Visiting the Island of Zakynthos. It’s All Greek to Me!

Ahhhhhh…the Greek Islands! Santorini has the whitewashed buildings, Mykonos has windmills …but Zakynthos….Zakynthos has all the rest. There is no shortage of beaches on Zakynthos. Beaches with hypnotizing crystal clear blue waters that the Greek Islands are known for. Beaches with sea turtles. Beaches with sulphuric waters. Even a beach with a 1980’s shipwreck resting it’s rusty bones in the shadows of the surrounding cliffs. There are also several historic sites worth a visit, wineries to stop at and amazing sea caves to explore. I can’t forget to mention the food. Amazingly fresh and affordable food! You won’t need more than sunscreen, snorkel gear, good hiking shoes and a bathing suit to enjoy this magical island. Wait until the sun goes down before breaking open the ouzo. It’s too hot to day drink here in the summer!!!

Getting There

Zakynthos is located in the Ionian Sea, south of Corfu and West of Athens. Several flights a day come in from Athens (flight time is appx. 45 minutes). There is also a ferry that runs several times a day to and from Kyllini on the mainland. The bus company sells a combo ticket that leaves from the city in Zakynthos, takes you to the ferry where the bus actually also gets on the ferry….then you reboard the bus after the boat ride and the same bus takes you to Athens. The entire trip takes around 5 hours. It is super effecient and convenient!! We bought our tickets right at the bus station in Zante, Zakynthos. Cash only.

What to Do

Venture up Mount Skopos to explore Monastery Panagia Skopiotissa- An inconspicuous turn onto a dirt road with nothing but a small sign will lead you up an insanely treacherous and steep road (if you want to call it a road) to Skopiotissa. Reviews claim that you can hike up to the monastery within a few hours. Satan must have written those reviews. As for driving up… how can I describe this? Imagine a steep, corkscrew, dusty dirt road with countless switchbacks, sharp turns and random boulders. There’s no guardrails and the cliffs you drive along are terrifying. The road is only wide enough for one car. They don’t advise taking a car that does not have four wheel drive. They should not advise on taking a car. Period. However, I was determined to get my little automatic sub-compact up that mountain. About halfway up, I realized that it might not have been the best idea. Too late. When you finally reach the summit, IF you reach the summit, there is a small cafe and if you are lucky enough, the little old man will be at the cafe to open the church up just for you. We followed him up the hill where he took out a large skeleton key and let us inside. Wow. This was incredible. Now I was really on an adventure!!! 15th century frescoes decorate the interior of the chapel and we had it all to ourselves. Probably because the other tourists didn’t survive the drive. There’s some other ruins to explore around the chapel and a stone loft where the monks lived. The views of Zakynthos from here are unbelievable. After exploring, we gave the old man several euros to thank him and bought some water at the cafe. Going back down was even more terrifying. Was it worth it? Absolutely! Just don’t ask my son…He’s still a little traumatized from the drive.

Stop at Goumas Estate Winery-This was by far, the coolest winery I have ever been to. What made this winery so worthwhile was the tour given by the owner. She was fascinating to talk to. Along with their winemaking, she and her husband are both artists. Her husband paints icons in local churches as well as in Athens and she studied art restoration in college. We were given a private tour of their art studios after the winetasting. She also gave us a tour of the vineyard, the olive groves and the farm. As for the wine, it was amazing!! They offer an olive oil tasting along with the wine tasting for a few extra euros and she gave us homemade goat cheese and the most amazing jam I have ever tasted. There are several other wineries to visit on the island, but this one was one was my all time favorite.

Garakas Beach and turtle center- This beautiful beach has amazingly clear calm water and fantastic views. Much of the beach is roped off to protect the little baby turtle eggs that are buried in the sand. Their nests are identified and marked by small wooden structures. A word to the wise…As you walk towards the cliffs, apparently the beach transforms into a nude beach. Naked people hanging out everywhere. Hanging out. Literally. Hey, if you are into that, it’s one less thing to pack. There was also a small turtle rehabilitation center at the beach entrance. If you blink, you will miss the exhibits. At least they seem to be making some effort to protect the turtles by tracking them and trying to raise awareness. I took it a step further by walking the entire beach later in the day and demolishing all of the sand castles so that they would not become obstacles for the tiny baby turtles (which they do on some beaches where turtles nest). I got some pretty nasty looks for this and might have made several kids cry. Wow. You’re welcome! 2 lounge chairs with an umbrella cost 15. Euros. Get there early to score the chairs. Stay late to destroy the kids sand castles!

