Natural wonders and fine cuisine meet in Cephalonia
Cephalonia in Greece is no stranger to invasion. Byzantines, Turks, Venetians, the British and, most recently, a population explosion of cats, have laid claim to the largest of the Ionian Sea islands.
Small miracle then that it has mostly resisted the overwhelmingly touristy fate of its famed cousins, Mykonos, Crete and Santorini.
There is no need to jostle for an umbrella or fight for space along the crystalline beaches of Cephalonia; the startlingly clear water is not fringed by ubiquitous hotel chains but by the unspoilt vegetation that stretches out to meet it.
While idyllic, the island is not inaccessible — it has an airport, making a quick hop from Europe or mainland Athens quite manageable.
Less easy to navigate are the narrow and winding roads leading from the airport in Argostoli, the island’s capital. Driving on the island is not for the faint of heart, but the challenge (including navigating through herds of mountain goats) is worth it for the views.
Rugged coastlines with chalk-white cliffs drop down to some of the most dramatic beaches in all of Greece and warrant pulling over to admire from time to time.
Choosing accommodation is not easy on an island that’s home to 365 villages. However, after the devastating earthquake of 1953, very few retain their original architecture, which, if important, narrows a decision down to Fiscardo.
Located on the northern tip of Cephalonia, the protected fishing village is a cosmopolitan mash of culture, glamour, history and natural beauty. Pastel villas line a harbour that would feel more 18th century Venice were it not for million-dollar yachts jostling for space.
A favourite among leisure-seeking sailors and some celebrities, Fiscardo throbs with activity during peak summer months but quietens down during September into a small-town buzz.
A sunset dinner at one of the fine restaurants lining the water’s edge is memorable and beautiful enough to make the slightly inflated prices worthwhile — the twinkling lights of the charming waterfront light the backdrop of Venetian-style mansions.
And though some residents have bemoaned the increase in tourism, it’s hard to begrudge them their success, particularly when a drive through neighbouring towns reveals the skeletal forms of abandoned hotels, houses and shops — evidence of the lingering recession.
An itinerary in Greece is beach-centric; sunny days should be spent exploring immediate and neighbouring bays by foot, car, scooter or hired speedboat.
Cephalonia’s reputation for some of the finest Mediterranean cuisine is well deserved
Cephalonia is home to the famed Myrtos Beach — the kilometres-long arc of white pebbles lining the gulf of infinite azure that astute moviegoers will recognise from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Asos, with its amphitheatre-like cove and 15th-century Venetian castle is also one for the list. The peninsula rises out of the sea like the lost city of Atlantis. Water sports fans should head to Antisamos where adrenaline-inducing thrills such as wakeboarding, tubing or waterskiing await, while Emblisi in Fiscardo is ideal for snorkelling.
True joy lies in discovering hidden coves. The little speedboats for hire are relatively easy to navigate and offer an opportunity to travel to the island of Ithaca, stopping along the way to drop anchor and plunge into a bays before docking at the tiny port and hiking up to the town for a well-earned taverna lunch.
People less inclined to perfect the evenness of their tans can explore layers of historic ruins. Pick a footpath that might lead to a Roman cemetery or lighthouse. Trundle through orchards of olive groves or forests of cypress, the melodic tinkle of goat bells chiming in the background.
Mt Ainos, Greece’s highest island mountain at 1,627m, offers rewarding views that stretch to the neighbouring island of Zakynthos.
Natural wonders such as the Melissani Cave in Sami are also worth the visit — 20m below ground surface, the vertical entrance created by the collapsed roof creates a shimmering pool.
A rainier day can be well spent in the wine country or exploring the famed Monastery of Saint Gerasimos. The preserved body of the venerated patron saint is on display during the daily liturgy.
Cephalonia’s reputation for some of the finest Mediterranean cuisine is well deserved. Menus, flavoured by a mishmash of Italian and Greek heritage, feature the fragrant Cephalonia meat pie, an abundance of seafood, olive-laden salads with creamy hunks of feta and rabbit or goat stew on occasion.
While not big on breakfasts, families gather at lunch to break bread, savour souvlaki, stuffed tomatoes, local cheeses, roasted lamb and mezedes (sides) made to be shared.
Lunch or evening feasts should be enjoyed with a local Fix beer or the famed Robola wine, a dry, honey-coloured tipple made from a grape native to the foothills of the island and packaged in a medallion-hung hessian bag.
While nowhere near as refined, every taverna offers a Retsina house wine, served by the kilo. It rings in at about €1 and is nothing to boast about but tastes festive and fun on a summery day.
While it is tempting to dine alongside a port with a gorgeous sea view, the most authentic and affordable meals are found inland, at family tavernas where children, parents and grandparents work together to feed hungry patrons with service that is comically abrupt but not intended to be rude. There is also a complimentary and unexpected treat of watermelon or baklava at the end of each meal.
Entertainment is low key, but "live music nights" include dancing, improved by ouzo.
Cephalonia invites endless exploration — a paradise worthy of a holiday invasion.