Kefalonia, part of Greece’s idyllic Ionian islands, was our holiday of choice this summer as a belated honeymoon getaway. We have visited Greece once before, sailing with friends (they were doing most of the sailing!) around the Saronic islands just outside Athens and were keen to return at some point to enjoy more of Greece’ s fascinating history, sunshine, fresh simple food and outdoor living.
I have always been curious to know whether or not the colour of the sea in Greek holiday brochures has been overly touched up and I confess to being a bit of a Captain Corelli’s Mandolin fan (the book not the film with Nicholas Cage’s criminally wooden acting which took three book re-readings to erase). With this is mind, Kefalonia seemed a good destination and it did not disappoint. Pine trees tumble down the mountainsides to sparkling seas a shade of turquoise so luminescent I hadn’t realised such a tone existed outside paintings. The air is heady with the scent of wild thyme and pine. Goat bells ring in your ears and at every turn of the vertiginous mountain roads a new view snatches your breath away. If you are lucky you may see a pine martin slinking away into the undergrowth or come across conservation work to protect Kefalonia ‘s Loggerhead Turtle population. Luckily for us most of Kefalonia is quiet on the night-life and party front so you can enjoy its natural splendour in peace and serenity.
On this occasion we were travelling without our daughter on an adults-only get-away. It was the first time we had left her for a whole week and the 3 hour flight time to Kefalonia was a definite draw for us over other long-haul destinations.
Kefalonia is a great spot for a grown-up retreat but is also a firm favourite with young families. Children are cooed over at every turn, kids are well catered for with high chairs and the like and the gentle clear waters of Kefalonia make a lovely introduction to swimming in the Mediterranean. We would definitely consider returning to Kefalonia with Roo.
Arrival and getting about Kefalonia
Kefalonia is easily accessible by air with daily services from many of the UK’s largest airports. We flew with Thomson from Bristol on a flight-only booking but Ryan Air and Easy Jet also fly there direct from the UK, or you can travel to Kefalonia via Athens and open up even more choice.
From the air Kefalonia looks like an island gem in the midst of azure sparkling seas – a romantic and inviting landscape and much greener than some Greek islands. Our flight, like all others, landed at Kefalonia Island International Airport – a rather grand name for the tiny airstrip perched on the edge of the sea a short distance south of the capital Argostoli. With such a tiny airport and with the chap on immigration looking like he’d got up specially just for our flight (he probably had) getting through the airport and luggage collection took very little time. We were happy to wave goodbye to our fellow package holiday travelers as they headed for a long coach queue and we waltzed out rather smugly to the comforts of our air conditioned hire car and independent exploration.
I would definitely recommend hiring a car to explore Kefalonia, particularly if getting off the beaten track is important to you or if you are travelling with children. Nowhere is much more than a couple of hours drive away and often much less and a car gives you the freedom to both avoid the coach crowds at some of the main tourist attractions as well as allowing you to explore those areas that coaches just can’t get to. Kefalonia is also very hilly and accessing many beaches involves a steep descent from the nearest town or village. If you would like to explore beaches other than those adjoining your hotel then you will be thankful for an air-conditioned car to get you there and back and avoid walking in the sweltering summer heat. The only thing to be wary of is that the roads in Kefalonia are quite narrow, windy and with steep drops down to the sea. They are all barriered off but nervous drivers should be aware! For this reason it is also advisable to keep your hire car a manageable size for manoeuvring round mountain bends.
As it was a special occasion we stayed at the five-star Emelisse Art Hotel just outside Fiskardo in the north of Kefalonia. We would have preferred a villa but given we booked late there were very few options available and so we chose to spoil ourselves at the Emelisse instead. If you like hotel luxury then the Emelisse is a good option and ironically for us given we were travelling without our daughter, is also fantastic for families. They have loads of snazzy high chairs, the staff coo over every child in sight and there is a special shallow children’s pool and a small play area.
