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Ithaki

Ithaki, Greece

As you set out for Ithaca,
Hope the voyage is a long one,
Full of adventure, full of discovery.

So wrote C. P. Cavafy in his famous poem about the island, inspired by its mythological reputation as the home of Odysseus in Homer's epic, The Odyssey. These days, of course, most visitors don't take ten years to reach Ithaki and may not feel quite the same sense of homecoming as our hero did, yet its natural charm becomes apparent before you even set foot on its shores. Whether you arrive by ferry into the concealed harbour of the capital Vathy, hop across to Pisaetos from Sami on Kefalonia or land in northern Frikes from Lefkada, you will not be able to miss the massive ridge that forms the spine of the island and effectively defines it.

Ithaka, Greece

Homer said that the island was "good for goats", indicating the rugged terrain and precipitous gradients of much of its body. Ithaki is certainly not a place to come for splendid beaches, as it has precious few of more than 50m in length and many of the best coves are accessible only by yacht or speedboat. Nor is it a party island, with just a sprinkling of fairly low key bars. It's main draw, of course, is its special place in mythology and there are a number of sites associated with Homer and Odysseus, though they too seem shrouded by the veil of the millennia and require a lot of imagination to picture them as they must have been.  

Whether you subscribe to the historical existence of Odysseus and his castle or not, there is clear archaeological evidence that the island was inhabited by 3000BC and was certainly an important place during the Mycenean period when the Trojan War supposedly took place, reaching its zenith around 1000BC. Later on its fame and fortune waned, as it became a backwater of the Corinthian state for many centuries throughout the whole Classical period and remained equally unimportant during the Byzantine era, when it became an annex of Kefalonia. Following sporadic Turkish incursions, Ithaki gradually reasserted itself under Venetian rule from 1500AD onwards and, following periods of French and British governance, it played a key role in the War of Independence and was finally liberated in 1864.    

For such an iconic place, Ithaki has remained endearingly level-headed and untouristic. The locals are a friendly lot, except occasionally to their rivals from across the narrow strait on neighbouring Kefalonia, and wear their Homeric heritage with a quiet sense of pride, rather than beating visitors over the head with it. Modern Ithacans have also inherited the wanderlust of their legendary forbear and there is a wide diaspora, especially in the USA and Australia. So don't be surprised if the local you approach for directions answers you in a Brooklyn or Melbourne accent.  

Vathy, Ithaka, Greece

Vathy and the South

The island's main settlement is a pleasant town clustered around a convoluted harbour hidden deep within the recesses of an elongated bay, giving it the most picturesque setting of all the Ionian capitals. Indeed the town's name means "deep", reflecting the nature of its waters. Its focal point is the central square right in the sharpest corner of the seafront, from which the motley assortment of restaurants, businesses, public buildings and the odd hotel fan out in both directions. Almost everywhere of importance is on the seafront or within a block of it.  

Ithaki's principal archaeological finds are located in the Vathy Museum, set back from the harbour. These include objects, especially pottery, found at Pisaetos and in the Polis Cave, ranging from the Geometric to the Roman epochs. The layout is a little old-fashioned and dry, however, so you may find a visit to the Folklore and Cultural Museum, a couple of blocks inland, more rewarding. It contains beautifully arranged household furniture, artefacts, equipment and paintings from the 18th–20th centuries, as well as photos from the 1953 earthquake, which caused damage here as well as the better known devastation of Kefalonia.   

Vathy, Ithaka, Greece

There is quite a decent selection of harbourside tavernas, by far the most accomplished being the friendly To Kochili, now with additional garden seating down the adjacent sidestreet; try the succulent lamb kleftiko with any of their vast selection of mezedes. Nikos, just off the square, is a good old-fashioned estiatorio, best for oven-baked meat and veg dishes, while Trechandiri is a block back from the front and great for pork or goat.  

