Zakynthos has a somewhat undeserved reputation as a party island, based mainly on the exuberant nightlife and club scene in Laganas on the south coast, and to a lesser extent in the town of Zakynthos. In fact most of the island is quite untrammelled by tourism, especially in the rugged north and along the precipitous cliffs of the western coast. Zakynthos lies in the Ionian Sea just off the western Peloponnese. Sheltered from the Aegean winds and enjoying mild winter rains, it is lush and verdant, and was known as the “Flower of the East” by the Venetians, who also gave the island its other popular name, Zante.
Zakynthos has been inhabited since Neolithic times. It was mentioned in Homer, and one of its early rulers was the eponymous hero of one of his great works, Odysseus, or Ulysses. The island fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire, then of Naples, then the Ottoman rulers, before being ceded to Venice. Unusually for the Greek islands, it was then taken over by France upon the dissolution of the Venice Republic, then by a Russian-Turkish accord which founded an Ionian State, which was then occupied by Great Britain. Finally in 1864 Zakynthos joined the independent Greek state. It suffered a massive earthquake in 1953 that left only three buildings still standing, and wiped out most of the lovely Venetian architecture.
Zakynthos Town, also known as Chora, still has a bit of the feeling of Piazza San Marco in Venice; there is even a St Mark’s Square with an interesting mainly historical museum, and there is a fine Byzantine art museum nearby. Zakynthos Island is small enough to see nearly all of it in a day’s outing in a hire car, although some of the inland roads can be rough going. The island is the prime nesting area for the endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle, and in many beach areas there are access restrictions to protect the nesting areas. The Bay of Laganas is the site of the first National Marine Park in Greece for the protection of the Loggerhead.
Laganas town is the party centre, with the main strip lined with clubs, bars, takeaways; you have been warned. Inland, there are lots of small mountain villages, often with a small church to visit and commanding nice views. Volimes, in the north of Zakynthos, has local crafts shops and at least one very good restaurant, as well as a monastery.
There are plenty of seaside sports and activities available, including snorkelling, small boat hire, fishing, sailing, and windsurfing. Scuba diving operators in Laganas and Keri offer training and dives to the scenic Keri Caves, “The Arch”, and other wonderful sites. In the north are the famous Blue Caves, beautiful geological formations cut into the coastal cliffs east of Cape Skinari. There are boat excursions that tour this spectacular stretch of coastline.
Many consider the most beautiful beach on Zakynthos to be Gerakas Bay on the southeastern tip of the island; it is the main turtle nesting beach inside the marine protection zone. The beach at Agios Nikolaos near Vassilikos is also lovely, but the iconic beach on Zakynthos is Navagio (Shipwreck) Beach on the western coast, a small, beautiful white-sand cove, backed by towering white cliffs and accessible only by boat, and named after a smuggling ship came to grief offshore around 1980; the wreck is still there, visible from an observation deck high above the beach. Navagio is a favourite spot for BASE-jumpers, who have an annual convention here in August. Laganas Beach is the longest beach on the island, and gets very crowded. By contrast, Dafni beach is more quiet. The western coast is mostly sheer white cliffs plunging into the sea, with the Calypso Deep, the deepest point in the Mediterranean, just south of Zakynthos.
There is a wide range of flights from the UK to Zakynthos airport, which is near Laganas, with flight times around three hours. Domestic flights from Athens are operated by Olympia airlines, and there is a ferry service from Zakynthos town to Kyllini on the Greek mainland.