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Perhaps most famous for its associations with the Louis de Bernières novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, not to mention the on-screen adaptation starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz, the Ionian island of Kefalonia deserves much recommendation, and qualifies as an exotic European holiday destination. If you’re looking for a place filled with non-stop party towns—such as Laganas on the neighbouring island of Zakynthos or Malia, which made Crete popular after the success of the Inbetweeners movie—then Kefalonia will probably not be your cup of tea. But if it is history, culture, fine food and beautiful beaches that you’re after, you will not be disappointed.
On a recent trip to Kefalonia I had the pleasure of staying for two weeks at the Sami Beach hotel, located in the little village of Karavomylos—and I wish I could’ve stayed longer. This family-run business is situated right on the idyllic Kefalonian coast with stunning views of nearby Ithaca, and is fully equipped with a luxurious pool, hot tub and plenty of sun loungers for those who are keen to work on their tans. The owners themselves, the Dorizas family, are some of the most warm, kind-hearted and hospitable people I have ever met, which explains why many of their guests choose to return to the hotel year after year for their summer holidays.
During my stay, I became particularly fond of the neighbourhood cat with his brilliant blue eyes—a friendly little soul who takes naps in the shade of the bar area or, given half a chance, tries to squeeze on your sun lounger and read over your shoulder. While he is not strictly the family pet, he contributes in his own way to the laid-back ambience of the place, and the staff can often be seen stroking and playing with him on their breaks. Don’t sneak up on him though; this cerulean-eyed feline will gladly be anyone’s friend, but he is deaf as a post!
Having hired a car, I was able to make the most of exploring the island at my leisure, and as an enthusiast of classical history the acropolis of Ancient Sami was my first port of call. Built between 5 and 2 BC, not much remains of the crumbling citadel, though it is certainly worth a visit for the breathtaking 360-degree view of the landscape alone. Not far from the acropolis, you can also find a weather-beaten church of which only two walls remain standing, but it still boasts a spectacular (albeit faded) display of seventeenth-century religious iconography.
Fans of more recent history might prefer to delve into Kefalonia’s role in World War II: first being occupied by the more ‘sympathetic’ Italian forces and later, after Italy surrendered to the Allies, by the Nazis. Argostoli, the island’s capital, contains a number of war memorials that commemorate the atrocities committed by the Nazi occupational forces against both the Greek natives and Italian soldiers. However, many of the original buildings that weren’t razed to the ground by the German bombings of 1943 were decimated a decade later by an earthquake that ripped through the island, leaving a smattering of ghost towns which can still be seen today. Old Karavomylos is one such example.
All this death and destruction can leave one feeling a little depressed, so it’s a good thing that Kefalonia is also the home of the world’s fourth most beautiful beach—Myrtos. The horseshoe bay at Antisamos, with its crystal-clear waters, inquisitive fish and chilled-out tavernas, presents a close rival; and if you fancy hiring one of the boats at Agia Efemia, you can set sail for your own private beach that can only be reached by sea. Take a picnic, snorkel, swim, and generally revel in a secret slice of paradise, located just beyond the harbour.
No review of Kefalonia could possibly be complete, however, without bringing up the subject of Greek cuisine. My favourite dishes included the stuffed squid at Il Familia (Sami); the grilled swordfish at Faros (Sami); the mezze platters at Kastro Cafe (St George’s Castle); and the salads offered at Conteco Restaurant (Assos). You will also find that Ouzo, an anise-flavoured aperitif that is widely consumed throughout Greece and Cyprus, flows like water. I, unfortunately, possess a life-long hatred of all things aniseed, so I found that the Limoncello—a lemon-flavoured digestif reflecting the island’s Italian influences—was much more to my liking. Unsurprisingly, this was not something I mentioned to my Greek hosts at the Sami Beach Hotel.
In the end, it proved quite hard to tear myself away from Kefalonia and its 35-degree heat, not least because I was fully aware that the Melburnian winter awaited me back home. Yet, as I sit here ensconced in a blanket and nursing my jet-lag, I cannot deny that my experiences of this Ionian jewel more than make up for my present malaise; and I’m sure my extensive photo collection will help me make it all the way through to the glorious Australian summer.