I’m not really used to taking particularly relaxing holidays (see Vietnamese cave trek; driving through Bosnian mountain passes etc.), but Ithaca is one of the calmest, most serene and beautiful places I have ever been.
Ithaca, a tiny Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is perhaps best-known as the home of Homer’s Odysseus. A small island of just 3,000 people, the wonderful thing about Ithaca is that there’s not much to do besides eating, drinking, walking, sailing and swimming. Life moves at a leisurely pace here. Little clusters of citrus trees grow alongside olive groves, the air is warm, and the occasional light breeze rustles the leaves. No-one is in a rush. The perfect place for Nicola and I to pretend we’re good at sitting around and relaxing.
Our home for the week was Perantzada 1811, a lovely little boutique hotel set just back from the water’s edge in Vathy, the island’s capital. We had a crisp white room, with wafting linen drapes and a small wrought-iron balcony which caught the evening sun. We enjoyed long al fresco breakfasts of local yogurt, honey, nuts and fruit, washed down with freshly-squeezed juice and copious coffee and sat talking about everything and anything while the warm morning sun warmed our backs. We couldn’t have been further away from a gloomy October commute in London.
Ithaca’s 60-mile coastline is made of hundreds of tiny coves where the vivid turquoise sea laps at beaches of tiny white pebbles. One morning we hired a speedboat (I insisted on calling it this, as it sounds much more exciting than a ‘motor boat’) and we set out to explore the coast. The boat was surprisingly fast, and in no time we were speeding across the open water of the Ionian Sea, the front of the boat bouncing into waves. Nicola clung on to a rail at the front of the boat while I pretended I was in an action film making a quick getaway.
Every so often when we saw a distant bay we liked the look of, we would glide in, lower the anchor and jump into the clear water. Despite being October, the sea was warm, and as we splashed around, schools of fish grew braver and swam around us.
Almost every beach we visited was deserted; at times is felt like we had the whole island to ourselves. On the only occasion that there was someone else on the beach, it turned out to be a nudist beach. Being British, we kept our clothes on, thank you very much. The other couple, however, chose not to and it completely put us off our lunch.
The food in Ithaki was fresh, abundant and delicious. We ate magnificently every day, stopping at roadside tavernas for homemade lemonade and buying fresh loaves of bread from village shops for lunch. In Vathy’s plentiful restaurants, we dined on everything from sea bream and souvlaki to local delicacies of pasticcio and savoro. All accompanied by about twenty bowls of Greek salad. Obviously.
One particular restaurant in Vathy, O Batis, had received a good write-up in the Lonely Planet guide, and had a selection of fresh fish on display so we headed there for dinner. We worked our way through a platter of seafood and were remarking how delicious it was, when I heard a familiar voice, which at first I struggled to place. I did some subtle looking over my shoulder, and sitting there with a large group, was none other than Rick Stein, of Padstow seafood restaurant fame. If the fish served in O Batis is good enough for Rick, it’s certainly good enough for us.
On a leisurely afternoon we ended up in the tiny fishing port of Frikes in the north of the island. A little restaurant, Ageri, was open, so we took a table by the water and ordered a few starters which we almost certainly didn’t need. As we ate, a grizzly fisherman puttered up on a moped and produced an extension lead from a plastic bag, which he plugged into a lamppost before trailing the cable towards his fishing boat, most of it ending up in the sea; we decided this was one possible contributing factor for the relatively small population of Ithaca.
Kioni, a few miles from Frikes, is one of the most idyllic villages in Ithaca, a tiny cluster of painted houses around a little port. By this time, we’d got well into the swing of things, and spent a few hours wandering around the tiny shops, stopping in a little taverna for a Greek coffee while I tried to convince Nicola that she didn’t need really need any more trinkets.
The calm serenity of the island, the soft scent of citrusy olive oil and the sparkling waters make Ithaca the perfect place for a relaxing escape. As the sun lowered in the sky over Kioni harbour, we watched sailing boats and yachts arriving to moor overnight. I clocked the name of a couple of the bigger yachts and later found them online to have a peek inside. One of them was available to charter ‘from £115,000 a week’.
I think we’ll be sticking with our hired speedboat for a while.