The surrounding countryside is mostly scrubby and quite steep, though nothing in comparison with the vertiginous north. Still, most places are only accessible by footpaths, apart from the dirt roads that dart a short way north and east to the beaches of Skinos and Sarakiniko bays respectively. Of those two, Skinos is better for a quiet swim. On the opposite side of town, small Dexa beach lies just off the main road to the rest of the island.

Filiatro Beach, Ithaki
Filiatro Beach

Filiatro is a white pebble beach with clear turqoise water, the closest really nice beach to Vathi. There are sunbeds and some watersports and the sea is shallow and sheltered so it is ideal for children. Just follow the signs going east from Vathi.
Ithaki, Ionian Island

The Homeric Sites

About as much uncertainty surrounds the question of whether the sites associated with Odysseus are what they claim to be as surrounds the historical identity of Homer himself. Yet it is fun to see these places in person, especially as most entail a bit of an effort to reach them.

Perhaps the most magical is the Spring of Arethousa, a 5km hike south of Vathy, fabled as the spot where Odysseus' faithful swineherd Eumaeus brought his pigs to drink. Make sure you take some water if you attempt this, as it's a good three hour round trip from town. There is a small pebble beach below the spring where you can cool off if you descend carefully.

Well signposted west of Vathy, the Cave of the Nymphs is where Odysseus supposedly stashed the gifts from the Phaeacians on his return from Troy. Off the Vathy-Pisaetos road lies Alalkomenae, a set of underwhelming foundations that Schliemann claimed to be the castle of Odysseus, though that is much disputed, as the acropolis has since been dated to the 6th century BC.

In the north of the island, above Platrithias, you can see the scant remains of Homer's School, which is still being excavated by the University of Ioannina, and contains some Mycenaean tombs. A mere kilometre out of Stavros is Pelikata Hill, another candidate for the site of Odysseus' castle. On site is the interesting Stavros Museum, showcasing finds from Pelikata and other local sites.

Afales Beach, Ithaka
Afales Beach

Northern Ithaki

It's as you turn north through the bottleneck transversed by the Vathy-Pisaetos road that Ithaki really comes into its own. The ascent seems to go on forever before you emerge on the western side of the ridge, offering splendid views down to the craggy shore and across the sparkling sea to the equally steep slopes of northern Kefalonia. A right turn will take you even higher, past the attractive Monastery of Katharon, to the almost deserted mountain village of Anogi. Its name means "upper land" and they weren't kidding when they christened it. Perched just below the crest of the ridge, it's an atmospheric place, whose most notable feature is the venerable church of Panagia, focal point of a wild all-night panegyri (festival) on August 14th, the only time the village springs into life.

Northern Ithaki's main town is Stavros, which sits on either side of a surprisingly wide boulevard, lined with shops, cafés and a smattering of restaurants, the best of which is O Tseligas, housed in a startling yellow building. Stavros is renowned locally as the place to sample the sticky sweet rovani, steeped in syrup.

Afales Bay, Ithaki
Afales Bay

The more easterly of the two routes down to the north coast swings round above curved Afales Bay, which is accessible by vehicle and has as its centrepiece a good pebbly beach. Both roads issue on either side of the seafront at Frikes, whose small harbour contains a couple of good tavernas, especially very welcoming Rementzo, a great place for good value fish.

Kioni, Ithaki
Kioni

The whole surrounding coastline is peppered with tiny coves cut into attractive slabs of horizontal white schist. The island's tarmac comes to an abrupt end at the cute yachting resort of Kioni, Ithaki's answer to Fiskardo on Kefalonia. Though some may find the village a little twee and it is certainly a notch or two pricier than the rest of the island, there is an ample choice of good restaurants and it boasts most of the island's pre-nineteenth century architecture, as the solid rock base protected it from the 1953 earthquake.

