Beaches, Boats and Booze. Zakynthos, also known as Zante, is one of Greece’s most famous islands and popular the world over with holiday makers searching for any combination of those three things. For one island, it’s got quite a lot going on and away from the resorts, the trinket sellers and the 24 hour party lifestyle, there’s a lot more to Zakynthos than meets the eye – and that’s not just because you’re seeing double! It’s an island of many faces and I went on an adventure to experience as much as I could to bring you this guide to Zakynthos.
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Travelling Solo in Zakynthos
Here’s the thing. I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol in Zakynthos. In fact, I’d been off it for quite a while in an effort to detox a little and generally be healthier. I hadn’t really noticed when I visited Lefkada or Kefalonia because most of the activities I’d participated in hadn’t included alcohol or if they did, they were tame affairs where I was perfectly happy with a lemonade. But Zakynthos isn’t a place that lends itself well to sobriety.
I probably could have done with a drink the day I arrived in Agios Nikolaos, the small port in the north of the island. Following on from the anger-inducing ferry departure from Pessada, I arrived in Zakynthos with plans to put that all behind me and to take in the wonders that lay ahead. I’d been looking forward to Zakynthos more than any of the other islands and I was excited.
I already knew that there was no bus service from the port to – well – anywhere, but for once, I didn’t mind. I was learning that things just don’t work in Greece the way they do in the rest of the world. If I was upset about the rubbish transport systems or anything else under Greek control, I was just going to have to learn to put up with it. If it’s your first time visiting Greece, you should probably brush up on some of the basics to avoid a few surprises.
Prepared for the ludicrous taxi fare that inevitably awaited, I disembarked the ferry to find…
Not only were there no buses, but there were no taxis, no port staff and nobody to help once the resort pickups had collected their residents and whipped them off to a luxurious poolside somewhere more civilised. The rest of the ferry passengers were gone. Laden down with a backpack that, quite frankly, I was getting sick of, I climbed up the dirt bank to the road. Was I going to have to hitchhike?
I probably would have if I didn’t meet a lady standing alone at the side of the road, trying to sell boat tours. I looked around and wondered who, exactly, she was planning to sell them to and from the look on my face, she knew better than to hit me with her sales pitch. Instead, she asked me if I was ok.
In the end, her husband offered to drop me to my hotel for €10. I had my backpack in the boot of his car before he had a chance to say ‘Greek Potholes’ and we were off along the winding roads of North Zakynthos. I didn’t appreciate at the time, but later learned that the north was the best part of the Island.
My knuckles were white from gripping the door handle as my chauffeur disregarded all rules of the road and I could barely hear his story about his poor health, his colostomy bag and the growing medical bills that he was struggling with. Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing, and I probably should have been a bit more kind-spirited, but I was preoccupied by thoughts of my impending death. His blatant attempts at upping his fare went unrewarded as I thought ‘a tenner’s a tenner buddy’ and at that, he’d only get it if I made it to my hotel alive.
You’d think that by now I’d know better than to get into a car with a Greek driver, but needs must.
I stayed in Alikanas in the east of Zakynthos and was a little underwhelmed by the location. That first night, I walked through the village and was surprised to find that bar after bar played cheesy 80s music and were filled with British people in their 50s and 60s, many already well oiled from having spent the day drinking. I passed a bar playing ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and the next playing ‘Holding out for a Hero’ and thought “Ok, Zakynthos, I get it, I’m Billy no mates”. It wasn’t really a fun place to be a solo traveller. I was plagued by ghosts of girlie holidays past and wished my friends were around. By the time I had passed the third bar blaring ‘Holding out for a Hero’, I’d had enough. It was going to take a super-island to sweep me off my feet.
Rambling Ruth’s Guide to Zakynthos
Over the next week, I got to see the parts of Zakynthos that draw the millions of visitors that come here every year. There’s absolutely no doubt that some of these are places worth visiting. I was blown away by the beauty of the island, particularly in the North and the West of the island. Fed up of being by myself, I decided I’d join a tour.
This wasn’t just any old tour. This was a VIP tour with Jimmy’s Tours and it was the best way to see Zakynthos. I joined three English girls and together with our fabulous guide Catarina and our driver Jimmy, we discovered the best bits of the island. People from all around the world visit Zakynthos to photograph the shipwreck on Navagio Beach and to explore the Blue Caves.
