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Shedding its lads-on-tour reputation, Zakynthos (or Zante, as you may know it) has welcomed an influx of design-forward hotels and restaurants making the most of the Ionian island’s bountiful produce. Relax into the Grecian vibe with our pick of places to stay and play.
Greek islands can largely be defined by the kind of people they attract. Santorini is the top choice for smug couples, honeymooners and influencers wearing red; Mykonos attracts the grown-up glitterati (and Lindsay Lohan) and Hydra pulls in an arty crowd keen to put down their iPhones and pick up their paintbrushes. For years Zakynthos (commonly called Zante) has been lumbered with the larger-lout, lads-on-tour stigma and a fly-and-flop package holiday crowd. Yet, over the last few years this Ionian island’s tide has turned and Zakynthos has transformed from somewhere that we wanted to get away from, into somewhere we want to visit.
A flurry of design-driven hotels have begun cropping up in the north, attracting a crowd commonly found lazing, sailing and sunning on the French Riviera. Family-run restaurants have cottoned on to the fact that plastic-menus are passé and have finally realised that the only place chicken nuggets and chips belong is in the bin. Instead, they’re using the readily available seafood to showcase Nikkei-style plates of ceviche and sushi and plundering their own personal cellars to serve carafes of local grapes. Add to that the Tiffany-blue coves backed by cricket-jumper-white cliffs and the odd turtle swimming by and you’ve got a Grecian island on the cusp of resurgence.
Although change is steady, it’s slow, and we’d be foolish to kid ourselves that the whole island has undergone a facelift. Parts of the island, particularly in the south, are still a beacon for Brits abroad (and bad behaviour), but if you’re searching for a Grecian getaway that even in peak season leaves you with money leftover for a second September holiday, then we’re willing to turn a blind eye – just be sure to avoid “Laganas Vegas” at all costs.
Since its arrival in May 2018, Olea All Suites has seriously upped the island’s style stakes. Perched on a verdant hillside near Tsilivi, on the eastern side of the island, the 93-suite hotel mixes traditional Mediterranean architecture with tropical modernism (think Mykonos meets Tulum) using sand-coloured plaster, lots of rattan and a palette of earthy-hues punctuated by pops of pearl, blush and coral. At Olea’s core is a 4,000sq m lagoon-like pool surrounded by sun lounger, dried palm-tree pergolas and clusters of carob, judas and olive trees. At its centre is a pool-bar-cum-restaurant with a floor made of sand, that serves a heady combination of ceviche, sushi and pisco sours.
Pick your room type based on your personality. If you prefer to be woken by birdsong and sea views, opt for the Junior Suite with Inland Views. Would you rather slink straight into the lake-sized pool? Book the Superior Swim-up Suite. Those seeking further solace (or who wish to sunbathe in the buff) are best suited with the Executive Private Pool Suites with expansive (and secluded) terraces. If hosting the Olympic synchronised swimming team in your own personal infinity pool is on your list of requirements, then only the Presidential suite will do.
Largely responsible for starting Zakynthos’s revival, Zante Maris Suites was the first design-forward hotel to beckon the barefoot, beautiful and bohemian to the island after opening in May 2016. Sister property to Olea All Suites (located mere metres across the road), the same modern, clean lines and cubed structures can be seen with splashes of polished concrete, camouflage netting and bamboo partitions that have been whittled by local craftsman. The majority of the 45-suites have private pools and open-plan bathrooms, so it’s best to book with someone you’re fairly au fait with. Most of the action takes place at the main pool, where a lo-fi crowd (likely to be veterans of Ibiza circa Space, and Los Cabos before it became “too commercial”) can be seen tapping their feet to a chilled house mix accompanied by a live saxophonist. Midday massages should be taken in the Balinese daybeds located above the water, followed by fresh ginger iced teas garnished with homegrown herbs around the sunken swim-up bar.
Situated just outside the pretty hamlet of Tragaki in the northeast of the island, Lesante Blu elevates the archetypal Grecian blue-and-white aesthetic with its stark-white interiors, ferociously polished marble floors and scattered modernist sculptures. A place to spill a glass of red wine this is not. All of the 92-suites boast sea views and most have private pools from which to watch the sun sink into sea (Instagrammers assemble). Should you shun your own personal pool, arguably the finest infinity pool in the Ionian is at your disposal.
It seamlessly blends into the horizon and is bordered by floating sun loungers – each duo of sunbeds possess a button that you can push to bring you rosé refills, bowls of Greek salad and fresh fruit at regular intervals, so lifting more than a finger isn’t necessary. Prior to arriving, guests can opt to be greeted by a Range Rover, swoop in by helicopter (the hotel has its own heliport) or arrive via the luxury yacht (and its own private dock), a far cry from the stop-start package-tour bus your flight neighbours got on.
