Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. You can get your copy here, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s 2pm on a Friday afternoon in July and I’m walking down the strip in Laganas, Zakynthos, in 38-degree heat. The Greek island, most commonly referred to as Zante, is renowned in the UK for its anything-goes party culture; it’s a nirvana for teens looking to let loose. To the right of me: O’Callaghan’s Loft, CherryBay and Cocktails & Dreams. To the left: Ikon, Rescue Club and Zeros. Clubs with neon flashing lights by night and the residue of Brits-on-hols carnage by dawn.
All around are signs for €6 pints of blue lagoon, porn star martini and strawberry daiquiri frozen cocktails. Groups of lads in Under Armour shorts and designer slides, bum bags worn around their necks like chains, are gathered around penalty shootout stations and punch bag machines. Moped and quad bike hire shops appear to be located on every corner. The Golden Arches are open for business, ready to line stomachs and, later, feed the inevitable hangover the morning after the night before. There’s a queue outside Rapsody Tattoos. “Don’t pussy out now,” a scouse lad clutching a Caribbean Crush Lucozade warns his mate.
Once a sleepy Ionian village, Laganas is now swarmed by thousands of excitable young Brits in annual pursuit of post-exam, post-college hedonism. But it’s not just sun, sex and suspicious parents. For many working-class kids, it’s their first trip away without their family. A financial feat enabled by a year of stop-start saving and hard graft. A stab at independence in a country where you don’t speak the native tongue. A bonding exercise with your besties. At times, it’s a real test of friendship; one that can, and will, push your patience to the outer limits. A seven-day hangover that’s worth every minute, it’s a rite of passage that can only be fully understood by those who lived it firsthand as I did, on my first girls’ holiday in Greece some 15 years ago.
You had to be there. Or, even, find a cracking group of girls who let you tag along for the ride…
I’ve arrived at Alexander the Great, a three-star hotel five minutes from the strip. Enter: Mollie, Millie, Lillie, Kate and Hope, mates from Barrowford, Trawden and Burnley, East Lancashire, spanning two school years and ranging in age from 19 to 21. They’ve generously let me and photographer Nik Hartley document the first 24 hours of their summer holiday in all its glory. It’s like being embedded with the SAS. Their mission: go big or go home.
Right now, they’re sunbathing by the pool, sweating out the previous evening’s sugar-charged booze, ready to get back up and on it.
“This is our journalist, lads,” shouts 21-year-old eyebrow technician Mollie. “Told you!”
Peggy Gou’s summer banger (It Goes Like) Nanana is blasting out of the speakers and the pool is filled with tanned, or sunburnt, tattooed Brits of all ages. It’s approximately 70 per cent men, 30 per cent women.
“There’s some good-looking boys in here,” says Lillie, Mollie’s younger sister, a 19-year-old NHS administrator.
“Which ones?” I ask.
“You won’t miss them!” she assures me.
“Have you had lunch?” I ask.
“The food was alright, I’ve had better.”
“Lillie, it was shit!” says Millie, a 21-year-old working in the executive complaints department at Pretty Little Thing.
“We’re waiting for toasties at 3.30pm,” says Lillie, which is apparently when the all-inclusive hotel starts serving snacks.
“You need a wristband to get the drinks,” warns Hope, a 21-year-old Disney Cruise Line entertainer. “But that might just be to stop people coming in for sexy time.”
Lillie is sipping on a clear-ish orange drink. A Berocca for a quick slug of health before the partying proper begins? Nah. “It’s punch. I’ve had five, but there’s not enough alcohol in them.”
This is their first time in Zante, but they’ve been on holiday to Tenerife and many festivals before. They booked the trip last-minute to land a better deal, flying from Manchester to Zakynthos International Airport with easyJet. It worked out at around £680 each, with flights, hotel, transfers, food and drinks included.
Despite not having a wristband, I come back from the bar with half a lager I’ve copped by strategically hiding my hand behind my back. This holiday hack is met with cheers from the girls, who are now on each other’s shoulders in the pool.
Night one, they tell me, was suitably messy.
In a classic case of getting carried away, the majority of the group were sick. “She were on the floor in the bathroom. I was on the balcony. She was with a boy,” Lillie says, wagging her finger at the group one by one.
