Kefalonia, a great kept secret 🤫
When I hear the plans of MANY desiring to visit the Greek islands, Kefalonia somehow never seems to be mentioned. Despite my numerous trips to Greece, I, too, happened to stumble upon this amazing paradise, almost by chance. Admittedly, the sole motivator for me to even look in the direction of the Ionian Sea was my recent "discovery" of Corfu in 2019. I was so enchanted by that turquoise gem of an island that I wanted to explore that area some more. The four other main Islands that constitute the Greek Ionian archipelago are Paxos, Lefkada, Kefalonia, and Zakynthos. So on this trip, we decided to explore the largest of those islands, namely Kefalonia. Like Corfu, it certainly DID NOT disappoint!
Having returned just last week and finally overcoming jetlag, let me share with you the best things to see and do in Kefalonia.
Beaches and Coastline
Without any reservation, the BEST feature of Kefalonia is its amazing beaches and coastline. Similar to past Greek island trips, we rented a boat (just us) on several days and chartered a boat (with a skipper) on a couple of others. This allowed us to SEE Kefalonia from the water. The coastline is stunning with dramatic cave formations, lush greenery and vegetation, and pristine turquoise waters. While many beaches are accessible by car and foot, many are not. The freedom granted by boat allowed us to explore secluded beaches, interesting caves and coves, and have utter privacy! While renting a boat may sound extravagant to you, it really isn't. A roughly 18 ft. long and 30 HP boat can be rented without a boating license for 100-150 euros/day, which is more than enough time and horsepower to cruise along the coast and discover the otherwise unapproachable hidden gems that dot the coastline. In this manner, we leisurely made our way along the island's coastline and dropped anchor wherever we saw an enticing, picturesque swimming area. Exceptional beaches we visited were Mounta, Kako Lagadi, Antisamos, Foki, Emblisi, Dafnoudi, Alaties, Myrtos, Blue Lagoon, Fteri, and Petani beaches. Add to that list, numerous "unofficial and unnamed" beaches and coves that dot the coast and are accessible only by boat.
Mount Ainos is the tallest point on the island of Kefalonia and is a designated National Park. It is covered with Greek fir and black pine trees. It is home to wild horses and countless goats, and without doubt many other animals. There are numerous hiking trails throughout the park and a well-paved road that leads to the mountain's summit. From there, on a clear day, you can see Zakynthos, Lefkada, and Ithaca of the Ionian archipelago, as well as the Peloponnese mainland. Be sure to approach the summit via the paved road from the north. A horrendous earth road ("goat road") exists from the south that Google Maps will insistently try to put you on, but it is not drivable without nearly breaking your car's axle! We packed a lovely picnic and made our way to the summit for a picturesque view!
This cave lies 3 km from Sami along the eastern side of the island. It descends 95 meters and consists of two large chambers. Nature has created masterpieces of sculptures in the form of stalactites and stalagmites that have been growing here for millennia. The cave is easily accessible with well-marked paths to walk along.
Melissani Lake & Cave
Nearby the Drogarati cave lies the Melissani cave and lake. Interestingly, this site seems to be "the pride and joy" of Kefalonians, as the locals all insist on its visit. The site consists of what used to be an underground cave and aquifer, whose roof had collapsed. Now, the cold, deep, beautiful crystalline water dazzles in changing shades of blue as the sun enters through the cave's open roof. The colored walls and numerous stalactites create a mystical feel to the two-chambered cave. Visitors are loaded into small rowboats and rowed around the cave. While this description certainly sounds magical, in reality, the experience in my opinion is a bit hokey, in its effort "to appeal" to the tourist crowd. There are too many overcrowded boats in far too small of a space, each with a loud and goofy oarsman, which strips the magic from an otherwise serene site.
Fiskardo is a beautiful fishing village and port on the Northeastern tip of the island. This village is jam-packed with shops and restaurants all lining a picturesque port loaded with sailboats and yachts. This village is particularly interesting because it is the only town on the entire island that has survived the massive earthquake of 1953, thereby maintaining its original Venetian architecture. Numerous Roman finds have also been excavated in this little village, including untouched graves, sarcophagi, a theater, a bath complex, and homes all dating between the 2nd c. BC and the 4th c. AD. Short hikes can be made from the port to the ruins of a 6th c. Byzantine basilica as well as to the original Venetian lighthouse.
Another charming fishing village, also in the north but located on a peninsula along the island's western coast, is Assos Village. This town was founded under Venetian rule and was once the administrative capital of the region. As such, a large 16th c. Venetian fortress still sits atop its adjacent mount which can be visited with a steep hike. The village itself features quaint buildings, façades, restaurants, boats, and a beach alongside its port. Numerous colorful bougainvilleas decorate the houses and town.
Gentilini Winery & Vineyard
My husband and I have been traveling to Greece for numerous years and admittedly, we are somewhat particular with our taste in wines. While there is not much in Greece that we both don't LOVE, wine has typically been disappointing in Greece. That being said, in Kefalonia, we happened upon a vineyard that blew us away! So much so, that we bought an entire case from the winery, drank most of it during our time there, and brought a few bottles home with us. Gentilini is a small family-run boutique estate specializing in Robola (a white) and Mavrodaphne (a red) wines. Their wine-making process is quite unique and labor-intensive, but the flavors they extract are exceptional! For example, they use a machine for bulk de-stemming of the grapes, but follow that up with a subsequent individualized, fine de-stemming of the grapes ALL by HAND. They also freeze their grapes prior to pressing them, ultimately pressing them in a cold or semi-frozen state. Lastly, they age their wines in French oak and American oak barrels. All these measures yield incredible wines.
Setting out from Fiscardo, Agia Effimia, or Sami by sailboat, motorboat, or ferry, you can visit the neighboring small island of Ithaka. Ithaka is another lush, mountainous island full of small ports, villages, and lovely beaches. The port towns of Frikes and Kioni are particularly charming, as is its capital, Vathy. The turquoise water of Gidaki beach as well as many other of Ithaka's stunning beaches are breathtaking! This modern-day island remains identified with Homer's Ithaka, the home of the mythological hero, Odysseus. A visit to Ithaka makes for a perfect day trip from Kefalonia.
The poem I note below is one that our boat skipper shared with us. It is lovely and so appropriate for all of us, travelers. It reminds us not to lose sight of our journey, for it is THE JOURNEY that brings wisdom and enriches our experiences and maturity. So don't rush to your destination but enjoy the riches of your journey.
Ithaka BY C. P. CAVAFY TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
As you set out for Ithaka hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them: you’ll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you. Hope your road is a long one. May there be many summer mornings when, with what pleasure, what joy, you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time; may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind— as many sensual perfumes as you can; and may you visit many Egyptian cities to learn and go on learning from their scholars. Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her, you wouldn't have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.