Fly and flop holidays are out as keeping active on your beach break is the only way to get away from it all and explore a destination in a new light. If the laidback Mediterranean lifestyle and a plethora of adventures on land and sea is what you're picturing for this summer, the Greek island of Kefalonia couldn't be more perfect for getting the best of both worlds.
Kefalonia, the setting of Louis de Bernière novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, is a scenic beauty where the goats wander freely and islanders gather in the streets to sing in the evenings. The largest of the Ionian Islands, Cephalonia or Kefallinia as it is also spelled, is as charming as you'd hope to find a Greek holiday destination.
A far cry from the party islands of Mykonos and Zakynthos, it is free from major development and has no intention of attracting crowds of tourists. It's precisely this, along with the pristine beauty and authenticity that make the paradise isle a hotspot for activity, adventure and wellness holidays.
Traditionally loved by couples and families for its unspoilt beauty and tranquillity, Kefalonia offers wild mountains, hard-to-reach beaches and crystal-clear waters loved by active travellers. Throw in the heavenly sunsets and a stylish boutique hotel and you have an idyllic summer holiday with days filled exploring the glorious landscapes and resting beside the pool, and nights spent feasting at the tavernas and meeting the locals in the capital of Argostoli.
The relaxed coastal corner of Lourdas in the south of the island is an excellent base, where just a few metres from the lovely beach lies chic and rustic boutique hotel F Zeen, a superb home from home.
Wonderfully at one with nature, the recently opened adults-only hotel was designed to fit seamlessly into its surroundings of pine forests, cypress trees and the overlooking Mount Aenos. F Zeen's style is simple, luxurious and unpretentious. Here you'll find bougainvillea plants, magnificent sea views and the smell of pine forests creating a beautiful setting.
With a focus on relaxation, wellbeing and deliciously healthy eating, family-run F Zeen was made for grown-up holidays that involve escaping to a natural location and de-stressing at a relaxing retreat. The rooms are natural, chic and could be straight out of an interiors magazine with their minimalist, design-led features: think taupe walls, industrial furniture and warm, neutral hues. If you've come here with being active in mind, check into a gorgeous Superior Retreat set in the hillside and reached by an uphill walk of around 135 steps. It's worth the trek and you'll be rewarded by the simplistic beauty the boutique hotel does best, complete with an amazing sea view from a spacious balcony. From the queen-sized beds to the walk-in showers and natural Greek amenities by Apivita, the Superior Retreats offer a sanctuary and the utmost comfort.
The spa, with its massages using seaweed oil, body scrubs to make you glow and rejuvenating facials, as well as the two glistening pools are the ultimate places to relax at F Zeen, while eating at the restaurant allows you to experience healthy and delectable dining you never thought possible. Vegan potato salad, meat mezze boards, herb falafel, fresh sea bass and vegan chocolate truffles are some of the most delicious delights on the menu. Here, everything is homemade and cooked to order, with local ingredients and even olive oil from home-grown olives used throughout the dishes.
Getting active at the hotel is a treat thanks to the daily yoga classes led by one of the owners Tasia, which range from core power yoga to chakra vinyasa, and take place in the most breathtaking setting - a yoga deck nestled in the hotel's gardens overlooking the sparkling sea. If you're after something more fast-paced, the well-equipped outdoor gym has everything from TRX training equipment to a cross trainer, punch bag and weights.
Outside the hotel is where the real adventures start. Outdoor Kefalonia is an activity and tour company offering big experiences on the island. Start with the terrific hike to the secluded Fteri Beach (50 euros per person), in the northwest of Kefalonia, a hidden beach that is yet to be discovered (even by many locals). The downhill hike, which takes around an hour before you reach the beach, follows an old path where you might be lucky to spot a goat herder with his flock along the way. For those who prefer a challenge, it is possible to descend through a canyon by rope. Once you arrive at the beach, you can swim in the crystal-clear waters and will most likely have the place to yourself to sunbathe on the hidden beach.
With the most breathtaking waters surrounding Kefalonia, you will adore the water-based adventures like kayaking. Following the scenic coast where sea caves, natural arches and rock gardens are aplenty, a sea kayaking tour is a terrific way to see the island from the water. Sea Kayaking Kefalonia offers a variety of day trips for different abilities. The Argostoli Lighthouse to Minies tour (65 euros per person) takes in south Kefalonia over six hours as you paddle a distance of five nautical miles. Along the way, you'll stop for a short break and a snorkel at Palaiostafida Bay, where the gloriously clear water is perfect for spotting fish. The scenery soon changes, bringing tall limestone cliffs that are stunning against the turquoise waters. A final stop then takes you to a remote beach, where you can enjoy a swim and a delicious Greek lunch on the sand.
Witnessing the epic sunsets is a must in Greece and there's no better way to do this than on a Jeep safari (45 euros per person for three to four hours) with Outdoor Kefalonia, which passes pretty villages as you travel high up into the mountains along a gravel path. Driving to the west coast of the island towards sprawling beach Platia Amos and the convent of Kipouria, the 4x4 tour affords you with majestic views of the island shrouded in clouds and a picturesque setting from which to watch the sunset at such a height.
At night, Argostoli is a lively place to meander through the town and watch the streets come alive with Greek music as the locals sing and play instruments. The shops are open until late and offer treats including traditional mandola sweets, olive oil, wine and gifts. There are also clothing, beauty and jewellery shops, as well as bars and restaurants to enjoy a lovely evening in town.
Book it: F Zeen opens for the 2017 season on 15 April, with Classic Retreats starting from €160 per night on a bed and breakfast basis. For further information or to book, visit uniquekefalonia.com
Greek islands you haven't heard of
Greek islands you haven't heard of
The pretty island of Kastellorizo, which lies 110km east of Rhodes, has a main town that unfolds around the natural harbour with unique architecture and colourful houses. The island's is home to a cluster of islets and offers a wealth of marine life to discover in its clear blue seas. Around the island you'll find cafes, tavernas and shops. The medieval castle and archaeological and folklore museums are several top attractions to visit when you're not at the beach. As tourism is yet to develop you'll only find a selection of hotels - a good place to experience true Greek island life.
The lesser-known isle of Chios is a unique gem in the north-eastern area of the Aegean Sea. It is best known for its cultivation and production of mastic, an aromatic resin that comes from trees that grow in the Mastihohoria region and forms in teardrop shapes. Pyrgi is one of the island's most beautiful villages, characterised by the fine decoration of its houses featuring grey and white geometric shapes.
One of the most romantic places in Greece, Hydra overlooks the Argosaronic gulf and is home to traditional stone mansions, narrow cobbled streets and secluded squares. Cars are banned so people get around by donkey and its heart is the waterfront, featuring picturesque streets, museums, churches and cafés. Hydra is a popular day trip destination from Athens and its best beaches include Limnioniza, Spiliá and Ayios Nikolaos.
Karpathos is part of the Dodecanese complex and lies east of Crete. It is one of Greece's best-kept secrets, a mountainous island full of fresh water springs, vineyards and pine-tree forests. Karpathos' rock caves are home to Mediterranean monk seals and around the island there are marvellous hiking paths, secluded beaches and pretty villages, such as Othos and Olympos.
Schinoussa is a small island that lies to the south of Naxos and boasts stony landscape that is both beautiful and unspoilt. It is part of the Minor Cyclades group of islands and has just three villages: Chora, Messaria and Mersini. As the island's port, Mersini, once a hideout for pirates, is a haven for small boats and a popular mooring spot for sailing enthusiasts. While on the island, enjoy hiking to observe the unspoilt natural beauty of the island, discover the 15 idyllic beaches and don't miss a walk through the picturesque village of Chora.
In the southern tip of the Aegean group of islands lies Ikaria, one of only five blue zones in the world, meaning the people here live longer than most - not a bad place to be! The unspoilt island has no airport and limited access by ferry. It is teeming with wildlife and is home to beautiful forest, with hidden lakes, waterfalls, ancient monasteries and small traditional villages for you to explore. The island is mostly visited by Greek tourists who come to bathe in the thermal springs and enjoy the feasts, which happen almost daily during the summer when locals make their own red wine, roast meat and salads to offer visitors before everyone dances out the night.
With one of the prettiest harbours in Greece, Symi is a picturesque island boasting impeccable architecture, cafes, restaurants and a slow pace of life, unlike its neighbour Rhodes. Ideal for a lazy holiday, Symi has wonderful tavernas by the sea, serving up its famous shrimps, and there is no lack of beaches on the island. Many of the sandy and pebbly beaches are off the beaten track and only reachable by taxi. Some of the best places to visit on the island include the monastery of the Archangel Michael Panormitis, scenic village Pedi and Kali Strata, the stony stairway of 500 steps which lead to the upper part of Chorio town.
