Wednesday 19 June 2019

A to Zakynthos: Can you find the real Greek Islands on a package holiday?

Isabel Conway splashes on a Greek getaway with a difference, exploring beyond the beaches on Zakynthos

Shipwreck beach on Zakynthos, Greece
Shipwreck beach on Zakynthos, Greece
Greek wonder: Sweeping Shipwreck Bay
St Dionysos church in Zakynthos town survived the 1953 earthquake
Lesante Blu Hotel, Greece. Photo: lesanteblu.gr
Sea turtle
Traditional moussaka
Therianos Farm

Isabel Conway

Chequered tableloths flap in a gentle breeze under the shade of a simple tavern terrace. A late afternoon sun drips like golden syrup slowly into the shimmering Ionian sea.

It’s taken just ten minutes of searching to stumble on the perfect sunset view at Ladofanaro, a restaurant overlooking the beach at Amboula. It doesn’t take much longer for the freshest of sardines, grilled on a barbecue and lightly coated in sea salt, together with a salad of plump black olives, ripe tomatoes and speckled with crumbly feta, to arrive.

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Then along comes a handsome, flirtatious waiter. He pours the locally-produced nectar, a dry white wine called Novita, which costs just €2 a glass.

My delicious, solitary dinner carries a €15 bill.

I’m on Zakynthos, a Greek Ionian island also known by its Italian name of Zante. It’s been on my radar since the island-hopping days of my youth. Back then, I glimpsed this long, jagged coastline from the deck of a ferry that had left Corfu, before calling at two of her neighbours, Lefkada and Kefalonia, to pick up passengers and cargo. 

Lesante Blu Hotel, Greece. Photo: lesanteblu.gr
Lesante Blu Hotel, Greece. Photo: lesanteblu.gr

Now, I’m back for a closer look.

Zakynthos is busy, so you need to travel away from package-holiday hubs like Laganas in the south to get a true feel for it. Head north of the capital Zakynthos, east or west along the coast and you’re in for a treat of secret coves and beaches, hidden behind pine forests. A sleepy interior of picturesque hamlets, wedding cake monasteries and wild countryside are light years from the inflatable unicorns and non-stop TV football matches of the resorts.

My first stop is Hotel Lesante Blu in the north-eastern village of Tragaki, where I spend a couple of nights. It’s an adults-only resort from the ‘Leading Hotels of the World’ collection of independent luxury hotels, and seems to attract mainly German, Scandinavian, Russian and Chinese guests. The set-up sympathetically blends into the landscape with its own private beach. No sooner have I collapsed on to a comfy beach bed than a waiter arrives with cool iced-water... and a pricey cocktail menu.

After a lazy swim, I look forward to high-end Greek cuisine, but hey… it’s an international hotel, and tonight an Italian buffet is laid out. Tomorrow, the menu will move to Thailand, and the day after, who knows?

Greece is not in the mix anytime soon, though I do see a six-course lobster menu at €130pp (a far cry from our food budgets on that ferry trip all those years ago). Another popular in-house extra is Greek wine tasting, also pricey at €40, but at least offering a selection of nine wines.

As well as driving remote valleys and hairpin bends, my Zakynthos bucket list includes two of the island’s most-toted attractions: The Blue Caves and Shipwreck Bay. Skipper Dionysis Potamitis has promised to take us out to view the iconic caves; an early morning is bathed in brilliant blue skies, but the sea has an ominous swell. Arriving at his tiny mooring point at the bottom of a cliff, I find him throwing his arms up: “No trip to Blue Caves, Port Authority say dangerous to leave!” Frustratingly, we can only look down, watching the big ‘booze cruise’ boats that have come up from Zakynthos port, loaded with tourists.

St Dionysos church in Zakynthos town survived the 1953 earthquake
St Dionysos church in Zakynthos town survived the 1953 earthquake

Shipwreck (Navagio) Bay is probably the island’s most famous sight. Reached via a narrow winding path snaking down steep terrain, walkers need to swop flip-flops for sensible shoes/sneakers to avoid slipping on the descent. The wrecked ship MV Panagiotis sits where she ran aground in the small cove, allegedly while on a cigarette-smuggling mission from Turkey. Most holidaymakers view her from the cliffs above, but take care here too... there have been tragic accidents involving tourists taking selfies.

As well as exploring the interior, I take time out to visit Zakynthos town, the island’s capital and port, which was devastated by an earthquake in 1953. Sensitively reconstructed, its layout is faithfully preserved in the imposing squares and public buildings. In the town’s Neo-Byzantine museum, I admire icons and artworks salvaged from the  earthquake, and hear guide Panayiotis Klavianos share stories about another momentous event, the German invasion during World War 2.

“The Nazis demanded that our mayor and archbishop hand over the names and addresses of all Jews on our island within 24 hours,” he says. “The archbishop spoke the language, so he understood what the fate of the Jews would be. When the Germans returned, they were given just two names and addresses, those of the mayor and the archbishop. People say it was our finest hour.”

Many more such stories are woven into the island’s folklore — Zakynthos is rich in memories, and anyone who takes time to search will find them. But you do need to take that time, striking out past the island’s sun-holiday resorts.

Greek wonder: Sweeping Shipwreck Bay
Greek wonder: Sweeping Shipwreck Bay

As visitors to many Greek islands discover, you’ll also find a complicated reality behind the picture-postcard images. Minutes after my taxi leaves the airport, for example, the consequences of years of economic crisis are on view. We drive on potholed roads lined with abandoned building sites and boarded-up shops and restaurants, a spectacle that sits in sad contrast to the island’s pretty coves, pine forests and authentic hinterland. Beautiful views are at times blighted by overflowing, uncollected wheelie bins and illegally dumped refuse, a legacy of long strikes and a lack of public funds. But hope is on the horizon. I’m told a long-awaited clean-up is due to take place before the first influx of visitors kicking off this summer season. 

Long after dusk falls, I sit in another tavern, Taverna Paliomylos near Loucha, spellbound. The sea dims to a mysterious murky indigo and a lazy cat comes out to stretch in splendour beneath my tavern table.

There isn’t a better image to bring the curtain down.

Take Three: Insider tips

Eat

2019-05-25_lif_50528931_I3.JPG
Traditional moussaka
 

Family-run Taverna Paliomylos literally hangs over the village of Loucha. Try the slow-cooked lamb with feta and potatoes, or traditional moussaka.

Do

2019-05-25_lif_50529095_I1.JPG
Sea turtle
 

Lots of tourists take the boat trip from Lithakia or Keri to Marathonisi, nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles, but familiarise yourself with the environmental issues first. 

Eco

2019-05-25_lif_50528933_I4.JPG
Therianos Farm
 

Drop by Therianos Organic farm, Kallithea village, for olive oil and wine tastings, or sign up for a yoga session in their gardens. See other eco listings on ecozakynthos.com.

Get there

Several Irish tour operators do packages to Zakynthos from around €499pp, off-peak. Isabel was a guest of the Greek Tourist Board and Lesante Blu Beach resort (lesanteblu.gr).

More info at visitgreece.gr.

Where to Stay

Seven nights at the 5-star Lesante Blu start from €1,556pp, including flights. TUI (tuiholidays.ie) also has a week all-inclusive at the Aqua Bay Suites with unlimited access to the onsite waterpark at Tsilivi, from €1,000pps. You will need a hire car (from €30 daily) to get around the island.

What to pack

Holiday essentials like sun hats, flippers, beach cover-ups etc are cheap in Greece, and you save on luggage space as well as helping small, local shopkeepers. Pack an umbrella, too... The Ionian islands hold their legendary green fertile hue for a reason.

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