By Isabel Conway –
You don’t need a five- star experience to create holiday memories. That thought strikes me after exiting my 5 * hotel resort, driven out by New York prices for a club sandwich there, to sit in the shade of a simple tavern terrace ten minutes away overlooking the beach at Amboula on Zakynthos. I’ve swopped a stylish canopied luxury pool bar for the shade of a simple tavern terrace, check table cloths flapping in a gentle breeze.
I gaze out over the shimmering Ionian Sea awaiting my fresh from the ocean grilled sardines lightly coated in sea salt with a salad of plump glossy black olives and ripe tomatoes, bursting with juice, speckled with crumbly feta. The waiter pours locally produced nectar, Novita dry white wine which tastes wonderful, €2 a glass. My solitary leisurely lunch costs just €15.
Zakynthos, also known by its Italian name of Zante, had been on my radar since those island hopping days of youth. Travel away from mass package holiday destinations, like Laganas in the south. Head north of the capital Zakynthos, east or west along the coast and you’re in for a treat of secret coves and beaches, hidden behind pine forests.
The sleepy interior of picturesque hamlets, wedding cake monasteries and wild countryside are also light years away from blow up unicorns and non- stop televised league matches.
My first stop is Hotel Lesante Blu in the north eastern village of Tragaki, where I spent a couple of nights. It’s an adults only resort listed among the ‘Leading Hotels of the World’, sympathetically blending into the landscape, with its own private beach.
No sooner have we collapsed onto comfy beach beds than a waiter arrives bearing a pricy cocktails menu. Thankfully he also offers free iced water and slices of fresh fruit. Ireland’s June temperatures are rivalling those of Zakynthos that week but that’s the gamble involved in sun seeking and hey we’re in Greece and happy.
Lesante Blu attracts, as far as I could make out, German, Scandinavian, Russian and Chinese guests and a popular in-house extra is a six course lobster menu (€130 pp) and Greek wine tasting, pricy at €40 but at least a selection of nine wines are offered.
Our bucket list includes two of the island’s toted attractions: The Blue Caves and Shipwreck bay. The early morning is bathed in brilliant blue skies, but the sea has an ominous swell. Skipper Dionysis Potamitis has promised to take us out to view the iconic caves. Arriving to cliffs above his tiny mooring point far below he is throwing arms up in the air, shouting “no trip to Blue Caves, Port Authority say dangerous to leave”. Frustratingly we can only look down, watching the big ‘booze cruises’ boats that have come up from Zakynthos port, loaded with tourists, able to get reasonably close.
Under a brooding sky we take shelter from the rain at Zakynthos Town’s museum of Post Byzantine Art, after looking around the island’s capital and port, devastated by an earthquake in 1953. Sensitively reconstructed its layout is faithfully preserved in the imposing squares and impressive public buildings. Inside for a mere €3 you can wander through its mainy halls admiring numerous icons and other artworks salvaged from the 1953 catastrophic earthquake which claimed 200 lives and destroyed 100 churches.
Museum guide Panayiotis Klavianos shares stories about another momentous event: The WW2 German invasion. “The Nazis demanded that our Mayor and Archbishop hand over the names and addresses of all Jews on our island within 24 hours; the Archbishop had lived in Germany as a student and spoke the language so understood what the fate of the Jews would be. When the Germans returned they received two names and addresses, those of the Mayor and the Archbishop. People say it was our finest hour”.
You’re bound to get lost as most roads are signposted in Greek and a GPS probably won’t work, crossing remote valleys and hairpin bends, to reach the village of Loucha. It’s well worth to keep ploughing on towards Taverna Paliomylos (Old Mill) (www.paliomylos-tavern.gr).
During WW11 the mill could only function during the night because German and Italian occupiers had demanded a share of the flour it produced. Eventually the clandestine milling was uncovered, the mill came under fire and the already harsh conditions villagers lived under inevitably became worse. Family run Taverna Paliomylos literally hangs over the village and is famous for its slow-cooked lamb with feta and potatoes and traditional moussaka.
Zakynthos (Zante) is rich in such memories and anyone who searches can find them all around. These are tales to keep you spellbound long after dusk falls below the sparkling expanse of sea which dims to a mysterious murky indigo at nightfall.
Drop by Therianos Organic farm, Kallithea village for olive oil and wine tastings or even sign up for a yoga session in their beautiful organic gardens surrounded by vineyards, lemon and walnut groves (www.therianos.gr) The farm and others are featured on Zakynthos ECO network map (www.zecozakynthos.com) which lists beautiful Agri-tourism accommodation, gastronomy and products.
On an impulse, rise at the crack of dawn and set off on a boat trip from Lithakia or Keri to visit Marathonisi, nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles. Environmental groups continue to campaign for fewer boat excursions to avoid stressing the breeding turtle population.
Get there: Leading Irish tour operators sell Zakynthos including TUI holidays (www.tuiholidays.ie) who feature 5 *Lesante Blu 7 nights B & B including transfers from €1,556 pp sharing, inclusive of flights from Ireland on selected dates. Abbey Travel (www.abbeytravel.ie) Budget Travel, one of the frontrunners to discover Greece thanks to trailblazer Gillian Bolger (www.budgettravel.ie) Club Travel (www.clubtravel.ie) and Travel Republic (www.travelrepublic.ie) Accommodation in all price categories with direct weekly flights ex Dublin into late September.
Where to stay: 7 nights at the 5 star Lesante Blu beach resort B & B, including transfers from €1,556 pp sharing, inclusive of flights from Ireland on selected dates. Stay at all- inclusive child friendly Aqua Bay Suites with unlimited access to the onsite waterpark from €1,000 pp on selected dates. Public transport is sketchy so you will need a car (from €30 daily) to get around.