The Venetians called this southernmost Ionian island Fiore di Levante, the Flower of the East. Its nobility and fertility made it the jewel of their empire. Today’s visitors would agree, though they come for its endless beaches – Lagana, Tsilivi, Argassi, Kalamaki, Alykes – where British, French and Italians party day and night. Looking for indelible moments? You’ll find them when you swim at the famous Shipwreck Beach, watch the sunset from the cliffs of Keri and Kryoneri, listen to the islanders sing their cantatas and see the endangered caretta caretta sea turtles lay their eggs in the island’s white sands. Welcome to Zakynthos, as it is known in Greece, the island that has it all.
Set sail for fabulous beaches
From your seat on the caique that does the circuit of Zakynthos, you’ll see a cavalcade of beaches, each one more magical than the last. Shipwreck Beach, Laganas, Gerakas, Vasilikos, Marathonisi, the Blue Caves ... all rank among the most splendid in Greece. Vying for first place, the renowned shipwreck at the eponymous beach adds drama to the ubiquitous white sand, white cliffs and turquoise green water. Come early in the morning, or drop anchor the previous evening, so you can enjoy your first dive before the rest of the world arrives.
The National Marine Park: reserved for sea turtles in the Ionian
The sea and coast around Zakynthos were picked for Greece’s first marine park. This is where the rare caretta caretta sea turtles lay their eggs. In spring these endangered creatures set off for Zante from the Libyan Sea and the southern Adriatic, not because they like the swim but because nature tells them to lay their eggs in the sands of Gerakas, Dafni, Kalamaki, Marathonisi and, especially, Sakania, east of Laganas, as they always have. If you’re lucky enough to witness this spectacle, please don’t disturb.
Bokhali, the prettiest part of town
Zante is not only beaches. Take a stroll through lovely Bokhali, 2km from the centre of town, and you’ll find yourself stopping every few minutes to admire the panoramic view of the harbour, Argassi and the Bay of Laganas. Or to photograph the alleys lined with old houses and traditional cafes. Walk a bit higher, and you’ll come to the castle, camouflaged by all manner of plant and shrub, where the Venetians had their island capital.
One of Orthodox pilgrimage sites in the Ionian, St Dionysios draws crowds of believers throughout the year as it houses the relics of the saint of the same name (also the island’s patron saint). The impressive church was built in 1926, with a three-aisled basilica and inner arch. The catastrophic earthquake of 1953 left it virtually undamaged. Miracle or just solid foundations?
The Strofades, more islands to explore
Only 37 nautical miles from Zante, these two islets are unknown to most tourists, Greek or foreign. A mystery surrounds the 15th century fortified monastery here. It houses an icon of the Virgin that washed up here undamaged after being thrown into the sea by 13th century Orthodox Christians in Constantinople to save it from the Iconoclasts who were destroying all paintings with human figures.
Mythical resorts: Paleokastritsa and Angelokastro
In the island's most famous tourist resort, a lush blanket of green is draped across six rocky coves. Some scholars maintain that this was the site of the mythical palace of King Alkinoos, where Odysseus stayed. The Monastery of Panagias was founded in 1225. It reaches as far as the famous Angelokastro, built early in the 12th century, with its church of Agia Kyriaki hidden in a small cave.
The Rolling… Stone?
Locals claim that Mick Jagger hails from the village of Kiliomeno (which translates as rolling) and that’s why he named his band The Rolling Stones. This is a big local tease, but nobody’s kidding when it comes to extoling the virtues of this delightful settlement. Take your time to admire its traditional architectural style and old homes which resemble fortresses.
Zante by the glass
Set aside some time for a visit to an island winery, some of which go back centuries. Hundreds of hectares are devoted to vineyards and there are more than 60 different grape varietals.