In the heart of the Mediterrean Sea awaits a Greek adventure

On Zakynthos, Helena Lee balances adventure with restorative days savouring the Ionian isle’s mythical beauty.

Harper's Bazaar India

My five-year-old daughter is lying in the crook of my arm as we relax on a terrace overlooking the Ionian Sea, teased by a light breeze that tempers the heat. It seems apt that I’m reading her the opening of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes: stories of immortals who wander amid the towering heights of great mountains, like those that rise behind us. Mid-sentence, Darcy turns to me and asks: "Is Pan the shepherd still there?", and it really feels as though he might be.

After all, we are on the island of Zakynthos, where the natural landscape – ancient olive groves and saturated skies—seems touched by the otherworldly (in The Odyssey, Homer calls it "wooded Zakynthos"). Today, the south coast is lined with late-night bars and tourist traps, but our villa is near the north-east, where the rhythms of the day are shaped by nature, from the birdsong that greets our ears as we wake to the rising moon that shines yellow each night.

Our base is Livadi, an airy five-bedroom villa close to the port of Agios Nikolaos. Cast in a C-shape, the house hugs a wide courtyard on one side, and on the other sees the landscape fall dramatically away, layer by layer towards the sea, with the sloping path to the kidney-shaped infinity pool fringed by herb gardens bursting with rosemary, thyme and oregano. The villa was originally designed by Dominic Skinner, an English architect and former associate of Norman Foster, who lives part-time in Corfu. Unusual in layout and scale, the property has two en-suite bedrooms flanking the courtyard and independent of the main house, making it perfect for teens who want their own space. As our party consists of two families with four children under seven, we find ourselves spending much of our time in the double-height living-room, where sunlight beams through the French doors.

We had pre-arranged to have our pantry stocked before we arrive so we can immediately feed impatient and hungry mouths, and there’s also a barbecue hamper that includes marinated meat and a bounty of salads filled with feta and jewel-like tomatoes. As the outdoor kitchen and dining area, complete with a sound system, is by the pool, we have an impromptu party later that afternoon, much to the children’s delight.

Every day, we gravitate towards the port. Agios Nikolaos is small, with a handful of tavernas, boat rentals and supermarkets that curve around a sheltered bay. One memorable lunch takes place at the relaxed Madrakia tavern, where we have our first taste of fresh, crisp calamari, sardines, taramasalata, coral-hued king prawns just off the grill and oozing saganaki.

Further up the coastal road from Madrakia is the family-run Peligoni Club, which has drawn stylish holidaymakers to the north end of the island for two decades; we have access as our villa is part of its sister company Indigo Rock’s rental collection. The club has a touch of Soho House about it: members are laid-back and chic. For two days, the children are occupied at the kids’ club (on one day, they take a trip to the zoo to see peacocks, feed deer and ride ponies; the next involves a treasure hunt and making tie-dye T-shirts).

Meanwhile, we adults can try the array of water sports on offer: paddle boarding on the waves, sailing Picos and kayaking at leisure. There are HIIT classes, as well as sunrise and sunset yoga, and I even manage to have a massage in an attempt to straighten out the kinks from home working. We reconvene with the little ones for lunch at one of the two restaurants—we have pizza on the terrace,  and on another occasion try grilled octopus at Tasi, which serves smaller plates.

Later, we lie on the terraced sundecks and gaze out over the deserted horizon. One of the barmen, Ilias, has created a refreshing drink for us that contains gin and cucumber. Every now and then, I hear the splash of somebody diving off the gently bobbing pontoon; my eyelids slip down, my book rests by my side and my body soaks in the sun’s warmth. 

And so we alternate adventurous trips with downtime at the club. One morning, we climb aboard the Becca, a boat guided by the intrepid Jason, a fisherman and freediver who catches sea-bream and gathers white sea cucumbers. The west coast is craggy with rocks that erupt from the sea at alarming angles and are lapped by insistent waves. Jason darts through gaps and navigates the boat with enviable skill; he has been freediving since he was four years old, so he knows these indigo waters, their personality and depth. He takes us to the shipwreck on Navagio beach—a half-hour pit stop—to explore a rusted structure that had reportedly once been the Greek vessel Panagiotis, which smuggled goods from Turkey in 1980. Darcy and Rose, who is six, are thrilled by the idea that pirates and treasure may have been present here, and see the ship as their playground. Along we go, meandering in and out of the caves, where the water starts to glow turquoise as the sun grows hot. Jason pauses periodically so that we can jump off the boat (our friend Ed dives beneath a cave and out the other side, resurfacing after 10 long seconds), before taking us past the ruin of a monastery destroyed by the earthquake of 1953 and the lighthouse at the northernmost point of the island. By lunchtime we are ravenous, so after docking back at port, we drive for 10 minutes to Mikro Nisi, a restaurant perched above a beachy cove. We are windswept and happy, but also thirsty and hungry, with sea salt on our lips, so we over-order and feast on whole sea-bream, aubergines and artichokes shiny with garlic butter, washed down with local retsina.

On another day, we head to Alykes on the east coast. It’s low season, so the uncrowded wide beach, with its shallow sea and sand for castles, makes for an easy morning. The delight of my two-year-old, Margot, swimming in the sea for the first time, is an unforgettable memory. The afternoon is spent pottering around a small spit ofsand 100 yards from the taverna La Storia back at the port, from which our waiter Alex serves us beers, garlic bread and ‘secret pleasure’ feta (battered, then glazed in honey). That evening, we arrange babysitters through the club and head out for dinner at Nobelos, a restaurant for which we have great affection. Just down the road from the Peligoni, it’s where our friends were married six years ago; now, the space has expanded and become more chi-chi, but the owners are as hospitable as ever. Over goat’s cheese dip, vibrant salads, braised rabbit and souvlaki, we watch the sky turn pink, then black. Later, the moon rises behind Vardiola St Nicholas, a small island that houses the remains of a Venetian watchtower and around which the fearless bride had swum on the morning of her wedding.

We four grown-ups can’t help but reflect on just how rare this trip is. There have been many firsts for the young ones this week, whether it was their first splash in the sea or the sight of bright constellations at night. But for us, it has offered instead a precious sense of restoration, a freedom and conviviality that had been taken away by the pandemic and have now returned to us in just one week spent in this glorious land steeped in history and legend.

This piece originally appeared in the print edition of Harper's Bazaar UK (May 2022).