Your Life: TRAVEL: Ionian Awe; HIT AND MYTH ON BEAUTIFUL KEFALONIA

Article excerpt

Byline: BY MATT ROPER

IT was an embarrassing moment that would have landed me in hot water - probably scrubbing dishes - in any restaurant back home.

My credit card had been declined and I didn't have nearly enough euros to cover our bill.

As I fumbled in my pockets for any spare change, the burly Greek waiter rushed over to our table, concern spread across his face.

"No, no, no," he pleaded, waving his hands. "If you give me all your money you won't have any left - you can come back and pay me tomorrow. OK?"

I'd only been in Kefalonia for two days, but I'd already come to understand why many of my fellow holidaymakers come here year after year.

The sea is as blue as on the brochure, the food as tasty as the mouth-watering descriptions, and the dramatic scenery takes the breath away.

But it is the locals that make this tiny Greek island such an unforgettable destination.

Waiters come over for a chat between courses, shopkeepers are never in a hurry to take your money and - as the incident at the restaurant showed - everyone tries to make your trip as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

Sitting between Corfu and Zakynthos, Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian islands and sixth largest of all the Greek islands.

But despite this, and its fame as setting for the film of Louis De Berniere's book Captain Corelli's Mandolin, it has somehow avoided the crowds of tourists that flock to the other islands.

As soon as you arrive, you are struck by how peaceful and unspoiled the island is. My wife, Daniela, and I arrived on the first flight of the season, but it felt like we were the first tourists ever to discover it.

Our journey from the airport along a cliff-hugging road to the northern tip of island was a tantalising taster of Kefalonia's beauty and relaxed charm.

Sleepy villages untouched by time nestle at the foot of lush mountains, and long-forgotten monasteries and Venetian fortresses cling to the side of rugged hills overgrown by wild flowers.

Below us the crystal-clear waters of the Ionian sea lapped on to stunning white beaches and glistened turquoise in sheltered coves.

We stayed at a brand new apartment block overlooking the beautiful fishing village of Fiskardo.

Nicknamed the Greek St Tropez, yachts and colourful fishing boats bob up and down on a natural harbour lined by waterfront cafes and restaurants.

The area's bustling but not crowded, buzzing but not commercialised.

During our week's holiday we never tired of wandering around the tasteful gift shops and clothes boutiques or relaxing by the harbour, which is a outdoor aquarium of exotic fish.

It is also the perfect place to sit by the waterside and taste some of Greece's finest cuisine, made with fresh, local ingredients.

Most restaurants offer a mezze menu, a variety of small dishes, such as fried cheese pies, tasty tzatziki, giant beans, feta salads, calamari and prawns.

If you manage to get past the first course there are plenty of local main dishes, such as Kefalonian meat pie, and the old Greek favourites moussaka and ratatouille.

Wash it all down with some crisp, dry Robola wine, made from grapes grown high on the slopes of Mount Ainos, the island's highest summit.

And it's not just the food and drink that are guaranteed to get your senses tingling on Kefalonia.

Take a walk up into the hills, where the blend of smells from the island's thyme and mountain tea swirls in the breeze.

You might even catch sight of one of the wild horses that roam here, descendants of animals left by the crusaders 900 years ago.

The hills of the Ionian islands are strewn with monasteries, which are often open to the public and offer some of the most breathtaking views.

One beauty spot which shouldn't be missed is the village of Assos. …