An almighty “moo” echoed around the harbour, a bit like the cow sounds we make to entertain George, only 1,000 times louder. Some fellow passengers on the top deck looked over to see how our 14-month-old reacted to the bone-shaking sound of the ferry horn. He was fine. After a little jump he went back to the important task of shovelling banana into his mouth while frowning inquisitively at the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea.
We were on our way to Meganisi, a Greek island just a few miles off the shores of Lefkada. Its name means “big island”, but at just 10 square miles Meganisi is a mere olive stone in the Med. It has a permanent population of 1,200 and until the 1950s there were no roads, only donkey tracks.
But Meganisi is making ripples. In recent years Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Madonna and Giorgio Armani have docked here, and Rafael Nadal visited this summer. Clearly there’s something in the waters. Skorpios, next door, was long owned by Aristotle Onassis (he and Jackie Kennedy got married there in 1968) and the current owner, Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, has grand plans to turn it into a €1m-per-week private resort. Nearby Atokos is also privately owned by a Greek shipping magnate.
While its neighbours are owned by reclusive billionaires and its inlets are navigated by superyachts, Meganisi remains open for business to mere mortals like you and I. The villa company Vintage Travel added the island to its roster in 2023, bringing six new options and, with it, a stamp of approval for the destination. But as we rolled off the car ferry I wondered if we would feel out of place, and outpriced, in one of the Med’s most exclusive corners.
On our first evening we walked along pushchair-quaking flagstones into hilltop Spartochori, one of three villages on the island. It satisfied that desire to find something “authentic” on our holidays, and the wish to have it all to ourselves. Clothes hung from the windows of white-washed houses whose walls seemed to sprout bougainvilleas, and seemingly surly gentlemen sitting in small groups cooed at the sight of George.
At Laki’s Taverna, one of just a few options in the village, we met a couple from Yorkshire, Ros and Robbie, who have been visiting Meganisi for decades. When they first came, only Greek firms operated holidays here and, aside from a few intrepid sailing sorts, they had the island to themselves.
Tonight, the restaurant buzzed with tourists enjoying fresh swordfish cooked on an open grill, with the obligatory gang of stray cats waiting expectantly. If the staff treated Olivia and I like family, George was treated like a king. A theme was emerging.
Early the next morning, from the vantage point of our balcony, the beauty of Meganisi came into focus with the sunrise. Like its sister islands in the Ionian Sea, and unlike the drier Cyclades, Meganisi is lush, with pine, cypress and olive trees vying for space on its sloping hills that practically crash into the sea. In the distance, the Acarnanian Mountains loomed, their karst ridges shapeshifting with the light.
Zacharoula, whose family owns the villa we were staying in, plus a few others, grew up in Meganisi. They were pioneers in the business of building and renting out villas, and others soon followed suit. Today there are around 100 in total across the island, and we spotted the concrete cuboid shells of more in development. Do the residents of Meganisi welcome the growth of tourism here?
“We like tourists – it’s the neighbours that can cause problems,” she laughed. Small-town politics exist in paradise, too.
From above, Meganisi looks like an inverted comma, or a tadpole, and all the main places to visit are congregated in its hilly little head. This means if you drive for longer than 20 minutes to get anywhere, you have probably taken a wrong turn. On the west coast we visited Il Paradiso, a laid-back waterfront restaurant set in the grassy shade of olive trees, one of which is said to be 350 years old. The staff wear T-shirts adorned with the catchphrase “The Dark Side of Meganisi”.
“It’s because we’re on the quieter side of the island. We’re a bit harder to find,” explained the German-Greek waiter, unaware we had driven just eight minutes to get there. The food here is simple but delicious (try the calamari) and the outlook is anything but dark.
In the crystal-clear waters, which have drawn comparisons with Norwegian fjords, dozens of sail boats made their way to Vassiliki in a feeder race ahead of a big regatta in a couple of days time. I took George to count the boats but he wasn’t quite sure. Despite living near the sea, he has always found the crashing of waves a bit unnerving.
We soon fell into a rhythm at our villa. It broadly centred around slathering George with suncream, dancing around to Ezra Collective, stopping him from slipping into the swimming pool, wiping Weetabix splodges off the floor, and then savouring those precious 120 minutes of nap-time like sun-soaked sips of champagne. Passing visitors, like hairy mountain goats and a leaf-shaped cricket the size of my hand, brought little moments of wonder.
When we invariably had the itch to explore, we visited the many bays and beach bars across Meganisi, but we tended to centre back on Vathy. There are lots of harbours in Greece with this name, which means “depth”, but Meganisi’s could be the prettiest iteration.
Along the waterfront there is a lemon-yellow Orthodox church and little supermarkets selling imported products like Provencal rosé and baked beans to people like, well, me. At the family-run Stavros restaurant, we were served a perfect smoky grilled sea bream and George was treated less like a king but more like some kind of infant deity. One waiter planted the gentlest kiss on his head when he learnt they shared a name.
On our last day, at the crack of dawn we drove to Limonari Beach, a horseshoe bay with a ramshackled snack bar selling grilled fish, caught by the owner. Otherwise we had it all to ourselves, and we were surprised when George seemed to enjoy sitting in the shallows, picking up sun-bleached white pebbles while his toes wiggled in the sea.
The waves that washed up to his tummy were making him smile. And then he stood up and toddled into the water, holding Olivia’s hands before climbing into her arms. This was his first time submerged in the sea, with the hazy hills of Kalamos in the distance, translucent fish zipping below. No superyacht, no private island, is worth more than a moment like this.
Unless you charter a boat, you will need a car to reach and explore Meganisi. The roads are narrow in the villages, so opt for a small car if you can. Eurowheels (0030 2645 092909) operates from Preveza Airport along with other rental firms. The car ferry departs from Nidri Port, a 50-minute drive from the airport, three times daily and it takes 25 minutes to reach Spilia Port on Meganisi.
EasyJet (0330 551 5151) operates flights from Gatwick to Preveza Airport up to six times a week, starting from £32.99 one way (flights run until October 28, 2023 and then resume on March 31, 2024). Gatwick offers official valet parking (£159 for a week).
Greg travelled as a guest of Vintage Travel (01954 261431). They have six villas on Meganisi. A week at Kyknos starts from £698, with availability up to mid-October 2023 and from April 2024 onwards.