Lefkas (or Lefkada) is one of the few islands which you can drive onto, being linked to the mainland (Preveza) via a long causeway and small floating bridge. But don't let that put you off in any way. It has some of the most stunning beaches in Greece - white sands, azure seas - as well as a gorgeous interior dotted with sleepy villages, ancient monasteries and oak-dappled mountains. Perennially popular with the Brits, who flock to its twin watersports centres of Vassiliki and Nidri, it has become something of a mecca for outdoor adventures: sailing, windsurfing, mountain-biking, hiking and snorkeling await, not to mention some of the Med's best kitesurfing in the north.
The main town of Lefkada has a leisurely feel, with a large marina, a vibrant cafe culture, some elegant Italianate architecture, and great birdwatching around the lagoon. From the east coast, cruise boats ply to wooded satellite isles like Meganisi and remoter outliers such as Kastos and Kalamos. Up in the hilltop villages, you can still see traditional costumes and embroidery displays, or sample fresh filo pies stuffed with herbs and goats' cheese. It's the spectacular white cliffs of Porto Katsiki and Egremni beaches which will catch your eye, but it's the wild flowers, secret coves and hidden valleys which work their quiet magic on you.
Lefkas has some of Greece's most spectacular beaches - long stretches of white-sand along the windier west coast, small and secluded coves on the more indented east - so to pick out 3 favourites is not easy. But here goes...
1. Egremni beach: of Lefkas' 2 poster-boy beaches, backed by sheer white cliffs and fringed by bright blue sea, we prefer Egremni over Porto Katsiki mainly because it is less crowded. This could be related to the fact that it is 350 steps down, compared to about 80 for Katsiki! Bear in mind that occasional landslips can destroy the access paths, as with Egremni in November 2015.
2. Agiofili beach: a small and secluded white-sand beach, with those glorious turquoise seas and excellent snorkelling among shoals of tiny fish. We think it's a great option for families with older kids, though you'll need to bring provisions as there's only a seasonal drinks-and-umbrella stall. It's a short boat ride from Vassiliki (every half hour from 10am to 6pm), or 2km by bumpy track (better to walk, as hire cars may suffer, and there's no parking). Avoid midsummer as it can feel crowded, being relatively small.
3. Mikros Gialos beach: this pretty horseshoe beach near Poros village is pebbly, but that keeps the water clear and the crowds away. It's also situated in an enclosed bay, which shelters it from any wind. There are cafes, tavernas and umbrella hire in summer.
Windsurfing, kite-surfing and sailing are among the island's prime attractions, thanks to reliable winds ("Eric" blows consistently from about 3pm throughout the summer!), crystal-clear seas, and plenty of offshore islands to explore. The famous Club Vass in Vassiliki is the main windsurfing hub, and non-residents can usually hire equipment, though it's best to phone ahead. For kite-surfing, the best spot is Milos beach up in the north - named after the windmills which now stand sailless on the sands, while just offshore, brightly coloured kite-surfers fly back and forth. To hire a dinghy, try Ocean Elements in Nidri or Wildwind in Vassiliki; both allow walk-ins when it's quiet, and the latter have Hobie-Cats - which you'll need to prove you can handle before they let you out. If it's yachts you're after, Day Sail Adventures in Nidri have some 21-foot Benetteaus which can whizz you over to the islands of Meganisi or Skorpios, given a skilful steer (you'll need a skipper's licence for these, of course). If you don't have a licence, Sail Ionian sometimes hire out skippered yachts by the day, if they haven't all been rented by the week.
There's no shortage of yachts, ferries and pleasure boats offering day cruises along the coast and out to the satellite islands, but the pick of the bunch has to be M/S Christina in Nidri. It's a Turkish-style gulet run by an Anglo-Greek couple, Stelios and Jane, whose classic tour takes in the overlooked islet of Formekula, as well as Kastos and Kalamos. It's a full day, starting around 9am and ending at 6pm, but it's varied and well organised, with plenty of swim stops along the way, a superb buffet lunch with wine, snacks at the Windmill Cafe on Kastos, and a not-too-cloying commentary. Best of all, there's enough space for everyone to stretch out and sunbathe, though in peak season (July-August) it is a little tight with up to 50 people on board. Take a mask and snorkel - you may even see dolphins.
