Zante: simply a travel brochure dream
Photo: Stu Mowbray
The Greeks call it Zakynthos but we know it by the romantic Italian name of Zante.
One of the most southerly of the Ionian group off west coast Greece it features strongly in holiday brochures. Zante is a bewildering mix of beach resorts.
They vary from neon-lit downmarket resorts like Laganas to small scale holiday beaches, idyllic fishing villages and wild, deserted coves.
Zante has equal portions of fertile plain. rough hill country, wild cliffs and sweeping sands. The beaches in particular are counted among the best in Greece especially for families with children.
Beach holidays on Zante tend to focus on the resorts in the south and east of the island, notably around Laganas Bay.
The west coast of Zante has few resorts. Visitors will find sheer white limestone cliffs carved out with some spectacular caves, the target of dozens of daily boat excursions.
Zante is also noted as one of the most important nesting grounds for the endangered species of Mediterranean loggerhead sea-turtles, the caretta caretta.
Popular island excursions include boat trips to the picturesque Smugglers' Cove with it famous shipwreck, the deep Blue Caves that pepper the western coast, the nearby island of Marathonisi and the ruins of the Venetian Castle.
The capital town of Zakynthos offers a host of historic and cultural sights, including many fine churches and museums, and a lively port with plenty of shops and restaurants.
Zante has a wide variety of beaches that mostly live up to expectations when it come to the popular ideal of a beach holidays in the Greek islands.
The biggest beaches are north-west of Zakynthos Town and to the south around the huge bay of Laganas. The heavily commercialised resort has long, flat sands and plenty of tourist facilities.
Laganas attracts those looking for some lively nightlife and holidays are usually pitched at the 18-30 party crowd with offers of a plethora of music bars with karaoke, all-night clubbing and cheap takeaways.
The neighbouring beach at Kalamaki is more favoured by families, while further east, on the Vasilikos peninsula, are resorts that will appeal to those who prefer a more upmarket beach holiday.
The major resorts of Alikanas and Alykes, in the north-east, are also a big hit with families and with middle-aged couples looking for a quiet and more traditional Greek beach holiday.
Quieter spots can be found on the peninsula at Vasilikos to the east or the Keriou Limnou to the west. Elsewhere, expect pretty villages with traditional tavernas, quiet beach coves and lots of breathtaking scenery, especially along the wild cliffs on the west coast.
Shipwreck Cove (Navagio Beach)
There won't be many visitors to Zante who haven't visited Shipwreck Cove, or Navagio Beach as it's known locally. It is found on almost every Zante brochure and postcard and it's easy to see why. It makes for one of the most picturesque spots in Greece with a beach of bright white pebbles beneath almost vertical white cliffs. The wreck is an unromantic hulk of a rusted old steamer that ran aground but the setting is picture perfect. The only access is by boat and trippers arrive daily in droves so you won't get the beach to yourself despite its remoteness. Views from the cliffs above are amazing but it's a hard slog up and down the steep cliff path.
The Blue Caves
The north coast of Zante has a string of caves that provide some of the best sights on the island and are magnet for daily boat excursions. The Blue Caves are located around Cape Skinari and are one of the best-known sights on the island. The largest cave is called the Blue Grotto and visitors can expect some spectacular colour effects.
Most spectacular of all is the Kianoun Cave which shimmers with an ethereal blue light. Arrive early if you can as it is best in the early morning. Smaller boats sail right inside the caves. The area is also popular with scuba divers not only because of the clear blue water but also the wide range of marine life. Other boat trips go to caves at Sklavou and to visit the sulphur springs at Xigia where the sand is so hot you will need shoes.
Askos Stone Nature Park
The Aksos Stone nature park is located north of Zakynthos Town, near the village of Volimes. The private park has 125 acres of woodland full of wildlife. Nature trails offer glimpses of the local fauna that lives freely in the park. Many animals are not native to Zante and there are squirrels, chinchillas and sheep as well as raccoons, pigs, cows and donkeys. There are nearly 400 stone walls in the park (hence its name) and some stone buildings too. Rainwater troughs carved into the stone are believed to be 600 years ago. The stone park is open all year and there are guide books and free bottles of water for visitors
Loggerhead sea turtles
Although the island boasts widely of its links to the endangered Caretta Caretta loggerhead sea turtle the locals have done more to kill off the creatures than to protect them. The turtle nests around Laganas Bay in particular regularly suffer bulldozing by commercial interests.
