As dusk falls in Agios Nikolaos, a small, natural harbor on the tranquil northeast coast of Zakynthos, an unexpected comedy show begins.
In addition to the terrace on the water at That Storia taverna, a row of inflatable tenders waiting to take their passengers back to the gleaming boats bobbing in the calm waters further out to sea. There’s nothing elegant or graceful about climbing aboard a tender, especially after a good dinner — just a lot of wobbling as women nervously slide along while their partners stumble after.
No one really falls for it, but the opportunity looms over tender after tender, delivering an irresistible spectacle as we prepare to enjoy seared sea bream and a carafe of local red wine.
Annabelle Thorpe explores Zakynthos, the southernmost point of the Ionian Archipelago. To the right of the picture above is the island’s famous Navagio Beach
Vacation blues: Navagio beach is only accessible by boat, but the views from the cliff top are “amazing,” reveals Annabelle
Simple pleasures are what this delightfully slow-paced part of Zakynthos is all about, a world away from the resorts that line the island’s southern half and give it something of a party reputation.
Zakynthos is the southernmost part of the Ionian archipelago and shares the same towering, mountainous landscapes and crystal clear seas as Kefalonia and Corfu.
While cocktails and clubbing characterize spots like Laganas and Zakynthos Town, the north-east is dotted with coastal villages and unspoilt inland villages, only disturbed by the occasional day-trip bus or quad-bike safari taking tourists from the south to explore the other side of the island.
Until recently, this stretch of coast was the almost exclusive preserve of yachting vacationers or wealthy Athenians who built villas in the hills.
In the port of Agios Nikolaos, pictured, Annabelle watches as holidaymakers attempt to climb into the inflatable dinghies that take them back to “gleaming boats bobbing in the calm waters further out to sea”.
The hidden caves on the coast at Agios Nikolaos, an area that until recently was almost exclusively reserved for sailing holidaymakers
Annabelle dines on the waterfront terrace of La Storia tavern in Agios Nikolaos (pictured right)
But it’s slowly opening up, with new accommodation options between the aquamarine bays, from boutique hotels to luxury villas.
Our base is an elegant stone house, Villa Meli, perched high above the coast.
It is delightful, with stunning sea views from the private pool, a covered al fresco dining area and chic interiors that are sumptuously comfortable without clashing with the natural beauty of our surroundings.
From the moment we arrive it’s clear that the only problem is convincing ourselves to leave.
It would be entirely possible to spend our week here doing nothing but snoozing in the hammock under the olive tree and enjoying the sea view.
But there’s a lot to explore, so after taking a day off to relax, let’s set out to see the northern half of the island, following the narrow – thankfully quiet – roads that wind between the lush fields and wooded hillsides that rise from the island’s coast.
Annabelle says while cocktails and clubbing characterize places like Zakynthos Town (above), the northeast is dotted with coastal villages and unspoilt inland villages
Annabelle enjoys “magnificent sea views from the private pool” at Villa Meli, an elegant stone house high above the coast
Villa Meli features chic interiors that are “palatially comfortable” without feeling at odds with the natural beauty of the villa’s surroundings
The covered outdoor dining area at Villa Meli. During her stay, Annabelle likes to doze off in the hammock and enjoy the sea views
“From the moment we arrive it’s clear that the only problem is convincing ourselves to leave,” says Annabelle of Villa Meli
Our first stop is Volimes, the main town in the region. Unlike much of Zakynthos, the site is still dotted with traditional stone houses, dating from before the 1953 earthquake that leveled so many buildings on the island. It’s a popular stop on the day-trip route, with shops selling locally produced lace, olive oil bottles, and honey jars, but there are plenty of quieter streets with large bursts of deep pink bougainvillea and clusters of scarlet geraniums stumbling over whitewashed walls.
From Volimes it’s just a short drive to the island’s most famous landmark – Navagio Beach.
Also known as Shipwreck Beach, due to the rusty skeleton of the Panagiotis roller coaster that rests above the white pebbles, it’s only accessible by boat, but there are fantastic views from the cliff above. Luckily our visit doesn’t coincide with a bus ride as the viewing platform is only big enough for two or three people.
Above is the Temple of Saint Spyridon in Volimes, the main town in the northern half of the island. “It’s a popular stop on the day trip route,” says Annabelle of the city
A few hardened (or insane) souls walk the cliff edge for photos, but the 650ft drop keeps me safe behind the barrier on the platform.
The view itself is familiar – anyone who’s ever read about Greece will have seen a picture of Navagio Beach – but nothing quite prepares you for the depth of colour; deep sky blue, vivid teal, a sparkling electric blue that warms to aquamarine as the baby waves break across the clear broken white of the bay.
A handful of boats bobble in the water while the beach itself is dotted with figures taking selfies and enjoying the sun.
Navagio Beach is also known as Shipwreck Beach due to the rusty skeleton of the Panagiotis roller coaster (above) lying above the white pebbles
Annabelle spends a few days discovering the small beaches that line the coast below her villa, including Makris Gialos beach (above).
Annabelle describes Xigia Beach (above) as “pebbly and relatively small” but with water that is an “exceptional shade of blue”.
Annabelle Thorpe traveled with Simpson Travel offering seven nights self catering at Villa Meli in Zakynthos from £1,115 per person based on four people. The price includes flights, car rental and welcome pack (simpsontravel.com).
There is something wonderful about seeing such a beautiful beach, completely devoid of sun loungers and parasols, although in high season the many tourist boats that dock here can distract from the natural spectacle.
We spend the next few days discovering the small beaches that line the coast below our villa. This isn’t the place for an afternoon of sandcastle building – both Makris Gialos and Xigia are pebbly and relatively small – but the water has the same extraordinary shade of blue as Navagio, caused by the sulfur deposits seeping into the walls of the island from the hidden caves cliffs.
As tempting as it looks, the water proves a little too chilly for a dip, so instead we settle for paddling and a lazy waterfront lunch at Mikro Nisi, where the Mythos beer is super cold and the crab linguine to die for .
But it’s the evenings when the magic really happens. The sun slowly sinks behind the mountains and the sky melts into blurred layers of sunset colors – lavender and apricot and pale silver blue.
This is the Greece we’ve been dreaming of for the past two years. Lazy afternoons under azure skies, crystal clear seas and easy dinners of tangy tzatziki, succulent grilled shrimp and nutty baklava. It’s wonderful to be back.