Cephalonia is one of Greece’s largest islands and, having largely escaped the Turkish occupation, has a proud consciousness of its identity as one of the earliest outposts of modern Greek civilisation under the Venetian and later British Empires. Variously known as Kefalonia and Kefallinia, the inhabitants are widely (and fondly) regarded by the rest of Greece as being slightly mad. Like its tiny neighbour, Ithaca, Cephalonia has always looked outward. Education was always the way out of hardship. Even in 1792 every village on Ithaca had a primary school for both boys and girls. In these two islands 90 per cent of the population were educated years before the rest of Greece.
In those days there were the Libro d’Oro noble families (Venetian approved) and the rest. Children of society went to schools and universities in Europe and the island came to be known for its doctors, lawyers, clerics, politicians, musicians, writers and soldiers, as well as its sea-farers. You will feel heritage in the air for these Ionian islands have always had class and style.
Cephalonia is handsome and grand, with a colour scheme of intense blues, golds and greens. Most of the island was rebuilt after the massive earthquake of 1953. Healing scars and starting over is what the place and the people are all about and it has become comfortable and prosperous again. Sadly, little of the previous elegance of Venetian, French and British public buildings and manor houses remains. You have to imagine the opulent bustle at the 1859 premiere of La Traviata by the La Fenice Opera from Venice in the newly-built theatre in Argostoli. But the tastes and sounds of the past are present in the local cuisine, appellation of origin awarded wines, Italianate dialect, bands, melodic music and song.
It is achingly photogenic, and was the real star of the movie version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The landscape is one of dramatic splendour with forest-clad mountains and hidden valleys, impressive limestone cliffs and caves, spacious bays of electric-blue waters, blinding white beaches and sparkling coves reached on narrow roads. The exquisite white crescent of Myrtos is one of the most famous and photographed beaches in all Greece. Castles sit over high slopes of rolling vineyards, and lower groves of heady scented citrus and ordered olive trees. The south of the island is more developed, while the north is wilder, thickly forested with cypresses. It also stars the very picturesque and cool village of Fiscardo – the jewel in the island’s tourist crown since the 1970s. It was discovered a few years ago by the likes of Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Madonna, and boasts some seriously expensive international seacraft in its harbour. The picture-postcard port is a portrait-in-miniature of Cephalonia’s history – with Roman sarcophagi, a ruined Byzantine church, and Venetian and British built lighthouses.
The legendary forest of Mount Ainos is now a national park and home to the Abies Cephalonicus fir tree, deer, wild horses, many rare species of flowers (the autumn flowering snowflake) and potent medicinal mountain herbs. Trails are organised for walkers, botanists and ornithologists and views from the summit are phenomenal.
Cephalonia offers something for everyone – watersports and tavernas on the beaches of the south, tiny exquisite pebbly coves and archaeological remains from every period of Cephalonia’s 3,000-year history (the island claims, wrongly, to be the home of Odysseus). There are mountains with alpine forests to cool off in, cliffs, museums, Hellenistic and Mycenaean ruins, Byzantine churches, monasteries, a medieval castle, sophisticated wineries, jaw-dropping views on the corniche road to Fiscardo, caves with stalagmites and stalagtites, an underground lake to go boating on, and lastly, Assos, another ravishing Cephalonian village, on an isthmus leading to a Venetian fortress.
An amazingly varied island. Watersports, cultural activities, excursions, calm summer seas, wonderful swimming and some magnificent beaches and lanscapes. Easy access from many international airports via charter flights.
Lack of distinguished architecture. Local taste has deteriorated as wealth increases. You need to drive quite long distances to get the most out of this large island. Those with teenagers wanting night life should choose locations carefully if they are not prepared to be chauffeurs every night.
Restless husbands bored of the beach, active children, sporty types, and history buffs - Barbarossa the pirate, and Lord Byron are just two of many notables who have stopped here.
Those wanting a hot, sexy Aegean scene like Mykonos, or a cool vibe like Hydra. Cephalonia has little snob-appeal, and while it is great for families, there is very little that is hip or chic.
The truly amazing beach of Myrtos, where chalk white meets glittering turquoise and sapphire. The fabulous ecclesiastical Museum at the Convent of Aghios Andreas. Walking across the causeway to the Assos castle and lobster at a waterfornt taverna afterwards. Roman mosaics at Skala. Near Sami are the underground lake of Melissani where a boatman will row you around, and the neighbouring Dragonata Cave. They combine for a great day out that children will love. History buffs will love St George's Castle and Tzanat's beehive Mycenaean tomb which was discovered in 1991. Eat at Dendrinos Taverna in Agia Efimia (great fish and local wine), the beautiful and chic Fiskardo in the north or the legendary Tassia's (cook for the stars, complete with star prices). Try to find the little rock hewn chapel of Aghia Barbara.
For eating, try Xiropotamo in Aghia Efimia and the fish taverna Kalyva tou Psarou (open only for lunch - tel: 27710 85105).
The hidden beaches of Platia Ammos, Dafnoudi (park at the Antipata-Erissou junction just before Fiskardo, then walk 15 minutes down to the beach through the cypress grove to a fabulous beach.) Koroni with its tiny, chilled beach bar at sunset, Sisia and Avythos, all on the south coast.
All watersports (parakiting etc), beach sports, tennis, go-karting, trail walking, wine tours (Gentilini at Minies, Calligas in the Omala valley, Metaxa in the south) nature walking (Lourdata's microclimate/tropical plants), Corgialenios Museum's riveting visual entry into the life of the island 150 years ago. Riding from Cony's farm near Sami (Bavarian Riding Stables - tel: 6977 533203)
Scuba diving from Fiskardo, Aghia Efthimia or Skala (www.aquatic.gr, tel: 26740 62006 and 6944 86701)
Children love the cave of Dragonata and the lake of Melissani.
Many Greek vacationers as well as those from overseas. But the island's size means it can comfortably absorb them.
The amazing lushness of the island is due to its relatively long, wet winters, so off-season weather can be disappointing. Explore the villages of the Livatho and the flowers and the bird life of Mount Aenos - woodpeckers, rare owls, and magnificent birds of prey such as griffon vultures, golden eagles, buzzards and Eleanora's falcons all inhabit the heights.