Along the West Coast of Greece, close to our neighbors in Italy, is a chain of islands known as the Ionian islands, named after the sea which surrounds them. Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Lefkada, Corfu, Ithaki, Paxos, more distant Kythera, and a handful of smaller but equally heavenly islets make up this island group. Kefalonia is the biggest and is nestled in the middle of the chain, situated across from at the entrance to the Gulf of Patras. These islands differ from the renowned and romanticized Aegean islands in terms of biodiversity and ecosystems. The Ionian islands are blessed with lush greenery and forests, climbing and cascading down steep mountainsides. Compared to the rocky and whitewashed Aegean, the Ionian world is a walk into the jungle, famous for the electric blue of the sea, the pearl white stones on the shores, and the turtles that feel at home there.
Just like the turtles that disappear into the sea or the wild horses that escape into the mountains, the Ionian is a hideout for people as well. Perhaps it is the dense forests that make it easy to be unseen, or the fact that the media does not widely publicize these islands to tourists. The Ionian islands are not unknown, but they are not as packed with tourists as the other island chains in Greece. This must be why billionaires, movie stars, and influential people we may not know of, hide out in the Ionian.
One of the most famous residents was also a modern Greek legend. Aristotle Onassis bought the 205-acre Scorpios island just off the east coast of Lefkada in 1963. Although Onassis’ wealth was immense, he did not need much to purchase the island, which at the time was available for $14,000 or 3.5 million drachmas. The real cost went into cultivating and beautifying the empty island. To make it a paradise Onassis gathered over 200 different tree species from around Greece to cover the land. To make a calm beachfront on the east side he also gathered sand from Salamina island, which is right across from Piraeus in Athens and has a significant role in the history of ancient Greece.
And as if these were not exclusive enough, Onassis even bought soil from a nearby mountain to Scorpios to have a steady water supply. Once the grounds were brought up to par – it seemed like the island was lush all along – then the house construction began. An estate fit for a billionaire, three separate homes were built on Scorpios. In order to accommodate travel, a marina was built for his famous yacht Christina, named after his daughter. There was also a landing pad for a helicopter if anyone was ever in a rush.
The 1960’s were a golden age for Onassis and his popularity and success attracted many stars and notable people to Scorpios. Iconic stars and public figures like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Winston Churchill were known to have vacationed there. Until Onassis’ death in 1975 there was always a warm gathering of people on the island.
Scorpios has been sold, but it will always be associated with the Onassis’ family as he and his two children, Alexander and Christina, were laid to rest on their beloved island. After their deaths, the ownership of Scorpios passed down to Onassis’ granddaughter Athina, but she did not want to keep the island, and in 2013 it was sold for $153 million to Ekaterina Rybolovlev, daughter of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. The family’s plans to turn it into a luxury resort have just been approved by the Greek government. That means for a price, you too can experience Scorpios and relive the golden age of Greek luxury and wealth.
But what was it that really drew Onassis and other wealthy people to the Ionian islands and caused them to call it home? There are in fact many uninhabited islands all over Greece, especially in the Aegean Sea. But the unique charm of the six most well-known Ionian islands and their smaller scattered islets cannot be found elsewhere. Two seas meet in their neighborhood, the Ionian and the Adriatic, merging to create diverse and thriving ecosystems both on land and in the water. This part of Greece receives more rainfall, which creates the deep and mature forests. Largely comprised of limestone but interspersed with other rock types, the Ionian and Greece in general are very ancient geologically.
200 million years ago the Earth’s land masses that we are familiar with formed one supercontinent scientists have named Pangaea. As the supercontinent began to break apart due to tectonic plate movements below the Earth’s crust, a body of water called the Tethys Sea was formed. As the land continued to move into the positions we see today, the Tethys Sea eventually disappeared but made way for the Mediterranean. Rocky remnants from the Tethys can still be found in the Mediterranean, making it beautiful scenically – but there are costs. Of all the places along these tectonic plate boundaries, seismic activity is especially strong around the Ionian, specifically the islands Kefalonia and nearby Ithaki. In all of Europe, this location is the most active for tectonic plate movement, subjecting the Ionian islands to destructive earthquakes, most notably in 1953. Despite the collapse of most buildings and much of the infrastructure, the people of the Ionian rebuilt.
Perhaps it is this unwavering and indomitable spirit that attracts people there. People who hail from the Ionian are sometimes called stubborn, but rather it is a confidence and certainty in their beliefs and customs. They have pride in their homeland and know that it is unique and special.
Surely, when Aristotle Onassis and others chose to live in the Ionian, they felt this same love. While the Ionian islands are no longer a secret, with tourists now visiting all year round, something still remains unknown and invisible. Despite great hardships from natural disasters, or violent occupations during the Second World War earlier conflicts, the Ionians never faltered. Where do they find this strength, this spirit? Maybe you should visit the Ionian islands and try to find out for yourself, and with a stroke of luck, it will rub off on you too.