From sublime fishing villages to the epic romance of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — set on the ravishing Ionian island and published 25 years ago this summer — Kefalonia is so perfect it almost feels imaginary. It’s the old-fashioned Greek island you’ve searched so long to find, with pinch-yourself beaches, mint-blue seas and pastel-painted villages, plus food and drink so good there’s a sense locals would rather not share it with you. It can’t be called a comeback — Kefalonia has never been in fashion — and it’s way off the pulse of neighbouring Corfu and Zante. But with a new airport terminal set to bring in more flights, the biggest Ionian island is ripe to cause a stir thanks to its perfect marriage of richly-varied landscapes and family-friendly attractions. Here are just a few of the top things to do in Kefalonia and why it should top your Greek hit list this summer.
When Louis de Bernières released bestselling historical war romance Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in 1994, it caused a minor sensation. Fast forward a quarter of a century and its blue-and-white tablecloth cover, a Hollywood adaptation with Nicholas Cage, Penélope Cruz and Christian Bale, and a new touring stage musical have made it almost ubiquitous.
The island played a starring role in the 2001 film, with the story almost exclusively shot in and around the seafront town of Sámi, which was partly reconstructed to take cinemagoers back to the 1940s. Antisamos and mile-and-a-half long Myrtos Beaches provided the on-screen eye candy, as did the crumbling ruined monastery of Agios Fanentes, bulwarked on a promontory above the town.
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Not that you’d know Hollywood was ever here. There are few, if any, mentions of the film or book’s legacy on the island and there’s a sense locals have forgotten about it, too — arguably because most visitors cluster near the airport around the sandy beachfront of Lassi and Skala, some 40km further away to the south. De Bernières is not the only author to have been inspired by the landscape here. Romantic poet and Grecophile Lord Byron wrote poetry in the town of Leivathos during a visit in 1823. Look out for the marble inscription at Byron’s Rock reading: “If I am a poet, I owe it to the air of Greece.”
…but that simply means the rewards are greater. Finding the best stretches of sand means ditching the car and hiking through pine and olive forest to hidden away shingle-and-sand coves like Dafnoudi and Kimilia Beaches, both located outside delightfully pretty Fiskardo in the island’s north. If you prefer to fly-then-flop, marquee beaches like Myrtos and Agia Jerusalem still need to be reached by tackling Top Gear-style roads that twist down steep cliffs. Platia Ammos, northwest of island capital Argostoli, requires a boat shuttle to reach it (unless you prefer the 280 knee-jangling steps), as do Xilomata and Kutsupia. These beaches can push you out of your comfort zone, but the best way to get to know Kefalonia is to explore it properly.
Scenically varied, richly hospitable and without a chain restaurant or shop in sight, northern Kefalonia could easily exist in another century. Goat invaders block the single track roads, fishing boats pull up in front of restaurant kitchens in dazzling harbours, and it’s many stretches of golden sand have not a sun lounger in sight.
Start with strong Greek coffee in the company of cats overlooking Assos Beach — a screensaver shot of Greece if ever there was one. After stopping off at Picnic Cafe and the delis in Magganos for a hamper lunch, continue to Foki Fiskardo for a dip and swim into its easy-to-reach electric blue sea cave. In peak summer, yachts on their way to and from neighbouring Ithaca anchor here, giving it a mini riviera vibe. Should it be too busy, consider Emplisi Beach to the north: with zero facilities, and stone slabs for lounging, it rises to the occasion and deserves some of your holiday time, too. For barefoot sunset drinks and meze afterwards, return south to delightfully hidden Acqua Alaties Beach, above the itsy-bitsy beach of the same name.
As tempting as it is to spend every day on one of Kefalonia’s 50-odd beaches, the Ionian island is also home to Mount Ainos National Park, the only protected reserve on a Greek Island, as well as Drogarati Cave, a Batman’s lair home to dragon’s teeth stalactites, stalagmites and subterranean creatures.
Begin with a day hike up Mount Ainos (1,628 metres) through black pine and fir forest on the look out for semi-wild ponies. The route is officially signposted from a quarry on the east coast road from Sami to Poros and carries on up to pixel-perfect views of neighbouring Ithaca and the mainland’s Peloponnese peninsula. Back on the road, go north to Drogarati Cave near Sámi to spelunk in a cavern that reaches 60m below sea level and swells with bats and bug-eyed insects. Historically, it’s the first place local families would go to cool down in the summer heat.
Giant loggerheads and green turtles. Monk seals. Basking sharks. Common dolphins. Ferrets, pine martin and some 10,000 goats. It’s hard not to pay attention to the fauna and marine life that live around Kefalonia. In particular, your eyes will grow wide around 11am in Agrostoli harbour when the fishing boat captains return with their morning haul. Over the years, freshly filleted scraps have been thrown overboard, resulting in scores of endangered loggerhead turtles arriving for a feast. It’s a unique phenomenon in the Mediterranean and has lead to various research and conservation projects popping up to study and protect the species. If you want to help out, highly recommended volunteering opportunities are available with island-based charity Wildlife Sense.
Greek cuisine is nothing new. We’re sure you know tzatziki, taramasalata, gyros, souvlaki, saganaki, dolmades and moussaka. But spend time in a Kefalonian taverna (medium-sized, affordable) or estiatório (modest, crammed with character) from Agrostoli to Lixouri, the main town on the Paliki peninsula, and you’ll notice all sorts of differing statements.
Blame the geography, but this part of Greece has long been influenced by Italy, in particular during the Venetian occupation of the Ionian islands, from the mid-14th century until the late 18th century. That's 400 years of Italian cooking. And, of course, the Italians brought the kinds of dishes you’d more likely find in an enoteca with them. Sofrito, slow-cooked veal drowned in wine, braised beef and earthy pastitsada, a thick, tomatoey meat stew, are stand-outs. A couple of places to try are family-run Tassia in Fiskardo and Palia Plaka in Agrostoli.
Don't leave without trying the Greek take on pasta — bucatini is a favourite — and a seafood platter toppling over with layers of grilled octopus, squid, swordfish and shellfish. Invest in a decent bottle of white wine, made with indigenous Robola grapes (and also introduced by the Venetians), for the perfect pairing. For a tour and tasting, drop in to Orealios Gaea, previously known as the Robola Cooperative of Kefalonia.
Mike’s trip was supported by Jet2.com, which offers flights to Kefalonia from various UK airports from £56 per person one way including taxes (0800 408 5599). He stayed at To Petrino, a Fairlight Jones property in Markoulata near Fiscardo. A seven-night package starts from £500pp based on four sharing, including car hire, a welcome hamper and return flights (020 3875 0351).
Top image: Assos village in island of Kefalonia, Greece © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock