Fun in the sun or Greek tragedy? Stephen Evans has the low-down on an end-of-school break in Zakynthos
You've probably seen the Inbetweeners movie, with the hapless lads making fools of themselves in Malia in Crete to celebrate the end of school.
This year, thousands of Leaving Certers followed in their footsteps, hitting the fleshpots of Magaluf in Spain or the islands of Greece to let their hair down. It's the modern rite of passage, with teens eager to taste freedom, and parents sitting by their mobiles to get updates on WhatsApp.
I was one of the horde this year, and yes, it was unforgettable.
Our group's choice, Zakynthos - more commonly known as Zante - is a picturesque island-turned-party-haven off the west coast of Greece. And it appeared to be hosting half the population of Irish students eager to get away after a year of hard work, or sometimes lack thereof…
On the main strip of Laganas, the world ceases to make sense. In this inverted place, the town is eerily quiet during the daytime, only to be replaced by a near ubiquitous sound of club music and dodgy karaoke at night. You'll get used to it fairly quickly, almost like an endearing birdsong of drunken endeavours.
I think it's fair to say that maintaining a great diet isn't the main objective of any post-Leaving Cert student in Zante. Who cares as long as it fills you up and is cheap, with extra points for being somewhat appetising after a long night of regrettably bad dancing?
Trust me, you'll become accustomed to the local cuisine, consisting of gyros, kebabs and €1 pizza slices. If New York is truly the city that never sleeps, Zante is the island that sleeps for an hour at 7am until it's dragged awake by its mates.
With the vast majority of the hotels on the strip providing the basic needs of a student, you're within walking distance from almost everything you need.
Rest assured the island's main hub provides a plethora of clubs and pubs beyond the wildest imagination of even the most seasoned hedonist. The main street is lined with clubs offering near-identical deals, suspiciously cheap shots and meticulously named cocktails. It goes without saying that you have to be sensible what and where you drink.
At best, in some of the more dubious clubs, you'll be drinking watered-down drinks, at worst you'll be drinking a concoction bordering on the dangerous.
Common sense prevails and there are a few well-known clubs which are best to avoid if possible - or at the very least, leave till the very end of the night once you're done drinking. Be wary of the constant reps and bar staff offering you a deal that somehow no other bar and club can offer... cheap drink. We found that O'Callaghans Loft was a reliable spot throughout our trip, not particularly dissimilar to any bar back in Dublin or Galway, with the added bonus of putting on the GAA for the Super 8s.
A nice little home away from home.
It seems almost a shame that Zante has built this reputation of attracting questionable behaviour and cheap boozy holidays. It certainly has its fair share of the former, but it doesn't distract from the fact that this is confined to a tiny strip, and the island itself is beyond beautiful, accentuating some of the best features the Mediterranean can offer; captivating weather and beaches, alongside an alluring culture and history.
While the night-life is certainly fun, it's how you spend your days out on the sea or exploring the island that defines how good the day is. Boats are cheap to rent out, allowing you free reign around the island for three hours - a welcome escape from the noise of the main strip. It's here that Zante really shines: at its most pure and natural, surrounded by wildlife and sights which wouldn't go amiss on a National Geographic documentary.
While it is true that from June to August, the island hosts a myriad of young people wanting to get away from exam stress or the unfortunate realities of life, outside of Laganas and peak season, the island truly does have something for everyone.
After a few too many days of meals consisting of dangerous amounts of gyros, burgers and hot dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it's a welcome relief to find restaurants such as Carpe Diem, providing excellent meals with similarly excellent service, for a great price. Even on a party holiday, you need a break from the excessive booze, cheap food and packed bars.
I have absolutely no idea how people (read post-exam students) can manage more than seven days in Laganas. Don't get me wrong, it's an exciting town and you're sure to have a great time, as I did, but by the end of your trip, both body and mind are broken.
It really makes me wonder how rock stars and celebrities can live on the edge for months, let alone years.
I have come back with an abundance of holiday snaps, a great experience and a semi-decent tan, but I swear my failing back and suspiciously sore organs have left me feeling years older.
The Leaving Certificate holiday is a rite of passage for students around the country, for good reason. It's something to live for during the exams and something to remember (however blurry those memories are) for years after.
Wherever you go for your Leaving Cert holiday, I can assure you three things; it'll be messy, it'll be frankly awkward looking back, and it'll be worth every single euro you spend.
Except for the euro spent on the terrible pizza.
We booked as a group with TUI Holidays, who are specialists in Leaving Cert holidays.
We put down a small deposit, and then paid off regular amounts for the trip in our locals TUI stores in Dublin (Clare Hall or Omni Park), which cost €650 each for our group of 16.
TUI can also arrange excursions in advance (the likes of foam parties and boat trips). We flew on their Sunwing charter plane (four-and-a half hours from Dublin).
For more details, see tuiholidays.ie or visit a store in the city.
We spent the week at the Angela, which is a basic option (don't expect the Ritz).
It has two major pluses for anyone visiting the island: it's very close to the main strip of bars and restaurants (but peaceful and quiet itself) and the showers were very good, which is a major plus if there's a dead heat.
Pubbing and clubbing can get boring, so we explored one of Greece's most beautiful islands, and a quiet and quaint place away from the main bustle. The highlight for us was the boat tour to the beach with its very own shipwreck. Places can be bought on the day (€20), with the trip offering snorkelling, beach time and sailing.
You can find the Irish bar (definitely recommended) on Facebook and Carpe Diem restaurant (carpediemzante.com) does breakfasts, lunches and dinners with a big variety of good-value food.
With travel giant Thomas Cook signing the death warrant for the notorious Club 18-30 booze-fuelled break, travel experts predict that while young people will still seek out sun, sea and sangria, more are yearning for a different travel experience.