I was one of them. I was not disappointed. We took boat trips, bus trips, ate at a gorgeous taverna in the mountains, went wine tasting (another moment that I missed alcohol) and learned a lot about Greek customs, history and traditions.
Getting off on the Wrong Foot
The tour came at just the right time, because Zakynthos hadn’t quite won me over on my arrival or the following day, when I visited Zakynthos town. The town itself was underwhelming and I decided that if I was going to enjoy this trip, I needed an attitude overhaul. It was the first time on the trip that I’d been so aware of being by myself and I needed to get over it, so I did what I always do to cheer myself up. I found me a fortress.
It didn’t work. Or maybe it did a little, but not enough. If anything, the fortress just magnified the neglect that you’ll find in abundance on Zakynthos. Cheeky enough to charge an entrance fee, the Greek authorities have left the ruins of the fortress to grow over. Sure, they’ve tended to just enough to get away with it, but the signs are difficult to decipher, the paths are not always clear and as for the railings…
I tried to adopt that same attitude of ‘learning to put up with it’ that I’d tried out on my arrival and was beginning to enjoy the grounds of the old fortress. I had climbed up the hill from the town. The view of Zakynthos Town and across the sea to the Peleponesse was something of a mood lifter. I wandered along the path at the periphery of the old fortress to catch the best views and stumbled up a muddy mound through the overgrown grass and trees.
I don’t know what made me stop. I don’t know what made me look down, but mid-step, my eyes dropped down and I froze. The mound I had climbed up was not just any mound. It was an overgrown dirt heap that led right to the top of the old fortress wall and over the battlements with a sheer drop to the rocks far below. With one foot hovering over certain death, I somehow managed to pull myself backwards to safety.
Yoga: 1 – My dodgy balance: 0
With my heart thudding, I scrambled away from the edge and carefully watched my step back through the compound, along the best path I could find, straight out the gate, down the hill and back to the bus station. I had to wait a few hours for a bus to come, but I didn’t care. I sat at the bus station and knew it was going to get me back to my hotel where I could close the door and wait for today to be over.
I wasn’t going to let a few bad days ruin this island. I’d looked forward to it for too long. Hence the tour. I also decided I’d take a leaf out of my own book from my Kefalonia Adventure and take matters into my own hands. I wasn’t going to be restricted by buses and bad transport systems. There were adventures to be had and I knew I would be at my happiest when I had the freedom to explore.
Cue Faros Car Rental.
Now, I don’t know about your experiences of renting cars, but before I came to Greece, mine weren’t always terrifically pleasant and usually ended up with me parting with a hell of a lot more money than I bargained for. Not the case on the Ionian islands, it would seem. In fact, after raving about my experience on Kefalonia, I could hardly believe my luck that Zisis at Faros Car Rental happened to also be a mine of useful information about the island and he gave me his top tips on where to visit, what the roads were like, which routes to take and where to catch the most photogenic sunsets. It helps that he’s also a photographer and runs photos tours on the island, so he knew exactly where to send me.
The moment I put my foot on the accelerator was the moment my visit to Zakynthos became a holiday. It seems obvious now that the car is key and I won’t be trying to go it alone on Greek Islands any more. I discovered the length and breath of Zakynthos: The good, the bad and, yes, the ugly. That first evening, I made the trip to the remote Keri cliffs and perched myself on a bail of hay, surrounded by a smattering of other visitors armed with a camera and a smile. And as I watched the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever witnessed, I looked forward to it rising again and for my discovery of Zakynthos to really kick off.
I explored as much of the Island as possible. From the busy beaches of the south, the rugged rocky west and the scenic north, I drove through as many little towns and villages as I possibly could. I stopped at the beaches and the resorts, the tourist attractions and the conservation areas. If I was writing a guide to Zakynthos, then I had to get to know it as well as I could.
The Many Faces of Zakynthos
It would be very easy to just post photographs of blue seas and white cliffs and to report on the wonderful experiences a visitor to Zakynthos is likely to have. In fact, that’s what most bloggers appear to have done before. And while I very much hope that your visit to Zakynthos is of the sandy, blue beach variety, there really is an uglier side to the island. It’s one that the millions of tourists may not notice or care to notice. It’s glossed over or omitted from most guides and blogs, but the neglect I mentioned earlier is a very real problem. And though we as visitors have the luxury of turning our back on it, the startling reality is that we’re to blame.
