As we rounded another limestone cliff, damp with sea spray from the boat ride, my eyes welled with happy tears.
Shipwreck Beach had been on my travel bucket list for years, so in early 2022, when I found a cruise ship itinerary for this May that included Zakynthos, the third largest island in the Ionian Sea and one far less visited than other Greek islands, I pounced. Friends and I booked a Navagio Shipwreck by Land and Sea private tour. It was going to be awesome. Then, about two weeks before our cruise, I read that Shipwreck Beach would be closed because of a risk of landslides. I wasn’t sure what that meant for our tour, or what we would see, but reasoned that some Shipwreck Beach would be better than no Shipwreck Beach. I was right.
There it was, coming into focus as we motored closer in impossibly blue water: a pristine beach surrounded on three sides by towering limestone cliffs. Perched upright, looking as if it had been lowered by cranes, was the MV Panagiotis, the rumored smuggling ship that ran aground in 1980 and is the centerpiece of the famously photographed Shipwreck Beach, formally known as Navagio Beach.
Although government safety measures prohibited us from swimming or going ashore, our tour boat operator got us as close as he legally could for photos. Several other boats idled nearby, waiting their turn.
As we pulled away, the Panagiotis getting smaller and smaller in our wake, I was giddy and exponentially more excited about the land portion of the excursion, which would include a view of Shipwreck Beach from the overlook.
On the way back to our launch site, we stopped at a cave. Talk about an island with an embarrassment of riches. The boat went inside as far as space allowed, and our guide shared information about the cave, the sea floor and the water that cast an ethereal blue hue everywhere as it reflected on the walls and overhead. It was incredible. After a few minutes, we exited and stopped a few dozen yards away. From here, we were free to swim to the cave and explore. The water temperature was 65.1 degrees. Half of us jumped in, including a friend who went first and whose teeth were chattering so much that I briefly reconsidered. We swam to the cave and climbed out of the water, walking around the cavernous space, which even had a tiny beachlike area in one spot, and taking photos to share with each other later. Before we knew it, we heard the call: “OK, let’s go!” Much too soon, it was time to slip back into the frigid water and return to the boat.
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Thankfully, the Greek gods were smiling on us. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and we were warm and dry in no time before loading back into the tour van.
Already several hours into the excursion, we were famished. Our next stop was lunch at Galaxy Taverna, a lovely open-air restaurant in the village of Anafonitria. The woman working there welcomed the group and proudly proclaimed “Mama makes the best moussaka.” Mama did not disappoint.
Stomachs full, it was time to drive to the overlook. After pouring out of the van, we walked to an official overlook, a small viewing platform from which Shipwreck Beach is visible. We took a few photos, but they weren’t great. The beach and the Panagiotis were a bit obscured because of the angle.
Our guide encouraged us not to spend too much time here and assured us the best view was yet to come. He was underselling it. We followed him through a hole in the fence, walking past a triangular sign on the left with a graphic I assumed meant danger and, to the right, a sign that included the phrases ”Approaching is prohibited” and “Risk of falling.” Warning heeded, we cautiously navigated shrubs and rocks as we walked along a dirt trail for what felt like a long time. A few people turned back. We were almost there, our guide said, so we kept going. Just a little farther. Then it was time to stop. We had arrived at the overlook.
There were no words at that moment, just a flood of emotions: disbelief, joy, satisfaction, gratitude. The scene before us was the stuff of screen savers, postcards, refrigerator magnets. It was, literally, picture perfect. To see Shipwreck Beach barren, without throngs of tourists, turned out to be a blessing. Our guide was generous with his time, taking photos of us all — couples, solo travelers, friends, portraits, profiles — against that unreal backdrop. When he wasn’t taking photos, we were. I could have spent another hour there, enjoying the vista and savoring the moment, but after 15 or 20 minutes it was time to leave. The mood in the van was euphoric.
On the way to the cruise port, our guide told us there was one more thing he wanted to show us: the oldest olive tree on Zakynthos. It would take about 15 minutes to get there, he said, but we’d be cutting it close on time. With traffic building, the group decided not to chance it and returned to the cruise ship.
Several months and several trips since that magical day, which I think back to often, I have come to realize that some destinations on the travel bucket list shouldn’t be crossed through just because you’ve been there. Some of them should be circled. In pen.
There’s this cruise that goes to Zakynthos next year that I’m seriously considering. I’ve checked my calendar. I still need to see that 2,000-year-old olive tree, after all, and maybe, just maybe, get a photo standing by a shipwreck on a beach.