Visit the Blue Caves and Shipwreck Cove- So here’s how the story goes… back in 1980 (A great year, by the way), a ship carrying counterfeit cigarettes and other illegal contraband crashed on Navagio Beach during a storm…..the criminals abandoned ship and fled the scene…but the ship still remains where it washed ashore, rusting, deteriorating and creating one of the biggest tourist attractions on the island. You can get great photos AND tetanus here! You can only reach Navagio Beach (AKA Shipwreck Beach) by boat. Most boat excursions include a stop at the Blue Caves to snorkel and swim as well. Getting to Shipwreck Cove as early as possible is advisable. By the time we got there it was more crowded than the E train in NYC during rush hour. The Blue Cave stop on the way back was really cool. The water was pretty chilly, but you could actually see 30 to 40 feet down as clear as day and there were beautiful blue fish swimming all around us! Joining a tour here is not really expensive. Some companies charge as little as 30 euros for both stops. We went by private boat which can also be arranged.

Spiliotissa Monastery- this monastery dates back to the early 16th century and was actually vacant for many years until 5 nuns were invited to come to Zakynthos by a bishop and move in. After driving on a winding road you come to Spiliotissa, which feels like the middle of nowhere. That’s because it is the middle of nowhere. As we approached the monastery, a nun opened the gate and let us in. It’s like she knew we were coming. I certainly hope she can’t read minds as well, otherwise pack my bags…I’m going straight to hell! We followed her as she opened the chapel and a small gift shop for us. The chapel was very old and small. There is a story about an icon that was found in a nearby cave which prompted the construction of this monastery over 300 years ago. The icon is in the chapel to view. I bought some dried oregano that the nun grew herself in the garden, as well as a few other handmade treats. She was so kind and took the time to tell us about the history of the place . I was surprised no-one at the airport questioned that large ziplock baggie full of dried green oregano I had stashed in my backpack.

Take a dip in Xygia Beach (AKA Sulpher Beach)- There are actually two beaches named Xygia Beach right down the road from one another. Why would anyone do that? Probably to screw with the tourists. Anyway, Drive past the first one and park at the second one. It’s a pretty steep walk down and it was 105 degrees the day we went. I’ve yet to get a thank you from my son for this experience. The beach is tiny and smells like rotten eggs (due to the high sulpher content in the water). We swam for about 20 minutes here. The water is suppose to have “healing” properties. It certainly left my skin feeling smooth…but we were a little grossed out by what appeared to be small pieces of dead human skin floating all around in the water. Perhaps the sulpher works a little too well?

St Nicholas Beach- This was one of my favorite beaches on the island. !0. Euros for 2 lounge chairs and umbrella, the typical calm blue waters, a fabulous beach restaraunt steps from the sand AND a tiny old church worth hiking to right above the beach on a cliff. As if it could not get better, they had all kinds of watersport rentals right on the beach, yet the beach did not have a loud touristy feel to it at all.

The Byzantine Museum and City Center – A simple 2 story museum with some really cool art. Doesn’t take more than a half hour or so to go through the museum. If you enjoy viewing artwork, it’s worth a visit. If not, maybe someone who does appreciate art will drag you there. Sorry James Henry.

Turtle Island and Keri Caves – We arrived at the port to take this boat ride for my sons birthday. We chose the package that stops at 4 different locations. This was one of the most confusing tours I ever booked. People were yelling in Greek, crowds of tourists were standing with a communal look of utter confusion. Boats were pulling in and out with no explanation of which excursion they were providing. The fumes were making me high. We jumped on a boat and hoped for the best. We stopped at one set of caves, then they left us on “Turtle Island” where ironically, there are no turtles! The high population of tourists have scared the turtles away. Every inch of beach was taken and a food-truck-boat was docked on the beach adding even more pollution to the water. We did not quite understand how to catch the boat back to the port. It dropped us and left without so much as an, “I’ll call you in the morning”. Eventually we just jumped on a random water taxi. After fighting with the company about a partial refund for skipping some of the stops, we left in search of lunch. I would not recommend this excursion to anyone. It was so clear that they were not concerned about the environment at all. From what I have read, the tour companies have all but taken over Turtle Island where tons of turtles used to nest. Had I known this, I would not have gone. The whole area where these tours depart from was crowded and the people selling the tours were aggressive.

