For a few months now I’ve been seeing pictures of a shipwreck in a beautiful beach which I guessed is somewhere in Greece. Keen on learning more about this place I asked my greek friend Anthony Karakas out it aband he confirmed that this is indeed a shipwreck in Zante, the 3rd largest of the Ionian Islands and maybe one that suffers from a lack of reputation. Whilst Ios and Kos boast the moniker of “Party Island” and Rhodes and Crete are synonymous with family holidays, Zante is a comfortable in between. In fact, he says, Zante takes a bit of the best of all the others and delivers aharmonious cocktail to everyone’s taste.
A tragic story to be told
So I asked him more, and dug deeper. Zante to the Italians and Zakynthos to the Greeks, has shown settlement since Neolithic times and was recorded by Homer in his Iliad and Odyssey. Like all Greek Islands, Zante endured hundreds of years of invasion and conquest, including six centuries of Venetian rule which left an indelible mark. The French, Russians, Turks and British have all had a foothold at one time or another but, today the footsteps of conquering armies have been replaced by those of appreciative tourists who take advantage of package holiday deals. Zante is well and truly Greek. Unfortunately, in 1953, a catastrophic earthquake hit the Ionian Islands and all but three of the island’s buildings were destroyed and a mass of history disappeared. Rebuilding has resulted in attractive towns where flavours of the past have been pleasantly mixed with modern designs.
The lie of the land
The topographical variety of Zante charms and awes. The north and west sings with craggy mountains and soaring cliffs that literally drop into the lapis lazuli Ionian Sea whilst the geography of the south and East is as pleasant and welcoming as the local inhabitants of its towns and resorts. Stunning beaches and tiny islands offer a sunshine playground whilst caves and arches invite exploration. Lush vegetation abounds and as well as the ubiquitous olive and citrus groves, Zante is known for its indigenous grape known as the Zante Currant. Zante is ecologically significant as a home of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle and the National Marine Park is an area dedicated to their conservation and protection. For sun seekers, divers, walkers and party animals, Zante wears many coats but its one size fits all.
Talk of the Town
Being totally rebuilt, the settlements of Zante are congregated mainly on the coast in the hospitable south and east of the island. So what if this island’s towns don’t boast the antiquity of other Greek islands – it makes them no less appealing or welcoming. Whilst still maintaining that pace of life that is seemingly unique to the Greeks – one step above slow – the towns of Zante present tourists with a wealth of entertainments. Zakynthos Town is the capitol and hub of the island for shopping, commerce and the port for reaching the Greek mainland but it’s Laganas that bears the mantle as the party town of Zante. Apart from a few villages cradled in the mountains of the interior, most of the towns are close to the beaches. Tsilivi and Kalamaki are a draw to families whilst those looking for tranquillity and serious R and R head for the serenity of Vasillikos or Agios Nikolaos.
Places to go, things to do, sights to see
One of the great things about Zante is that its size means that if you hire a car you can drive a loop around the whole island in a day. By no means think this means you have seen all there is to offer. Whilst it makes for a nice adventure, it definitely means missing out exploring the key sights and attractions.
Be prepared for travel by boat to the best sights of Zante as they are only accessible by sea such as the incredible white cliffs at Keri that plunge into the clear waters. All of the resorts will have boat trips here and to the Blue Caves. Found in three places on the island so make sure your boat tour is taking you to the ones you really want to see- whilst those of Porto Vromi and Keri are worth a look it’s those of Skinari that take the accolade of spectacular. Go in the morning and around midday because it’s when the water takes on the height of the azure colour for which the caves are named. Start your trip from Skinari Lighthouse and you’ve ticked off another of the sights on your must see list. Typically a boat trip to the Blue Caves will set you back a measly €5.
