The largest of the Ionian Islands, Kefalonia (Cephalonia) is the crown jewel among the surrounding gems of Corfu, Lefkas, Ithaca, Kythira, Zakynthos and Paxos
I’ll never forget the first time that I arrived in Kefalonia.
Turquoise and blue hued sea, sun bleached sands more akin to exotic destinations; had our pilot possibly taken the wrong turn and ended up in the Caribbean? No, we had flown for just over three hours from the UK and were now fast approaching what seemed a potential watery landing. Thankfully a runway magically appeared!
This Greek paradise has remained largely undiscovered and untainted by the masses, even having experienced the so called ‘Hollywood Effect’: the film of Louis De Bernieres novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was shot in its entirety on the island in 2000. However, it was the island’s spectacular raw beauty which everyone remembered about the film, not Nicholas Cage strumming his mandolin.
Having survived a turbulent, chequered history, the last thing the Kefalonians wanted was their beloved island being overrun by another mass invasion. No, Kefalonia is a little more refined, upmarket and unapologetically grander than that and so it wishes to remain.
At 907 sq km, it packs a lot into its relatively small frame. Everything here is on a grand scale, none more so than when it comes to things au naturel, which is Kefalonia's trump card over its neighbours. An imposing mountain range forms the island’s spine peaking in Mount Aenos National Park – at 1623m it’s the island’s highest point and the third highest mountain in Greece. I love nothing more than to pack a picnic, don the sensible footwear in search of the Wild Horses and rare Eleanor’s Eagle.
Driving along the excellent west coast, vertigo inducing road is Kefalonia's own thrill ride, but you’ll be amply rewarded with the stunning Myrtos Beach 1,000ft below, the most famous beach in Greece and ranked as one of the world’s top.
We zipped across the mountains to the east coast and into the bowels of the island. The spectacular 150 million year old Drogarati Caves and Melissani Lake just outside the largest port of Sami. Not to be missed, they always manage to induce ‘wows!’ from the most cynical. The lake was discovered when the roof collapsed after the earthquake of 1953 that almost obliterated the island. Amazingly, water feeds into the lake from the west side of the island at Katavothres, Argostoli. Seawater disappears through swallow holes in the seabed, only to be regurgitated at Melissani and along the east coast.
While in shabby chic Argostoli indulge in a little culture. The Archaeological Museum has unearthed some of Kefalonia's lesser known secrets or indulge in some light reading from one of the 53,000+ tomes at the Corgialenios Library, one of the most important libraries in Greece. After 12 years I’ve not finished one book yet…it’s all Greek to me!
Feast for the Gods
Bountiful supplies of olive, orange, lemon and grapefruit groves along with sticky sweet figs, deep amber, lavender scented honey and grapevines. The Robola Grape in particular is one of the island's most famous products and lends itself to the delicious, crisp Robola Wine produced by many of the island's wineries. S.I.R.O.K.E Co-Operative in the Omala Valley and the boutique, award winning Gentilini Winery (www.gentilini.gr) both offer tours and unfortunately generous tasting sessions.
Eating is a relaxed affair and usually consists of several dishes leisurely picked at whilst participating in lively conversation / debate and a kilo or two of local Krassi (wine) just to keep the spirits raised! Argostoli accommodates all palates and budgets from authentic souvlaki bars – try Makis Taverna in Lakithra - to traditional Kefalonian specialties such as Kefalonian Meat Pie – a deep filled pie of Pork or Beef mixed with rice, fragrant wild herbs topped off with pastry.
Vallianou Square, Rizopaston and the harbour front are good starting points for the uninitiated. Kiani Akti perched on stilts looking out to sea delivers high quality seafood and traditional Greek dishes, Venturing a little inland and I’m always rewarded at Possada Restaurant at the unique George Molfetos Museum Hotel in Faraklata. Gods and mortals dine side by side, dishes lovingly introduced and prepared by the intriguing owner, Katarina (www.georgemolfetas.com). Afterwards, you need only to pop across the courtyard to your antique filled room to sleep off the feast!
For me though, heaven is a place called Preview at Avithos Beach. Owner Panos Sarris, with encyclopeadic wine knowledge, is always the perfect host, while Mama ‘The Best’ Angela creates home cooked food including freshly caught sea bass, Mousaka and Beef Stifado while you kick back and drink in the view (a table near the main entrance!) and a superb collection of Greek wines including Pano’s own Avithos (White) and Veramente (Red). He also produces their own single estate olive oil - Panachori - and cookery book so you re-create a touch of Preview and Greece when you return home. (www.avithospreview.com http://greekwineguide.blogspot.com).
Aside from lazing in the crystal clear, warm seas that lap the stunning beaches, try your hand at kayaking (www.seakayakingkefalonia-greece.com) or snorkelling and diving around the sheltered shores. www.diveinkefalonia.com and http://www.fiscardo.com/scuba_diving.htm both offer full PADI courses and instruction. Or join Kefalonia's own Jacques Cousteau, Jamie Stirling, for a day out. It’s a unique experience and opportunity to come up close and personal with some of nature's more interesting sea creatures - www.ioniandiscoveries.com while those with ‘A’ list aspirations and taste for speed and luxury can charter their own private, skippered 50' Speedboat ‘FORTUNA’ www.emelissehotel.com at normal mortal rates!
Where to rest your weary soul
During my first few visits to Kefalonia I stayed at Sotiris Studios, Svoronata. Nearly all rooms have garden / sea views, are a two minute walk from lovely Ammes Beach and a ten minute drive from the airport - no night flights, no disturbance.
Down South, Skala’s Nine Muses Hotel ensures comfort and standards are not foregone while there is boutique luxury at Hotel Villa Costa with seven individually named suites - ‘Artemis’ is the grande dame with two bedrooms, large balcony and fantastic views. The a la carte restaurant ‘Sofia’s’ delivers lip smacking Greek cuisine complemented with superb wines from a well stocked wine cellar. With every whim catered for, it’s always hard to leave.
My full on love affair though is with the cool, contemporary 5-star Emelisse Art Hotel in Fiskardo - www.emelissehotel.com for its unbeatable location, rooms with shared, decked plunge pools (102 is the two bedroom executive suite!) views to Lefkada and Meganissi, two restaurants, an Elemis Spa, fully equipped gym, tennis courts, outdoor cinema, spectacular infinity pool, (a separate one for the kids - few and far between!) and the attentive, discreet, good looking, professional staff. This is where the brain turns to mush, homemade carrot cake is served at breakfast and tears are shed when people leave. I say no more!
The Emelisse has always been a popular choice for couples getting married or on honyemoon and they have recently launched a full bepsoke wedding service - www.emelisseweddings.com to ensure the most perfect day.
For total peace and an element of privacy Villa Apartment Millianna in Kaligata, provides the perfect two bedroom self catering accommodation with a private pool shared with one other Villa Apartment and is just a 10 minute walk from Avithos Beach and the village of Svoronata with a handful of tavernas and a local minimarket. http://www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/p84484
Seeking a destination that has it all, allowing you to take it ‘siga, siga’ (slowly, slowly)? Then Kefalonia is definitely for you. Oh…and if you drink the water…you will be back. I promise!
Thomson, First Choice, Thomas Cook all offer package deals or flight only, from many of the UK’s regional airports May to October. It’s possible to reach the island outside these periods by flying into Athens with BA www.ba.com or Aegean www.aegeanair.com taking the connecting domestic flight with either Olympic Air.