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. Here are just a few of the top things to do in Kefalonia.
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 this is 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.”
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The northern and western mountainous part of the Kefalonia is known as Anogí. Some 10km (6 miles) up the coast – longer by the winding roads – is undoubtedly the finest beach on the peninsula, Petaní, a beautiful stretch of pebbles backed by steep cliffs.
The road along the east coast plunges down a very steep (10 per cent) hill, passing by Xýngi and around a headland with numerous sea caves, to the beach at Makris Gialós. Here, there is a camping ground, several places to eat and sea caves you can swim into right by the beach.
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The Assos village retains much of its traditional architecture (reconstructed with the help of the City of Paris, commemorated by a plaque in Platía Parísion), and in spring and early summer is covered in flowers. The small Assos beach in the harbour is fairly clean but just around the coast are some beautiful coves, only accessible by boat.
Fiscardo village itself survived the 1953 earthquake intact, and has cashed in on this with a vengeance. The admittedly very attractive harbourfront is backed by pastel-shaded housing, now largely expensive restaurants, cafés and boutiques. The harbour, for better or worse, is also greatly beloved by yachters.
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.
Begin with a day hike up Mount Ainos (1,628 metres) through black pine and fir forest on the lookout 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.
The cave was discovered about 300 years ago after an earthquake opened up the present entrance. A steep series of steps lead down into a cool fissure, at the bottom of which is a concrete viewing platform overlooking the huge chamber.
Occasionally used to hold concerts, it has an impressive array of stalactites. Some of these are damaged, broken off by unthinking souvenir hunters, but there is still a huge amount of flowstone left.
From the platform, you can make your way down onto the floor of the chamber, where you can explore the nooks and crannies.
The cave was formed between 20,000 and 16,000 years ago, during the last ice age. The roof of the cavern collapsed some 5,000 years ago, the debris from which still lies in the centre of the lake. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of its geology is that it is the point of resurgence for the water that sinks at the katavóthres near Argostóli, hence the water in the cave is brackish.
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 led 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.
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.
In more recent times, Sámi was used as the set for much of the filming of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The long sandy beach that stretches around the bay to the village of Karavómylos is perfectly adequate, but 2km further east, beyond ancient Sami, lies a more dramatic pebble beach, Andísamis, set in a stunning curved bay.
One of the main attractions in the Sami area is the Sami Acropolis. A number of scenic paths lead up to the Acropolis and tie in with the plethora of Roman ruins in the surrounding area.
The relatively calm and safe waters around Kefaloniá, coupled with the wonderful marine environment, have made this area very popular with yacht owners and companies running bareboat charter and flotilla holidays. The most popular harbour is Fiskárdo on the north of the island. However, this can get very busy, especially with novice crews being instructed through loudhailers by their group leader on the quayside.
If you are after a little more peace and quiet then you would be better advised to head down the coast to Agía Efimía or along the spectacular west coast to the pretty horseshoe harbour of Ássos.
Extended boat trips are available for advanced divers. For the more advanced trips, or to hire equipment and go by yourself, you will need to show a diving certificate. Boards and sails for windsurfing are available for hire at certain beaches and instruction is offered at many places. Parasailing, which is now very popular, is available at a number of beaches as is jet-skiing.
To discover even more places to visit and beauties to see in Greece - read our guide to the best things to do in Greece.
There are no traditional beach facilities such as sun loungers, parasols or beach bars on Fteri beach. If you are going here, don't forget to take all the necessary supplies, including food, as there are no shops or restaurants in the area.
Spend this tailor-made trip to classical Greece exploring Athens and the ancient sites surrounding the capital on mainland Greece. Blessed with glorious weather, nature and beaches, see sites that rival anything which you may find on the Greek Islands.
The city is also home to two notable historical landmarks: De Bosset Bridge and Obelisk. The De Bosse Bridge was built in 1813 by the Swiss engineer Charles Philippe de Bosse, who served as governor of Kefalonia. It is a stone bridge that crosses the Koutavos lagoon and links the town of Argostoli to the opposite shore. It is one of the longest stone bridges in Europe. It offers spectacular views of the lagoon and the Argostoli.
The obelisk is a tall monument located at the De Bosse Bridge entrance. It was constructed in 1813 to honour the completion of the bridge and in honour of Sir Charles Napier, the British commissioner who was instrumental in the construction of the bridge.
Close to the winery, just beyond Valsamáta, is Moní Agíou Gerasímou. Ágios Gerasímos is the patron saint of Kefaloniá, and the convent, founded in the 16th century, is the most important pilgrimage site on the island. The (male) saint founded a female order in 1554 and was beatified in 1622.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Kefalonia without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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Top image: Assos village in island of Kefalonia, Greece © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock