The Greek Island that's big on nature
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
From dolphins to endangered turtles and exploring the famous Blue Caves, dive into the delights of Zakynthos
One minute we were speeding along, the rib boat slapping down on the cerulean waves, the next we’d stopped and the captain was pressing his fingers to his lips. ‘Ssh, no screaming,’ he whispered, gazing over the boat’s port side into the crystal-clear Ionian Sea.
What was he looking for out here? And then I heard the noise, just a second before I felt the spray of water. A dolphin – no, two, three, wait, four dolphins, an entire pod – were diving in and out of the ocean alongside us. They’d vanish into the depths then arc out of the big blue, water exploding out of their blowholes as they surfaced for air.
Top of the Pod
‘They’re playing with us,’ the captain smiled. ‘Believe me, they don’t usually do this.’ For a full five minutes they continued their balletic display before they were gone, off into the cobalt depths.
‘Beautiful,’ I cried as the captain fired up the rib and we went bouncing along in their wake. It was my first morning on the Greek island of Zakynthos – or Zante – and already I was smitten. After all, it’s not often you’re surrounded by dolphins just after breakfast.
We were on our way to the island’s most famous natural attraction, the Blue Caves. Even if you haven’t been here, you’ll recognise the view: it’s the one you see on all the tourist material and Instagram feeds about Greece.
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Carved out of the rocks over thousands of years, these arched caves can only be reached by sea. It’s more than an hour’s journey but it’s worth it for a glimpse of the electric azure interiors of the cave. No Insta filters are needed here. The caves are so blue as they reflect the striking colour of the ocean and the cloudless sky. You can rent a glass-bottom boot to go through the main one, Kianoun, or you can do what we did – dive in from a swim stop.
Paddle-boarders, canoeists and kayakers were all winding their way through the smaller caves – there are 120 in total – while we clambered back on board to head to the nearby Navagia Beach.
It is only accessible by boat which lands on the beach so you can jump off by a shipwreck. The beach looked inviting – an arc of glistening white, but it wasn’t the talcum powder sand I was expecting, but razor-sharp luminescent pebbles.
Ten minutes was enough to explore the rusting liner’s hull on the beach, and paddle in the surprisingly cold water, and then we were jumping back onto the rib, and setting back off against the current.
‘It’s not me,’ the captain said as suddenly we turned a corner and a few minutes later were met with the distinct odour of rotten eggs. I wrinkled my nose, then laughed as he explained we had arrived at Xigia, with its sulphur-rich, thanks to a natural sulphur spring, spa-like waters. ‘It’s very good for your skin,’ the captain said. ‘And for your bones.’
Unconvinced, we slipped into the water, hopeful that the therapeutic benefits were worth the eggy smell. ‘This is stinky beach,’ my teenage daughter laughed, but she joined me for a swim anyway.
Aside from that whiffy spot, Zakynthos is a green idyll, with waters better than I’ve seen in the Maldives lapping onto shores with dramatic emerald hills as backdrops.
We were staying in Argassi on the south coast, most of which is a nature reserve where endangered loggerhead sea turtles known as the Caretta-Caretta breed in the summer.
The turtle beaches are off limits while the turtles hatch in the sand but it’s easy to spot them swimming in the shallow waters off Laganas Beach on Marathonisi or Turtle Island.
You can join the volunteers of the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece, Archelon, doing beach rounds at dawn each morning where you could get the chance to see eggs hatch.
We were staying in Argassi at Windmill Bay, a boutique luxury hotel with just 57 rooms on the seafront. Every room boasts a sea view, stunning décor in brilliant whites, creams and taupes, and exquisite finishing touches including hand-cast plaster art work as a feature wall in the bedroom, exposed brickwork and remote-controlled blinds.
Our junior suite came complete with a giant jacuzzi and a bottle of champagne when we arrived so we could enjoy bubbles in the bubbles overlooking the sea.
