Things to see & do in Kefalonia

Blue, blue, electric blue – the Ionian Sea wraps Kefalonia in deep indigo, against which the island’s steep cliffs, forested mountains and whitewashed villages stand out strikingly. Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian islands, the sixth-largest in Greece, and probably best known for being the backdrop against which Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is set. A moving and humorous love story framed by the island’s occupation by Italian forces during World War II, the novel resulted in a massive increase in tourism to Kefalonia, which has since died down. Kefalonia today is a more peaceful place, the roads are generally quiet, even in the height of summer, though the beaches do get busy in July and August when daytime temperatures can reach 30°C.
In 1953 Kefalonia, along with neighbouring Zakynthos, was devastated by a huge earthquake. The disaster killed hundreds across the two islands, wrecked Kefalonia’s economy, and resulted in many people emigrating permanently. Kefalonia struggled to rebuild itself, a situation worsened by the 2007 financial crisis, which hit the Greek Islands especially hard. Heavily reliant on tourism, the island’s need to keep people coming has opened the doors to package vacations and major resorts, often with little financial benefit to the surrounding area. Choosing locally-operated accommodation, tours led by local guides, and eating at small independent restaurants, ensure that you are directly contributing to the island’s economy.

Over the course of its history Kefalonia has been ruled by the Venetians, the French and the British, and the island’s architecture and culture bears traces of each. Tim Broadhead of our specialist vacation operator Cycling Kefalonia finds much to recommend getting out of the saddle now and again: “as an island, Kefalonia is very quiet, unspoilt and green. It has many unique species of flora and fauna, and geological features, and of course unlike most of Greece it was never part of the Ottoman Empire, so its culture and archaeological features are different too.”

There are many famously beautiful Greek islands, but Kefalonia must surely be up there near the top. Its mountainous interior is pocked with ancient windmills and monasteries, while the coast is skirted with much-photographed sandy beaches. The picturesque and peaceful villages that de Bernières captured so evocatively in his novel abound, as do sheltered coves where you might occasionally find a stretch of sand that’s totally unoccupied. Cycling and walking trails take you through forests of cypress and strawberry trees, over lush green hills and always within sight of the shimmering Ionian Sea. In late spring endangered loggerhead sea turtles arrive on Kefalonia’s beaches to lay their eggs, and you might also catch sight of the island’s small population of Mediterranean monk seals.

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Things to do in Kefalonia

Cycling and walking

This is an island just made for exploring by foot or by bike. Walking can be done all year-round, bar August due to the heat, and might be combined with other Ionian islands such as Lefkada and Ithaca. Kefalonia walking vacations are small group trips graded as easy to moderate, where you’ll be walking for around five to six hours each day with ascents of no more than 500m.
Cycling in Kefalonia is positively dreamy, with little in the way of traffic and smooth roads. As Tim Broadhead explains, “It’s hilly, and there is virtually no traffic. It doesn’t get too hot and there is often a cool breeze. Plus it’s relatively underdeveloped, and doesn’t get too busy even in the height of summer. So the challenge is to keep it that way by keeping vacations here small and low impact.” Do expect plenty of long climbs, some steep, and hairpin bends on terrain not unlike that of the Pyrenees or the Alps.
You’ll ride for around 100km each day as part of a guided group of up to 10 cyclists, with trips operating in spring and autumn avoiding the summer heat and crowds. Whether walking or cycling, you’ll stay in local accommodation throughout, sourcing food fresh and locally from markets and stores, thereby supporting the Kefalonia economy and of course slashing your carbon footprint (a vacation’s food mileage can often be worse for the environment than the flight).

Architecture

The island is home to many interesting Mycenaean and Roman-era ruins and tombs. Picturesque harbour village Fiscardo was one of the only settlements on Kefalonia to escape unscathed from the quake of 1953 (Kefalonia lies in an earthquake zone, and many minor tremors can be felt throughout the year) and is distinctive for its pastel-shaded Venetian-style houses. Another attractive fishing port is Assos, which is distinguished by a Venetian fortress. Avoid the most popular resorts and villages, instead exploring by foot or on bike, and you will discover parts of the island that remain unscathed by mass tourism.

Beach life

Kefalonia boasts many idyllic Blue Flag beaches, with Murtos probably the most well-known on the island – picture dreamy white sands surrounded by dramatic cliffs. Another popular option you might want to consider is the gorgeous Antisamos, where scenes from the (disappointing) film version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin were shot. There are also many beaches around the island which are nowhere near as busy, and you’ll find plenty of these little coves while walking or cycling with guides that know them well.

Get your foodie fix

Whatever part of Kefalonia you’re vacationing in, it will be difficult to miss the island’s many vineyards and olive groves. You know you’re going to revel in glorious fresh seafood when on the Greek Islands, and here on one of the largest you’ll have ample opportunities to wander the markets or while away a few hours in a whitewashed tavern over the catch of the day. Tasting the local wine is always a highlight of Greece vacations of course, and on Kefalonia the olive oil is also something special – typically green in tone, low in acidity and with a rich, greasy feel to it.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: paolo polidori] [Top box: Georgios Liakopoulos] [Cycling & walking: Henning Supertramp] [Foodie fix (seafood): Chris Barnes]
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