This gorgeous island in the Cyclades merges traditional and modern Greece. The capital of Syros, Ermoupoli, is described as a town museum, with its beautiful squares and neoclassical houses. There are a number of beautiful beaches on Syros, such as Vari, Yalissás and Kíni. The island is known for its gastronomic peculiarities, with local specialities including halva pie (thyme honey and roasted almond pie) and Mihalis spicy cheese.
For lovers of nature, Alonnisos is a true island gem, offering rugged landscapes, olive groves and pine forests perfect for leisurely walks. The most remote of the Northern Sporades, Alonissos, which can be accessed by ferry from Skopelos, plays host to the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades, a refuge for rare seabirds, dolphins and the Mediterranean monk seal, monachus monachus. Patitiri is the picturesque harbour and capital of the island boasting a beautiful stone-paved waterfront. Old Alonnisos, or Hora, is home to remarkable architectural monuments, such as the medieval castle overlooking the Aegean Sea. For a day at the beach, enjoy the crystal clear waters of Meyalos, Milia and Marpounta.
Butterfly-shaped island Astypalaia is part of the Dodecanese group in the southern Aegean and located far west of Kos, boasting centuries-old history, whitewashed villages and sun-drenched beaches. The island is ideal for a secluded escape, a remote spot with 90 per cent of visitors from Greece. The capital town and port is Chora, one of the most picturesque towns in the Aegean. At its top is the castle towering over the town with the strikingly white domes of the Evangelistria and Agios Georgios churches visible over the walls. Around Astypalaia, the seaside village of Livadia, the Talaras Baths and their Hellenistic period mosaics, and the Chemeni Limni lagoon are must-sees.
Lying halfway between Athens and Crete, volcanic island Milos has been afforded a variety of gorgeous landscapes and colours. Expect funny-shaped rocks and beautiful hues at the white sandy beaches. One of the oldest mines in the Mediterranean is located on the island and there is a multitude of thermal springs and spectacular caves. The villages of Milos are lovely: don't miss stately Plaka, the harbour of Adamantas and the beautiful Hivadolimni. Visitors can bask on 80 amazing beaches, sample the local food (watermelon pies, bonbons with white pumpkin and cream cheese pies), and tour the ancient-old walking paths by foot. Above all, this is an island for long days at the beach.
Named after the son of king Minos, Falegandros is an undiscovered island gem on the southern edge of the Cyclades near Santorini. Its untouched beaches and the unadulterated style of its architecture captivate sun-seeking visitors. Clifftop village Hora is one of the most appealing in the Cyclades, with its bougainvillea leaning over the balconies, sugar-cube whitewashed houses and sheer cliff drops conveying the island's wild beauty. The pristine beaches to visit include Karavostassis, Vitzetzo and Hohlidia. Pretty village Ano Mera is a traditional rural settlement of the 19th century and the island is made for rambling, with the path from Hora's cemetery to the hilltop church of Panagia offering spectacular sunset views.
Fit for foodies, Sifnos is the island of flavours, home to award-winning chefs like Tselementés. The mouth-watering local specialties include chick pea balls, mastelo (lamb cooked in red wine and spices) and honey pie. On the beautiful island, you will find unique traditional villages, secluded beaches and 227 churches waiting to be discovered. Apollonia is the capital, with its narrow streets, whitewashed houses and the Folklore Museum. Sample Sifnos' exceptional dishes at every taverna or restaurant in Apollonia. As a centre of pottery, you can visit workshops and buy ceramics throughout Sifnos. At the beach, you can enjoy azure waters and sun-drenched sands. Kamares, Platis Yialos and Epta Martyres are some of the best beaches in Sifnos.
Known as the sacred island where Saint John wrote the Book of Revelation, Patmos boasts a lace-like coastline, sheer cliffs and volcanic soil, making it a haven for nature lovers. The UNESCO World Heritage island hosts pilgrims who make an annual trip to the whitewashed capital Chora, where you can also find boutiques, galleries and tavernas. In Chora, little glittering white houses stand next to two-storey mansions and visitors can follow the narrow streets from the monastery down to Skala, the island's port. For sunbathers, the beautiful beaches of Lampi, Vaya and Marathi await.
One of the Ionian's most idyllic islands, Paxi, offers fjord-shaped beaches, underwater caves and green hills for a peaceful holiday in Greece. According to legend, the island would be the southernmost tip of Corfu if Poseidon, the God of the Sea, had not broken it off with his trident. Paxi has three small seaside villages tucked away in pine and olive trees: Loggos, Lakka and Ozias. There are countless beaches offering a starting point for scuba divers to explore the underwater caves and shipwrecks, and Paxi's other must-dos include the Olive Museum and exploring the islets.