Hike to Shipwreck Beach overlook- There is an amazing vantage point at the top of a cliff looking down at Shipwreck Beach that’s not too hard to find, but a little challenging to park at. Once you find it, follow the dirt path out onto the cliff (it’s only about a 10 minute hike). The views are unbeatable. But be aware, there are absolutely no guardrails to keep stupid people from getting too close to the sheer drop along the edge of the cliff. Of course the perfect view is right at the edge!

Observe woman behind me, leaning forward and seemingly oblivious to the danger of falling off of the cliff as I cling to the boulders.

Horse Back Riding- There were tons of places to go riding on the beach around the island. Some rides even include a swim in the ocean with the horses.

Other interesting stops- We stumbled upon a lot of cool stops while traveling around Zakynthos, including a farm across from where we stayed in Vasilikos with homemade wines, olive oil, honey and several other farm products. We also discovered these really cool “pool restaraunts” along the water that serve food and drinks all day and provide lounge chairs, a swimming pool and even pool toys! No entrance fees, just find a lounge chair, order a drink and go swimming! Our first hotel did not have a pool, so this was fun to do for lunch one day.

Stop over in Athens- on our way home from Zakynthos, we set aside some time to spend in Athens. We stayed at an amazing hotel that provided a free shuttle to the old part of town and within walking distance of the one and only Acropolis. Visiting the Acropolis is a must (in my opinion), but there is a lot of climbing involved. A lot. So heading out as early as possible before it hits 106 degrees in summer would be wise. The National Archeological Museum in Athens is definitely worth a visit as well.

Where to Stay

Myrties Stone Houses– We stayed in Vasilikos for our first week in Zakynthos. There are 4 stone houses surrounded by olive groves and farms. The houses are immaculate, peaceful and spacious. My son got the entire downstairs to himself. You can actually walk to several beaches from here and there is a bakery right up the road for breakfast . 9 euros will get you 2 croissants, one coffee and one fresh squeezed OJ. There is also a family farm across the road worth a visit. Sitting on the outdoor terrace each night with a glass of homemade wine left by the owner as a gift to us…. that is unbeatable.

View from upstairs deck at Myrties

Alykanas Village Hotel – We stayed here our last few nights on the island. The pools were nice and the beach afforded some beautiful sunsets. It was a different scene than Vasilikos. I enjoyed my stay at Myrties better.

Grand Hyatt Athens– If you have points with Hyatt, or you want to treat yourself, look no further. This place was AMAZING. The rooftop pool looked out at the Acropolis. The free shuttle took you to the area around the Acropolis. The service was amazing. They left me a mini complimentary bottle of Ouzo in my room. They know how to win my heart. I could go on and on. It’s about 40 minutes from here to the airport and a cab ran us about 40 euros.

Best view in town from the hotel pool deck

Where to Eat

Green Frog- OK..This was one of my favorite places on the island to eat. We actually had two dinners here. The calamari…amazing!

Charlie Chaplin – Another fantastic place for dinner. Great views of the ocean out on the patio.

Babis Tavern – This family run restaurant is within walking distance to Myrties Stone Houses. Lovely outdoor patio and crazy good greek salad.

Relax Restaurant- Loved the menu here. had lunch one day and breakfast the next. Great milkshakes too.

Remezzo beach bar- this was one of those pool restaurants . What a fun place to eat and swim and enjoy the views.

Beach Club at St Nicolas- Incredible views of the beach, one of the best club sandwiches and great music.

Airport Cafe- One of the coolest places to eat. The cafe is strategically placed at the edge of the Zakynthos airport runway. You can sit on the rooftop terrace, eat your meal and watch planes take off and land right above your head. Even cooler? The steps that lead to the terrace are airplane stairs!!!!

Quick Tips

Want to know how to tip on Zakynthos? 10% is plenty to leave for a tip in Greece.

Renting a car is a great idea while traveling around Zakynthos. Fuel costs are insanely high. It cost me 60 euros to fill the tank of a car the size of a cooler.

Water prices are regulated throughout Greece. You can’t drink the water on Zakynthos, but bottled water is super cheap.

If you plan on visiting any of the churches or monasteries, pack a scarf to cover bare shoulders.

Ya mas is something you say for “cheers”.

So you’ve always wanted to go to the Greek Islands? Want to try something different than the ever so popular Santorini or Mykonos? Fly to Athens and head in the other direction. Go west, young man! I promise you that the beaches, the food and the sites will not disappoint you. Pack your sunglasses, you will need them. Pack your hat. You will need that too. Finally, pack your bathing suit….or then again, maybe you won’t need that….Now grab that shot of ouzo and drink up. Ya mas!!!

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