Venetians, stunned by the abundance of nature surrounding them, nicknamed the Ionian island of Zakynthos Il fiore di Levante (Flower of the East). Meadows carpeted with chicories, daisies and poppies provide hues of color and fragrances all year round, while the towns are choked by fuchsia bougainvillea.
It was here that music god Apollo, accompanied by his lyre and attendants, broke out into song because he was so inspired by the island’s beauty. Since then, inspiration has oozed from the works of famous Zakynthians such as hagiographer Nikolaos Doxaras, poets Andreas Kalvos and George Tertsetis, painters Nikolaos Koutouzis and Nikolaos Kantounis and writers like Gregory Xenopoulos. It was at the slopes of Strani Hill, overlooking Zante town in 1823 when Dionysis Solomos, the famous Zakynthian poet wrote his “Ode to Liberty” that later became the national anthem of Greece.
1.The best beaches
Visitors will be spoilt for choice when it comes to Zakynthos whether it be the iconic Navagio (Shipwreck Beach) with its rusty bow rising from the powdery white sand that is perfect for base-jumpers and thrill-seekers. Waters are choppy and dangerous with the beauty of the dramatic beach occasionally marred by the odd drowning.
Families should head to more family-oriented beaches, such as Gerakas with shallow waters and Caretta Caretta turtles. St. Nicholas, Alykes and Tsiliviki are ideal for watersports, with the latter also having a water park. The clarity of the water is ideal for diving, whereas the subwing board, developed by a Norwegian teen who was inspired by the island, pulls you underwater with a rotatable swivel so that you feel like a dolphin.
2. Meet with the Turtles
Turtle fans come to see the endangered Caretta Caretta sea turtles up close. Get up early and travel with the enthusiastic volunteers of the Archelon Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece as they scout for turtle eggs at Zakynthos National Marine Park that protects the nesting beaches (Gerakas, Daphne, Sekania, Kalamaki, Laganas, Marathonisi and Keri Lake). If you’re lucky, you may see the hatchlings, only one in 1,000 make it to adulthood. Most get snapped up by predators, disorientated by the nearby bar lights and noise, while others choke on plastic bags. Find out all you need to know about these creatures by visiting the Turtle Museum at Daphne. But it’s not just about turtles. The Monk Seal Monachus Monachus also lives here.
3.The best sunsets
The Lighthouse at the village of Keri is built at the edge of a sleep slope. The landscape is dramatic where wild rocks meet the sea creating a mosaic of different colors during sunset. Alternatively, enjoy the spectacular sunsets from the tiny coastal village of Kambi, 30km north of Zakynthos.
4.The best selfie
For the ultimate traveler’s selfie, follow the signs to Agios Georgio Gremnon monastery. A little platform gives you a view onto Navagio beach from the cliffside. Make sure you arrive early or later in the afternoon before the beach is filled with people.
5.The biggest flag in the world
A 50-meter high flagpole bearing a Greek flag is where the biggest flag of the world is hoisted. Certified for the Guinness book of World Records on May 20, 2007, the 670-meter large flag is visible from 20 miles away. The huge fabric blowing in the wind creates an eerie sound as the wind blows.
6.The Blue Caves
North of the island, at Skinari, lie the exquisite Blue Caves, another of the island’s famous natural attractions. The caves, accessible by boat, are just below the lighthouse at Cape Skinari and illuminate a magical blue hue.
7.The Venetian Castle
Located at Bohalis, just 2km from the city. The Venetians created an amazing structure whose walls bear the “Lion of St. Mark”, a symbol of Venice. The Medieval work is spectacular despite the earthquakes that have occasionally caused damage. Inside is an organized sewerage system, vaulted prisons and several churches. It is unknown when it was created, however, the castle was renovated in 1515.
8.The secret villages
The road from Keri towards Volimes is dotted with enchanting villages, untouched by mass tourism. Visit the cave of Damianos in Agalas, visit Maries that is named after Maria Magdalene and the Venetian fortifications turned into a church at Anafonitria.
9. There’s plenty of spirituality
The island’s patron saint is Zakynthos-born Saint Dionysos. Aghios Dionysios church, built in his honor, has an identical bell-tower to that of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Built in 1708, the church hosts the relics of Saint Dionysos, who is the saint of forgiveness after having excused his own brother’s murderer. Saint Dionysos’ feast day is celebrated twice a year on August 24 and December 17. His relics are paraded through Zakynthos’ town in a silver reliquary created by Gregorios Diamadis Bafas in 1829. The procession is followed by a fireworks display and plenty of dancing.
There is no shortage of churches on the island, from the miniscule St. Elipsos Church that looks as though it is embedded into the rock to the huge Virgin Eleftherotria Monastery that rises from the plains like a religious Disneyland of sorts. Prayer and penance are plentiful, usually matched with exquisite frescoes and culture.
10.The good food guide
The island offers all the usual delicacies you would find around Greece but with extra care taken as to quality of ingredients. That comes as little surprise bearing in mind the abundance of crops. Olives have doubled in recent years, and the island is known for its ‘dopia’ olive trees. Some are 2,000 years old. One, in particular, is known as the ‘elephant tree’ and it lies in the middle of nowhere at Exohora. Locals are amused by the odd wandering traveler who manages to find it. Usually, these passersby are rewarded with some hospitality, a story or maybe some ladotyri (local hard table cheese made of goat’s milk and stored in olive oil until it acquires a distinct saltiness).
The island’s cuisine is oil-based and draws on traditional Greek recipes with a twist. Eat at one of the family-run tavernas and try the Zakynthos-inspired stuffed rabbit, papatoli (veal shank) and sofigadoura (a Zakynthos take on beef stew in tomato sauce). Wash it all down with one of the local wines, such as the Venetian-influenced Verdea.
Desserts are honey-based. Try pasteli with sesame seeds and mantolato using egg-whites and almonds are popular on the island. Mantolato in particular was brought over by the Venetians and passed down through the generations. It is traditionally eaten during engagement ceremonies and its quality is discerned by whether it breaks like glass and has a clean, white color. Also try fytoura (pan-fried semolina cake) that is traditionally served at feasts.
Buses are a cheap and comfortable way of traveling within the island.
There’s no direct bus between Zakynthos Town and the airport; a taxi costs around €12. Tickets from Athens-Zakynthos cost €37.45 (includes ferry).
Within Zakynthos, frequent buses go from Zakynthos Town’s KTEL bus station to the developed resorts of Alikes, Tsilivi, Argasi, Laganas and Kalamaki (all €1.60). Several useful local buses take the upper or lower main roads to Katastari (€3) and Volimes (€3.40). Bus services to other villages are infrequent. Telephone (+30) 210.512.9432