Greek travel feature The Mail


Zakynthos: The Ionian Island has a lesser-known side, even perfumer Jo Malone is a fan.

Zakynthos or Zante (the Italian name), is one of the seven Greek Ionian Islands and the third largest after Corfu and Kefalonia. At just 40 km long and 17 km wide, it only takes about an hour to drive across the island. It’s mountainous, so the roads are winding with steep drops, but dotted in between the 127 km of rocky shoreline are some glorious, sandy beaches. Zante has long been a staple in British package holidays, but less so for the Irish, mainly due to the lack of direct flights. There are some parts of the island that still feel very commercial and dated, but there is plenty to this island that feels special and stylish. What used to be an island with more than its fair share of 2-star hotels and soulless functional timeshare apartments is now stepping up its star power, and more hotels are gaining those VIP vibes.
I stayed my first two nights at the Windmill Bay Hotel in Argassi (not to be mistaken for its sister hotel, the 2-star Windmill Hotel, in the same area). Just twenty minutes drive from the airport, it’s tucked away on the southeastern coast of the island. Windmill Bay recently underwent an extensive renovation and has risen to 4-star status. With the nearest sandy beach over fifteen minutes drive, there’s a private access point to the sea from the hotel, and although it’s just a few steps, you will need your rubber-soled aqua shoes as there are plenty of rocks and pebbles. The upside is that it’s a very quiet spot for a morning swim in the crystal clear water, as most of the guests only use the pool. The hotel has an impressive decking area with lots of seafront seating and a DJ playing cool Ibiza lounge-style beats in the evenings while you dine in the restaurant. There’s a nice cocktail bar open at weekends, and the rooms are impressive and stylish in cool creams and tans. If you want your own private outdoor whirlpool, just order one of the ground-floor suites. It’s surprisingly quiet and peaceful at night because this part of the island is away from the infamous Laganas Strip. It’s well worth doing a boat tour of the Blue Caves and the shipwreck if the weather is good. Windmill Bay runs a high-quality tour with an impressive 20-seat fibreglass inflatable boat. The shipwreck, only about 40 years old, is an unlikely tourist attraction, but it's the boat trip to the wreck that’s the best part. You travel the full length of the island in about 45 minutes, stopping off in a couple of spots for a swim. It is a thrilling 3-1/2-hour round trip, especially when you are in the best boat on the water. Some of the tiny rental boats we saw really didn’t look seaworthy. So, choose your vessel wisely and bring a towel or blanket, as it can get chilly on the high-speed boat, especially if you’ve had a dip. Rooms from E170
Finding a good restaurant was a bit trickier than expected so Google’s restaurant reviews gave me some extra guidance as a first-timer in Zante. I was looking for fresh fish, and Zante is known for its seafood, in particular sea bream. I chose Ionian Pelagos, Google’s highest-rated restaurant in Zante town, a ten-minute taxi ride from Windmill Bay (E12). Pelagos doesn’t have a website; there’s no fancy decor and no sea view. It just makes simple, well-cooked fish with no fuss. There’s no fancy linen, just simple paper tablecloths, and taking the guesswork out of it for you, there’s just one very drinkable house wine by the glass. There were quite a few hungry-looking stray cats eyeing up the food as it came out, and who could blame them? Pelagos served the best sea bass (E16) of my trip and tasty sardines (E8.50). Everything came with crispy, well-cooked chips, and the friendly waitress promised me she would help feed the cats any leftovers. The stray cat issue in Zante is heartbreaking, and it's a shame there isn’t more government support for charities organising neutering programmes. There’s no official charity to help cats but Zante Strays helps stray dogs.
