Greek Odyssey - Ionian Islands, Greece

In search of this promised slice of heaven, we've meandered off the path from the pretty village of Ai Nikitas on the west coast of the island of Lefkada into thick scrub. Scratched and sweaty, we poke our heads through a clearing and the 1km-long, sandy and almost deserted beach of Kathisma appears like a mirage.  "Rebecca, this is the best beach in the world," implores Anthi. That's a pretty rich claim to make to an Australian, but I dare not doubt her. This petite but fiery Greek is frighteningly proud.

Beautiful beaches

Lefkada's geological features are typical of the seven islands in Greece's Ionian Sea - rocky cliffs, luxuriant vegetation, beguiling seascapes and the country's most splendid beaches nestled in the rugged foothills on the west coast.

The mellow palette of this archipelago, known in Greece as the Heptanesia, contrasts with the stark dazzling brightness of the swarm of Aegean islands. Extensive olive tree plantations and exquisite architecture are the profound legacies of Venetian rule for more than 400 years.

Secret spot

The fourth largest island, Lefkada, is the wildest and most unspoilt, with splendid vistas of forested mountains tumbling into startling blue seas. At the foothills, Ai Nikitas is just one of many pretty little resort villages. Clocking the tourists who amble along its main cobblestoned road, it seems only the Italians and Greeks are in on the secret.

Stripped off

Anthi and I may have found our beach, but it's 5m below us. We're as good as stranded goats on a cliff edge. After hurtling our belongings to the sand, we launch ourselves from the bush, our dignity slightly broken by the sight of three burly Italians with their arms outstretched below. Did I mention this was a nudist beach?

Ride like the wind

Not all of Lefkada's beaches involve bush orienteering - or nudity. Kathisma is the best of a sublime bunch. Egremni, however, is not such a well-kept secret. Beach umbrellas dot the sand and hawkers all drinks and counterfeit DVDs, while music pipes out from the bar by the beach wall.

Hazardous to swimmers, but the bomb for windsurfers, Vassiliki, the island's southernmost resort, bustles with enthusiasts who revel in its north-westerly gales.

Greek Gods

If you can muster the energy to head further south, and you're emotionally stable enough, visit the sun-stroked cape of Lefkada, where Aphrodite is said to have leapt into the deep blue to rid herself of the torment of unrequited love, encouraged by Apollo.

The cape was also an ancient site of human sacrifice, where criminals had feathers and birds tied to them to help their descent into the ocean depths. If the victims survived the plunge, their lives were spared.

Lovely locals

While in modern times it's considered impolite to drive the undesired, such as my fussy travelling companion, into the drink, I actually have her picky eating habits to thank for some priceless interaction with disarmingly friendly locals in Corfu Town.

The greenest island, which Greek poet Homer called his 'beautiful and rich land', Corfu dangles at the southern tip of Albania. The locals haven't been hardened by the swathes of tourists who spill out of coaches into their gracious streets. In fact, they are astonishingly friendly. Strolling along colonnaded main trip the Liston, we learn this first-hand.

Ducking into a side street taverna, which is clearly a local haunt, we tuck into delicious food, then spend the evening leafing through photos of the owner's grandchildren and exchanging animated stories over copious servings of ouzo.

Cricket and beer

A beautiful city, Corfu Town was fortified in Byzantine times, developed by the Venetians, added to by the French, and then in the 18th century, the British unpacked civil engineering, cricket and ginger beer.

The town is defined by arcades, boulevards and squares, plus jutting up above rooftops are two fortifications, one of them, the Paleo Frourio, dating from the 6th century, is considered a masterpiece of military engineering. 

Sunny days

With guaranteed sunshine for more than 300 days of the year in Greece, it pays to spend time on Corfu's north coast, particularly between Nissaki and Kassiopi, which has enchanting scenery including bays of clear water and towering cliffs.

Corfu is also home to the 5km-long Korission lagoon, a playground of turtles, lizards and indigenous and migratory birds. Walk from the village of Linia via Issos beach, a largely deserted stretch of sand and dunes, to get there.

Good feed

Along the west of Corfu, the picturesque village of Sinarades is a reminder of days gone by, and features a psistaries, or grill house, where you are likely to find lamb or goat spit-roasting on the pavement.

Heading north up the winding road, you can lap up sweeping views of the sea from the Aerostato cafe.

Going underground

Hosting seaside resorts based around villages and ports, one of Kefalonia's main attraction is the 300,000-year-old Melissani Cave. It's a subterranean sea water lake that turns a brilliant turquoise when the sun pierces through an opening in the roof. You can take a boat through to an electricity lit chamber inside, where it is said there was once a shrine to Pan, the mythological companion of the nymphs.

Escape the crowds

For the clearest blue coves in the archipelago, the inimitable paradise of Antipaxi has some of the best snorkelling in Greece. Two coves collectively known as Agrapidhai provide the finest rock formations, and even during high season, there's barely a soul around. 

It might take a little extra effort, even for a seasoned bush basher, to see the best of the Ionian Islands but I assure you, perseverance is richly rewarded.