David Guetta’s Where Them Girls At is momentarily interrupted by a Greek voice over the tannoy: “Guys, no drinking in the pool! No drinks in the pool! Thank you!”
“I’ve been drinking mine in there all day!” Lillie retaliates.
Still, today, they’re taking it relatively easy, pacing themselves for the week mapped out ahead. On the agenda: a private boat trip for turtle-spotting, a pool party to watch Geordie DJ Ben Hemsley and a booze cruise at sea.
“Let’s get ready in your room tonight, it’s nicer,” Lillie says, turning to Millie. “Come back at 10 for pre-drinks,” are my instructions. “We’ll be doing our make-up then. I do my make-up, then
I get ready… But we need a nap first.”
Zante’s strip comes alive at night. The muted hues seen on this afternoon’s recce have shapeshifted into hypnotising neons, enticing revellers in by the hundreds. The hotel lobby at Alexander the Great has come to life, too. The bar, previously filled with sunburnt bodies seeking shade, is now packed with girls in cut-out dresses and boys – somewhat unexpectedly – wearing Jack Grealish-esque sports bras.
I knock on the door of 406. The girls are lounging on the bed having drinks and the room is scattered with the essentials: vodka, Pringles, a bottle of Dead Man’s Fingers, flavoured rum for shots, plastic cups, hair straighteners, make-up and vapes the size of Calippos. Despite the humidity outside, it’s nice and cool.
“The aircon is an extra €10 a day,” Lillie says.
“Sorry about the mess in here…”
“Hope looks like she’s doing a carboot sale in the corner!” shouts Millie, pointing at a suitcase, flung open and spilling clothes.
“I’ve had five different outfits on and I’ve gone with the plainest thing going,” says Hope, now dressed in a black, long-sleeved, cut-out top, denim shorts, Vivienne Westwood slides and her Grandma Linda’s nail polish.
“When we go away on a girls’ holiday, we always set missions for each other,” Millie explains.
“Hope’s got to give someone a condom,” Lillie confirms. “Mollie’s got to kiss someone shorter than her. And I’ve got to kiss a minger.”
“Me and Millie are in relationships so we’re not doing it,” adds Kate.
“I’ll be mum in the corner with the camera, like: ‘You’re doing great, sweetie!’” says Millie.
Still, Lillie warns the coupled-up girls that they’re not getting off lightly: “Millie, you’ve got to keg someone and Kate has to do the worm.”
Millie starts taking photos using a recently resurrected bubblegum-pink digital camera, while Hope contemplates another outfit change. “I love a good shirt!” she says, holding up three near-identical white button-ups from her suitcase.
“I wouldn’t have fucking guessed it,” Millie replies, eyes rolling.
“If anyone’s got a business meeting out here, we’re alright!” Lillie jokes. “She’s got a Wimbledon skirt in there, haven’t you? Just in case Andy Murray wants a one-on-one.”
“We’re actually awful to each other,” Lillie admits to me. “Mollie keeps telling Hope she has a moustache.”
“You don’t,” I say, reassuringly.
“Yeah, she’s shaved it now! Silky fresh!” yells Lillie, in hysterics.
“We’d never make someone feel like shit,” Kate clarifies. “But we like honesty!”
“We all say weird stuff,” Millie says. “Like, ‘You joshin’ with me,’ or, ‘You alright, cocker?’ It’s an affectionate term.”
“Hope said it to her grandma on the phone: ‘Alright, cock?’”
“I was gobsmacked when I heard that!”
“That’s a big word for you, Lillie! Can you spell it?”
The girls burst into fits of laughter – a regular occurrence ramped into overdrive by the generous vodka lemonades they’ve been pouring for pre-drinks.
“There’s so much spit flying across this bed, I feel like I’m in the swimming baths!” laughs Millie.
Time for an important question: “What word do you use for ‘drunk’?” I ask.
“It’s 11:11 – make a wish,” Hope interrupts, adamant everyone joins in.
“It’s not 11:11,” says Kate. “Not back home.”