If you are looking for dinner with all the trimmings and are just a five-minute walk from the Windmill Bay hotel, opt for the snazzy, sunset-by-the-sea Kavo Seaside Restaurant. The setting for this place is magical, with beautiful flower displays and stunning lighting along the main path and throughout the restaurant. Every inch is Instagrammable. The cocktails are delicious, and the service and food are of a good, fine dining standard. It’s pricy in comparison to Pelagos, but you pay for the show-stopping cocktail presentation, the incredible sunset framed by the endless fairy lights, and someone has to help pay their huge electricity bill! With the ocean lapping inches from your table, this place is perfect for a special occasion.
Next, I chose the adult-only, 160-room, 5-star Contessina Hotel in Tsilivi, a more northern part of the island. Contessina is definitely a bit of an oasis in this seaside town. Surrounded by traditional package-holiday-type attractions like free bingo nights and out-dated, expensive souvenir shops, the slick, cool hotel and its nearby Contessina Suites & Spa are impressive. They are beautifully built buildings with contemporary, clean lines in grey concrete and dark wood. The outdoor meets the indoor seamlessly, with sunken beds by the pool and most ground-floor rooms having private sunbeds floating over dipping pools for each room. It's expansive; there are over 70 suites within the hotel grounds, three restaurants, and a huge central swimming pool, but it marries close proximity and privacy well. I had a good meal at the rooftop a la carte Vedema Restaurant in the hotel. The complex is surprisingly quiet at night, considering the vast number of suites and rooms within the hotel. The separate Contessina Suites & Spa complex has a further 64 suites and a subterranean spa offering decent massages but with a hefty price tag of 95 euros for just 40 minutes. Rooms start at E240.
Like a lot of hotels in Zante, if you want to swim in the sea, you will have to travel to find a spot by the water. I had to walk 15 minutes along a main road to find access to the sea from the Contessina Hotel. Venus Beach Bed Hire saved the day. At just 6 euros to hire a sunbed and umbrella, delicious snacks like tempura crayfish, cocktails, and wines, it was a great place to spend the afternoon watching the world go by.
I checked out of Contessina and got a taxi further north to Nobelos Seaside Lodge and Restaurant to spend the day on their private beach. This is luxury on a small scale, a family-run business dating back to the 1990s with traditional buildings and a village feel. There are just four suites in the lodge, so you need to book well in advance to stay overnight, but the private beach and luxury beds are available to all, provided you agree to a minimum spend, which is easily done at their large organic restaurant (with an emphasis on fish) and the extensive cocktail, champagne, and wine list. When you access Nobelos private beach with its deep, turquoise-clear water, you know you are at one of the most private spots on the coast. Other than the wealthy guests coming to the restaurant from the nearby yachts, the only other background noise is the distant hum from the tourist boats as they pass on their way to the Blue Caves. The place has a bit of magic to it, and you could be forgiven for thinking it is centuries old. Visit the quirky Thalassa Boutique next to the restaurant, and you might be lucky enough to meet the Nobelos matriarch. The boutique is her domain, and she has a good eye, with some very stylish pieces on the rails. Even the global perfume titan Jo Malone is a fan, so much so that she created a scent inspired by the area and very possibly by Mama Nobelos, who’s a real character. Suites from E300:
Nobelos organised an airport transfer for me with KS VIP Transfer, and it was a first for me to ride in a blacked-out, custom Mercedes Maybach in orange with quilted leather interior. Nobelos gets a lot of high rollers who like to travel around the island in style, and because this driver was having a quiet day, I got to experience how the other half live, including enjoying a massage chair, all the way to the airport.
Like everywhere these days, Zante wasn’t cheap, and the general level of restaurant fare was not on par with some other Greek islands, but all in all, it's a great choice for a short break. The crystal-clear water, reliable weather, and convenient proximity to everything once you arrive are big bonuses. You can hire a car or be the bane of everyone’s life and hire a quad bike, but my advice is to find a great hotel, one that offers almost everything you need, and just soak up those rays. Maybe bring some cat food so you can feed your hotel stray. flies direct from Belfast International to Zante weekly until Oct 23. They also fly direct from 7 UK airports. Jet2holidays include Windmill Bay Hotel package deals.