Surprises and contrasts are what some of us travel for, and there are plenty of both to be had on the lovely Greek island of Kefalonia, in the Ionian Sea
In the beautiful Omala Valley, deep within the mountainous heart of Kefalonia, wines are produced just a few hundred metres from the Convent of Saint Gerasimos, the patron saint of Kefalonia. Where the cooperative winery is all stainless steel, the church to commemorate this 16th-century saint is dominated by gilding and sumptuous icons, one of the many contrasts in an island full of them.
The Omala Valley is reached via winding mountain roads. As my wife and son exclaim: “Look at that” - one of the island’s majestic eagles soaring not too far above us - I fix my eyes on the strip of asphalt keeping us from a grisly death on the rocks below. The main roads are good, but the drops not for the faint-hearted.
This is our second time in Kefalonia. The first, in 2005, was spent in cosmopolitan – and consequently expensive - Fiskardo, the yachting centre with its pretty Venetian architecture on the island’s northern tip. Walking along the seashore I wonder out loud who is on the Channel ferry-sized yacht in the harbour, to be told by an excited fan it is Madonna’s. It’s that sort of place. It was in Fiskardo we first braved the leather-clad bottle holding the local Robola, and found the fresh white suited the fish and seafood of the resort’s restaurants perfectly.
This time we are staying in sleepy Katelios down south, a quiet fishing village a world away from Fiskardo, where we eat bass, bream, snapper, even an indulgent linguine with lobster sauce, all washed down again with the wine of the country, at about half what we paid previously in Fiskardo – the sort of surprise we can all enjoy.
At the Robola Cooperative the winery manager, Dr Spiridon Theotokatos, kindly shows me round the gleaming modern presses, filters and bottling plant. But his first words hark back 3,000 years: “Even Homer refers to Robola, the traditional variety here on the island.” The winery is open to visitors, and worth the winding route to get there.
We sip through his range: the lightly chilled classic Robola, citrussy and unfussy; the limited-edition San Gerasimos, more complex, a hint of apple in it, and maybe capsicum, as well as that palate-cleansing citrus, a wine to really dwell over; Bio Robola made from organic grapes; Brillante, a blended medium-dry rosé with surprisingly deep strawberry and redcurrant flavours; and finally a real surprise, Glykorogos, a sweet red blended from Robola, flowery Muscat, and another local variety, Mavrodaphne. It is delicious, decidedly sexy as an aperitif as well as with dessert.
A quarter of a mile away, we are awestruck by the giant icons and gilded statues everywhere in the Convent, a world away from the grey simplicity of most English churches. The light bounced from the gold dazzles eyes and cameras.
The mountains provide a beautiful backdrop to the island’s many beaches: for those who want crowds Lassi and Lourdata on the west coast are the places to go; for quieter places, Katelios and Skala in the south offer refuge and wonderful snorkelling, though sometimes it takes trekking to reach the sands. The world beneath the waves is even more beautiful than the island: shoals of multi-coloured fish just out of reach, an occasional octopus, but sea-anemones too, so flippers or beach shoes are a good idea.
Another escape is to be had taking the ferry from the island’s capital, Argostoli, across to the Lixouri Peninsula, a 15-minute crossing for just a few Euros, even with a car. The peninsula is markedly flatter than the rest of the island, and grows much of its fruit and vegetables. Driving back round the coast, we stop at one of those restaurants you dream of finding – fresh prawns and salad for even less than we pay in Katelios, plus a view over the little bay that is beyond price, brightly painted fishing boats framed in the blue of the sea.
Kefalonia is still a good bet for families, and seems determined to limit the night club set to a few selected areas, leaving the bulk of the place for those wanting a relaxing getaway. Find a good restaurant by wandering the shores and spotting which is full, and enjoy a couple of hours of lazy eating. And forget the cheapo carafe wines - go for the quality local stuff. You’re on holiday - enjoy.