Greece’s Ionian island chain offers lush green countryside, stunning seascapes and more ways to entertain a family than you may have thought possible. Located off the country’s western coast, close to Italy, Zakynthos is one of the chain’s gems. Storybook landscapes, aquamarine waters and delicious cuisine are par for the course, but what really makes the island shine for families is the bounty of unique activities available.
You may never have heard of Zakynthos (others like Santorini, Crete and Mykonos tend to hog the spotlight), but you’re likely to have seen photos of its most prominent attraction, the shipwreck known as To Navagio. This beached ship, which washed ashore on the pristine beach of on one of the island’s southernmost coves in 1980, is perhaps the most-photographed beach in Greece. Surrounded by sheer cliffs, this beach is only accessible by boat. Visitors arrive by sea and can spend a few hours enjoying the calm waters of the cove, exploring the wrecked ship and swimming in the caves located nearby.
The boat ride to To Navagio is sure to be one of the highlights of your island trip, if you choose the right one. Small boat tours are common around the island, but make sure you choose one that takes you to the shipwreck and circles the entire island, as there are many other incredible sites to see. The northern coast of the island is home to the famous Blue Caves of Zakynthos, only accessible by boat. Small boat tours are able to take visitors inside the caves to experience the phenomenon that makes anything under the water appear blue. While it is possible to swim in these waters, the temperatures can get pretty chilly. Choose a boating company with glass-bottom boats so you can see the abundant marine life under water.
Additionally, select a company that uses small boats, as these are more likely to stop at some of the smaller beaches that dot the coastline. These beaches, similar to To Navagio, are also unreachable by land and the larger touring companies are not able to stop, due to the size of their boats. Often these boats are so small, they are unable to reach the shore and must therefore drop anchor and let visitors dive into the crystal-clear waters and swim to shore. The result is an incredible experience of lounging on a pristine beach, seemingly untouched by the effects of humanity.
Getting to Zakynthos by ferry can be tricky if you are starting in Athens so your best bet is to travel by plane from the nation’s capital. Flights are offered daily from Athens, but limited during sea turtle breeding season (May–August). The local beaches are a favorite destination for the majestic creatures, known as caretta caretta, who come to shore looking for a safe place to lay eggs. In an effort to protect this endangered native species, the airport closes at night to minimize noises that might scare the turtles off and prevent them from laying eggs. As a further effort to aid the turtles, lights on their preferred beaches, such as the popular Laganas beach on the island’s south coast, are extinguished at night. During breeding season, don’t be surprised to see protective coverings erected over patches of sand where eggs have been laid. These measures help prevent tourists from unknowingly disturbing a nest and killing the delicate eggs within before they hatch.
During your visit to the island be sure to explore the local cuisine. Being extremely close to Italy, traditional Greek dishes often have an Italian flair, creating a unique tasting experience at every meal. The abundant sea life surrounding the island results in spectacular seafood dishes, but meat and vegetable dishes from locally- rown produce and locally raised animals are equally good. One of the island’s epicurean treats is fig ice cream, often found in one of the local ice cream shops and a perfect touch on a hot summer day.
The most popular months to visit Zakynthos, which also goes by the name Zante, are June, July and August. The weather is hot during these months, making it ideal to spend time on the island’s beautiful beaches, but the popularity of the summer months makes things crowded and more expensive during the season. It is better to visit during the shoulder season, meaning May or September, when the crowds are smaller and the temperatures don’t get too hot. It is also advisable to visit in October when the island won’t be crowded, but, be aware, during these early- and late-season months, beach facilities may not be open yet and the weather can be chilly.
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