Go to the Ionian island of Kefalonia, Greece, for its idyllic beaches, crumbling ruins, glittering caves and seafood platters – and stay for the scuba diving and hiking.
The largest of Greece’s Ionian islands, Kefalonia is marked by natural beauty – its coastline scalloped with limestone cliffs and pretty coves; its rugged interior shaped by mountains, vineyards and flower-filled meadows. When you’re not exploring the landscape on a hike or scuba dive, the waterfront capital Argostoli awaits with historical museums and welcoming old restaurants dishing out fresh seafood. Here are the best things to do and see on the Greek island of Kefalonia.
Every Greek island has that “wow” beach that visitors hire cars or take long, unwieldy buses to see. On Kefalonia, that’s Myrtos. A blinding-white, half-moon of sand at the bottom of forested cliffs in the northwest, its sandy shallows drop off to plunging depths, meaning the waters appear equal parts neon turquoise and inky navy. Take photos from the slopes above before trekking down to drape your towel on the pebbles – there are no beach clubs or facilities here.
Kefalonia’s capital is a handsome old town built around a natural port, where you’ll see fishing boats setting off and the beady eyes of sea turtles emerging from the harbour. Go there to shop, dine and learn about the island’s history at the History and Folklore Museum, where island traditions are brought to life with folk art, costumes and black-and-white photos. Don’t miss a feast of fresh-off-the-boat seafood at one of the port’s old waterfront restaurants.
These spectacular sea caves contain a glowing lagoon, loveliest when lit by the early morning or evening sun, which pours through the natural skylight. You’ll feel like an explorer stumbling upon a world wonder, between the eerie stalactites dripping from the cave ceiling and mossy cliffs that give it the forgotten feel of a Mexican cenote. Find it close to the town of Sami and pay a small fee to enter the site, then take the tourist boats across the two jewel-bright grottoes.
The northern fishing village of Fiskardo is a favourite among long-time Kefalonia fans for its mellow pace of life and small-town Greek scenery. Peach- and lemon-coloured buildings huddle around a petite harbour, where bougainvillea petals flutter down, confetti-like, beside sleepy bars and cafes. If you haven’t got a hotel room here, go for the afternoon and evening, booking a waterfront restaurant and staying for cocktails – Theodora’s Cafe Bar is a legendary spot.
Formerly a fortified town, west-coast Sami has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. Today, it’s a charming resort with glorious ruins just outside – and a great base for history fans who want easy access to the crumbling Acropolis. To get there, start in modern Sami and follow the rugged coastal trail, passing the 11th-century Agioi Fanentes monastery and the walls of ancient Sami along the way. The circular trail takes around two and a half hours.
Another way to work up a sweat before the day heats up is hiking one of the trails around Mount Ainos, a 1,600m (5,250ft) peak in the south of the island. Expect views of electric-blue bays and forested coastline from its highest points, and of neighbouring Ithaca, Zakynthos and Lefkada on a clear day. Park (or arrange a drop-off) at the transmitter station, then take the signposted dirt track to the summit, passing native orchids and wild ponies, while breathing in aromas of firs.
Slightly under-the-radar on the world’s diving scene, Kefalonia has some spectacular scuba sites, not least the Blue Canyon, a 10-minute boat ride from Lassi. This underwater network is best for advanced divers, with a 150m (492ft) sea wall to explore as well as small caves of bright coral and anemones. Another popular dive site is Fiskardo’s Temple Cave, while the sunken WWII submarine HMS Perseus is further offshore, between Kefalonia and Zakynthos.
Another must-see beach on the island is Antisamos, a pebbly eastern cove close to Sami that is famous for its peacock-feather emerald and royal-blue waters. Hugged by forested slopes, it’s a beautiful swimming spot, seen in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Pack swimming shoes for the large pebbles on the seabed, but if you forget, it’s worth the odd twinge of the sole to swim these clear, balmy shallows. There are beach bars and tavernas for snacks and shade.
Slightly inland from Argostoli is the island’s most sacred monastery, a 16th-century treasure with russet domes, rose gardens and an ornate gold and silver interior. See the silver casket of the island’s patron saint, Gerasimos, and feel the peace and grandeur of a Greek Orthodox church. You can still see the nuns strolling about and buy the jewellery they make to raise funds. Close by is Robola Winery, should you want to mix a little wine tasting with your religious education.
The most picturesque village on the island sits on the waterfront south of Fiskardo, its candy-coloured houses cascading to the sheltered bay. There are the ruins of a Venetian castle to potter around, tiny chapels and welcoming tavernas unchanged for decades. Come for the day to enjoy its quaint aesthetic – bring a towel for a dip in the bay and cash for dinner in its vine-festooned, pastel-painted cafes. Planning to visit Myrtos Beach? Assos is right nearby.