Sunbeds, neon lights and noise drive turtles away and they are relentlessly pursued by tourists on glass-bottomed boat trips. The beach at Sekania in Laganas Bay has the highest density of nests but other beaches in the bay have been virtually stripped of nests and turtles. The Greek government is even facing European court action over some illegal landfill dumps on turtle nesting sites.
Zante has lots of decent accommodation all over the island but many hotels in the popular resorts get block-booked early by tour operators. Zakynthos Town is the best for the independent traveller. It's more of a working town that a tourist resort and there are plenty of small hotels and apartments. Zakynthos Town is also a good option if you plan on touring the island resorts as most public transport starts and ends here.
In very popular resorts like Laganas, hotel rooms may be hard to find if you don't book ahead although there is usually something on offer early or late in the season. Resorts are not only less busy out of season but room prices will be very much cheaper and deals can always be done if you are happy to haggle.
Those on a very tight budget have several camp sites to choose from. There is a large site near Tsilivi at Ampoula beach and more camping near the resort of Alykes. If you head south you'll find camping at Agios Sostis in Laganas Bay which boasts an Olympic size pool and further south still at Tartuga Camping.
Zakynthos has an international airport on the south coast, near Kalamaki, about 6km from the capital port of Zakynthos Town.There are regular UK charter flights from all over Europe and cheap flight airlines like EasyJet has also started services.
Domestic routes operate daily to Athens with a flight time of about 60 minutes. There are also domestic flights from Kefalonia, Corfu and Thessaloniki but these more irregular.
There are only two carousels at the airport and limited seating so expect congestion, especially on Thursdays and Sundays when charter flights arrive and leave. Approximate coach airport transfer times to the major resorts are (in minutes) Alikes (75), Argassi (30), Kalamaki (15), Laganas (25), Tsilivi (45), Vassilikos (90).
There are regular ferries from Italian ports of Brindisi, Ancona and Venice to the Greek ports of Patras and Igoumenitsa where you can find connecting ferries to Zante. There are daily ferry services from Kilini on the Greek mainland with a reduced service in winter. A car ferry runs from the Zante port at Agios Nikolaos to Pessada in Kefalonia. There are two ferries a day in the summer and the trip last about 60 minutes.
Zante has a good road network that serves all the major holiday resorts. Away from the main roads conditions can deteriorate quickly. Buses are cheap and efficient with routes from Zakynthos Town to all the main resorts. Timetables are posted in the bus station and you pay the driver.
There is cheap bus service from Athens to Zante but the journey takes around 5-6 hours. The Athens bus links with the Kyllini ferry. There is also a daily bus to Patras and a twice weekly bus to Thessaloniki.
There are taxi ranks in all the main resorts on Zante and charges are regulated. Taxis can be booked for the day or for an island tour but they are not cheap. Current taxi prices and services can be found at www.zantetaxi.gr
Zante boasts an average 3,000 hours of sunshine each year which puts the island on a par with more southerly islands like Rhodes and Crete. It's true some parts of Zante may get that much but there is quite a variation in the regional climate on Zante.
The south is warmer than the north for example and gets slightly less winter rain, although this is considerable all over the island in winter and explain why Zante, like the other Ionian island can claim to be among the greenest in Greece.
The summer starts early in Zante with average spring temperatures of 15°C in March quickly climbing past 20°C by May. Expect the thermometer to stay in the high 20s to mid 30s over the hot and dry summer, with cool sea breezes to keep humidity levels reasonable.
Winter months on Zante are relatively mild with a few sunny days but mostly it's cloudy with periods of heavy rain. Winter storms can be heavy and December is the wettest with almost 200mm of precipitation.
The remarkable sea caves of Zante are made even more dramatic thanks to the pure white cliffs and seabed which enhances the azure colour of the water to create a simply stunning seascape.
The Byzantine Museum of Zakynthos is located in the heart of Zaknte Town in Solomou Square, in Zakynthos town and houses a rich and interesting collection of art and artefacts.
A boat trip to Shipwreck Cove is one of the most popular excursions for those on holiday in Zante and the beach must be considered one of the most spectacular sights in the Greek islands.
Argassi or Argasi beach is the nearest decent beach to Zakynthos Town and that does something to explain its popularity with UK tour operators. This is the perfect family friendly resort.