Greek Island Hopping in the Ionian: Highlights of Zakynthos and Kefalonia

I spent an incredible summer hopping between between Zakynthos and Kefalonia Greek islands. I saw the iconic Navagio Shipwreck, Melasanni caves and Assos village.The islands in the Ionian Sea are especially famous for their stunning sandy beaches, bright blue waters and locally produced wine, cheese and honey.

During the summer seasons, there are direct flights to both islands from most European capitals and daily ferries between the two islands. We made the following route:

Flight from London Gatwick airport to Zante, Zakynthos
Taxi from Zante to Agios Nikolaos
Ferry from Agios Nikolaos port to Pesada port, Kefalonia
Taxi from Pesada to Sami
Flight from Keffalinia airport to Athens
Flight from Athens to London, Gatwick

HIGHLIGHTS OF ZAKYNTHOS

Navagio, the Shipwreck

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

You can view Navagio two ways, either by boat which drops you off at the actual Shipwreck on the beach, or from the cliff tops on either side. We took a boat trip organised by a local cafe at Agios Nikolaus village for a set price of 15 Euros per person in 2013. The Captain promised us an unforgettable experience, which proved to be very true! It took 45 minutes to reach Navagio beach. The water is shockingly bright blue, the waves are soft and the sand is grainy white. In the morning, the beach is half covered in shade so the best time to visit is in the afternoon, when the beach is entirely sunlit.

Navagio is also known as Smugglers Bay, and it’s well-known for the big shipwreck on its shores. As the story goes, in 1980 there was a freighter suspected of smuggling contraband into Greece. On-board they had scores of wine, tobacco and women. The Greek navy received a tip-off and began pursuing the vessel through the Ionian sea, until the chase came to an abrupt end when a big storm sunk the ship. It washed up and was abandoned on the shores of this beach. Today it looks very iconic. You can get up close and explore the old freighter, however be careful of playing in the derelict engine room as there is still suspected asbestos there. Sadly a lot of graffiti has now been scratched over the surface of the rusting vessel.

We enjoyed ourselves playing pirates among the shipwreck remains and diving into the cool clear waters. However there was an unexpected storm brewing in the distance and after an hour of fun our Captain waived at us to come back on board the boat. He then loudly revved the engine and began the trip back at full-speed ahead. It had become very windy and the waves were large and choppy. The captain sped so fast through the waves without any care we were getting splashed with tons of water. For the next one hour until we reached the mainland, wave after wave was dumped on us and we were all soaked and chilled to the bone. Strangely enough, the only person who remained dry was the captain himself. It was a torturous trip, and one that was certainly unforgettable and well worth it!

We also viewed Navagio from the cliff tops, by renting a quad bike (it is impossible to get there by walking alone) and driving 45 minutes westward from Agios Nikoloas village. On arrival you will see a man-made viewpoint, which you can queue up at to see the shipwreck. However for those with courage, you can also walk along the cliff tops that curve to the right to get a more stunning view but beware, there are no fences or walkways so one wrong step could be fatal. It was one of the most magnificent and completely natural views we have ever seen.

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

The boat trip to Navagio, the water was so blue

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Me soaking wet after the boat trip from hell

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

One of the most iconic and magnificent views in the world

The Windmill and Blue Caves

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

It is easy to explore Zakynthos by quad bike. The famous windmill at Cape Skinari is worth visiting just for the terrific view. There is a long winding staircase from here that leads to a small pier for bathers with deck chairs. You can swim round and see the blue caves. The water is very deep and you must be a strong swimmer to explore the caves. This is one of the most famous attractions of the island, discovered in 1897 by Antonio Komouto. The caves are an incredible piercing blue colour, and any objects that fall below the surface of the water (including swimmers) also appear blue! However it is a little eerie to swim there alone because it is so silent and dark.

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

The best way to navigate the Greek islands are by quad bike

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Looking down on the blue caves from Cape Skinari

HIGHLIGHTS OF ZAKYNTHOS

Assos Fortress

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Assos is a great little village to do a spot of grocery shopping in Kefalonia. We met with a fisherman at one of the local stores who told us how he caught 150 fish 7 years ago from his small fishing boat. Unfortunately this year he had only caught 5 fish the whole summer. However the real attraction of Assos is the stunning Fortress at the top of hill. It is an arduous 1.8km trek up to get to the top but certainly worth the amazing view. Assos Fortress dates back to approximately the 14th century. It was reconstructed in the 16th century however most of the original walls are still intact and it remains one of the largest castles in Greece to this day.

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Breathtaking views of Assos village

Melisanni Caves 

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

The Melisanni caves are at Karavomylos, near Sami. There is a small fee (approximately 2 Euros per person) to enter the caves, for which you receive a leisurely tour by boat. Our experience was particularly special as the captain sang sweet melodies as he glided us around. In the middle of the caves is a naturally formed hole, from which the sky reflects down onto the waters, reflecting a brilliant blue. The ground is covered in honey-brown pebbles and 20,000 year old stalactites adorn the cave ceiling. According to Greek mythology, this was originally the cave of a nymph named Melisanni, who committed suicide here because of her unrequited love for Pan, the God of Nature.

Roman Remains at Skala Village

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Skala village was recently rebuilt after an earthquake in 1953 decimated the old village. Fortunately, the tragedy led to the discovery of an old Roman villa dating back to 2 AD, which has some well preserved mosaics. The mosaics are created by geometric pieces of tile depicting graphic scenes: two men in front of an altar with an animal sacrifice, and a man being attacked by four wild cats. There is also an old Roman temple. These discoveries are situated inland, up the sloping hill and around the corner from the main park and boardwalk. However it is thought that thousands of years ago, the shoreline was a lot closer and the temple would have been alongside the Ionian sea. Today these excavations are jointly preserved by the Greek and Italian governments.

