Five of the best under-the-radar Greek islands
Just 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, Paxos nonetheless crams in much of the magical beauty and topographical variety of the Ionian chain: there are some 30 sheltered beaches on the east coast, spectacular cliffs on the west, olive trees and lofty pines inland, and the clearest seas surround the coast, which is studded with caves, grottoes and unpopulated islands.
About half of the island’s population of about 3,000 live in the three villages of Gaios, Loggos and Lakka, where you’ll experience the conviviality of the local people. Elsewhere you’ll encounter mainly goats, farmers and a lot of empty space and serenity.
See and do
Gaios, the largest village, has a little flagstoned platia – town square – right on the water’s edge – a rare feature in the Greek islands. Behind the church is a maze of narrow streets lined with an assortment of shops, tavernas and bars. A host of attractive bays and coves lie nearby.
The most attractive fishing village is Loggos, which is largely unmodernised, with just 30 little houses around the old platia. Olive groves cloak the hills surrounding the village; the Venetians planted olive trees in their thousands in the 16th century. There’s good bathing from beaches and rocks within five minutes’ walk.
One of the most popular boat trips is across to the satellite islet of Antipaxos – two of its beaches are routinely voted among the best in the Mediterranean. Vrika has pure white sand while Voutoumi is sandy below the water. It’s almost uninhabited apart from the locals employed in tavernas and vineyards; its wines have no labels.
Home from home: The Olive Press
A narrow track leads inland from the Gaios waterfront to a landscape of verdant valleys and hillsides. Here sits The Olive Press, a carefully renovated stone house with exposed beams, a wood burning stove and a pretty garden with table, chairs and sun-loungers; the property still has the original olive pressing floor underneath the sitting room – visible through a panel of safety glass. A romantic spot and a cosy house, it will appeal to couples seeking a quiet retreat.
All of the islands in the Sporades, east of Volos and north of Evia, are gorgeous, green and pretty laidback. But Alonissos, the largest and only permanently inhabited member of a mini-archipelago at the eastern end of the chain, is wilder, more rugged and utterly peaceful.
While the beaches are pleasant – and the sea among the most pristine in Europe – it’s inland that the topography gets really interesting. The south is taken up by fruit groves and almond and olive trees, while the north is known for its moorland aspect, with oak, arbutus and heather.
There are ferries here, but not too many, so most foreign tourists choose to stay on neighbouring Skopelos or Skiathos. Summering Athenians do love Alonissos, but outside of the peak months it’s a great off-radar option for families, solo travellers or couples.
See and do
Ferries arrive at Patitiri. From here it takes about 45 minutes via a goat track to walk to the Old Town – destroyed in an earthquake in 1965, but largely restored. Its traditional houses, Byzantine churches, Venetian walls and narrow, paved streets make it a picturesque place to potter awhile. There are a dozen tavernas, a pizzeria, several cafes and bars, and two mini markets. The beach of Megalo Mourtia is about half an hour away from the Old Town; the downhill trek is quite a challenge, but the reward of a swim is waiting.
If you want more of the same, walking trails run all along the narrow island’s backbone. Fifteen routes have been surveyed, numbered and signposted: you can choose between short walks from a beach to a village – jumping in a cab to get back to your accommodation, or do longer circular treks; these are more enjoyable in the cooler months, as shade is limited in some areas.
The rocky limestone coast is dotted with dozens of hidden beaches and deep caves carved out of the steep cliffs. The surrounding waters are part of a national marine park, protecting Mediterranean monk seals and a host of seabirds – including the Audouin’s gull – as well as migratory waders and raptors. Dolphins are often spotted on excursions.
Home from home: Limani Cottage
Limani Cottage is a sweet, very Greek property with terracotta floor tiles and blue and white decor. On a hill above the pretty port of Steni Vala, it’s a two-minute walk from the shops, cafes and tavernas on the quayside. You’ll find a small beach at the foot of a staircase of 30 steps. A little further along are the white pebbles and crystal waters of Glyfa beach. A wide covered terrace runs the length of the house, from which guests have lovely views over the port and the island of Peristera. The small garden has olive, pomegranate and citrus trees.
As the legendary island of Odysseus, it may strike you as strange that Ithaca is one of the least known – and this, despite its proximity to popular Kefalonia, a little over 1 mile north-east.
Perhaps the Gods have had a hand in it – or, more prosaically, it’s because this island, with a name that even sounds a bit like “myth”, isn’t really about beaches. Just 18 miles from top to tail, it has a cave, a spring, a ruinous castle and – thanks to winter rains – some of the most verdant landscapes in all Greece; indeed there are trees that only grow here.
Surrounded by blue-green waters that lap white-pebbled beaches, Ithaca is dotted with small fishing villages. At dusk, you’ll see the boats returning with their fresh catch, quickly delivered to the tavernas and markets along the harbours at Kioni and Frikes. In the morning, other senses are stimulated: enjoy the smell of freshly baked bread and the sound of distant goat bells.
See and do
Vathy, the capital port of Ithaca, has a beautiful horseshoe-shaped waterfront overlooking a deep-blue bay, flanked by green hillsides. Rebuilt in the 1950s, all the buildings are cream, yellow and pink-coloured, marking a colourful departure from classic blue-and-white Greek island towns. There are barely any cars and there’s only human traffic around dusk, when locals and visitors come down to the town square and quayside to dine, drink and shoot the breeze. The town has a maritime and folklore museum and an archaeological museum; boat hire is available to visit beaches.