The other key signature attraction of Zante, also only accessible by sea, is the shipwreck of the Panagiotis on a beach close to Porto Vromi. There is a recently built viewing platform 600ft above on the cliffs above “Navagio” but to get up close and on the beach it has to be by boat. A visit in the morning or later afternoon is best to avoid the mass of trips arriving at the peak times. The cove and the beach are stunning and best enjoyed when not crowded by hundreds of people taking photographs.
Often ignored, the interior of Zante is a beautiful concoction of rolling hills and woodlands. The climate has endowed the island with a gorgeous flora population and in springtime, inland is awash with fragrant blooms.
Sun, Sea and Sand
Of course though, it’s for the beaches that visitors head for Zante. They are high quality, very clean and well facilitated like those in more popular Med Islands like Mallorca. Most are fine soft sands but there’s the occasional pebbly spot. The best if measured by popularity is Agios Nikolaos in the South East near Vasillikos. Sun lounger hire is €4 but this also gets you a seat on the shuttle between the resorts and the beach. There’s water sports on the shore front as well a large British run bar.
The resorts of Alikes and Alykanas share a two mile strip of sand. Alikes is busy with lots of bars and restaurants (mainly non-Greek) and plenty of water sports and sun beds. It too boasts a shipwreck – an old wooden yacht that lies in shallow water that people do enjoy exploring. More peaceful, the Alykanas end presents beautiful Xehoriati beach with fabulous views across to Kefalonia and the Peloponnese. Divers will find a natural home here amid the offshore rocky reefs.
Tsivilli is another popular family oriented beach with plenty of amenities as is the long swathe of sands that runs from Kalamaki to Laganas. For something a little different and generally quieter, try Dafni which is reached by a steep hilly road, or if you want to share sunbathing space with the loggerhead turtles head for Gerakas.
These are just the main beaches of Zante. For the intrepid explorer or those who don’t mind not hearing the throb of jet ski engines or the sounds of people whooping on banana boat rides there are plenty of retreats to be found in quiet coves. Pack a bag with plenty of water, some snacks and don’t forget the sun cream and set forth to find your own little slice of Greek paradise during your Zante holidays.
It’s all Greek to me
Don’t be surprised or perturbed by the significant presence of restaurants offering all day breakfasts, Spaghetti Bolognese and egg and chips. Zante is popular with British tourists and whilst their palate for all things Greek has become more appreciative, many still prefer a taste of home. Naturally, the familial attitude of their Zante hosts is to pander to these needs. These same hosts however, also serve up tradition on a plate in abundance. Tavernas and bars and restaurants permeate the air with roasted lamb and goat dishes suffused with locally made and grown olive oil and marjoram and thyme. Chilled island wines including Retsina accompany Stifado, Kleftiko, Spanakopita, Souvlaki and Moussaka. Vegetarians are by no means left out and in fact are welcomed – the typical but no less delicious Greek salad and baked eggplant will always be recommended whilst every mouth will find something to titillate the taste buds when confronted with the array of creations that make up a meze. Finish off a meal with sweets dripping in local fresh honey such as Baklava then drink a toast with your host with Ouzo or Metaxa. And, it’s no fable that many a night in a Zante restaurant ends with a dance to the balalaika. Whether orchestrated or spontaneous, who cares? Just clap those hands or better still get off your chair and join in. That’s if you can move from partaking of all that delicious food. Restaurant prices on Zante are very reasonable (Typical 2 course meal with wine – €25) and with such invitation to treat it will be easy to leave the island 10Kgs heavier than when you arrived.
So it just turns out that the shipwreck in Zante is not all that the island has to offer. Zante is fresh and serene, exciting and laid back, unpretentious yet a proud emerald drop in a sapphire pool and begs to be enjoyed. My take? It is just a matter of time before I get there.
Had you seen or heard about this place before? Been there? Would you have ever expected to find such colors in the Mediterranean? What stands out about this place for you? Share your thoughts below, and this post too if you liked it!
[credits @Flickr: l.coli, Dimitris Iliopoulos, Darko Hristov, ghost of kuji, robw]