February 21, 2024

Unwrapping Kefalonia’s grown-up side: How the Captain Corelli Greek island went from sleepy to sophisticated

There seems to be an unspoken rule that you can’t mention the Ionian isle of Kefalonia without also mentioning Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières’ 1994 literary gem (and 2001 film) set on the island against the backdrop of WWII. Even though it’s been nearly 30 years since the novel’s debut, no fewer than three people brought it up to me during a recent trip, which is fair enough.

Casting the island as a rustically charming and authentically Greek destination, the story has helped cement Kefalonia’s reputation as a firm holiday favourite among the British. But these days, there’s more to talk about. A crop of smart new openings, from restaurants to retreats, has infused the quiet island with a breath of fresh air; one that’s decidedly more grown-up, sophisticated and three-dimensional.

“One of my early summer memories is the island flooded by Italian tourists, who lived in basic-service rooms and used to pay the rental fee by selling the fish they caught while scuba diving,” says Gavriela Danali, the owner (and interior designer) of the three-bedroom, bohemian-chic Villa Arterra in the sleepy village of Makriotika. “But Kefalonia has been obviously upgraded in the last years, with visitors looking for sophisticated accommodations and fine dining.”

Villa Arterra, one of the new batch of luxe-leaning places to stay in Kefalonia

(Arterra)

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Spurred on by this new demand, Danali opened her villa in 2018. She credits the increase in direct flights from European destinations for driving tourism (the airport was upgraded in 2019, which no doubt also helped). A mix of antiques amd modern style housed within a building made of local stone, this villa is emblematic of the island’s new calibre of tourists: yes, they want upmarket Korres toiletries and designer kitchens, but they also still want the authentic, raw Ionian experience, in rugged hillside villages where there are more goats than people.

Kefalonia’s forested, green interior has its charms, but it’s easy to get swept away by the famous beaches. Fifteen minutes from Makriotika is Myrtos, the beach of postcard recognition, with blindingly white pebbles and water the iridescent blue-green of a peacock’s breast, while Sami – another island favourite – is 20 minutes away.

Boats like the Explorer 40 are available to hire, and open up the blue waters around the island

(Click&Boat)

However, if you’re looking for a crowd-free experience, the best beaches are the ones that are only accessible by boat, like Platia Ammos and Fteri. Bespoke boat trips have never been more convenient and comfortable thanks to new arrivals like the 2023 Explorer 40, available for day charters via Click&Boat (starting from €1,700 for a full day with up to 12 people).

About 45 minutes north of Makriotika is the historic harbour of Fiskardo, perhaps the island’s most upmarket destination, with shiny, celeb-studded yachts, stylish restaurants, and Venetian architecture, mercifully left untouched by the 1953 earthquake that ravaged the rest of the island. In 2019, archaeologists discovered a 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck just off the harbour, its cargo of amphorae spilt across the seabed.

Culinary delights inspired by the surrounding sea at Fishkardo

(Fishkardo)

This summer, the big news in Fiskardo is the two new restaurants by Lefteris Lazarou, the first Greek chef awarded a Michelin star. Tra Due shows off the island’s Italian influences, while the harbourside Fishkardo is a study in show-off Ionian seafood. Salt-baked lavraki (Mediterranean sea bass) set aflame in ouzo, grilled cuttlefish with pine nuts and feta mousse, and steamed monkfish with massive, sweet onions from the nearby island of Zakynthos, visible from Kefalaonia’s southern shores, crowd a promising menu.

Speaking of the southern coast, two new upscale hotels have arrived just in time for summer: the four-star Celestial Suites and the most impressive new arrival, the five-star Eliamos. A 12-suite temple of high design, Eliamos infuses the island with the kind of high-flying style usually reserved for Mykonos or Santorini, with private saltwater pool villas, yoga and reformer Pilates sessions, and e-bikes for local exploration.



Kefalonia has historically been an island of less development, as the local people have been protective of the island’s natural beauty

“There are very few luxury hotels in Kefalonia aimed at discerning, design-savvy travellers,” says Spyro Korsianos, who co-owns Eliamos with his wife, interior architect Maike Gruna. Korsianos’ mother and father are from Kefalonia, giving him an insider’s perspective. “Kefalonia has historically been an island of less development, as the local people have been protective of the island’s natural beauty.

“But, as the local community and hoteliers have embraced concepts around sustainability – for example, sustainable fisheries and protecting local heritage (such as the Unesco Geopark initiative) – we have gradually seen Kefalonia attract more tourism from those who want to get away from some of the busier, more traditionally popular islands.”

Lose hours by the pool at Eliamos

(Eliamos)

Eliamos may offer a new reason to visit, but summer in Kefalonia is easily whittled away on timeless pursuits. Watch the massive loggerhead sea turtles come in with the morning fishing boats in the capital of Argostoli. Sip local crisp and citrusy robola at Orealios Winery. Visit the 16th-century Monastery of Agios Gerasimos, patron saint of the island. Or – because some things never get old – just spend the day soaking up that famed Grecian sunshine.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Jet2 and easyJet fly direct from the UK to Kefalonia.

Staying there

GIC The Villa Collection offers a seven-night holiday staying in the Amos Suite at Eliamos Villas and Spa Hotel, Kefalonia starting from £2,439pp, B&B, based on May 2024 departure, including return flights from Gatwick, 23kg of hold luggage and car hire.

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