Charter sailboat, Ithaki

Getting to and Around Ithaki

There is no airport, nor could there ever be without an almighty feat of engineering, due to the island's mountainous terrain! The nearest one is on Kefalonia, near the capital Argostoli,  from where you can take the bus to Sami and then the small car ferry to Pisaetos (3–4 daily). The easiest way to reach Ithaki from mainland Greece is by the Kefalonia Lines ferry from Patra, although the shortest crossing is on the daily Ionion Pelagos ferry from Astakos: both routes operate at least once daily in summer, less frequently at other times of year. The seasonal Meganissi ferry runs most days between Frikes and Nydri (or Vassiliki when the new port is finished) on Lefkada, and the island is now on the high-speed Azimut Joy Cruises service that connects all the Ionian islands from May to October. You can find ferry times and buy tickets at Ferryhopper.com

There is no official bus service but you may be able to get a ride on the school bus if you are here during term time. Otherwise, there are a few taxis and rental agencies for cars and mopeds. You can also rent a car in Athens and drive to the ferry or do what many people do and charter a sailboat and explore Ithaki and the rest of the Ionian Islands.

Nick EdwardsAbout the author

Nick Edwards first visited Greece on a school trip as a student of Classics in 1974 and fell in love with the country right away. He continued to visit while studying Classics and Modern Greek at Oxford University and subsequently worked in Athens as an EFL  teacher for most of the 80s. Having had personal connections with the founders of the Rough Guides since the series' inception, Nick started writing on Greece for them in 1992 and has since co-authored the Rough Guides to Greece, the Greek Islands, the Ionian Islands and Corfu, as well as titles on India and the USA. He has also covered Zakynthos for Berlitz and Insight Guides, various press articles and he writes the monthly blurb on the island for easyJet Traveller magazine. You can contact him by e-mail.

Hotels in Ithaki

Odyssey Apartments, Ithaka

Odyssey Apartments

Featuring an outdoor pool and a snack bar, Odyssey Apartments is located in Vathi Village just a 10 minute walk from the beach. It offers self-catering accommodation and free WiFi in public areas. The beaches of Loutra and Mnimata are 1 km from the property. Offering Ionian Sea views, all air-conditioned apartments at Odyssey include a kitchenette with cooking hobs and a dining table. A TV, and a bathroom with a shower and hairdryer come standard. A library is available on site. Laundry and shuttle service can be arranged upon charge. Free public parking is possible nearby. A restaurant can be found 100 m away. Click for Photos, Reviews and Booking Information

Perantzada Hotel, Ithaki

Perantzada Art Hotel

Perantzada Art Hotel is located at the picturesque port of Vathy a short walk from the beach. This boutique hotel is housed in a 19th century neoclassical building decorated with modern art pieces. It offers luxurious amenities including a seasonal outdoor pool and a terrace with sun loungers and parasols where guests can relax. The contemporary guestrooms are bright and airy. Each one has either a panoramic view or partial view of Vathy port. Perantzada Art Hotel offers a breakfast of homemade cakes, pies and jams made with local products. For light snacks and refreshments, the hotel provides a snack bar. This property also has one of the best-rated locations in Vathi.
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Korina Gallery Hotel, Ithaki

Korina Gallery Hotel

Set in a listed Venetian house in Vathi, the boutique hotel Korina Gallery offers luxurious rooms with view of the port and is a 20 minute walk from the beach. Its pool area offers deck chairs, a table, Indonesian sun beds and a comfortable seating space. Styled in keeping with the local architecture, Korina Gallery Hotel’s rooms feature carefully chosen furniture by famous Italian designers and Lay-Z-Boy mattresses. All rooms are decorated with paintings from famous European artists. Free WiFi and LCD satellite TV are standard. Click for Photos, Reviews and Booking Information