Alternatively, you can walk to the water. There’s a lovely path through perfumed pine forests to Gedaki beach on the far side of town. Inland, the geography is hilly, with plenty of hiking and mountain bike trails through olive, cypress and carob trees up on the hills.
Scuba diving and sea kayaking are popular on Ithaca; the Cave of the Nymph is said to be where Odysseus hid the gifts he had brought along from the land of the Phaeacians.
Home from home: Costa’s House
A hundred steps lead from the Kioni waterfront to Costa’s House, set in a private, hillside position above the bay. Bedrooms open out on to private balconies with sweeping views across Kioni Bay; the sitting room leads to a veranda with a pergola, a gorgeous spot for dining and relaxing above the sea.
If you’ve heard of Ikaria, chances are it’s because of its long-lived residents. If you believe in the much-publicised Blue Zone idea of good food and habits ensuring longevity, you won’t be surprised by the number of 80- and 90-plus-year-olds you meet here. The whole pace of the island seems to say: slow down, stretch things out.
Retirees can be seen tending their gardens in the morning and chatting over coffee or wine in the evening. Between, they grab a siesta. They eat well – lots of organic greens, pulses, fine oil and not too much red meat. They also fish and walk a lot. Money is not an obsession. The island is famous for its panigyria festivals, where the whole community gets together for a knees-up. The chances are that, if you visit from mid-June to mid-September, there will be one taking place at a nearby village during your stay – all are welcome! Ikaria is also said to be the birthplace of Dionysus, god of wine; in general the generations mix naturally here and that too, no doubt, plays a major part in fostering a healthy outlook.
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Armenistis is a small fishing village with a picturesque harbour, its parish church dedicated to Agios Nikolaos, patron saint of sailors. Nearby are some of the densest pine forests on Ikaria, and an abundance of rivers and streams.
A walkers’ favourite, Ikaria boasts untamed lunar rockscapes and densely forested gorges. There are also totally empty beaches all along the coast. Armenistis, as well as being a sort of social and tourism hub, is a great starting point for walking excursions.
Some of the best beaches are also nearby; Gialiskari, Messakti and Livadi have fine sand and are surrounded by pine trees right down to the sea. A couple of miles west of Armenistis lies the pebbled beach of Nas at the mouth of a river, close to the ruins of an ancient Temple of Artemis.
Home from home: Muses Cottages
Staying in one of the five Muses Cottages, you will be blessed by the sound of waves when you wake in the morning. Standing directly above the sea on a stepped hillside, they enjoy panoramic sea views – and spectacular sunsets – and are a five-minute walk from Nas beach, reached by a rough path and steps down. The cottages feature traditional decor (predominantly blue and white), with high wooden ceilings and tiled floors. Owner Dimitris runs an excellent local seafood restaurant.
Lemnos is a very traditional Greek island, where the priorities remain agriculture and fishing. Relatively isolated in the north-eastern Aegean, it appeals most to those looking for an island that’s relatively unaffected by modern tourism. As well as the attractive port town of Myrina, it has many miles of uncrowded sandy beaches – ideal for a very Greek chill-out. If you get the urge to to explore, there are 160 miles of coast – as the eighth-largest Greek island, there’s lots of scope for driving day-trips.
As the uplands are treeless – due to the particular climactic conditions – it’s wisest to do coastal walks, hopping from ancient site to beach to village. There’s a thriving watersports scene on Plati beach, and the northern beaches are famed for their kite surfing. The eastern lakes are a habitat for flamingos and, in spring, the central plain is filled with wildflowers.
See and do
The capital, Myrina, is a classic Greek fishing-harbour, and a grand Genoese castle provides a dramatic backdrop. Lovely sandy beaches lie nearby, and there are lots of other seaside options up and down the island; Plati beach has a coveted Blue Flag.
At Poliochni, the remnants of four cities have been found – the most ancient predates Troy and is a site of world significance, believed by some archaeologists to be the oldest known town settlement in Europe. Another important ruin, Ifestia, was once a major religious centre; the site contains the remains of a theatre, palace, cemetery and baths.
For hikers, there are good footpaths from Agios Giannis beach to the impressive sand dunes of Pachies Ammoudies, near Gomati. Afterwards, enjoy a dip in the cool water off Gomati beach – or a soak in the hot springs just outside Myrina. If you want to rest your legs, horse riding is available at Plati.
There’s a good water sports scene here, including water skiing and windsurfing; motorboats can be hired and there’s a Padi dive school.
Home from home: Villa Afrodite hotel
Surrounded by flower-filled gardens, this stylish 30-room boutique hotel is tastefully decorated and has a freshwater pool, poolside restaurant and bar. Many rooms have spacious balconies with sea views; ground-floor rooms, some of which have been adapted for disabled use, have garden views. Fresh local lobster is a speciality of the in-house restaurant and there’s a weekly Greek barbecue night. Myrina is easily reached by the free hotel transfer service, if requested (morning and early evening), taxi (inexpensive) or on foot (30 minutes).
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