Zakynthos (Zante), Ionian, Greece (north)
The third largest of the Ionian Sea Island Zakynthos (or Zante as it’s referred to) is a well know and well loved holiday hotspot that attracts all kinds. The main town, and Laganas strip, is where you’ll find the beers and burgers brigade. Although watersports options do exist here. Head, north, however, and you’ll discover a typically Greek island vibe with sleepy hamlet and villages, steep cliff sides leading down to azure blue water, secluded beaches, traditional tavernas, bars and restaurants and the visually alluring Blue Caves (accessible by SUP and boat). There’s also the iconic Shipwreck Bay, which we’ll get to in a mo.
During summer months air temperatures can soar with a dip in the warm sea welcome to cool off. Tidal movements are insignificant in the Ionian although currents in places do exist. Mornings usually start of calm and glassy with the ever present thermal driven Meltemi wind revving up through the morning as the heat intensifies. By early afternoon there’ll be a breeze blowing, causing waters to become choppier. Valleys and gulley’s in the land accelerate the blow in spots ramping it up to pretty gusty levels. Around the quaint fishing village of Agios Nikolaos, the breeze can intensify a lot during the day making sojourns to the Blue Caves tricky.
As above conditions can be idyllically glassy in the mornings during summer. It’ll be warm though – even if you choose to start out early mercury levels will most likely be around 30C. The water’s warm as well, and exceptionally clear.
With rising air temps by mid-morning to early after you usually have the beginnings of the daily Meltemi wind setting up. It gets a little choppier and depending on how breezy it becomes will dictate just how much flotsam and wavelets form. It should also be noted that the wind blows slightly offshore. That means that wherever you’re paddling on this NE part of Zante’s coast you’ll be getting pushed away from land. Being aware of this means you won’t have a potentially nasty headwind to battle against or, at worse, a situation arising where you get into trouble.
For anyone fancying and inspect of the Blue Caves you can do so from your stand up paddle board. Heading north from Agios Nikolaos will see you happen upon them relatively quickly. Just take care as it’ll be busy with tourists and Greek boat drivers aren’t the most courteous!
One of the trickiest aspects of stand up paddling in this part of Zante is the put in and get out. There are beaches where access is easier but there’s also a lot of steep sided, sharp and rocky coastline. Should you need to exit the water pronto the scramble up onto jagged cliffs may cause injury. In some areas, such as the vicinity around the Blue Caves there’s zero option of getting out until you arrive back at Agios Nikolaos.
We’ve already mentioned boat traffic as well, which should definitely be accounted for. The Meltemi wind too – at certain times of day. And other watersports users such as windsurfers, jet skis, waterskiiers/wakeboarders, dinghy sailors and yachts. Fisherman toing and froing from port also. All this traffic needs to steered clear of.
In the water itself you can come across jellyfish that’ll sting if you fall on them. And there’s also the dreaded sea urchin which is waiting to spike exposed flesh should you tread where they suck to rocks and reef.
On land narrow cliffy roads, with sharp hairpin bends and drivers that sometimes aren’t aware may give you some anxiety when driving on Zante. And finally, this is Greece in summer, where the sun is strong and UV rays harsh. It’s super easy to get sun stroke or heat exhaustion in the heat. Top up on fluids regularly and wear sunscreen, a hat and lightweight paddling attire.
Fly into Zante and then navigate past the Laganas strip before heading into the foothills north. Continue driving along the coast road with the Ionian Sea on your right. It takes about an hour or so to reach the NE part of Zakynthos.
Flights to Zakynthos are direct from the UK.
Zante town is super popular with close by beaches and the Laganas strip often being bombed out summer with all manner of tourists vying for their place in the sun. It’s quite a bustling place anyway with plenty of Greeks choosing to live here. As soon as you head beyond the urbanizations, however, built up areas give way to farmland, grazing pastures and foothill planes. Then it’s a climb in the hills where everything becomes quieter still.
Agios Nikolaos is a gateway to the Blue Caves and Shipwreck Bay. The port village itself can be fairly busy during the day. But it takes literally minutes to get back to quaint, sleep Greece as you head away from the spot.
Agios Nikolaos has plenty of bars/tavernas/restaurants with fresh fish being a staple of what you find on the menu. This combined with homegrown salad and vegetables makes Greek cuisine some of the nicest around. A few supermarkets are dotted about, selling the essentials. With higher end eating and drinking establishments to be discovered further back along the coast road.
The Peligoni Club is a UK run watersports holiday beach club that isn’t far from the port and the bar/restaurant is open to visitors (or at least it was when we were there). You may need to check this. There are also day passes for use of the club’s watersports kit including stand up paddle boards, windsurfing kit, dinghies and sit on kayaks.
Zante’s northern areas are much quieter than down south so you’ll need to search out what you’re looking for or head back to the main drag for even more choice and amenities. By and large though you should be well served by everything on offer in the north of the island.
Zakynthos is a typical Ionian island with its own customs and culture away from mainland Greece’s way of life. Outside of Zante town is traditional Hellas with farms, small holdings and fishing operations in abundance. The Zakynthos people live off the land and sea as much as possible, which you’ll discover.
Whilst there are a number of beaches around Zante itself – including the sprawling Laganas strip – which do offer stand up paddle boarding opportunities, it’s the northern end of the island that has much better SUPing.
Even before you reach Agios Nikolaos you’ll spot a whole plethora of small beaches flanked by all manner of caves carved from the elements. It’s worth stopping and having a dip at these locations and checking out the calm, gin clear water that’s perfect for a float.
Carry on heading north and eventually, you’ll spot the tiny offshore island Vardiola St. Nicholas which sits just opposite Agios Nikolaos. This in itself offers a nice little focal point for a paddle. Circumnavigating doesn’t take too long and you can always head into the village for a lunch stop after your session.
On from here heading north you’ll eventually come to the Zakynthos Blue Caves. These are noted far and wide for their unique geology and, as such, attract a whole host of visitors each season. Motorboat is how many access the caves and the place get become extremely busy. It might therefore be worth avoiding this route during the main part of the day.
If you time it right, however, Zakynthos’ Blue Caves are a treat. And when viewed from a SUP the vista is even better. Paddling beneath naturally formed archways and galleys before investigating the inner sanctums of the caves themselves it’s a wonderful experience and typifies what adventure/touring SUP is for most. The blue colour of the water (why the Blue Caves git their name) is also extremely inviting and a dip will most likely ensue.
Further on (as in quite a jaunt) you’ll eventually end up at Zante’s Shipwreck Bay. Getting its name from the hulking, rusting shipwreck that now resides on the pure white sand beach Shipwreck Bay is another popular spot with boat trippers. It’s actually inaccessible from land – unless you’re one of the many base jumpers who hurl themselves from the high peaks above! For many, however, this isn’t the chosen route in with a boat being far less extreme.
If you fancy paddle boarding round here you can but you’ll need your wits and have an abundance of experience. There’ll be no rescue cover and your trip should be a self sufficient affair with all essentials carries on your stand up paddle board. Get outs are limited with the sheer, vertical height of the Zakynthos coastline prohibiting this. And if the Meltemi ramps up then you’re at full exposure to the wind and chop.
This all said if you manage to nab the opportunity of paddling at Shipwreck Bay then what an experience! It certainly makes for some great photos and will be memories that’ll last forever. As with the Blue Caves, watch the tourist boat traffic though…
Zakynthos is an adventure/touring SUP nirvana and all with the Mediterranean vibe accompanying you on your travels. As such it’s definitely one to check out should you get chance.
Don’t forget to check out our previous bitesize international travel guides below –