Lefkas is a mountainous island - its spine rises to over 1000m above sea level - criss-crossed by jeep tracks and gravel roads, which means it's perfect MTB terrain. If you don't fancy lugging your own kit, we've heard great things about Get Active, based in Nidri and run by 2 Brits named Simon. They offer a range of day rides, from "taster" (2 hours, mostly flat) to "extreme" level (7 hours / 40 km), plus uplifts if you are feeling lazy. Keen riders can test their skills on the Hidden Valley trail, which includes some technical sections of footpath. They use Saracen Mantra Pro hardtail bikes with 27 gears, hydraulic disc brakes, 120mm suspension and helmets, so no need to worry about equipment; plus they've got some Co-Pilot trailers for family rides. Check out their site for schedules and costs.
1. Rachi, Exanthia (pictured) - high on a ridge overlooking the west coast, often overlooking a blanket of clouds, this is truly unique spot. Expect fantastic cocktails (try the strawberry mojito), plentiful meze spreads and hearty meat dishes (grilled steaks, stuffed pork chops) but not much seafood. Go early to beat the queues (it's not uncommon to wait an hour in summer), take a jumper, and don't overdo the wine (you'll see why when you drive up).
2. Lefkatas, Athani - phenomenal seafood pasta, mini-fish meze platters, salads with hand-picked ingredients from Philip and Ioanna's garden, mussels in white wine, chocolate souffle ... and spectacular views over the sea (especially at sunset).
3. Pardalo Katsiki, Karya - another inland gem, tucked away on the main square of Karya, surrounded by verdant hills; a great lunch option if doing a day tour. Highlights are goat stew (the name means "funky goat"), wild boar sausages and stuffed peppers; low-lights are disappointing dessert and (in our case) a rather smarmy waiter.
The Odyssey praises wines from the Ionian islands (and not just for overpowering one-eyed giants), a fact which several local winemakers capitalise on; though it was really under the Venetians that viticulture took off. Nowadays Lefkas has a dozen decent wineries, growing 2 or 3 local varietals: the white Vardea and the red Vertzami (related to the north Italian Marzemino). The best place to taste them is Lefkaditiki Gi (which means Lefkadian Soil), 8km south of Nydri en route to Vassiliki; often closed on Sundays.
If you're in Lefkada town, check out the local almond-based drink called soumada, normally served in an ice-filled glass with aniseed biscuits. The place to try it is leafy Kouzoumbei (aka Kouzounteli) on the outskirts of town, where once the Ottoman 'Kuzum Bey" (lord) resided. Greek families flock here on sunny Sunday afternoons; the Cafe tou Amerikanou seems to be the most popular.
If the heat gets too much for you, head 4km inland from Nydri to the Dimosari waterfall and take the plunge into its icy blue waters. An easy 20-minute trail leads from the roadhead and Platanos cafe (good food, high prices) to a pair of small but deep pools, enclosed by cliffs, at the foot of a 12-metre sliding waterfall. The best time to visit is late spring (April-June) as it can dry out in summer. Take good shoes, beware the slippery rocks and chilly waters, and go early to beat the crowds, as the spot simply isn't big enough for more than a dozen people at once. Follow signs for Katarraktes or Dimosari from Nydri's perimeter road.
For a dose of shade and greenery, drive up to the village of Kolivata (above Nikiana) and follow one of the red-dotted trails up into oak woods of Mt. Skaros. You'll come across grazing pigs, mewing buzzards, paved footpaths, olive groves and vineyards, wild flowers and waist high bracken in spring, and spectacular views over the east coast from the summit mast. Try and pick up a copy of the guidebook "Lefkada on Foot" by Lida Out (Fagotto Books, ISBN 978-960-6685), which describes 2 routes, one shorter (3-4 hours) and one longer (5-6 hours), both starting and ending at Kolivata, and passing the monastery of Agios Georgios en route.