crowds during the summer. Second warning: don’t drink and drive (period!) but especially in the dark down the mountains. Appoint a designated driver.
Lekfada caters to every traveler, from the active hiker to the beach bum. I fall into the latter camp. Breathtaking beaches are Lefkada’s calling card. The island is home to one of the most stunning stretches of coastline in the Mediterranean and that’s not hyperbole. Porto Katsiki, routinely rated one of the best in Greece, boasts lunar white sands framed by dramatic cliffs and a milky blue sea the color of opals. Nearby, the remote crescent of Egremni has become a bucket list stop for its iridescent blue waters lapping limestone cliffs backing a long sandy beach.
Experienced sailors refer to the Ionians as the bathtub of Greece. Calm waters provide ideal conditions for novice skippers or groups looking to sail with less work and more relaxing. Many Ionian charter companies operate out of Lefkada like Sail Ionian, the family-owned company we hired a boat and French skipper through.
Wind and water sports draw travelers, too. The island’s unique wind conditions attract adrenaline junkies, making Lefkada a premier destination for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Vasiliki Bay, known for its reliable afternoon breezes, hosts a multitude of international competitions, while the calmer waters of Agios Ioannis Beach offer an ideal spot for newbies to hone their skills.
Photographers, hikers, and nature seekers head for the island’s craggy spine. A hallmark of the Ionians generally, Lefkada’s verdant interior is carpeted in olive groves, cypress trees, and rushing waterfalls like Dimossari waterfall on the outskirts of Nydri.
Deciding where to stay may pose the biggest challenge. The west coast has villas tucked into the island’s steep slopes, great for quietude, seclusion, and vistas but a hassle for travelers who like to eat and drink in the evenings. I found the best of both worlds at Crystal Waters Lefkada.
The boutique property opened in 2018 at the foot of Skaros Mountain near Nikiana village. I rolled the dice on the choosing the property using Instagram, blog recommendations, and Greek travel guides for insight.
Fortunately, the choice provided the perfect solution to views, location, and especially food and wine. We could eat and drink well without driving 20 minutes to Lefkada town and back. The property has two outdoor restaurant concepts, Emerald and Duende.
Belying the chic casual setting, Duende elevates Greek cuisine into delicious works of art. A modern Greek salad came in a terracotta flowerpot with dehydrated tapenade for dirt. The server flipped the pot and strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and a creamy feta tumbled out across a sprig of fresh oregano. Whole roasted fish topped in candied lemon played partner to a velvety orzo infused with leeks and fennel frond. A superb wine list peppered with regional wines including bottles from Lefkada’s own indigenous wine industry. I didn’t know it at the time, but Duende would count as one of the best meals experienced over two weeks in the Ionian Islands.
In addition to fantastic food, the property offers a range of amenities and services including several pools, cabanas and a spa. Just enough, not too much. Modern rooms and suites, many with private pools and views of the water, feature organic textiles in soft earthen hues. Sophisticated, polished, but relaxed – exactly what you want from a holiday in the “Caribbean of Greece.”
If Lefkada’s not on your travel list, that’s good news. The fewer who know about this gem in the Ionian Sea, the better. Now book your ticket and keep it to yourself.