I’m sure there are many more examples that those living in Zakynthos can elaborate on. I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing of Greek politics or the governance of Zakynthos, but even I could see that there were very serious problems with the Island’s waste management and with wildlife conservation. I tried to suss out both of these issues from people with more knowledge than me, but it basically came down to negligence on the part of the Greek authorities. And it comes down to irresponsible and mis-managed tourism.
Just off Laganas beach, a popular tourist beach flying a blue flag, the dumpsters are overflowing with uncollected waste. The piles grow daily. It’s not just this one place. The overflowing piles are on every road on the island. The reason? According to those I spoke to who are from the Island or who live there, the landfill on Zakynthos was at capacity 15 years ago. Yes, that’s 15 years and with no new landfill agreed upon, no incinerator, no recycling centre of any kind and no alternative solution provided. The Island’s rubbish has been amassing and overflowing in the old landfill. For 15 years. Now, I know I rattle on a bit about inefficiency in Greece, but come on! It’s not the third world. Shame on the Greek authorities.
If I’ve got these details wrong, please feel free to comment below or contact me so I can make corrections, but as it stands, that’s the information I’ve gotten from three local sources.
But it’s ok, because us tourists don’t see it. We get to drop our rubbish and leave it all behind for someone else to pick up… or not pick up, as the case may be.
Where to go in Zakynthos
It may seem unfair to lump all of the resorts in Southern Zakynthos into one sub-section of a guide. It is, after all, the most popular area for sun seekers and fun seekers visiting the Island. Unlike the middle to old age limbo I was staying in in Alikanas, this is where the young people go. It’s got a multi-million euro tourism industry and sees a footfall in the millions every summer season.
I have, however, good reason to put it all together.
The entire gulf is designated as a National Marine Park and a conservation area for the loggerhead sea turtle (caretta caretta). Strange, then, that only small sections of beach are closed for conservation purposes. For the most part, the beaches at Laganas, Kalamaki and Gerakas as well as smaller beaches in the gulf are a free for all. Their status as a conservation area is reduced to a tiny notice at the bottom of signs at the entrance to the beach… behind the overflowing bins.
I don’t claim to know anything about turtle conservation, but I’m pretty certain that ripping the beach up with quads, filling it with obstacles for hatchings (such as sunbeds) and digging or building in the sand can only harm the chances for a baby turtle’s survival. I’m told there are restrictions in place on the beaches, but aside from a ban on watersports and a restriction on motorboats, there was very little to give away that this was a marine park. In fact, remember that photo of the bins at the beach?
Yes, that one…
That’s Laganas beach. That’s supposedly a conservation area for an endangered species. Just beyond those bins are the skidmarks and track tires of the quads that had been racing up and down the beach just before I got there. Without obstacles in their way, only one in every thousand hatchlings will make it to adulthood. So what hope do they have with quads and sunbeds and poorly managed beaches?
I decided to go into Laganas town and I passed the trashy bars proudly boasting a ‘taste of home’ with full english breakfasts, gammon steaks and John Smith’s on draft. I drove on past the clubs called Hotlips, Sizzle and McVoodoo (helpfully located close to McDonalds). I kept going, I got out of there as fast as my rental car allowed and kept going until I reached somewhere worth pulling in: the next little village of Keri.
Zakynthos is undoubtedly an Island of extremes because as seedy as Laganas was (and Kalamaki is not that much better), Keri was an absolute delight. From here, you can take trips to Marathonissi Island which is famously known as ‘Turtle Island’ because it’s both shaped like a turtle and positioned in the National Marine Park so there are plenty of opportunities for turtle watching if you decide to take a trip on the water. Just try to make sensible decisions about how you decide to go turtle spotting. Nobody likes engines and speedboats!
I bedded in at Rock Cafe in Keri for the evening and curled up on the wicker couch on the porch, looking out over Turtle Island, my fingers tapping away on the keyboard of the computer on my lap. I left just in time for the sunset I mentioned before and I sat at the top of Keri cliffs and enjoyed the side of Zakynthos that steals your breath away. I followed the adventures of a couple of goats who seemed to enjoy the cliff tops even more than me. I laughed a little that I had been calling myself Billy no mates when even this Billy managed to find a mate.
Argassi, Vassilikos and Gerakas
If I were to visit Zakynthos again, I would go to Vassilikos or Argassi in the South East of the Island. South of Zakynthos town is a small peninsula that leads to Gerakas Beach and the towns and beaches along the way were by far my favourite on Zakynthos. Gerakas itself is in the Lagana Gulf and while it’s a beautiful beach, I couldn’t bring myself to support the businesses operating on a conservation beach. I opted instead for a stroll on Agios Nikolaos Beach on the eastern side of the peninsula and I fell in love with Banana Beach where I set up my office and enjoyed the beach breeze and watching the water sports that aren’t allowed in the Marine Park.
I didn’t waste my time in Gerakas, though, I visited the Mediterranean Marine Life Centre which left me smiling for two days afterwards. It was quiet when I arrived and as the only visitor, I got a treat usually reserved for the luckiest children… I got to hold a baby tortoise. And like a lucky child, I couldn’t put him down. It made my whole trip. When I was finally able to drag myself away, my grin and I left the centre to continue on the journey. I had barely stepped out of the exit and onto the dusty road outside when a group of whooping, cheering guys appeared from out of the cloud of orange dust that their quads had spewed up. They skidded and screeched before they tore a 180° arc in the dust and retreated back into a haze of orange.
I watched the dust settle and billow right across the wall into the conservation centre. Right on top of the tortoises. Right on top of the baby tortoise I had just put down.
I got in the car and drove back up to the north of the Island and to the viewpoint for Navarro Beach. Evening was settling in. The guys selling their wares at the viewpoint were packing up and driving away. All of the boats and the visitors to the beach below had gone home. I climbed out to the end of the headland where the view over the shipwreck and the cliffs was unobstructed. I passed a couple on their way back as I started the hike out. They warned me to be careful. There was nobody at the viewpoint or out on the cliff I had just walked along and the wind was whipping up. I sat on the bench at the end of the cliff and enjoyed the solitude and the beauty.
Then I looked around me. The bench had a dedication to a young man. The ground was uneven and stones had moved and dislodged themselves during my hike. I had, of course, stayed in from the cliff edge, but an ill wind can easily throw you off balance. And I know what my balance is usually like. I wasn’t expecting to defy gravity twice in one week.
There are no railings up there. I had notice but not really thought about it when we’d come up here on the tour. We hadn’t come so far from the viewpoint. There were crowds then, many of whom had walked through the open gateway that led to the cliff, many teetering near the edge to get an instaworthy selfie or shot to brag about their latest travels. I was one of them.
I retreated back to the viewpoint and back to the car and I decided that I’d discovered all I needed to on Zakynthos. Though I loved many moments of my trip, it really is an island of beaches, boats and booze. And that’s just not the island for me.
Leaving on a good note
I’d been so aware of being by myself during my visit that I had taken matters into my own hands and sent a message to the wonderful travel writer and expert on all things Greek, Matt Barrett. Within minutes, Matt had not only told me where to go, but also who to ask for when I got there. So, before I said my goodbyes to Zakynthos, I said hello to Freddie’s Beach Bar in Tsivili and the very lovely Robert Wallace who welcomed me like an old friend and took time out of his day to sit drinking coffee and chatting to me. The bar is a real hive of activity with a lot of friendly faces and I was just sorry I hadn’t found it earlier in my stay. It may just have changed my whole outlook on Zakynthos.
But I guess that gives me a good reason to go back. Only next time, I won’t go alone and I may just indulge in a cheeky tipple!
Rambling Ruth’s ‘Likely to’ Guide to Zakynthos
Likely to see in Zakynthos: Navaggio Beach. It’s the reason so many people visit this Island and it’s worth it. Absolutely breathtaking.
Likely to do in Zakynthos: Take a boat trip in the bluest water you can imagine
Likely to hear in Zakynthos: Holding Out for a Hero
Likely to taste in Zakynthos: John Smiths? A full English breakfast?… Why not go Greek and order a beer? A pint of Mythos on Banana Beach or at Freddy’s Beach Bar would be hard to beat.
Likely to discover in Zakynthos: Photo opportunities at every turn
Mosquitos and Other Creepy/Crawly info
Mosquito Bite Count: 3 – which was quite disappointing as they all appeared on the final night. I was hoping to celebrate a 0 bite count… the struggle is real.
Here are a few of the most important things I use to keep that bit count low!!
As usual, I love to hear from you! Want to share your best bits from Zakynthos? Want to tell me to stop being a moan? Better yet, why not teach me something about turtles?.. Let me know what’s on your mind. Leave a comment below or get in touch.