We enjoyed our stay at the Emelisse although did think the hotel a little mean for it’s five star rating. No complimentary tea or coffee was provided and whilst we did have a coffee maker in our room, you had to pay for the coffee capsules from the minibar if you wanted to use it. Likewise water was not provided – unusual for this kind of hotel to not have even one small bottle included daily, especially given the rates we were paying. Frustratingly also the free wireless which is supposed to be hotel-wide was not available in our room although we could access it at the hotel lobby and pool area and use of the tennis courts was charged extra.
On the upside, the views from the hotel were great – particularly from the breakfast area, the pool area was very nice with a lovely infinity pool and plenty of loungers, the food and drinks were generally very good although expensive compared to local restaurants and I had a great massage in the spa. It’s a nice hotel if you are looking for something a little more secluded and less ‘package holiday’ than your standard Mediterranean resort but it is not quite the boutique character hotel we had thought it might be when we made our booking.
If we returned to Kefalonia we would choose to take a villa within walking distance of a small town. For us having a pool all to ourselves and not feeling like we have to eat-out every meal would make it worth it and I think if you had your own space it would be possible to feel even more secluded and away-from-it-all than you can ever achieve in a hotel, however good. A villa would also offer potentially more shaded running-around space for young children too in the middle of the day. If you are hotel people though and not on too much of a budget, then the Emelisse is a good option.
When to go
As the largest of the Greek Ionian islands, Kefalonia has much more room to absorb the incoming tourists without becoming overcrowded. Having said that, if you like peace and seclusion and would rather be away from the bulk of the inevitable package holiday tourists, head for the north of the island or pretty much anywhere away from the south-west and southern coastline of the main island peninsula. It also pays to go as close to the start or end of the season as possible (May and September are great if you don’t have kids at school) as the idyllic local towns only have so many streets and even those can become quite busy when a ferry comes in. We visited Kefalonia at the start of June and it was lovely but on our last day we did notice a significant increase in the number of tourists about, which the locals told us was the start of the summer season. At peak summer time all the beaches can become crowded, much like many of Greece’s holiday islands.
Kefalonia is perfect for those who like simple, fresh and wholesome food. Unsurprisingly seafood is in plentiful supply with every taverna and restaurant offering a catch of the day. Kefalonia ‘s relative proximity to Italy and the latter’s influence on the island historically has also led to a surprisingly wide offering of excellent pasta dishes – fantastic news for those travelling with young kids. Other typical Greek dishes such as moussaka and greek yoghurt with fruit and honey are also widely available but be aware if ordering a greek salad – it is more than enough to serve one person as a large lunch main portion or two people as a generous side order.
If you are picnicing, pop into a local bakery and pick up a Kefalalonian meat pie and some baklava dripping with local wild thyme honey for your lunch. Travel towards the end of the summer and fig lovers will be in heaven with heaps of these sweet, oozy fruits available in local greengrocers and supermarkets.
Whilst most restaurants in Kefalonia offer the standard fare and all the places we tried served up fresh, tasty offerings, if you are visiting Fiskardo then Panormos Taverna up the hill to the right beyond the main waterfront (just follow the seafront to the right) is a particularly lovely secluded spot overlooking the harbour entrance for a sundowner and dinner. They make a mean cocktail, cook some delicious food and the family set-up is very friendly. You may need to get there early or book in high season though.
Beaches, beaches and more beaches…
Whilst Kefalonia’s history and mountain scenery are a draw in themselves, it’s the beautiful clear sea and its many beaches that can’t be missed. Almost every beach seems to offer masses of turquoise sea, which for wimpy sea swimmers like me who like to see what’s sharing the water with them, is perfect. Most of the time the answer by the way is an array of colourful, friendly fish who will come flocking (or shoaling?) if you offer them your left over lunchtime crumbs!
The majority of the beaches on Kefalonia are also calm and perfect for younger swimmers and with the Mediterranean lack of tide, you can stay perched at the water’s edge all day without moving your towel. The only downside for kids is that a lot of the beaches are pebble rather than sand, making stone fortresses rather than sand castles the order of the day. You will need a mat (or inflatable) as well as a thick towel for beach lounging comfort and a pair of jelly shoes or crocs will help little and big feet get to and from the water more easily.
