Zakynthos (Ζάκυνθος in Greek or Zante in Italian), is the third largest island among the Heptanissi, as the Greeks call the seven Ionian Islands peppering the Ionian Sea. Legend says that its lush woods were once a favoured playground of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting. Her brother, Apollo, also loved sitting under its laure trees, filling the entire island with the sound of his lyre. When you look at its dramatic mountains, untamed greenery, turquoise waters, charming villages and villagers, and throbbing nightlife, it’s easy to see why even the gods chose Zakynthos to break away from their busy lives of meddling in mortals’ affairs. The island’s 123-kilometre coastline is a great example of two worlds colliding: its southern and eastern parts are loud with holiday-makers, couples, friends and families alike, while its north and west coasts are hemmed in by towering cliffs, rugged shores and an out-of-this-world scenery.
Being a Greek island, gods were naturally involved in the creation of Zakynthos. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, ancient Greek author Homer alleges that it was first conquered by and named after founding hero Zakynthos, grandson of übergod Zeus and son of Troy-founder Dardanos. What’s certain is that the island has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age and it has had its fair share of twists and turns, to say the least. It first fell under the rule of the Cephalonians, then the Spartans, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Kingdom of Naples, the Ottoman Turks, the Republic of Venice, the French, the Russians, the British, the Italians and the Germans. During Nazi rule, two modern heroes emerged: Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos hid local Jews in rural villages and, thanks to their bravery, the entire Jewish community of Zakynthos survived WWII. Other famous sons of the island have actually been around for some 100 million years. Several local beaches are WWF-protected nesting places for one of the Mediterranean’s most emblematic marine animals, the loggerhead turtle.
Zante was the birthplace of Dionysios Solomos, Greece’s national poet: the first two stanzas of his poem, Hymn to Liberty, constitute the country’s national anthem. The island has honoured the founder of modern Greek literature in many ways, including an entire museum dedicated to him and other famous local bards, such as Romantic poet Andreas Kalvos, on Solomos Square. While you’re there, pay a visit to the Byzantine Museum of Zakynthos, home to an incredibly rich collection of carved-wood Byzantine icons, frescoes dating back to the 15th century and masterpieces of artists like Panagiotis Doxaras and Nikolaos Koutouzis. Venetians, of course, have left the island with one of their signature fortresses erected against foreign invaders. The massive castle is perched on the hill of Bohali, right above Zante Town, and preserves mementos from many of the island’s previous rulers, including the Lion of St Mark, a symbol of Venice, above the entrance, English military barracks and a 12th-century Byzantine church.
Zakynthos beaches are truly something that you’ve got to see to believe. Induce some serious envy in your Instagram following on Zante’s most photographed site, Navagio Beach. Also dubbed Shipwreck Beach because of the stranded smuggler ship lying on the shore, it blends impossibly white sand, ground stone in fact, with impossible blue waters. Get a bird’s eye view of the unspoilt beauty of Zante’s trademark sight from the nearby Anafonitria village or hop on one of the boats that leave from Agios Nikolaos or Porto Vromi to get a closer look. Stay on the northern part of the island and make the Blue Caves your next stop. These incredibly beautiful geological formations, stretching between Agios Nikolaos and Skinari Cape, have been carved out by erosion over thousands of years and hide the most unreal, deep blue water you’ll ever see. The Blue Caves are also a top destination for scuba-diving enthusiasts. Stretching on the south, Gerakas Beach is famous for its long, wide coastline covered with fine golden sand and for being the favourite hatching ground of the Caretta caretta, aka the loggerhead turtle. Check which part of the beach is safe to visit and when: the area is protected both by Zakynthos’ National Marine Park and the World Wide Fund to preserve the nesting habitat of these shy, endangered creatures. Bear in mind that for the same reason, watersports are not allowed near Gerakas, Laganas and Kalamaki. Other beaches, such as Tsilivi, Agios Nikolaos, Banana and Argassi, however, offer plenty of opportunities for watersports. Both families and extreme sport fanatics are guaranteed to find something for their taste at the Saint Nicholas Watersports and Diving Centre in Vasilikos, and make memories paragliding, water-skiing, jet-skiing, flyboarding, canoeing or wreck-diving.
The climate of Zakynthos is Mediterranean, meaning that winters are gentle and rainy, while summers are hot with plenty of sunshine. Want to discover as much of Zante’s natural wonders as possible? The period between March and May is probably the best to schedule your trip then: it’s well outside the peak season and the island practically turns into one huge flower bouquet. If a lazy beach holiday is what your body is aching for, arrive between June and September.
Zakynthos Airport Dionysios Solomos (ZTH) is located 5 kilometres from Zante, neighbouring Laganas and Kalamaki. The city is easily accessible by transit bus service or public transportation, with buses leaving just outside the terminal building. Bus tickets can be purchased directly from the bus drivers. By car, you have to take a 15-minute ride via the Zakynthos-Keriou Provincial Road or Stravopodi Street. Car rental options are available.
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