Cephalonia/Kefalonia - more than Corelli's island

by corb2000

However you spell it, rest assured that while de Bernieres may have brought more visitors to Cephalonia, it remains a charming island that has avoided becoming a slave to the story of Captain Corelli

It must be odd to find yourselves living in a place that suddenly becomes a tourist destination. There must be a pattern to it, no doubt studied by sociology students, which starts with the appearance of small numbers of individual travellers and tourism professionals, who then spread the word and make arrangements for the hordes to follow.

Those sociology students would do well to speak to some of the older residents of Cephalonia. They have seen more than the usual changes on their island, from Italian and German occupation to mass migration following the 1953 earthquake; forest fires raging through large areas; and then a recent return to favour for both tourists and immigration, the former mainly due to interest created by Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the novel by Louis de Bernieres.

As the novel was first published in 1998 and the subsequent film released in 2001, these are relatively recent influences. Together, they have made a major difference to life on this pretty island. So, given the combination of the writer’s creative nature and the film-maker’s talent for selecting angles and cropping images, are the expectations created by the novel and film realistic?

Of course the answer is yes, and no. The island is one of the most attractive anywhere in Greece but its scenery has been nibbled away by forest fires and random development. There are, I am glad to say, still very large areas of beautiful landscape, particularly in the south east of the island, between Poros and Sami, and in the north, between Agonas and Fiskardo.

Elsewhere, you will still find pockets of beauty between the new villas dotted on scrubby hillsides cleared by forest fires. Development on the island is actually fairly low scale, it is just visible, being spread out along the busier roads. Most accommodation is in small apartment blocks or individual villas, as hotels are very much in the minority.

So, back to the expectations raised by Captain Corelli. Other than a few restaurants in the lovely little port of Sami which have adopted the name, (as Sami is close to where most of the filming took place), there is actually little reference to the story anywhere on the island. Rather, it is the two beaches shown in the film which are the focus of attention and therefore busier than you might expect for their size or location.

Antisamis Beach to the east of Sami is out on a limb and not really worth the effort. However, Myrtos Beach on the north west coast between Agonas and Assos is well worth seeing, it is easily (and best) viewed from a distance. Stop in the layby on the coast road to the north of the beach and take in the view looking back towards the beach.

Otherwise, there are surprisingly few places of interest. Guidebooks will probably point you towards Mellisani Lake (pretty but only takes 20 minutes), Drogarati Cave, Robola wineries or the Monastery of St Gerasimos. The real charm of Cephalonia is in the landscape between these places and the little hilltop villages in the centre of the island, but principally in the great food and hospitality served up by the islanders.

The range and quality of food in tavernas and restaurants is generally excellent, with many tasty local dishes, such as village style lamb served in a clay dish. Note that fish can be an expensive choice as stocks have suffered from overfishing in recent years. The island is an important wine producer and the local Robola white wine is worth its premium price.

You can book accommodation direct with a property owner through www.ownersdirect.co.uk or www.holidaylettings.co.uk. If you don’t fancy an independent property, look for a smaller group of apartments in one of the coastal towns or villages. Much better to be within easy walking distance to the tavernas and shops than a few miles away along a road with no footpaths or streetlights. One example would be Dreams Apartments Katelios Beach, in the south of Cephalonia.

To the south of Katelios, Aghia Barbara Beach is visited by both Caretta-Caretta and Loggerhead turtles, so local volunteers patrol during the day to ensure tourists take their litter home and remove anything that might obstruct the turtles as they crawl up the beach.

Katelios has a low key atmosphere with around 10 tavernas and restaurants. Prices reduce as you walk northwards along the main street alongside the harbour. Captain Jerry’s and those close to the northern end of the street offer excellent food and service at reasonable prices.

Elsewhere, Assos in the north is exceptionally pretty but accommodation and food is also much pricier here. Fiskardo is even more expensive due to it being the main harbour for visiting yachts. Go there to watch the crews skilfully steer their multi-million pound boats in and out of the harbour. The biggest and flashiest yachts often anchor just outside, creating the equivalent of expensive floating caravan parks.

For accomodation in Fiskardo, it is worth staying slightly outside the town in places with their own access to the sea, such as the Stella apartments http://www.stella-apartments.gr/. Note that the northern tip of the island is very rocky and there are fewer beaches than in the south.

Car rental is available in all of the coastal towns and easily arranged before you arrive, www.venusrental.gr will have your car waiting for you at the airport. Note that prices vary with the location, hiring a car in Assos or Fiskardo is likely to be much more expensive than in Skala or Katelios.

Check with your rental company before taking the car across to the neighbouring island of Ithaka, they will be unlikely to provide breakdown cover outside Cephalonia so best to take an organised boat trip instead, Captain Vangeli’s cruises to Ithaka run from Skala and Poros in the south east and the Captain's naval career is interesting - http://www.kefalonia.net.gr/EN/infoidmini.asp?EntityID=1017. Captain Vangelis and other operators also run trips to nearby Zante / Zankynthos, the main towns of Argostoli and Lixouri and several remote beaches for swimming and afternoon BBQs.

Wherever you choose to stay, be reassured that while Louis de Bernieres may have brought more visitors to Cephalonia, it remains a charming island that has avoided becoming a slave to the story of Captain Corelli.