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Ode to Onassis; NIGEL HEATH visits the Greek island that's not really an island at all.

Byline: NIGEL HEATH

THE memory of Aristotle Onassis still looms large over the Greek island of Lefkada and particularly over Nydhri, its biggest resort on the east coast.

There, a larger than life statue of the Greek billionaire stands on the promenade between lines of ocean-going yachts and dozens of beach bars and traditional tavernas.

And it was in Nydhri on a May morning that we boarded the Odysseia, a traditional wooden cargo boat converted by Captain Gerasimos Ktenas to look like an ancient Greek Trireme. He carried out his time-travelling makeover more than 20 years ago and has been operating day trips ever since.

The people of Nydhri first became aware of Onassis in the early 1960s when he acquired the small and unspoiled island of Skorpios opposite the town.

At first, it seems, they were suspicious of him and reluctant to supply him with water, but he went on to employ many locals who helped him transform the island into a paradise home and they gradually came to look upon him as a benefactor.

His fame and celebrity guests attracted the world's press to Lefkada and to Nydhri and gave a big boost to the island's tourism, especially after he married Jackie Kennedy on Skorpios in 1975.

Capt Gerasimos himself worked for Onassis as an engineer, first on his yacht and later on his supertankers, before returning to Nydhri to buy and restore the Odysseia with French wife Marie Dominique, who does the onboard commentaries.

Many older people in the area, it seems, have their own personal memories of the Onassis era.

Boat trips from Nydhri take people to one of the largest sea caves in Europe and around the famous island. They also sail around the small one next to it where Onassis was buried after his death in March 1975.

We stayed further along the east coast in a villa at Syvota, a small but delightful fishing and yachting harbour at the end of a fjord-like inlet with some fine tavernas mainly specialising in local fish including sea bream and red snapper.

Further along the coast via a good but winding road, and at the end of a huge bay, lies Vassiliki, the island's premier watersport centre and a draw for windsurfers because of its favourable breezes.

Not being into those pursuits, we drove inland and followed a steep road which winds its way up and onto a sheltered plateau awash with a riot of poppies and many other wildflowers whose rich heady scents floated on the warm morning air.

Driving further on, and as the terrain began to slip away, we were suddenly confronted with a stunning view of jagged grey blue mountains which appeared to be rising out of the sea - or was it simply layer upon layer of white mist? Twisting and turning our way down through these hills, via dozens of tortuous bends, we eventually reached the picturesque village of Karya, which is almost opposite Nydhri and is known for its shops selling locally made textiles.

Here, we lunched at an open-air restaurant in the shade of a giant and spreading plane tree.

Greek cuisine offers a wide choice for those preferring not to eat meat and we feasted from a range of small plates including tomato and onion balls, spinach pie, yellow chickpeas ground into a paste - excellent on chunks of bread - together with a spicy cottage cheese.

All the olive oil produced on Lefkada is organic and islanders use a lot of it in cooking their traditional village dishes but many homes also have lemon trees and the locals squeeze the juice over their food to neutralise the olive oil and help reduce cholesterol.

Cakes of green soap, produced as a by-product of the olive oil-making process, are available almost everywhere for just a few euros and are said to be good for all manner of skin conditions.

Keen to spend another day sailing through the islands, we drove back into Nydhri and paid just 18 euros each for a two-hour cruise on a small passenger and car ferry all along the mostly steep sloping, tree-covered coast and then over to the famous island of Kefalonia.

Here, we were in for a real treat because, as the ferry rounded a headland, the small and absolutely delightful yacht and fishing harbour of Fiscada suddenly hoved into view.

It was now noon and the ferry would not return until 7pm to pick us up so we had almost a whole day to have lunch in one of the colourful water-fronted tavernas, wander around the harbour, buy some souvenirs and generally chill out.

Fiscardo seemed quiet and, as we strolled around under a cloudless blue sky, we asked several locals if business was down due to Greece's economic woes and the ongoing refugee crisis. They sadly confirmed that it was.

But we had not long started lunch when the first of a flotilla of double and triple-decked trip boats, packed with holidaymakers, arrived from Lefkada and the place was soon buzzing. By 3pm they had all sailed away and peace returned.

Lefkada, which numbers among the Ionian islands, is a five-hour drive from Athens and is linked to the mainland by a causeway and floating bridge but, with its rugged mountains covered with olive and cypress trees, coves and beaches, it still retains all the remoteness of an island.

We spent two weeks exploring and watching the world go by from small tavernas overlooking quiet bays and never got around to visiting Lefkada town. It's always best to leave something for next time.

NEED TO KNOW | NIGEL HEATH flew from Gatwick to Preveza, less than an hour's drive from Lefkada. He flew with Monarch but there are also flights with other airlines from most UK regional airports. He booked villa accommodation independently online.

CAPTION(S):

Capt Gerasimos and his wife Marie

The waterfront at Nydhri
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Article Type:Travel narrative
Date:Aug 27, 2016
Words:982
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