Thursday, 22 January 2009

Zakynthos, where the turtles rule

Midnight flights, hyper children — it’s worth it for the beauty of the island and the protection of its wildlife.

While the prospect of an early morning flight to the Greek island of Zakynthos hardly fills me with exhilaration, my children are utterly jubilant. “We’re going to stay up all night!” they declare with the glee of lottery winners, then run amok around Gatwick airport at midnight and find euros underneath unguarded shop counters. Then they devour the in-flight meal like hyenas, and watch the movie on the overhead screens while my partner James and I try to doze beside them. Even as we wait for our luggage in the island’s diminutive airport, they’re still on the go. “I feel absolutely fine, Mum,” Chip, 9, insists as we bundle him into a taxi to drive to our hotel on the nearby Vassilikos peninsula.

An hour later he falls asleep over his breakfast, head down in his croissant. Minutes later, they’ve all passed out, sprawled prostrate on the chairs around us as James and I try to focus on the introductory talk by the JMC reps. As soon as it’s over we sleepwalk them to their rooms and tuck them up in bed. By the afternoon they’re tumbling down the hotel water slides, quite hyper with the odd hours and sudden sunshine. An early night later and we are all feeling human again, and use the hotel bus to take a trip into the island’s capital, Zakynthos Town. After a browse at the fish swimming around the harbour, we pop into the local Spar and ogle the unfamiliar produce labelled with inscrutable script. Hetty, 5, who loves olives with a passion, insists that we buy a large tub of a giant greeny-brown variety. I throw in a couple of litres of freshly squeezed orange juice for good measure and we gorge ourselves sitting outside on the pavement, watching the scooters zipping up and down the road.

“Mmmmm,” says 11-year-old Flan, “If you made a meal out of only Greek stuff it would be delicious.” Never one to lose an opportunity to lecture the children on nutrition, I tell him about the virtues of the Greek diet, and how it’s so healthy it even protects the locals against their vices — principally heavy smoking. Feeling stuffed, but healthy, we walk around the pretty central square, bordered by cafés and restaurants. It’s Greek, but not ancient — a devastating earthquake in 1953 caused an immense fire that destroyed most of the town’s buildings. But it’s fun exploring the little shops.

Each one seems to contain a caged bird and someone inordinately fond of children, and they rarely leave without a huge grin and a sweet in their mouths. By early evening, we’re joined by what seems like half the island, all talking and browsing as they stroll down the main shopping street. They look as relaxed as I am beginning to feel.
The next day we’re up for something a bit more energetic and plump for a Jeep safari. It turns out to be the highlight of the holiday, a rollicking, bone-jolting, whirlwind tour of the island with tour guide and Jeep owner Paul, who has lived in Zakynthos for 12 years. Paul is a born entertainer, regaling us with tales of last-minute preparations for the Olympics and Greeks fishing with dynamite.

Meanwhile he whisks us off to a nearby bay to see one of the island’s most famous summer visitors — the Caretta caretta sea turtle, which has chosen Zakynthos as the place to lay its eggs before the hatchlings cruise off to the Caribbean to mature. I am sceptical of seeing one. It’s like watching for shooting stars: they never appear when you’re looking for them. But within minutes a small head breaks the water for a moment before submerging again, leaving me almost light-headed with excitement. And Paul provides an explanation for the hideous flight times — they are adjusted so as not to disturb the turtles’ nocturnal egg-laying. I try not to hold it against them.

Then we’re off again, hurtling past Greece’s only emu farm and up to one of the highest points of the island with panoramic views from the northern to southernmost tips — a distance of 23 miles (38km). Over the water we can just see mainland Greece, and below us a green mass of olive trees and vines. A quick lunch, and we are treated to an aerial view of the picture-postcard shot of Smuggler’s Cove, a perfect crescent of yellow sand, aqua sea — and a shipwreck to boot.

Actually it’s a Scottish boat, Paul tells us, beached in 1981 while smuggling a cargo of tobacco and subsequently disgorging about 20 million cigarettes. “Good thing they have such a good diet,” says Flan. With a whistle stop at a local produce stall for walnuts, olive oil, raisins, honey and wine, we round off the trip with a cold swim at Xygia, where the sulphur in the water is apparently good for your skin. Even if it does smell of rotten eggs. Sore bums from being bounced around in the Jeep give us a good excuse for a day or two lounging around the pool.

The sparrows join us for lunch in the hotel’s garden terrace, swooping on to our table and picking up our crumbs, while the children heap up chips and salad from the buffet, and eat looking out over the swimming pool. I haven’t seen them looking so happy in ages. We book them into the kids’ club while we go off to sunbathe at the adjacent Mavratsis beach; they love it, and clamour to go back in the afternoon. We are happy to oblige. It gives us a couple of free hours to tootle off in our diminutive Daewoo, stopping at various tavernas to read menus filled with such memorable items as “stuffed spleen” and “lady pork”. Thank God I’m vegetarian. One afternoon we manage a gentle walk on the Keri peninsula. It’s hot. Very hot.

The white chalk paths take us to look out over the cliffs at the deep blue sea stretching into a horizon of haze. The air smells of wild thyme, sage and rosemary, and all around us is the almost deafening percussion of cicadas. “It’s very loud,” says Hetty. “Is there about a hundred? Do they all say at once?” “I don’t know, but they’re bloody annoying,” says Chip, irritably. The heat is evidently getting to him, so we cool off with an ice-cream in the taverna at the little mountain village of Agalas, sitting under the shade of vines and trying to puzzle out the Greek alphabet from the back of Coke cans. It’s mind-bogglingly difficult, so we give up, drain the cans and head back. In the middle of nowhere we pass a group of the island’s firemen, nonchalantly examining the dense scrubland — a couple of them are actually smoking!

Sadly, the scheduled boat trip around the island is cancelled on our last day, scuppered by high winds and choppy water. We shrug off our disappointment by hiring our own Jeep and heading off to the nearby resort of Laganas, where we spend the afternoon lazing in a little cove on Cameo Island, listening to ambient Balearic music while the kids snorkel and hunt for turtles.

They’re unsuccessful, but on the way home we call in at the Sea Turtle Protection Society information centre at Gerakas, and read up on how its volunteers work to protect the now endangered turtles from the worst ravages of tourism. I feel both guilty and privileged: guilty that I hadn’t given these gentle and fragile creatures more thought, and privileged to have seen them and this beautiful island. At the very least, I think, as we pack our bags and set off for the airport, it puts a better perspective on the prospect of another all-nighter on the way home.

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