Jack Holland, co-founder of the Rough Guides travel books and part-time resident of Kefalonia, reveals his secret places on the island, from deserted coves and beaches to restaurants popular with the locals.
Get off the plane, head for Skala, sprinkle with sand, roast steadily at about 100°C, turn occasionally until lobster red, marinade in Heineken and serve with a copy of Capt. Corelli. That’s the recipe for many visitors to Kefalonia, and if all you seek is sea, sun, sand and Saturday night Saturnalia then good for you (as long as you practice safe Saturnalia).
Kefalonia’s best known attractions (the Melissani Lakes and Drogorati Caves) and its beaches (Myrtos, Anti Samos and Makris Gialos) each have their fans, but in July and August can be uncomfortably crowded. As you fly in to the island’s airport you’ll spot dozens of empty bays and deserted coves. And while some take a bit of finding (and reaching) others simply require a rental car – and the desire to explore.
Many people pass through the ferry port of Pessada en route to the nearby island of Zante, but hardly anyone knows about its two tiny beaches – and the unmarked road and vertiginous path down will likely keep it that way. A great spot for safe snorkelling (watch out for turtles and hairy but harmless tarantula-like crabs) and lazy swimming between two dazzling beaches, it’s one of those places where the Ionian Sea runs through a complete colour chart of extravagant blues. Bring your own picnic, as the only food is a hike away at the ferry port.
The coastline of Lourda Bay scoops round in a series of slender beaches, and Agios Thomas is the best of them. The perfect bucket-&-spade beach shelves off gently, the sea is as playful as a puppy, the low rocks are safe for diving from and the two restaurants (one open evenings only) mysteriously never fill. If you’re travelling with kids, Agios Thomas is the place to bring them.
A simple sandy beach known only to locals and holidaying Italians, Spartia is an up-and-coming place. There’s a civilised restaurant, Waterways, run by a local who cooks up some of the best fresh fish on the island (by ‘fresh’ we mean caught by the owner early that morning).
Ego-deflating entertainment is provided by local teenagers, who leap from the rocky promontory (should your pride be sufficiently piqued into tombstoning action, remember that the jumps seems an awful lot higher when you’re standing on the edge, at the point of no return).
Alternatively, a gentle swim around the rocks reveals a handkerchief-sized beach tucked inside a tiny cavern. You might even find yourself swimming with Spartia’s resident turtle.
Northwest around the Cava Liakos coast from Spartia is Klismata. This tiny cove, hidden behind a whale-like rock is renowned locally for having a sandy beach every seven years: the rest of the time it’s boulders. More than half a dozen people here constitutes a serious crowd, and if you wander into an impromptu beach barbecue, you’ll certainly be invited.
Watching the sun set at the foot of the myrtle and sage-rich mountains makes for a memorable stop-off. On the way down, enjoy a cocktail and a snack at Byzantine, a faux-Moorish pool bar with great views and a laidback attitude.
If you seriously want to discover your very own private beach, then rent a boat (Ionian Seafaris; tel: 0030 6974 842708) and you can bob round the island’s western coast and find gorgeous, uninhabited, pocket-sized beaches unchanged since Odysseus took a wrong turn on his way home to nearby Ithaca.
Pick of the boat-only destinations is Platis Ammos. Though it competes with Myrtos and Petani for the title of best beach on Kef’s west coast, Platis Ammos beats both by getting the least attention. Since the precarious path collapsed few years ago, only the brave clamber down the mountainside here on foot: you stand a pretty good chance of having the place to yourself.
From a boat it’s an easy swim to the shore through fizzing but fiercely clear water, and the beach is a jewel box of gobstopper-coloured pebbles too irresistible to leave behind.
Agia Efimia north to Fiscardo
On the eastern side of the island, the coastline from Agia Efimia to Fiscardo is profoundly beautiful: the steep, ravine-scarred mountains plunge into azure blue sea, and the fragrance of sage, myrtle and pine bombards your senses.
You’ll find a few slender beaches here, but the real fun lies in discovering the hidden coves. Most of the coastline is accessible only by boat (hiring even the butchest 4×4 won’t help – there’s no real road servicing the east side of the island) and working your way north hugging the coast is plain sailing.
The first and broadest cove lies about a mile and a half north of Agia Efimia, an easy first stop and thus as far as the timid get. The richest rewards lie further north. Most of the tiny inlets don’t have names (look out for Agia Sophia and Kakogylos), but all make for good snorkel or dive stops.
The Ionian lacks the glamour of some snorkelling locations, but you can still find brilliant starfish, turtles, octopus, spidery crabs and – if you’re very lucky – dolphins and Monk Seals. And everywhere you get great views of neighbouring Ithaca slumbering like a Titan across the straits.
The perfection of Gorgota Bay should seem familiar – it was here that Penelope Cruz’s Pelagia snogged Nicolas Cage’s highly unlikely Captain Corelli for the poster of the 2001 movie. The small jetty where this memorable moment took place seems to have become a victim of Greece’s austerity measures.
Of course Kefalonia is not all about beaches. At some point you’ll almost certainly pass through Argostoli, the island’s capital and chief port. It’s also where you’ll find the loudest nightlife (Bass Club); the slickest bars (around the south east corner of Ionia Metaksa square) and the best value restaurants (Paparazi at Lavraga 2 and Casa Grec at G Virgo).
Like much of the island the town was severely damaged in the 1953 earthquake that destroyed more than 90% of Kefalonia’s quaint Italianate houses. The earthquake didn’t manage to destroy the bridge that crosses the natural bay, built by occupying British troops in the early 19th century, but its slow sinking into the water meant it was closed to traffic a few years back (depriving the locals of the pleasure of watching incautious tourists driving their rental cars into the waist-deep waters).
If you look east in Argostoli you’ll see the monument that dominates the southern part of the Kefalonia skyline, St George’s Castle. An early Venetian remnant, it’s dramatically lit at night. The adventurous few who make it up the steeply winding road inevitably find the castle closed, a victim of austerity cutbacks (ironic considering the millions of EU funds chucked at its restoration only a few years back). If you’re lucky and the gates are open it’s worth clambering among the battlements: a centuries’ old feeling of impregnability remains, and the wide angle views across the island are memorable.
Just about every third male on Kefalonia is called Gerasimos, and while this may lead to confusion in the classroom it reflects the reverence for the local saint Agios Gerasimos. His Feast Day on 16th August is the island’s biggest celebration, and should you be near the village of Valsamata, in the foothills of Mount Ainos, it’s unmissable for the feverish veneration of the Orthodox faithful. The uncorrupted body of the Saint is carried over the prostrate sick (nervous and mental conditions are a speciality). Spontaneous cures are a regular occurrence. Beats lying on the beach, doesn’t it?