The Greek island of Zakynthos, liveliest in the Ionian, sizzles by day and gets even hotter after dark
Zakynthos claims it has more hours of sunshine than any of its rivals. That might be disputed (Rhodes makes the same claim). But why quibble? The island that Venetians (who ruled here for more than 600 years) called ‘Flower of the Levant’ has fabulous beaches, vivid blue seas beneath green hillsides, and a rocking party scene all summer long.
You don’t come to Zakynthos to see dusty ruins (though if you’ve a mind to, you can hop across to the mainland for a look at the ancient birthplace of the Olympic Games). You don’t come in search of quaint, old-timey villages - almost every building on the island was levelled by an earthquake in 1953, so compared with most Greek isles it has a fairly modern look. You do not – repeat, not – come in search of peace and quiet. If you come between June and September, plan to swim and sunbathe all day, then dance until you drop.
Zakynthos boasts half a dozen purpose-built resorts, all built from scratch since the 1980s, when tourism really took off here. But the daddy is definitely Laganas, on a huge bay with nine miles (I’ve walked them) of the finest, softest yellow sand stretching all the way to Geraki, at the southeast tip of the island.
The airport is less than a mile from the centre of Laganas, so you can be on the beach, in the bar (or both – there are bars right on the beach) not long after the wheels of your plane kiss the tarmac. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of places to stay here. Most of them are smallish, family run hotels or self-catering apartment complexes, and virtually all are block-booked through the high season by big holiday companies – this isn’t a spot where you can just roll up without booking and expect to find a place to stay.
Zakynthos also has a sprinkling of larger, more upmarket resort hotels, including the 161-room Iberostar Plagos Beach at Tsilivi and the Louis Zante Beach at Laganas. Both are four-star resorts, run by Louis Hotels, and offer big rooms with frills such as mini-bars and satellite TV, swimming pools for adults and kids, water and land sports and big buffet-style restaurants. Both offer all-inclusive package deals; time your visit for the beginning or end of the season (April-May or late September-early October) and you may find bargain packages on oiffer.
When it comes to eating and drinking, you’re spoilt for choice – as long as that choice doesn’t include authentic Greek food. Here, tavernas are outnumbered by pizzerias, cafes advertising ‘full English breakfast’, Tex-Mex grills and even ersatz Chinese and Indian restaurants, and pubs boast an array of English and Irish beers and wide-screen TV showing UK sports
The beat booms out from more than 50 clubs, pubs and music bars in this epicentre of island nightlife. Some spots last for just one season, others are well established. Leader of the pack are Rescue, with its 2,000-capacity dance floor and five bars (two outside, three inside) and its rival Zeros, while Factory draws partygoers to Argassi, a couple of miles from Laganas on the northeast coast. Argassi can’t rival Laganas’s beach, but it does have a better choice of watersports, which are limited at Laganas to protect the endangered loggerhead turtles that lay their eggs on its sands.
The resorts on Zakynthos’s north coast are a good bit quieter than Laganas and Argassi, though both Tsilivi and Alykes have long, sandy beaches that would be rated as outstanding on most other Greek islands. By comparison with Laganas, they’re no more than adequate. Kalamaki, separated from Laganas by the airport and the three-mile stretch of sandy beach that has been designated as a National Marine Park to protect the turtles, is much less of a party town, but you’ll still have to live with aircraft noise from morning until dusk.
If none of this sounds like your cup of tea (or glass of retsina) make for Vassilikos, at the tip of a peninsula on the north side of Laganas Bay. This is an enclave of upmarket tranquillity, at arm’s length from the cheerful rowdiness of the rest of Zakynthos. The top address here – in fact, I think, the top hotel on the island - is The Bay. It’s rated as a four-star, but deserves an even higher score, with stylish rooms and suites decorated in cool blue, white and grey, pools for adults and children, two restaurants and a mini-market (which you can use to stock the fridge in your room).
When beach and poolside pall, take a cheesy-but-fun boat trip round the island, visiting the Blue Grotto – a limestone sea-cave famous for its glowing turquoise water – and the so-called ‘Smugglers’ Wreck’. Stranded on a gorgeous white beach beneath sheer cliffs, the rusting hulk of this Syrian cargo vessel which ran aground here in the early 1980s becomes less impressive year by year (it was never exactly awesome in the first place).
For a more challenging day trip, take a hydrofoil (about 90 minutes each way) across to Killini on the mainland, then take a bus to the ruins of Olympia, where the Olympic Games were born. Alternatively, join an escorted tour to Olympia, bookable through travel agents in Zakynthos Town, the island’s pleasant but unspectacular little capital.