When she finds herself stranded in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, FLIP BYRNES decides to make the most of it and explore the Greek Islands without the crowds and cruise ships.
Poseidon beckoned us, and we answered the call. Sailing to a mooring by the black volcanic remains of Palea Kameni, mid-Santorini caldera, my two girls are keen to know if it was a boy or girl volcano. “A girl,” Captain Eleftherios, of Renieris Santorini Sailing Center, and I decide, “No-one else could become so mad”. How mad? “So mad she exploded, and her head blew OFF!” (She was definitely Greek, adds Eleftherios). And here she is now, lying in the caldera, calm, content and sleeping. You can hear her snores in the little waves and feel her tickle you with wind fingers.
That was our story today of Santorini and the water-filled caldera’s creation (in reality the largest explosion in the planet’s history). As the crew cooked fresh sea bream off the back of the yacht, Petros kept a protective eye on the girls, and Lotte and Leni impersonated seahorses. Against a backdrop as surreal as a screen saver, the sugar cube houses of Oia tumbled down the cliffsides, like solidified sea spray defying gravity.
It seems fitting to start with a pseudo fairy tale, as that is the fabric of the Cyclades. During a three-week island-hopping odyssey from Santorini to Folegandros, Paros, Antiparos and Naxos, it’s impossible to select the most otherworldly moment. Choosing the fresh fish dinner from the owner’s husband’s catch at Halaris Fish Tavern in Paros? Accidentally stumbling into an outdoor graffiti park in Naxos? Climbing the mast of a clipper in Antiparos? Or learning Greek-style cooking in a family home? And it almost didn’t happen.
Amongst a world ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, our little family found ourselves stranded in Europe, where my partner works as a mountain guide. The Cyclades remained a virus-free bubble, so when Santorini announced a July opening, we pounced. Could this be real? A travel window? A once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness Santorini and explore the Cyclades, high season, without the crowds and cruise ships. Returning to Australia wasn’t possible, so we made lemonade from lemons. Cyclades ahoy!
Everywhere we go we are reminded we are travelling during a pandemic. With the dining room closed at Andronis Luxury Suites, clinging to the Oia cliffs in Santorini, waiters get a workout delivering to patios. Temperature checking is standard, and not only are the islands adhering to face masks and hand sanitising, but they were early adopters. “It isn’t lucky that we are COVID-free” Santorini mayor Antonis Sigalas says. “We closed the island and we closed it quickly.”
So, I feel an urgency to arrive before COVID inevitably does (and it did, in September). The only time I feel truly uncomfortable is flying as it’s our first plane and airport experience during the pandemic. Booking a 6am Frankfurt flight, I’d gambled on an empty plane. But it’s full. We board last, sanitise every surface and the first thing we do after we arrive is have a shower.
With fewer tourists visiting during these times (where we always felt safe as the Greeks adhered to protocols strictly) people have more time to talk. Chatting with the sailing crew in the caldera becomes a deep dive into cultural connection and experiencing a different side of Santorini. With private guide Lefteris (“call me Lefty”) of Blue Shades of Greece, we languidly wander among apricot and fuchsia bougainvillea in Megalochori. “During a busy year this is where I come to hear the birds sing,” he says. “But this year I hear the birds everywhere.”
If seeking a toned-down Santorini anytime, a 45-minute ferry ride away is Folegandros. And the only thing you need to know is Anemi Hotel boasts possibly the largest pool in the Cyclades, as well as a playground, beaches nearby. It’s your ideal base (this is controversial), so move over Santorini! Folegandros, Folegandros, Folegandros!
Wandering the buzzing chora (main town) that evening I decide this is how I could construct the perfect Greek isle. It has a caldera like Santorini, but the hordes haven’t found it yet. It boasts a beguilingly stark landscape of volcanic origins. A lively chora where kids run between tables, men gather in corners, and there are cats to befriend. It’s Greeker than Greek, with a dash of sophisticated flair. But only a dash. Don’t come here for sunbeds, there’s only one taxi in town and if you want to party, it may be a party of one.