Whether you’re eating in a village taverna, in Zakynthos’s old town or at a roadside seafood shack, you’ll see that a strong Italian influence graces most menus. The Ionian Islands were ruled by the Venetians for over 350 years so cooking techniques, flavourings and food pairings have trickled down through centuries of family feasting. Some of the best examples are served at Bassia, an intimate, romantic eatery that overlooks Tsilivi Bay. Framed by a crescent of lavender bushes that cling to the cliff, wooden tables are dotted among olive trees draped in fairy lights – a dreamy setting for a seafood-heavy menu that includes slurp-worthy linguine, caught-that-morning swordfish souvlaki skewers swimming in a lemon-and-mustard sauce, and lightly grilled sea bass smothered. Order a carafe of local wine (try the Verdea, a dry white aged for several years) to sip late into the evening.
With its brass hanging lamps, pale wood panelling and peppermint-green velvet armchairs, Madisons is the kind of café you’d see in Fitzrovia, Sydney or West Hollywood – and comes with a menu to match. You’ll find all your usual benedicts, eggs-anyway-you like and avocado-with-everything, plus a few indulgent options. It’s fast earning a reputation for its fluffy American pancakes, so you can expect to pick between layers of vanilla cream, wild berry jam or homemade hazelnut praline (essentially an elite Nutella, but crunchier) sprinkled with biscotti, Oreo pieces or peanut chunks. Come lunchtime, order a Freddo cappuccino and watch the boats bob on the harbour from the alfresco terrace, then switch to a crisp negroni the moment night falls.
If there was going to be a fourth My Big Fat Greek Wedding sequel then there’s a high chance the Portokalos family would be found tucking in to platefuls of Greek salads and multiple meze boards (vegetarian for Ian) at Avli. Tucked away in the cobbled back streets of Zakynthos Town, the family-owned taverna is the first on the island to serve vegan, organic and gluten-free meals. Inside, whitewashed tables are joined by floral-upholstered chairs, climbing tomato vines and swathes of crochet draped across the ceiling – similar to an Anthropologie store display if they were to open a Grecian outpost. Leisurely lunches call for bowls of Avli’s salad, a twist on the classic with fat cherry tomatoes that taste like summer sat atop figs, walnuts and a medley of salad leaves.
Out of all of Olea All Suite’s three dining options (the others: a boujee buffet serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and a sandy pool bar serving Nikkei fusion cuisine), Flow is the one you come home and wax lyrical to your friends about. Hand-trowelled plaster walls, marble floors and an infinity dipping pool overlooking miles of olive groves complete the terrace, while traditional Mediterranean dishes are served alongside some more creative interpretations from the kitchen. Expect to find dishes such as grilled aubergines resembling tree bark sat atop what appears to be soil, but is, thankfully, olive salt.
Finding somewhere to have a pre/post dinner aperitif on the island used to be limited to either a naff taverna playing Cher covers or sheepishly removing the multiple curly straws in your fish bowl as you declined shots of sourz because you had to settle for a bar on (shudder) Laganas strip. Thankfully, a few years ago Movida pitched up on Bochali Hill with its masterful mixologists, tastefully decorated terrace and moonlight views across the Ionian Sea. It’s open throughout the summer from 7pm until the small hours, so head up the hill (get a taxi, the road is reserved for residents) and settle in to an evening that’ll sum up your whole experience on the island – pleasantly surprising.
Situated in the centre of Zakynthos Town, Solomos Square becomes a hive of activity come evening when throngs of people meander through the numerous restaurants, cafés and bars. Among it all is a laid-back cocktail bar that’s been serving iced lattes by day and espresso martinis by night since 1991. Predominantly catering to a local crowd, its downstairs is slightly lacklustre having yet to shake off its 90s all-white leather bar and matching stools, but once you head upstairs you’ll be greeted with views across the pastel-lemon colonial buildings that line the square and a chilled house mix spun by local DJs.
Part of Zakynthos’ biggest allure can be found in the hidden coves, electric blue caves and swathes of deserted beaches that line the coast – most of which are only accessible by boat. Regardless of your sea-faring capabilities you can hire your own speedboat from Al Mar Zante Boats (located in Limanaki Port, expect to pay around €200 for six hours) after a quick tutorial. After you’ve mastered the basics (and found out how to drop the anchor), stock up on the beer and the rosé, pack some snacks, fire up your Spotify playlist and don your captain hats. Head north towards Xigia Beach, famous as much for its distinctive sulphur smell as it is its gin-clear waters, onto the Grotto Keri (less of a tourist magnet than the Blue Caves and easier to navigate), finishing up at Skinari Cape, where you’ll hopefully be greeted by at least one of the island’s most famous residents, the loggerhead turtle.
Ok, so we know that renting a quad bike is up there with getting matching t-shirts with inappropriate nicknames on the back, wearing a mankini and attending a foam party, but the island’s narrow, dusty roads are easier to explore by quad bike (and parking is a breeze). The Venetians didn’t nickname Zakynthos “the Green Island” for nothing and you’ll quickly understand the moniker as you whizz by wild flower meadows, miles of olive groves and the occasional farm with grazing cattle. Part of the fun and freedom of renting a quad bike is stopping at whatever bakery/ viewpoint / seafood shack takes your fancy, but if there’s one place that should be on your radar it’s Porto Roxa beach. One of the few rock beaches on the islands, Porto Roxa is a prime spot for snorkelling, plus there’s a diving board built into the rocks for the more adventurous among us.
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