Andrew Morris attempts to quell vicious rumours about this beautiful island.
Ask most people what they associate with Zakynthos, the third largest and most southerly of the Greek Ionian islands, and chances are they’ll say loud clubs and free-flowing beer. But despite what the package companies try to tell you, Zakynthos, or Zante as it’s also known, is far from just a Hellenic outpost of fast food and happy hours. And whilst cheap and cheerful packages are certainly evident in 24-hour resorts like its largest, Laganas, to describe Zakynthos as a one-trick party island is tantamount to describing Paris as merely the city where the big tower is. Hire a car; spend a week seeing the island and the true flavour of Zakynthos will shine through.
An ideal first stop, and a literal one too if like us you arrive by ferry, is the capital – Zakynthos Town. The Town is instantly appealing, busy piazzas such as inter-connected Solomos and St Marks Squares, buzz with tourists and locals enjoying a laid-back al-fresco lifestyle. The centre of the Town, founded by the then ruling Venetian nobility, has been restored to much of its former glory after a massive earthquake destroyed it and much of Zakynthos in 1953. For sweeping views of the Town and the south of the island, take the car up to picturesque Bochali; and over an ice-cream a great spot for people as well as island watching.
The diminutive size of Zakynthos – nowhere is more than an hours drive from the airport, makes it accessible to even the most reticent of explorers. Most tourists tend to stick to the coastal roads, a decision rewarded by some truly exceptional vistas, the most picture-perfect of which can be found near the crafts village of Volimes on the west coast. Here you’ll look down on the most famous, if slightly incongruous, image of the island – the hulk of a slowly rusting shipwreck on a totally isolated sandy beach surrounded by a jaw-droppingly beautiful sea. Indeed the waters off Navagio (literally shipwreck) cove, are not just aquamarine, they actually seem to glow. It’s one of those views when only “wow” will do.
Drive to the island’s northern tip at Cape Schinari for dramatic views over to the neighbouring island of Kefalonia – only an hour by ferry for a little island-hopping. Then travel 15 minutes down the winding and verdant east coast to St Nicholas Port and pick up a small boat to explore the Blue Caves – so called because of the dazzling hue of the water in the caverns. A great morning’s exploring, and all before the obligatory siesta kicks-in.
Zakynthos is, for most tourists, a summer destination – after October much of the island shuts up shop. But not only does the clement weather bring the mass ranks of European tourism, but another far less demanding species, the endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Zakynthos is the turtles’ most important Mediterranean nesting area and fortunately for them, the island is one of those rare European success stories of tourism and Mother Nature getting on most of the time like best pals.
The turtles, which in cuddly toy form have proven a hugely marketable and appealing commodity for tourist shops, are protected by bodies such as the EU-sponsored National Marine Park of Zakynthos. The marine park covers the nesting area slap-bang in the middle of the island’s busiest beaches in Laganas Bay – a largely successful instance of eco-tourism in the very heart of sandcastle territory. Indeed, Gerakas Beach, on the south-east tip of the island is at the epicentre of turtle country and a haven for both sun-seeker and egg-layer. For the former it’s one of the cleanest and safest beaches in Europe (it won last year’s Times award for best international beach for kids). For the later, the nesting areas are clearly marked by local conservationists and avoided by most right-thinking tourists amongst the deckchairs.
Another hotspot for the turtles – in clear view, but fortunately well-protected from that other hotspot of Laganas, is the sandy solitude of Marathonisi – otherwise known as Turtle Island. So-called because of its shape as well as its seasonal inhabitants, boat trips here are never allowed to disturb the nests. The message is loud and clear, on Marathonisi, the Loggerhead is king.
Of course for those who just want a family beach holiday, Zakynthos is a safe and child- friendly option. The fact that it’s not uncommon to see families wandering about after midnight, speaks absolute volumes. But if all this is still not enough to get you to Zakynthos, maybe the fact it has more sun-hours than the rest of Greece will do the job.