If you thought that Greek islands were only about whitewashed houses with blue windows and sandy beaches, you're in for a big surprise. Zakynthos or Zante is a very special island from many perspectives, immortalized by its nickname as "the flower of the east" or "fiore di levante'. It was so called by Italian sailors who centuries ago used to detect the captivating scent of flowers before they set eyes on its shores.
Once perceived as the playground of inexpensive tour packages from Europe, Zakynthos is reinventing itself in more ways than one. The first transformation of the island took place long before the tourists arrived, after the devastating earthquake of 1953, when this gem lost much of its historic and architectural glamour, as well as many lives under the rubble. This island once produced famous Greek literary and artistic figures such as Dionysios Solomos, Andreas Kalvos and Griogorios Xenopoulos before the earthquake all but killed its thriving cultural scene. Yet it rose from its ashes like a phoenix to become a popular destination for travelers, thanks to its nature, mild climate, excellent cuisine and remaining cultural attractions.
The second transformation – more of an awakening – has been a steady shift to more quality tourism, as Zakynthos slowly repositions itself to become a true ecotourism destination standing apart from other islands in Greece. The potential was always there of course, with the curious yet endangered loggerhead Caretta Caretta turtles nesting on its prime beaches, the farmers' hiking paths amid olive fields and its rich bounty of very tasty traditional products. Indeed, in recent years many locals have said enough to the pressures of mass tourism found in areas such as Tsilivi and Lagana, which form a not-so-funny Little Britain dotted with English pubs, nightclubs, sparkling water from the UK on supermarket shelves, roast beef and jacket potatoes.
Thankfully, the more authentic Zakynthian experience has reemerged inland and on more remote coasts, attracting global travelers who want to interact with locals, try real Zakynthian cuisine and embark on nature-filled experiences. In very recent years, many locals have created their own eco-friendly businesses, including many noble independent efforts to offer amazing experiences that are sustainable.
Most notable of these efforts is the Ecotourism Zakynthos network which has brought together over 20 different traditional businesses. These include small hotels and villas offering very local breakfasts and even their very own organic farms (see accommodation section). The network also includes several top-notch traditional restaurants, a famed local cheese producer, a local handicrafts shop and a women's cooperative that produces delicious natural products. The Askos Natural & Stone Park in Volimes is a traditional settlement that also belongs to the group, so is the engaging Helmi's Natural History Museum in Agia Marina. You must drop by the network's folklore Vertzagio Museum with its unbeatable collection of historic paraphernalia and learn about the history of the place through a panoply of colors that will leave you spellbound.
Another noble local effort is ecozante.com which lists hiking paths, small hotels and a variety of eco activities like kayaking, snorkeling, diving, cycling and sailing, as well as attractions such as museums and monasteries. Also on the eco front, if you want to stay in a quiet hotel with a large pool and a spa, you'll find that the Zefyros Eco Hotel offers good value for money. There is a robust mix of true Greek and Italian influences, in a property that fully respects the environment and set delightfully amid fantastic vineyards.
Hiking paths of the island are slowly starting to appear on maps such as ecozante.com, representing of footpaths and dirt roads that make their way through the olive groves, hillsides and vineyards, overlooking the finest beaches and reaching to the most isolated villages. The beaches of course here are stunning too, as windsurfers and sailing enthusiasts make their way to otherwise inaccessible coves and forgotten islets. Villages such as Kallithea, Pigadakia, Agios Leon, Agia Marina, Louha, Yiri, Keri, Vasilikos and many, many others are worth trekking through, especially in fall and spring.
Last but not least, the cuisine in Zakynthos is among the best in Greece and a little more flavorful, infused with local herbs, Italianesque influences, a touch of garlic, delightful homegrown wine and truly outstanding olive oil. Delicious 'ladotiri' olive oil cheese, lamb or rabbit 'stifado' stew, mountain tomato onion salad, garlic-eggplant 'skordostoubi' and a variety of savory dishes can work sublimely with the homemade wine, sesame raisin biscuits, traditional orange cake, sesame bars and other sweet goodies. A handful of truly traditional restaurants that serve real local dishes, particularly those in the ecozakynthos.com network are well worth visiting.
From a nature perspective the island's valleys, full of vineyards and dotted with cypress trees, contrast stunningly with the hilly slopes full of olive trees, acorns, pines, shrubs and herbs to create unbeatable landscapes. Free-range chicken, horses, geese, genetically unique Zakynthian lambs and plenty of rabbits roam around in most gardens and villages, while turtles, fish and birds enrich the coastal ecosystems. Come and discover the Mediterranean paradise of Zakynthos in all its splendor, and you certainly won't be disappointed.
Special thanks to our partners in Zakynthos: