With varied landscape, Ionian island combines old and new charm
By Kyriaki Vassalou
At 743 square kilometers, Cephalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands, off Greece’s western coast, and the country’s sixth largest overall. It is also one of Greece’s most mountainous islands, with a widely varied landscape, mixed flora and several summits above 1,000 meters — Aenos (1,627 m) and Roudi (1,130 m) are two notable examples. You will find coastal routes — both following the shoreline as well as along lofty green bluffs that plunge into azure waters. Picturesque villages and houses with colorful courtyards nestle a stone’s throw away from magnificent beaches.
Cephalonia is said to have 365 villages, all attractive and tidy destinations in their own right. Most have rented rooms and tavernas and the food is good and reasonably priced.
Skala, on the island’s southeastern tip, has the most hotels; it is the first resort to receive visitors in May and the last to bid them farewell in October. Skala’s seemingly endless beach — along with those neighboring at Kaminia and Katelios — combined with relative proximity to the port of Poros and the capital, Argostoli, make it an attractive base for a visit.
The stretch between Skala and Argostoli — about 40 kilometers — is dotted with pretty villages and beautiful beaches.
From Kourkoumelata — a village built anew after the devastating 1953 earthquake and now a model of aesthetics — you can watch amazing sunsets. Ask for the cultural center’s summer program.
Argostoli, which, like many settlements on Cephalonia, was flattened by the 1953 quake, is tucked inside a protected natural harbor in the gulf of the same name whose inner cove forms the Koutavos lagoon. The entry to the town is marked by a small eucalyptus copse and the attractive tree-lined coastal road is ideal for strolling, cycling and jogging. The center features several Venetian-style public buildings and Lithostroto, a marble-paved main street, ends in the bustling central Vallianou Square, which is lined with hotels, cafes and restaurants. Rizospaston Avenue, with its palm trees and renovated Philharmonic School, add to the highlights.
The seaside stroll continues past the port, lined with tall trees.
Lixouri, Cephalonia’s second-largest town, located on the Paliki peninsula and a 20-minute ferry ride from Argostoli on the other side of the gulf, was also completely destroyed by the 1953 earthquake — unlike some of the villages further inland, such as Loukerata, Vlychada, Skinias and Rifi, which retained many of their old charming features. Some of the beaches in this area are breathtaking, such as Xi and Megas Lakkos (next to each other and both featuring red sand), Vatsa, Kounopetra and Platia Ammos, with a 300-step descent to the beach. On the western side of the peninsula, be sure to pay a visit to the Kipouria Monastery and the lighthouse at Gerogombos, both of which offer gorgeous views.
On the main road leading north from Argostoli to Fiskardo, the landscape becomes wild and offers some of the best scenery on the island. Seen from the road above, the view of Myrtos, rated as one of the best beaches in the world, is simply stunning.
Further north, Cephalonia has two more highlights: Assos — a much photographed village linked to the rest of the island by a narrow strip of land, with a promontory featuring steep slopes and a 15th-century fort — and Fiskardo. Virtually the only place in Cephalonia to be left intact by the 1953 earthquake, Fiskardo has certainly been affected by tourism since. Its picturesque port, the mansions, the colors and the flowers make it a true gem. In the summer it is crowded and visitors should expect above-average prices.
Aghia Efimia and Sami, the two ports on the eastern coast, are for more tranquil and relaxed holidays.
Mt Aenos, designated a national park, hosts a species of fir tree (Abies cephalonica) which is endemic to Greece.
From Sami, there is a good road going southwest over the mountain to Argostoli, about 20 kilometers. On the way there is a sign that reads “Ainos 15.” From here, one can walk to the top of the mountain for a panoramic view of the entire island.
How to get there
Via the port of Kyllini in the western Peloponnese. The journey from Athens takes about three hours and the trip to the port of Poros lasts about 90 minutes (15 minutes less to Sami). Ionian Ferries, tel 210.324.9997, Strintzis Ferries, tel 210.422.5000. Round-trip fares receive a 20 percent discount: from 17.50 euros per person and from 82.80 euros for the car. From Kyllini you can also go directly to Argostoli and Lixouri, while Poros and Sami can also be reached by ferry from Patras. There are also daily flights from Athens.
Where to stay
Area phone code: 26710. Skala: Anassa Hotel, fully equipped rooms and studios (83070, 83115); 9 Muses, pricy but fully equipped apartments and suites (83563); Porto Skala Village, apartments and studios – received value-for-money award (83501). In Argostoli: Aenos, boutique hotel (28018); Mirabel in the central square (25381). In Lixouri: Summery (91871). In Assos: Niriides (51607) and Roi apartments (51001). In Fiskardo: Faros Suites, quiet and deluxe (42335); In Sami: Sami Beach Hotel, three-star (22802); Green Bay studios (22229).
Where to eat
In Argostoli: Venieris, family luxury taverna, good seafood and meat; Palia Plaka: Good classic Greek dishes on the seafront; Patsouras, likewise; La Strada, Italian cuisine at reasonable prices on Rizospaston Avenue; Hersonas in Trogianata and Patriarchis in Dilinata for grilled dishes. In Lixouri: Akrogiali for seafood, Zorbas for good classic dishes. In Assos: Platanos, local cuisine and friendly service. In Aghia Kyriaki: Kalyva tou Psara, one of the best fish tavernas. In Fiskardo: Vaso, famous for seafood and big portions; Lagoudera.
What to see & activities
Τhe Archaeological as well the Historical & Folk History museums in Argostoli; the castles of Aghios Georgios (seat of the old capital) and Assos for a glimpse of the Venetian legacy; the Monastery of Aghios Gerasimos – the local patron saint – which celebrates on August 16 and October 20; near Sami you can visit the Drogarati and Melissani lake caves (toured by boat); the Antisamos beach near Sami is ideal for water sports; see Katavothres, outside Argostoli, where water is sucked into the earth and comes out on the eastern coast.