There is a large swimming pool, and Andalis, a Greek and Mediterranean fine-dining restaurant with a compact but delicious menu. The tomato salad with black croutons and local olive oil was bursting with flavour, while the Skioufichta, traditional handmade Cretan pasta, with tomato pesto, showing just how much the Venetians influenced the island when they ruled it after capturing the island in 1485, was lip-smackingly good.
The hotel is family ran – by the amazing Sophia Kladis – while her brother Nikos, a chef who worked in the UK for years, runs the restaurant. Her parents run Windmill Hotel across the street while her other brother owns Kavo slightly further along the seafront.
Food Glorious Food
Serving seafood and fresh Greek and Mediterranean dishes, accompanied by the sound of the waves is more relaxing than a trip to a yoga retreat, which is presumably why it has so many five-star reviews on Trip Advisor.
I feasted on beetroot carpaccio, with roasted aubergine salad followed by seashell kritharoto (orzo pasta with herb sauce), all washed down with local vino that was distinctly moreish.
The food was first-class while the ambience was upscale Ibiza-style and the background noise of the sea hypnotic – no wonder I slept so well after strolling back to my hotel.
Food was on my mind the next morning as I had a cookery class at The Green Frog, a restaurant just over the road. I never cook. I don’t need to, I’m married to an Italian chef, but for the next four hours, we created Spanakopita, Greek spinach pie, Dolmades, stuffed vine leaves, prawn saganaki, which is usually eaten for lent, while learning about the complex history of the island – after the fall of the Byzantine empire it has been held by the Nepalese, Ottoman Turks, Venetians, The French, British, Russians, Italians and Germans - and how it impacted its cuisine.
At the end of the comprehensive, and fun, lesson, we sat in the restaurant’s garden and ate our Greek feast, washed down with vino and ouzo. ‘Delicious,’ I said, surprised. ‘Not bad for a bunch of beginners.’
Next door to the restaurant is Windmill Hotel, where the Greek Night is held every Wednesday. We couldn’t miss it and headed there that evening for a glimpse of traditional dancing. The trio of two men and a woman, in traditional dress, entertained us while we ate, high kicking, gyrating and shouting ‘hoopla.’ It was all low key until the sun set and they literally lit the dancefloor and performed through the flames.
‘Don’t you dare get up there,’ my daughter warned through gritted teeth. Too late. One of the dancers had grabbed my hand and pulled me up. Then he was leading me out to the garden, while grabbing other people to join them, until we were doing a Greek version of the Conga around the swimming pool.
‘That was fun,’ I said, breathless, collapsing into my chair afterwards. My daughter simply rolled her eyes.
The next morning, she was more excited when I told her we were off to Nobelos Seaside Lodge and Bio Restaurant, on the northeast coast of the island, just 500m from the picturesque port of Saint Nicholas in Volimes.
Built entirely from stone in the old Zaykynthian style, Nobelos is an uber luxurious lodge close to the Blue Caves that is a favourite haunt of the rich and famous.
With just four suites, this is an exclusive holiday hideaway with a first-class restaurant that is so good it has locals from all over the island traveling to eat there. Greek football star Charalampos ‘Harry’ Mavrias, who played for Sunderland but is now at Apollon Limassol, was there with his family as was one of the Swarovski dynasty.
We soaked up the sun in style – champagne bucket by my side and a lounger that I’d be happy to sleep on for the rest of my life, then dined al fresco on a mezze of Greek dishes from grilled cheese to Greek salad and fries.
After lunch, we paddled in the quiet cove, marvelling at the clear blue sky and endless azure sea. It was time to head back to Windmill Bay and another dip in our Jacuzzi.
It had been another incredible day in Zante – the Greek island nicknamed Il Fiore di Levante, the Flower of the East, by the Venetians. Would I come back to this natural paradise again with its pristine beaches and clear waters, my daughter wanted to know? The answer was easy: ‘Shore thing.’
A superior double room at Windmill Bay Hotel starts from €100 per night rising to €200 per night in high season while a suite starts from €250 rising to €450. https://windmillhotelszante.com.
Excursions available through Explore Zakynthos. https://explorezakynthos.com/