If you are really keen to escape other beach goers on Kefalonia, hire a motorboat and head for the sea. There are plenty of small coves and beaches only accessible by boat along the coastline. We took a boat for the day from Fiskardo and were able to nip across the narrow channel to the island of Ithaca as well as lounging on the boat and swimming in crystal clear seas of our own private coves. We used Regina’s boat hire with all boats coming with a coolbox and snorkeling gear if you want it and boats reasonably priced. It’s easy for complete beginners to master and you are given clear advice on where you can and can’t go.
Word has it that the sandiest beaches are in the south-west of the main peninsula of Kefalonia, just below Argostoli, but keen to avoid the larger crowds we didn’t get to verify this. The following beaches are all worth a visit for different reasons:
- Myrtos Beach – whilst the strong currents make this beach less good for swimming, a visit to the viewpoint overlooking Myrtos is a must for visitors to Kefalonia. Voted one of the world’s most beautiful beaches its bright turquoise waters and white pebble beach are simply stunning.
- Antisamos Beach – fans of the film Captain Correlli’s Mandolin will enjoy a visit to idyllic Antisamos beach near Sami on the east of Kefalonia. It does get pretty busy here though so get there early to bag a good spot.
- Dafnoudi Beach – if seclusion is your thing then Dafnoudi beach is a good bet. A small pebble beach with lovely clear swimming water, Dafnoudi is accessible by a very scenic 10-15 minute walk downhill through the trees. As with many beaches in Kefalonia, Dafnoudi beach has very little shade so you will need a sun umbrella.
- Poros Beach – offers a long stretch of pebble and shingle beach north of the main town, with plenty of room to bag your own spot. The water here is very clear and you can swim quite a long way out in the calm sea with the water remaining crystal clear.
- Emblisi Beach – your best bet if you are based near Fiskardo in the north. This is a pretty pebble bay with plenty of friendly fish for the snorkelers. It is popular with local families and the water is clear and sheltered making it a good choice for children.
Other days out
If you are keen to explore the island beyond its beaches then grab a hire car, turn up the a/c and head for Kefalonia ‘s winding but scenic roads.
A boat tour of Melissani Cave with its famous subterranean waterway which runs under the breadth of Kefalonia is firmly on most peoples’ itinerary, as is Drogkarati cave with its many stalactites and vast underground space. Both are worth a visit and are good for escaping the midday heat but don’t expect hours of entertainment for your euros. Both attractions can get busy at times – having your own car means you can time your visit outside of the large coach tours – it’s much pleasanter and more atmospheric when you have the place to yourselves!
If you are based in the north of Kefalonia then you will already have visited picturesque Fiskardo – the only town to remian undamaged by the devastating 1953 earthquake which levelled much of Kefalonia. Assos also makes a good trip out and is equally pretty from above and at ground level. There is even a small beach to swim from the harbour itself and a fort that can be explored by foot. Assos is good to combine with a visit to nearby Myrtos beach.
If heading out exploring from Fiskardo then consider taking the back roads for a slower route across the north-east of Kefalonia towards Agia Effimia. The views from the road pass through many small, traditional villages and are spectacular, with vistas across to neighbouring Ithaca. As this is the slow way round you are unlikely to meet much traffic either, other than the occasional goat.
A visit to the south of the island, particularly the south-east is worthwhile. The mountainous region around Mount Ainos (incidentally the tallest mountain in the Ionian at 1628m) is thickly forested. You can explore the area on hiking trails in the cooler months but even a drive along the road west of Poros is worthwhile to experience a completely different landscape and you can drive up close to the summit of Mount Ainos itself if you fancy it. Poros itself is also worth a visit if in the area – it has a grand entrance through a dramatic gorge, whilst to the north of the main port area of Poros is a long, almost sandy (!) beach with a lovely calm clear sea for a leisurely dip.
If you have a car however, forget about set agendas and just head for the road in the vague direction of a good lunch stop. Kefalonia is full of great scenery, pretty villages, archaeological sites and religious points of interest, most of which are well signposted – follow your nose and discover your own Kefalonia.
Revisiting Kefalonia with the wonderful My Travel Monkey and Packing My Suitcase over at Monday Escapes.