What's it all about?
Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands and lies off the west coast of mainland Greece opposite the toe of Italy’s boot. Probably most famous for being the setting for Louis de Berniere’s 90s must-read novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it’s visited as a beach destination but offers lots beyond.
The best beaches
The island has sand and stone beaches but unusually it’s the pebble ones that are the most lauded, probably because the stones are a perfect cream colour and the sea that laps them is crystal clear, reflecting vivid turquoise when the sun shines.
Most photographed is Myrtos Beach a solar-bleached stoney smile tucked into a wide bay with dramatic cliffs plunging down to it. Anti-Samos draws big crowds for its stunning crescent of pale pebbles backed by green foliage. If you like beers bought to your lounger this is the place to go. On the other side of the island there is a long sandy stretch at Lourdas and on the Paliki peninsula is the strange orange sand beach of Xi, backed by white cliffs.
The capital of Argostoli is modern because of the 1953 earthquake which flattened it, but packed with bars and restaurants. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, along the harbour promenade where fishing boats and yachts moor up; around the huge town square, filled with café bars and across the harbour on the De Bosset Bridge, built in 1813 and the longest stone sea bridge in the world.
The only part of the island unscathed by the earthquake is Fiskardo, the fishing village at its northern tip. The shuttered houses retain their warm terracotta tiles and are painted bright, contrasting colours and dripping with hot pink bougainvillea. Fish restaurants line the tightly packed quayside where yachts moor up right next to the dining tables.
A little south is the less crowded Assos, another rainbow village tumbling down to a sheltered harbour and looked over by a Venetian castle that’s surrounded by cool olive groves. There’s a small beach and plenty of tavernas for people watching.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a tribute to fynbos, the unique heathland habitat around Cape Town, admired for its biodiversity and resilience. You can see colourful heathers, irises, daisies, orchids and the spiky national flower, protea – which has a garden dedicated to it. There’s also a fragrance garden, medicinal garden and glass houses of desert plants. The Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway, named the boomslang (tree snake) for the way it winds through the Arboretum, gives panoramic views of the trees and Table Mountain.
King of the castle
The pretty mountain-top village of Kastro is named for its castle, the ruined Venetian fortress of St George. The site is free to explore, with few barriers to stop you stealing into the dark recesses of long forgotten cellars. The battlements offer beautiful views inland and out to sea.
Head to the top
Mount Ainos is the only Greek national park on an island and Kefalonia’s highest point. Driving through tiny villages, past white-washed chapels and loose herds of goats, you’ll eventually wind to the top up switch-back roads lined with thick pine trees. The temperature at the summit is a good ten degrees cooler than sea level and hiking trails wind through forest and boulders for panoramic views.
Eat your heart out
Just outside the castle is one of the top-rated restaurant on the island, Café Kastro. Run by a Greek/British couple it cooks up home-cooked Greek dishes like prawn saganaki, baked feta, meatballs, kebabs and aubergine pie on a terrace bursting with blooms. The village is also home to Il Borgo, a great dinner spot serving fancier fare like roasted lamb and deconstructed calamari, served on a vine-covered terrace looking across to neighbouring Zante.
Head to one of these neighbouring isles for a change of scene…
This steep, green isle is tantalisingly close from Fiskardo but reached from Sami by car ferry. Famous for being the home of legendary Greek king Odysseus, top spots include the picturesque fishing village of Kioni where red tiled houses dot hills smothered in olive and cypress trees and the famous hidden beach of Gidaki reached by boat or hike and home only to dazzling white shingle.
Boat trips leave from Poros/Skala to the northern coast of Zakynthos and Shipwreck Beach which is hugged by white cliffs and azure waters and home to the rusted wreck of a suspected smuggler’s vessel. The day trip also stops in at the Blue Caves to enjoy more vivid seas and swimming through natural arches and caves.