We’re off clubbing. First stop: Angels, a bar serving two doubles or cocktails, three shots and a group fishbowl for €10 a head. Hope tries to order a piña colada but it’s not part of the deal, so she settles for the barmaid’s recommendations instead: Perfect Sex and Wet Pussy. The girls each knock back three shots – sambuca, tequila, strawberry vodka – before moving onto their proper drinks. Four other girls take the table next to us, still in bikinis, presumably on their way home from a daytime pool party. One’s doing the running man and one’s wearing a swimming cap with a bucket hat over the top.
“Right, girls, we need to step this up,” Millie declares, eager not to be outdone by the adjacent group. “Finish your drinks.” The watered-down cocktails aren’t working fast enough. “I hate it when they do this. Just serve some proper drinks. It’s less washing up!” Millie’s honest review of Angels upon leaving: “I’ve had better times in Blackpool, I’ll tell you that for free.”
Undaunted and still thirsty, the girls push on. On the way to the next bar they FaceTime Hope’s mum, bringing her up to speed on her daughter’s antics this far – nothing, not even last night’s pull, is off limits. “Don’t worry, she’s like my best mate,” Hope assures me.
“Brooke, you’ve got to play Smash or Pass!” says Mollie as we approach a group of lads wearing white vests and Air Force 1s, chanting a footy version of Gala’s ’97 Italo disco banger: “Will Grigg’s on fire!”
“Hard smash!” Hope squeals when the tallest of the group walks past.
“I’m dreading waking up in the morning feeling rough,” confides Mollie as she leads the troops through the door of O’Callaghan’s Loft for the next round. O’Callaghan’s is – surprise – an Irish pub and club, which, according to its Instagram bio, promises “Good Drinks, Great people, Amazing memorys [sic]”. All of which, it transpires, will be on the menu tonight.
Maybe it’s the whisky, but I’m more than a little confused by the music. Have I stepped back in time, or have Rednex’s Cotton Eye Joe, Vengaboys’ We Like to Party and DJ Casper’s Cha Cha Slide (RIP) been playing on a loop since I strutted down the strip in Kavos in 2008? Or have they come full circle in an ironic twist of events?
A tall guy in a backwards cap and a neon Nike T‑shirt attempts to dance his way over to Kate. She shoots her arm out in front of her, the universal sign for “on your bike”. Five minutes later, he tries a new tactic. “Do you have a lighter, babe?” Kate replies, dryly: “Do you want me to smoke that cigarette for you as well?”
Taylor Swift’s Love Story starts playing and the girls go mad. Kate, a die-hard Swiftie, puts her phone on the floor in the middle of the group with the Snapchat selfie camera recording and they all sing, or rather shout, into the screen.
To paraphrase Lady Gaga, the rest of the night is “club, another club, another club”. The Burnley girls, rowdy on fishbowls, rumble from a foam party in Zeros (which is, according to Millie, “like an actual bubble bath”) to Cocktails & Dreams (dancing on the tables is mandatory) and, finally, to CherryBay. There, in a bar which Kate has been assured is the best in town, we dance until closing time.
It’s gone 5am. As the clubs slowly start to shutter, party survivors are spilling onto the strip in varying states. There are newly matched couples asking: “Your place or mine?” There’s a 30-person queue at a makeshift vape vendor, a throng of girls shouting orders for souvlaki and kebabs, and a couple dozen lads crowded around that penalty shootout station, their night’s only remaining chance to score. It’s home time and, for Mollie, Millie, Lillie, Kate and Hope, the night’s been a raging success: no vomming, no lost phones, no woman left behind. In this lot’s hands, the British holiday is still having it large. You just have to be there.
Saturday morning, 11am. I’m queuing to board an easyJet flight from Zakynthos to Luton. The chat among the hangdog holidaymakers has returned to loved ones waiting on the other side, and the impending doom of nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday reality.
“I’ve missed her, mind,” says one of the grey marl tracksuit-clad lads in front of me, stashing a slab of Oreo Milka in his backpack, a gift for his girlfriend.
“Bruv, you robbed me of a night’s sleep. I had to sleep on the sofa!”
“Whose boxers are you wearing? They ain’t yours.”
“It was 4:55 when you popped that champagne! I’ve got the timestamp on this video.”
“Anyone else got work tomorrow?”
“Just you, man.”