Island hopping is what people do in Greece in the summer. Greece has over 6,000 islands and islets. According to Wikipedia, only 227 of them are inhabited, and only 78 of the inhabited islands have more than 100 residents. The islands are grouped by their location in the ocean. We traveled through the Cyclades which are a dry, mountainous group of islands without much greenery. Some of the other groups of islands are more fertile than those we visited.
Our first stop was Naxos, which is pretty close to mainland Greece. We caught a pretty deluxe ferry with cushioned seats, bathrooms, and a food and drink bar. When we got there, the architecture looked straight out of the photobooks. Whitewashed buildings with blue trip, a blue blue sky. The number of year-round residents of these islands can be quite small, but in the summer the numbers swell. Young people come to wait tables and/or work in the hotels, families come to spend the summer, and tourists come to island hop.
Naxos seemed like a slow-paced, charming town that was perfect for a family visit. Not too loud or raucous, however I was shocked by how expensive everything was, and by the range of goods being sold. There were shops selling clothes, jewelry, and surfing gear. It was clear that quite a lot of money came through this tiny little island. There were numerous European travelers spending their Euros in Naxos.
We got an apartment once we arrived to the island. It was spacious and had enough beds for our band of three adults, one child, and one infant. The minute we got to the beach, my daughter found friends. She couldn’t speak their language, but that didn’t stop her from communicating with them. The beach was pleasant, though not stunning, but the overall experience was one of ease and comfort.
At night, people dressed in something a little sparkly and strappy and went out to eat, and play games, and listen to music. All this activity happens on the coast, the very center of the island is mountainous. Winding roads up the mountain led us to an small ancient temple for the goddess Diana.
Well, Naxos was like the sleepy, country cousin to Santorini. The main area of Santorini was all flash, and lights, and commerce. It was very loud and busy, clearly people come to Santorini to party and spend money. We didn’t bother staying in town, we got a good deal outside the town center in an empty hotel as busy season hadn’t quite begun. Outside of the busy tourist area, Santorini seemed a calm place with regular cafes and grocery stores.
The charm of Santorini, besides the gorgeous views and adobe architectures, is the steep stairways and narrow alleys. The main area is all up and down, you climb a stairway here, wander down a narrow little street there, then head down some other stairs. We wandered into one store just in time to witness a European tourist trying to hustle a Greek woman into selling her wares for cheaper. He didn’t like the price and tried to steamroll her by saying he’d go somewhere else to buy the pants. The woman didn’t budge, and when we left we discussed the attitude of the tourists and how they treat the locals. She felt they had a very little respect for them and exhibited a bad attitude, but she sort of had to enter the tourist industry by force. She told us a little of the history of the area, that the entire commercial center of Santorini had been ruined by a massive earthquake. At that time, the area was entirely residential. In fact, the store we were standing in was her family’s home. Her family rebuilt, however, little by little stores started springing up around them. When they were completely surrounded, they felt they had no choice but to join the commerce. I suppose that’s an entirely different kind of gentrification than the kind I am accustomed to.
The one thing I loved about Santorini was visiting the town of Oia to see the sunset. I imagine if you live in the town of Oia, it is quite annoying to have tourists flocking to your town for Sunset. People literally flock to this little area, climbing on people’s gates, standing on their roofs, hopping over fences, just to get a better view of the sunset. Standing there witnessing sunset in a place where a number of legendary sunset photos have been taken was great, but I was even more taken in by the town. It was way quieter than Santorini, I could see by the price tags in the few stores and the number of boutique hÃ´tels, that this area was even more expensive. Oia exuded charm. Old crumbling buildings, more of the winding narrow walkways, where there was no space for cars, and more beautiful views. I thought it was the perfect place for a honeymoon.
Our favorite island was Folegandros. It was a very quaint, quiet place. The smallest island we visited, it seemed almost untouched by time. There was zero bustle on this island. There was only one computer for the internet. No cars and tons of characters in the town center. We met quite a few families who come back every summer. We met another mother from New York who was traveling with a 4-year-old girl, so we became friends. She took us to a tiny beach that a boat rides you out to. After bouncing on and feeling the spray from some truly magnificent waves, you hop off and the boat leaves you. You have to be sure to get on the last boat back, or you’ll be sleeping with the cliffs for the night. The beach was a rock beach, instead of sand there was pebbles. It was ringed by huge rocks in the water. Behind the beach was the sheer rock wall of one side of a mountain. Very dramatic and unique. We ate well on the island, beacuse with tourists comes restaurants.
Greek food is great because they always have salad, with a delicious hunk of feta cheese. They had an eggplant dish that I loved and of course the gyros are quite cheap and delicious. I love greek peaches as well, I’m not sure why they are better than the ones we have, I just know they are wonderful.
Sifnos was the first island where we had trouble finding housing. We arrived on Thursday, rather than a Sunday or a Monday. Most people spend a week on each island, so we were attempting to get housing when people had not yet left. Also, many people book hÃ´tels ahead of time, so it took quite a bit of walking and wandering to figure it all out. Finally we saw an African man hanging around the bus stop. He looked like he knew what was going on, so I went over to him and asked for help. He appealed to a hotel owner (who had already told us he had no room), the hotel owner called a friend and found us a place to stay. It was, it seemed, the only available lodging in town. It was like something out of a movie, we had to drag our luggage up a ton of stairs, then walk down the is long cobblestoned walkway. The vines and plants were all beautiful, but the further we went the more we worried about the final destination. We joked that it was free because no one wanted to live there. And that may have been partly true, because the toilet didn’t always flush, the hot water was scalding, cobwebs had the run of the place. There were mosquitoes and creepy crawlies in abundance, but at least we had somewhere to sleep. When we saw the sign of the cross burned into the top molding of our entrance way, we started to think we’d been duped. We wondered if something bad had happened in the room and we had ben sent there to exorcise the bad energy.
Later, though, we noticed more places with black crosses over doorways and decided it was just a blessing. We fell into the habit of making our long cobblestoned journey to town. It was kind of fun to watch the curve of the walkway until our the place was finally in site. Our “hotel” was in the middle of an open area where we could see animals grazing and we were surrounded by every kind of fruit tree imaginable.
Sifnos felt the most urban. It was the largest island we visited and there was more “hipness” apparent in the shops and restaurants. The attractive views were consistent as they were on every other island. We enjoyed the beach, made friends with a family from Connecticut, and met an American woman who lived on the island year round. She took us Inside the house, showed us all the peculiaralities of a Greek island house and she explained how Sifnos is structured. It’s like a chain of villages connected by long winding stairways. All of the islands we visited (except Naxos) had central areas where cars had no access. In Sifnos, this area was like a maze. You turned a corner and didn’t know if you would find a residence, a shop, a hotel, or a vacant yard.
The Greek Islands are certainly a worthy and wonderful destination. Back in Athens, we got a warm welcome from all our friends, the shop keepers. There were so happy to see us back, they spoiled my daughter with gifts of free yogurt, chocolate and a floatie. It’s funny how quickly we can normalize an experience. We’d only spent a week in Athens before heading to the islands, but going back there was like going “home.”
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam