Zakynthos: Flower of the East

This is a little article I wrote about Zakynthos…

The little boat speeds out of the v-shaped harbour of Vromi. Ahead a larger boat is waiting for us, its engines idling, the passengers on board curiously regarding us.  We pull up alongside and jump aboard. The driver of the smaller boat hands us up our backpacks and cheerfully waves us goodbye, happy his mission has been accomplished. Hearts pounding and wet with salt spray we take our seats laughing.

Shipwreck beach


Ten minutes earlier we’d arrived at Porto Vromi to get the boat to the iconic Shipwreck Beach, located on the remote north-western shore of Zakynthos and only accessible by water. We had arrived at the ticket office just as the excursion boat rounded the rocky cape and headed into open water. A normal course of events would entail having to wait for the next boat. But not in Zakynthos. The young man urgently radioed ahead to the larger boat and then quickly ran down to the harbour, motioning us to follow.  Soon, we were skimming over the waves, holding on tight to the sides of the bouncing boat. Just when you think you know Zakynthos, something about it surprises you.

That was fifteen years ago and when I recently revisited Porto Vromi to get the boat to Shipwreck Beach I had a husband, two young boys and a mother-in-law in tow.  Such high sea shenanigans would have been totally inappropriate with my coterie but I could still recall the breathless joy of that first boat trip.

The impact of rounding the cliffs and getting your first sight of Shipwreck Beach, however, is one experience that never changes. You invariably screw up your eyes against the reflection of sunlight on the blindingly white limestone cliffs that encircle the cove on three sides and you involuntarily smile at the juxtaposition of ombre sea, the bleached white pebble beach and rusty, decaying shipwreck. All your senses are assaulted at once: the smell of the salty wind, the warmth of the sun upon your skin and the luminous colours making you squint behind your sunglasses.

Pebbly beach at Shipwreck

Zakynthos has one of the most famous beaches in Greece, and the island was visited by over half a million tourists in 2013 but it is virtually unknown outside of Europe. Of those that do visit, few penetrate further than Zakynthos’ obvious charms – the east coast resorts and beaches – to discover the quiet places it keeps for those who make the effort.

Originally known as Zakynthos, the island received its alternative name of ‘Zante’ during its 300 year rule by the Venetians. The Venetians were so fond of it they named it ‘Fiore di Levante’ (Flower of the East). I must admit to a partiality to the Venetian name as it conjures images of Zakynthian counts and countesses promenading down white walled, bougainvillea-filled streets and of hopeful young lotharios serenading under their loved ones’ balconies with traditional mandolin- and guitar-accompanied songs called “kantathes”.

The eastern coastline is sprinkled with beachside resorts like a komboloi (greek worry beads). It starts off in the north with the quiet family resort of Alikes which was named after the nearby salt pans. The popular resort of Tsilivi is located on a 2km long sandy beach perfect for water sports but also offers smaller quiet coves for those wanting to explore.

We reach the eponymous lively main town of Zakynthos where the interlinked San Marco and Solomos squares provide locals and visitors with cafes to relax in after finishing their evening volta, or walk.  We sit in the Kokkinos Vraxos (Red Cliff) cafe named after a tragic love story written by the local novelist Gregorios Xenopoulos and indulge in the local pastime – seeing and being seen.  Few things are more enjoyable on a summer’s evening than eating delicate honey puffs with orange scented honey and a fine cappuccino, while watching the passing parade to the accompaniment of a violin and piano duet.

East of Zakynthos town is the mountainous Vasilikos peninsula.  As well as Argasi, Zakynthos’ original resort, it has some of the most picturesque coves and chic beach clubs on the island. Heading south once more we pause at Kalamaki, a quiet family resort whose beaches are one of the nesting spots of the endangered Caretta Caretta turtles that live in Laganas Bay Marine Park.

Flower at Limnionas
Flower at Limnionas

Finally, our tour down the east coasts finishes with a crescendo in the party town of Laganas. The largest resort on the island, Laganas sits on one of Zakynthos’ best bays with a wide sandy beach and warm, shallow water. Don’t be tempted to bring the family to enjoy the great swimming though.  Laganas central is full of bars, nightclubs and strips joints, definitely not a place for family bonding.  It is, however, perfect for those who want to spend their days on the beach and their evenings partying with some of Europe’s best DJs.

And yet, if you venture slightly in from the coast you feel time slowing. The fields are filled with olive groves, some gnarly and thick with age like the old men in the kafenion, others young and elegant. Their silver-backed leaves filter the harsh Mediterranean sunlight into a canopy of flashing shadows. If you happen to be in a grove in the afternoon the air pulsates with the sound of cicadas singing their sunset song. Sleepy villages with dusty squares are overlooked by sombre churches. Pass under the stone lintel of the 14th century church of Faneromeni church in Lithakia and inside the simplicity of the exterior provides a foil to the intricate, colour filled interior.  Icons dulled by centuries of incense and candle smoke fill ceilings and walls, framed in gold and marble and carved wood. Tiny windows give the interior a moody lighting and the thick stone walls provide relief from the heat outside.

Venture even further west and you come across the mountainous plateau that stretches vertically north to south dividing the island in two. We drive up the range through the mountain village of Kiliomenos, renowned for its stonework and unusual 19th century belltower. Further along are the isolated hamlets of Loucha and Gyri which offer the chance to see how Zakynthos used to be before the influence of tourism. At a crossroads in the village of Aghion Leon we take a small road that slowly starts to slope down again. The landscape here is totally unlike the fertile eastern coast. The soil is a rich red and scattered throughout with broken rocks. The farmers have built drystone walls in an attempt to clear the land but all that it can support is scrub and the odd hardy olive tree. Down we head along a single lane with occasional glimpses of the sea as the road winds back and forth.

Crystal clear water at Limnionas

Our final goal is my Zakynthian utopia, Limnionas, a turquoise inlet surrounded by rocky hills, whose water is cool and clear. To swim you must jump in off the rocks, though there is a pebbly beach where you can rest and retreat from the sun in a convenient little cave. On summer weekends it fills with daring local golden-skinned youths who take running dives from the sunbathing platforms, sailing over the rocky outcrops into the deep water below. I watch, heart in mouth, scared of one of them miscalculating and causing certain serious injury, yet unable to look away.

Once sated by sun and sea, we walk back up the path to the single taverna located at the top, overlooking both the inlet on one side and the open sea on the other. We lunch simply here on a greek salad, kalamari and homemade bread with local fragrant wine. We take our time, lingering like locals and time slows even further.