Hotel Familia, Ithaka

Familia

Located in Vathi, 400 m from Port and a 17 minute walk from Dexa Beach, Familia has rooms with free WiFi access. The property is 200 m from Navy - Folklore Museum of Ithaca and the Archaeological Museum of Vathi is 500 m away. At the hotel, every room is equipped with a wardrobe. Rooms include air conditioning and a flat-screen TV, and some units at Familia have a terrace. All guest rooms feature a private bathroom. A buffet breakfast can be enjoyed at the property.
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Mentor Hotel, Ithaki

Mentor Hotel

Situated in the port of Vathi, this hotel is within walking distance of the centre, with the most modern facilities and a panoramic view of the port and a short walk to the closest beach. Located on the waterfront all the rooms have a view of the sea. Services include a 24-hour reception, room service, internet access and fax facilities. There is also a cafe bar on the ground floor, with a view of the sea. Click for Photos, Reviews and Booking Information

Asterida Villas, Ithaki

Asterida Villas

Featuring an outdoor pool with sun terrace, Asterida Villas are located in Stavros Village, just a 6 minute walk from the beach. They offer fully equipped accommodation with Ionian Sea and mountain views. Free Wi-Fi is available in all areas. Poli Beach is 500 m away. Fitted with iron beds and a fireplace, all air-conditioned and split-level villas of Asterida open to a furnished balcony. Each consists of 2 bedrooms, a seating area with sofa and flat-screen, satellite TV, as well as a kitchen with oven and refrigerator. Free toiletries and a hairdryer are included. Guests may relax at the sun loungers of the sun terrace by the pool. Daily maid service and a garden with grassy areas are available.Click for Photos, Reviews and Booking Information

Captain's Apartments, Ithaki

Captain's Apartments

With a splendid view of the village of Kiónion just a 2 minute walk from the beach, Captain's Apartments provides accommodation with free WiFi. The apartment offers a terrace and full kitchens as well as air-conditioning. A bicycle rental service is available at this property.
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Razos Windmill Apartments, Ithaka

Razos Windmill

Surrounded by greenery and offering panoramic views of the sea, Razos Windmill offers self-catering accommodation in Kalavri, a 5 minute walk from Deksia Beach. Razos apartment is spacious and air conditioned. It includes a separate bedroom, a dining area and a living room with a TV. The fully equipped kitchen features a refrigerator, a coffee maker and an oven. The centre of Vathi is 1.5 km away from Razos Windmill, offering many cafes and traditional taverns. Click for Photos, Reviews and Booking Information

Alicelia Boutique Inn, Ithaka

Alicelia Boutique Inn

Housed in an old mansion, Alicelia Boutique Inn is just 20 m from Vathy Port and a few minutes walk from the beach. It features elegant accommodation and a courtyard with seating areas and BBQ facilities. Free bicycles and Wi-Fi in public areas are provided. All air-conditioned rooms are fitted with white-wood furnishings in romantic style and Coco-mat mattresses. Facilities include a flat-screen TV with cable channels, mini fridge and coffee maker. Free toiletries and a hairdryer are available in the modern bathroom. The beaches of Dexa and Skinos Bay are 2 km away from Alicelia. Several restaurants and bars can be found within a short walking distance.
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Lyhithes Apartments, Ithaki

Lykithes

Situated in Vathi, Lykithes offers self-catering accommodation with a terrace and free WiFi. This apartment is 200 m from Port of Ithaki and 7 km from Agios Ioannis Beach. The apartment includes a kitchen with an oven and a fridge, as well as a coffee machine. The apartment also has a bathroom with a shower and a washing machine. The apartment offers a barbecue.
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Villa Votsalo, Ithaka

Villa Votsalo

Located in Kiónion a short walk from the beach, Villa Votsalo has a terrace. Guests staying at this villa have access to a fully equipped kitchen. The villa has 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms with a hot tub. A TV is available.  This property also has one of the best-rated locations in Kiónion! Guests are happier about it compared to other properties in the area.
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You can find more hotels, houses, apartments, holiday homes and self-catering accommodations by using Booking.com's Ithaki Search Options.

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