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.
When Louis de Bernières released the 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.
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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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 the island capital Argostoli, requires a boat shuttle to reach it, 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.
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.
Explore the beauty of Greek beaches with our guide to the best beaches in Greece.
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. Meanwhile, 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.
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.
Starting with strong Greek coffee in the company of cats overlooking Assos Beach is one of the best things to do in Kefalonia. 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.
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.
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. It is 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 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.
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.
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.
Perhaps one of the best things to do in Kefalonia is to visit to the cave lake at Melissáni west of Sámi. A short artificial tunnel brings you to the edge of a large underground lake, partly open to the sky due to the collapse of the cavern’s roof. The sunlight on the deep, clear water turns it an iridescent blue. Visitors are rowed around the lake by boatmen.
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.
Giant loggerheads and green turtles. Monk seals. Basking sharks. Common dolphins. Ferrets, pine martins 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 11 am 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 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.
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.
Most boats to the island dock at the large and functional port town of Sami, near the south end of the Itháki straits, more or less on the site of ancient Sami. This was the capital of the island in Homeric times, when Kefaloniá was part of Ithaca’s maritime kingdom. Ironically, today the administrative hierarchy is reversed, with Itháki being considered the backwater.
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.
Hiring a small motorboat is one of the best things to do in Kefalonia to explore secluded and otherwise inaccessible bays. They are available from travel agents in many places and cost €50–100 per day plus petrol. They are great for swimming from – simply anchor, then dive or jump off the side; all boats have a fold-down ladder to help you get back on board.
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.
Visiting the coasts around Zákynthos and Kefaloniá is among the best things to do in Kefalonia for divers – the rocky shoreline is home to a wide variety of creatures, and the calm, clear water gives visibility up to 50m (165ft). All scuba-diving schools have qualified instructors who will choose dive locations according to your experience.
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.
The remote Fteri beach has become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to its unspoilt natural beauty and the tranquillity it offers. Vacationing on this beach is one of the best things to do in Kefalonia for those looking for a calm and serene environment to relax in.
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 island’s capital, and also its largest town, Argostóli was completely destroyed in the 1953 earthquake and has been rebuilt largely with modern concrete buildings. Although it is essentially a port and administrative centre, the town is not entirely devoid of charm. It has a great position surrounded by mountains, as well as a number of interesting museums, and it makes a good base for exploring the rest of the island.
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.
The turn-off towards Valsamáta will take you to the Cephalonian Robola Producers Cooperative. The Robola grape is cultivated on the high altitude limestone soils found in the region and is used to produce a fine white wine. The cooperative makes two Robola wines, both of which can be tasted in the visitors’ centre.
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.
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Top image: Assos village in island of Kefalonia, Greece © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock