Why Kefalonia is one of Greece’s most underrated islands

Greece had long been on my wife’s and my bucket list but, due to other travel commitments of the mostly Mediterranean kind, we didn’t get there until recently. And while we’d always imagined that Santorini, Corfu or Hydra would be our most likely island destinations after an obligatory stop in Athens, Kefalonia suddenly topped the list in spite of never having come up on our geographic radar. 

Our spontaneous decision to head off to somewhere we’d barely heard of was down to an invitation from friends who were old Greece hands. They had rhapsodised about the country for years and had done a month-long house swap in a large villa on the island, behind a small village with an unlikely cinematic claim to fame.

After a picture-perfect trip on the rear deck of one of the ubiquitous blue and white inter-island car ferries from the mainland port of Kyllini to the very pretty Poros, on Kefalonia’s east coast, it was off to the seaside town of Sami, where our friends awaited. 

Then it was straight to the taverna for a total cultural and culinary immersion, sitting so close to the water that fishing boats could have tied up to the table leg. Inside was an eclectic group of men, ranging in appearance from gnarled, greybearded old mariners with the traditional fisherman’s cap and guitar, to a stubbled young man playing an elaborately inlaid bouzouki, part of a rembetiko band. Thoroughly captivated, I wanted to be Greek. 

A couple of hours later, I had the opportunity to transmogrify when Zorba-like dancing spontaneously started, with diners on their feet, singing along and snaking through the tables. My new identity experienced a major fail – I don’t or can’t dance. I’d have to content myself with eating the cheese saganaki, grilled sardines or marinated octopus, stewed goat and lamb souvlaki, followed with baklava, raki, arak or ouzo, and come to terms with my Anglo inhibition.

Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian islands, of which there may be six or seven depending on whether or not you include Kythira. The latter is not in the Ionian Sea but the group was originally known as Heptanese (“Seven Islands”) – so long as you don’t count the many smaller islands which are also part of the group! Get the idea? 

It’s all a bit hard to pin down when it comes to Greek “facts”, as over the centuries there have been numerous invaders and occupiers laying claim to various bits of Greece. The Turks, Venetians, British, Macedonians, Romans and French are among those responsible for the country’s confusing etymology and rich history. 

In the case of Kefalonia, the Venetians probably left the most obvious heritage, having ruled there for nearly 300 years from 1500. Although the French and British followed, the cuisine and architecture are influenced by the Venetian style. A catastrophic earthquake in 1953 destroyed much of the original fabric, with the exception of Fiskardo in the far north; most of the island was later rebuilt

While large in comparison to its Ionian neighbours, the island is only 770 square kilometres. This made everything easily accessible from our base in the east, and trips across the mountainous inland to coastal villages were a breeze, with lunch at a different port or beach a daily delight.

Greece receives 30 million tourists a year, yet most seem to be largely unaware of the delights of Kefalonia. But there are exceptions, the major one being Fiskardo, aka the “SaintTropez” of the island. This tiny village, with a population of around 300, set on a two kilometre-wide bay, has been host to many of the world’s red-carpet crowd, from Bruce Springsteen and Madonna to Giorgio Armani and Steven Spielberg. It seems that if you have access to a superyacht, this is the place to moor it while you’re cruising the Greek islands. That said, there’s absolutely no evidence of this village having been spoilt by celebrity, and it typifies what lies at the heart of our love affair with Kefalonia: quayside dining with wonderfully hospitable and entertaining Greek company, accompanied by simply fabulous food, wine and music.

The other somnolent little village that briefly had fame thrust upon it is Sami, the main location for the 2001 film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Filming also occurred at nearby Agía Ephimia, where taverna owners still reminisce about the presence of Nicholas Cage and Penélope Cruz.

Other glorious waterfront villages include Assos, on the north-east coast. Nestled in a small bay behind an isthmus and home to the 16th-century Assos Castle sitting atop a rocky hill, it also features some ruined Venetian houses behind the beach, a reminder of the island’s history and the 1953 earthquake. Just down the road is the fabled Myrtos Beach, which lies between two 900-metre-high peaks and is dazzling white, thanks to its marble and limestone pebbles.

Also worth visiting is the capital, Argostoli, again set by the water and with a museum featuring some of the country’s most significant finds from the Mycenaean era. It is also the stepping-off point for a ferry trip to the other main town of Lixouri, formerly the summer holiday destination of choice for the children of the Greek royal family.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 11.

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