The Acropolis of Sami

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Compared to Athens, this Acropolis isn’t amazing but it’s worth a visit for the pleasant walk up the hill or simply to take a break from swimming. The Acropolis was made from Cylclopean blocks dating back to Mycenean times. Some people believe that this is where Odysseus hailed from, as opposed to Ithaka, where there are no known archaeological remains.

Beaches of Kefalonia

Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Most people visit Kefalonia for some good old-fashioned swimming and sun-baking and during our October holiday, we did plenty of this. I have listed my top 5 favourite beaches and swimming spots of Kefalonia.

  1. Antisamos Beach: This is where they filmed the famous scene in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, where Captain Corelli trained his Italian troops. Aside from the Hollywood fancy, this is a magnificent beach that sits within a wide cove amid tall sloping hills, sheltering it from the wind. There are also some great cocktail bars here, and plenty of deck chairs.
  2. Katelios Beach: This is where the turtles lay their eggs. The main beach is sandy with many umbrellas and sunbeds for hire, and plenty of shops and cafes nearby. A little further along, there are some small rocky coves that are perfect for napping amid the sea reeds in the crystal clear and shallow water.
  3. Agia Efimia: It is more so a combined fishing village and seaside resort, that has some terrific shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, and pretty views of the sea since it attracts many beautiful yachts. The best places for bathing are in the nooks, down the side of the main road, amid the rocky shores. The water is calm and clear here, however the rocks are not very comfortable to sun-bake on. It is located on the South East coast of Kefalonia, and Antisamos and Myrtos beaches are close by.
  4. Myrtos Beach: This is a European Union rated beach, one of the most famous of Kefalonia, and only accessible by driving down a long, winding and seemingly treacherous road. The beach is protected by tall cliffs that give it a cosy feel, however it is recommend for particularly strong swimmers as the waters are very large and choppy. It is perfect for surfing and boogie boarding. We had many laughs and jokes about surviving the visit to Myrtos beach, an unforgettable experience.
  5. Xi Beach: Famous for its reddish coloured sad, Xi beach is located on the Southern end of the Paliki peninsula of Kefalonia and named after a cove located there that is shaped a the letter X. Unlike many of the other beaches, it is not surrounded by tall cliffs or jutting rocks, and the water is very shallow making it very suitable for children and non-swimmers.  The sand is soft and has a clay-like composition, which is said to be cleansing for the skin if you rub it on your body. Nearby is the charming township of Lixouri, which is worth a visit and characterised by the big clock tower and town hall at its centre.

Antisamos Beach where they filmed the famous scene in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Splashing amid the rocks at Agia Efimia

THE BEST FOOD IN ZAKYNTHOS AND KEFALONIA 

One of the biggest attractions of Greece is the food and the Ionian Islands are well known for an abundant supply of fresh seafood, locally made cheese, wine and honey, and tasty salads. In particular, Zakynthos is often referred to as the Flower of the East, and proudly boasts  the Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, established in 1920 and as of 2013 consisting of 5800 farmers that tend to local crops and produce. However, although the food is delicious, it is not exceptionally cheap and prices vary very little between the various cafes and restaurants. I have listed our most memorable meals at both Zakynthos and Kefalonia.

La Storia, Fish Tavern
Agios Nikolaos, Zakynthos

This delightful fish tavern is located right on the main beach of the fishing village, Agios Nikolaos. It is open from late morning all the way through until late evening with alfresco seating on the water’s edge. Despite the picturesque view of a cove dotted with colourful row boats and yachts, the place is very humble. The furniture is plain but solid, and the food is simple yet tasty. Their speciality is seafood, cooked on the large outside BBQ setup on the beach that sends mouth water smells for miles around. We dined here every day of our visit, because there wasn’t many other options, however we found it a very pleasant place to hang out. However it is not cheap, with the average meal costing approximately 20-30 Euros per person. Our favourite dishes were the BBQ octopus, olive-oil marinated local cheese called Ntopio (tastes like a cross between feta and parmesan) with garlic bread, muscles cooked in tomato and feta, and BBQ salted squid. We drank the locally made white wine, which is a speciality of Zykanthos and it tasted a little like cheap Australian chardonnay, except slightly more palatable.

Muscles cooked in tomato and feta at La Storia Fish Tavern

Zervati Grill and Fish Tavern
Karavomilos, Kefalonia

Without a doubt, this is the best restaurant within a 2km radius of Karavomilos village. The food is fresh and tasty, the service is warm and friendly, and the place is always bustling. We dined here most nights on the island, and our favourite dishes were the grilled feta, tomato and cucumber salad, fried aubergine, BBQ shrimp in the shells, baby mullet, chicken souvlaki, fried cuttlefish, and the grilled red snapper. If you visit Zervati, make sure you try the garlic sauce as well, which goes well with the aubergine and fried meat dishes.

The most amazing BBQ prawns in Zakynthos and Kefalonia

Vine leaves and fish at Zervati Grill and Fish Tavern

Karavomilos Village Bakery
Karavomilos, Kefalonia

The local bakery at Karavomilos village is a real gem, and the ideal place to go for breakfast on the island because they make excellent espresso coffee. You can find the typical Greek pastries here such as cheese and spinach, or cheese and ham pies. They also have homemade ice-cream and an excellent selection of cakes and donuts, the cream pie is amazing.

Delicious breakfast in the morning sun at the village bakery

A summer holiday visiting Zakynthos and Kefalonia is breathtaking and special. Whether you want to spend the time visiting all the sites and villages or just laze on a sandy beach and enjoy good food, there is something for everyone here.

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