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LEFKADA is the least popular and glamorous of the islands of the Ionian Sea, in western Greece.

Nevertheless, because it does not burst at the seams every summer with throngs of packaged holiday travelers and vacationing Greeks, the island retains much of its old charm and offers an inexpensive alternative to Corfu and Zakynthos.

Lefkada has some of the most wonderful beaches in the region, including stunning Porto Katsiki, nice mountain villages, wonderful, reasonably-priced food, charming coves, and great views, all around. Also, it is the island where Aristotle Onassis spent his summers, and chose as his final resting place. The island took its name from the wild, white rocks at Lefkata, the southewestern cape, where, according to legend, the love-struck poet Sappho ended her life. The evidence of human activity on Lefkada goes as far back as the palaeolithic era. The German archaeologist Wilhelm Dorpfeld, an assistant of Heinrich Schliemman, the Bavarian eccentric who discovered Troy and Mycenae, has argued that Lefkada was Homer's Ithaca and excavated many important Bronze Age finds at Nydri. In antiquity, the island fought against the Persians, took part in the Peloponnesian War and in the campaigns of Alexander the Great and fought against the Romans in the 3rd century AD. During the Byzantine era Lefkada was part of the Despotate of Epirus and, along with the rest of the Ionian islands, came under Venetian control in 1293. There followed a period during which Lefkada alternated between Venetian and Turkish rule, until 1503, when Lefkada came under Turkish control by treaty. In 1684 the island was again captured by the Venetians and the capital was moved to its present location from inside the fortress of Santa Mavra. The island was cut off from the rest of Greece and declined because the Venetians were not interested in creating a social and cultural infrastructure, as they did on Zakynthos and Corfu. The French succeeded the Venetians in 1797, then came the Russians and Turks and later the British (1815). Lefkada, with the rest of he Ionian islands, joined Greece in 1864. After World War II, Lefkada has been hit every 10-15 years by a major earthquake, that has inflicted major, albeit not catastrophic, damage. Mostly, though, the island earned international fame because of a small islet, off the east coast fishing village of Nydri.

Scorpios was bought by the Greek shipping celebrity tycoon Aristotle Onassis in the 1950s and was turned into his private paradise as well as the venue of a series of well-publicized summer retreats, for him and his celebrity guests. Onassis laid the beaches of Scorpios with sand carried from Saudi Arabia in his oil tankers, and planted trees and vegetation carried by his fleet from the far corners of the world. He married Jackie Kennedy here, and the island is the final resting place of the tycoon and his son, Alexander. Jackie O was photographed skinny-dipping in Scorpios in the late 1960s by the paparazzi that always descended on Nydri, whenever Onassis came to Scorpios, and stalked the island with dinghies and speed boats. Today, Lefkada is a family vacation destination, with only one 5-star hotel, and without a reputation for nightlife or social extravagance. The island offers it visitor stunning views of the mainland from the east coast, some of the most spectacular beaches in Greece on the west coast, a lovely, pastoral interior, and reasonable prices all around. The only distance that could be considered long, at about an hour's drive, is from anywhere on the east coast to Porto Katsiki, which is located near the southwestern tip of the island. A tip: if based on the east coast, it is better to drive to Lefkada Town and then take the road to Agios Nikitas and on, to reach Porto Katsiki. The inland route, through Karya, is too long. One other wonderful thing about Lefkada is the food. Simple, unassuming traditional Greek dishes, like giouvetsi (meat with rice-like pasta in a clay pot), stuffed tomatoes and bell peppers, mousaka, cooked octopus with cut pasta, are excellently done and they never, under any circumstances, come to more than €15 per person, including the universally very good house wine. From the acclaimed Lefkada Town classic tavern of Regantos, to the seaside taverns of Geni and Agios Nikitas, portions are huge, the service is even, the tomatoes are ripe, and your satisfaction is guaranteed.

For those who seek something extra, there are cruises to Cefalonia's Fiskardo, to Ithaki's Vathy, and to Meganissi, daily from Lefkada Town, Vassiliki, and Nydri, and also cruises around Lefkada, that make half-an-hour to one-hour stops in Porto Katsiki, Kathisma beach and other spectacular spots. When the Onassis family is not in town, which is almost always in the last 10 years, you may even take a brief dive where Jackie O and Maria Callas used to cool off in the 1960s.

 

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