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The Other Greek Isles

ITHACA
"This is a small island with a large history," said Gerassimos Morfessis, who runs the Calypso Apartments above the main port of Vathy. "It has so much natural beauty. And it's a place everyone thinks of as home." If not everyone, then at least the many Ithacans who have followed Odysseus' example, emigrating to make a living, then returning. Little affected by tourism, Ithaca has been modernized by its emigrants; it was the first place in Greece to get electrical power, paid for by wealthy shipowner George Drakoulis. Sitting in the courtyard of his grand mansion at the Drakoulis Café, I watched kids on mopeds speed past old men on donkeys. In the minuscule town of Frikes, I checked e-mail at an Internet café as Gypsies sold ropes of garlic to crones leaning out of stone houses. The constant mingling of ancient and modern made me think of life's soothing patterns: people are born, leave, return, live, die, and it just keeps repeating itself, so you might as well relax and have an iced coffee.

Other than hiking, swimming, and lotus-eating, Ithaca doesn't have much in the way of excitement. The Homeric sites—including the Cave of the Nymphs, the not very epic beach at the Bay of Phorkys, and Arethousa's Spring—are mostly disappointing. My personal Odyssey moment occurred at Taverna O Nikos, when the priest at the next table yelled to his young daughter as she raced around on her scooter: "Penelope, come back here and wait for your brother." Penelope rolled her eyes as if thinking, "That's all I ever do, sit here and wait for some man."

KEFALLONIA
Brutally occupied by the Nazis in the 1940's, and almost leveled by an earthquake in 1953, Kefallonia was not having a good century. Then in 1994 came Corelli's Mandolin, the wildly popular novel about Italian troops on the island during World War II, and Kefallonia's charms were recognized. The recent film version flopped, but the island's landscape stole every scene. Busloads of Germans clutching paperbacks now wander Sami, where the movie was shot, but Kefallonia seldom feels crowded. The largest of the Eptanissia, it has enough beaches for armies of sunbathers, from white-sand Myrtos to tree-lined Antisamos. There are also 365 villages, "one for every day of the year," as my taxi driver put it.

I dutifully checked out the island's sights—riding a boat around the lake in Melissani Cave, tromping through the clammy Drogarati Cave, sipping coffee in the beautifully rebuilt waterfront village of Assos. Still, my main activity was digging up Hollywood dirt. At Garbis jewelers in the capital of Argostoli, the owner shared photos of the Corelli filming—his son had been tapped as an extra "because he's skinny, like people during the war." I was more engrossed by the man's real-life drama: the story of how, at 13, he ran home during the '53 earthquake, and an icon of the Virgin Mary fell into his hands as a building buckled beside him.

The only town untouched by that quake was Fiskardo, whose lovely harbor is now filled with yachts. There I chatted with the owner of Nicolas Taverna, who dances with customers when not serving patrons like Tom Hanks. Had business increased post-Corelli?"More people want to visit, but some should wait a year or two," he replied. "I don't want to work so hard I give myself a heart attack."

In Sami, the waiter at Akrogiali Taverna was similarly nonplussed by Kefallonia's flirtation with Hollywood. "Madonna's boat docked last summer, and she came ashore for ice cream. TV cameras were everywhere," he recalled. "What a mess!" As I fed crumbs to the cat under my table and watched waves lap the shore, I realized that everything people come to Greece for was right here. Clearly, I'm not the only one who thinks so: the waiter said the Corelli production company is returning to film a Tom Cruise movie, and a Lord Byron biopic is also in the works.

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