Cephalonia, or Kefalonia, is the largest of Greece's Ionian Islands and beautiful at any time. But visit in the spring and you'll find an authentically Greek experience minus the high-season crowds.
Voted more than 10 times the best beach in Greece, the gently curving Myrtos Bay became even more famous in 2001, when it played a starring role in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In summer, the Captain’s beach is reputed to be so crowded it’s impossible to lay out a towel, and the roads to it – or any other scenic hot spot on this alpine island – are a traffic jam waiting to happen. In the hottest months, Cephalonia’s nightclubs throb, the locals’ attention is taken up with their few brief weeks of generating income, and accommodation in its picture-postcard villages is at a premium.
But arrive on Cephalonia in spring, when the island is all but deserted but the days are already warm, and a gentler, more authentic experience awaits you.
In springtime, the fruit and nut trees burst into blossom, dotting the steep hillsides in soft pinks and whites. Bay trees covered in frothy yellow blooms hum with the sound of bees, while goat bells reverberate through the olive groves. At the edges of the road, shepherds stoop to search for slim green spears of wild asparagus among the long grass. Inspired, we observed their technique and tried asparagus foraging for ourselves.
While rental cars are easy to come by on Cephalonia, some the best experiences can be had on foot – should you tire and need a ride, just put out your thumb and someone will be sure to stop. Start with a visit to one of Cephalonia’s several earthquake-destroyed ghost towns for a fascinating foray into the past. The island has a long history of 'seismos' (earthquakes), and was all but totally destroyed by a devastating shake in 1953. Afterwards, much of the population emigrated to the mainland and other parts of the world. Today the ruined settlements of Farsa, Valsamata and Vlachata, where citrus, olive and fig trees sprout from the rubble, look less like villages and more like eerie movie sets.
Still on foot, explore the tiny villages on both sides of the valley around Makriotika, a few kilometres inland from the harbourside village of Agia Efimia. The door of the churches in these parts are never locked so take a look inside, drop a coin into the wooden collection box, and light a taper-thin candle. If you are self-catering, keep your eyes peeled for signs advertising free-range αυγό (eggs) and ask a local where you can find fresh meat – many settlements have a backyard butcher who will sell you the tastiest minced lamb. Arm yourself with a few words of admiration for their vegetables, and women hard at work in their pocket-handkerchief gardens will happily down tools and pass the time of day with you.
On the island's west coast, the Venetian Castle of Assos is worth visiting for its setting alone. Perched on top of a rocky promontory joined by a narrow isthmus to the pretty village of Assos, the 16th century castle is almost too hot to explore in the heat of a summer's day. But in spring the walk through its ruined interior is refreshing, and wild anemone can be spotted growing between its tumble-down walls. On your return to Assos, sit at the one café still open during this quiet period and enjoy a glass of retsina, the pine-scented local wine, and a slice of tiropita (feta cheese pie). Or take a picnic lunch to the edge of the harbour wall and watch the fish swimming in the crystal clear water.
If the quiet life palls, there is always Argastoli, the island’s capital, to visit. In the cooler months, most of the businesses that offer tours or hire equipment (snorkelling gear, scooters and bikes) appear to be closed. But just call the number on the door and a manager will usually arrive within minutes – ften with an out-of-season discount. For dining in the less crowded months, head to the town of Sami, where the Patras ferry berths after its 4-5 hour journey from the mainland, and scout out the restaurants along the seafront. The printed menus bear little relation to what is actually on offer at this time of year, so don’t be afraid to ask to go into the kitchen to choose your dinner for yourself.
Serious heat comes suddenly to Greece. As spring fades into summer, and the waters around Cephalonia warm nearly enough to take a dip, you might find yourself contemplating a longer stay. But don’t be tempted. Instead, leave while the island is at its best – and the locals still have time to stop and chat.