There's a reason that loggerhead turtles choose the beaches of Zakynthos to scoop out their nests in the sand and lay their eggs. They are some of the softest sand beaches in the Ionian Sea, and just one of the reasons visitors are also drawn to this fascinating Greek island.
Zakynthos (or Zante, as it's also known) is the most southerly of the Ionian islands, and packs a lot into a small space. Some parts are busy with bars and nightclubs, but there are quieter resorts too, and then you can travel a mile inland and find the kind of rural Greece that has always existed, with people still growing olives, grapes and vegetables, and virtually untouched by the tourism on the coast.
It's an island where you can be as active and explore as much as you like, or where you can just zonk out by the beach or the pool and soak up the sun. Or a bit of both. The island's capital, Zakynthos Town, is worth a relaxed day's visit. It has just enough to keep you occupied (a few small museums, churches, a Venetian fortress) but not so much that you feel pressured to pack it all in. The same goes for the island. There are some sights that are well-worth seeing, like the Blue Caves and Shipwreck Bay, but if you don't get round to it then it's not the end of the world, and there's always next time.
Not a lot changes on Zante, which is part of its charm for the many people who go back every year. Sure, some resorts get a bit busier, a new hotel might open to show a touch of the new Greek chic, but the appeal of Zante is that it hardly changes at all. It ain't broke, so why fix it?
The beaches in Laganas Bay are the ones the turtles (and most tourists) choose, and here in the shallow waters off Kalamaki Beach you might even find yourself swimming with the turtles – though you should keep a respectful distance. If you don't even want to share with turtles then the beach at Port Roma at the end of the Vassilikos Peninsula has a lovely setting and even in mid-summer rarely gets busy. If you're feeling more adventurous then rent a boat and visit one of Zante's several offshore islands where you may well have a beach completely to yourself.
In Pigadakia, a tiny village inland from Alykanas, is the charming little Vertzagio Cultural Museum. Here there's not only chance to see the traditional agricultural island way of life but buy produce from local farmers, like olive oil and honey.
What's not too well-known about Zante is that it makes some fine wines. It supplied wine to Venice when the Venetians ruled in the Ionian islands, and wine-making is booming again as it is throughout Greece generally. Rent a bike and cycle through the vineyards of the fertile plain of Zakynthos, the region stretching north from Laganas Bay. Several vineyards are open to visitors, offering generous tastings and the chance to buy unusual wines direct from the maker at the winery equivalent of factory prices.
Among the best of the vineyard visits, and the best wines, are the Callinico Winery, which has a history of wine-making on the island, and the Solomos Winery, one of the best-known of all Greek wine-makers. So buy some wine (whites tend to be better than reds) and go find a sunset to watch while you drink it.
Zante and the other Ionian islands have some of the cleanest water in the Mediterranean. It doesn't get to be that shade of bright turquoise by accident. So make the most of it and do some diving. Many of the resorts offer scuba diving, deep diving, and even night diving and underwater photography courses. Not into diving? Well, maybe it's time you learned: take a beginner's lesson.
Rent a car or a bike and get into the island's interior, to the rural towns and villages where not too many tourists go. You're guaranteed a warm welcome, and an adventure of some kind. The mountain village of Exo Hora is one of the few which survived the disastrous 1953 earthquake on Zante, and so gives a chance to see somewhere that still has its traditional look. Maherado in the south of the island also has some pre-earthquake buildings, and fabulous views over the orchards, olive groves and vineyards.
And don't be afraid to ask local people to recommend bars, restaurants, clubs, or beaches. They usually know places away from the resorts where you'll have a really Greek experience, the kind that will keep you going back to Zante - just like those turtles.
Zakynthos has its own airport which is very busy during the summer months with charter flights from many European countries. There are many cheap flights to Zakynthos to be had if you can pick up one of these bargain fares. There are also internal flights to Athens, to Preveza on the Greek mainland, and to the neighboring Ionian island of Kefalonia.
Zakynthos is not as well-served with ferries as other Greek islands. There are ferries from Zakynthos to Kefalonia, and note that these leave from Ayios Nikolaos in the north east of the island. From Zakynthos Town you can catch ferries across to the Greek mainland at Kylinni on the Peloponnese from where you can get buses north to the city of Patra, or south to Pyrgos close to Ancient Olympia.
Ferries in Greece has an excellent and very thorough website where, in addition to checking ferry schedules and times, you can also book tickets and get lots of useful information about travelling by ferry in Greece.
You won't find Michelin-starred restaurants on Zakynthos but you will find some good spots in almost every resort. The Mantalena in Alykanas has been producing superb Greek food home-cooked style since the Pylarinos family opened it in 1978. We admit to being biased here. Read about Mike's time trying to be a waiter at the Mantalena.
In Zakynthos Town the Komis Fish Taverna at Ayios Leon has been winning awards for years for its mainly fish and vegetarian dishes. Every diner receives a complimentary starter of their house specialty, Oregano Soup, and the best and simplest main course is to choose your fish from the day's fresh catch. Check the price, though, as the menu price per kilo can add up to a lot for a hefty fresh fish.
The Porto Zante Villas & Spa in Tragaki, on the east coast and just a few miles from both the capital and the airport, is a luxury hotel with its own white-sand beach and just eight intimate villas. It's the kind of boutique resort hotel that helped to transform the Greek island holiday scene and is the ultimate romantic indulgent Zante escape.
More affordable and family-friendly is the fairly new Letsos Hotel in the lively little resort of Alykanas. This has its own pool, children's pool and playground, bar and restaurant – in fact you hardly need venture out.
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