It’s tempting to move into Anemi permanently but the next stop, Paros, has a pull stronger than our two-storey villa. When dad joins us, the girls regale him with tales of volcanoes, ferry adventures and cat friends.
I was kind of feeling sorry for Paros. I mean, she was destined to be the third wheel. How can she possibly compete with the can-can kicking showgirl of Santorini or the uncut precious pumice of volcanic Folegandros? And then she smacks down ace cards of glorious beaches, the prettiest chora in the Cyclades and – thanks to our hostess Christina Fokianou at Captain’s Rocks – an extraordinary interconnected community.
On a balmy afternoon, Christina sends us to Marpissa, a hamlet of 100 locals, where Mrs Marigoula weaves on a 150-year-old loom. Her family has lived here for 20 generations, escaping pirates through a secret door in the fireplace, buffeted by the zephyrs from Ios, on the horizon. While she treats the kids to homemade cookies, I buy the rug she’s just finished weaving, appreciating the positive energy in every strand. As Mrs Marigoula says, gesturing at the walls, “Everyone is here”, meaning all her ancestors, leaving lifetimes of invisible love.
Later that night, we have one of two seafood meals so fresh nothing else will ever compare. At Halaris Fish Tavern, I notice the cushions. Could they be? Yes, they are Mrs Marigoula’s, the owner’s sister. Likewise, we dine at brand new Agkyra Restaurant and purchase olive oil made by their uncle. The following day, we have a cooking class, not just any cooking class. We’re honoured to be the first customers of a new venture by Achilleas, a former restaurateur and owner of chic Flora Apartments. Who, it turns out, made the olive oil.
And now Achilleas offers cooking classes to guests of their boutique property. So as a family we learn ‘Hiding Lambs’, adding vegetables and herbs from the garden to the lamb, before snorkelling at their private beach while it roasts, and returning to feast on their porch. It’s true immersion into the local life and becomes a favourite memory.
While the community of Paros we’re getting to know is fascinating, the Cyclades is all about water, and we explore on a gorgeous mini clipper, a passion project of a former cruise ship captain, Captain Nikos, who has returned to his Paros roots. We impersonate salty sea dogs, visiting pirate caves and deserted beaches, our sails bolstered by a gentle meltemi wind that has sent Greeks on adventures for thousands of years.
Captain Nikos is also an environmentalist, and talking to him is like drinking soul juice, as the kids swim off the yacht nearby. The Paros web extends – he not only knows Achilleas but also helped build his garden where we picked herbs.
At one point, Paros becomes way too friendly. Popular and picturesque Naoussa also has tiny alleys, and on a Saturday night jostling crowds in the tangled lanes gives us the COVID jitters. We leave – quickly.
A 10-minute, five-euro ferry ride from Paros is Antiparos, what Folegandros is to Santorini. Smaller, quieter. “Some people treat Antiparos as just another village,” says Magda, the owner of Kastro Boutique Hotel. “Many come for a day trip, but they’re missing out.” Oh yes, they are. And the key is securing accommodation here. As an example, Magda’s haven is almost full for 2021. Only a sudden cancellation allows us to serendipitously slide into a vacant spot.
Tom Hanks loved Antiparos so much he bought a house here, but there’s nothing Hollywood about this island. Apart from the ritzy pedestrian street with cosmopolitan shops, it’s raw. And this is where we find IT – the beach of our European dreams.
Driving to the south of the island, where tarmac becomes dirt, we continue until we think we’re lost. Then it appears – Faneromeni Beach. The dazzling impact of the cerulean water, the basin sheltered from the meltemi winds, the aquarium of fish – when my mind goes back to this extraordinary summer, this is where it dives in.
And don’t miss Captain Pipino’s close by – the second meal that’s ruined us for life. Tastebuds quiver remembering octopus in vinegar, cuttlefish swimming out the front (caught by his fisherman father), and leave room for the shrimp with feta, tomato and parsley. The clincher is the view across the water of an Apollo temple ruin, tipped to become the most significant archaeological site of the Cyclades (excavations only recently began). No biggie.
Our final stop is Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades islands, with mountain villages, a labyrinth-like Old Town. Like the rest of the Cyclades, it does family mealtimes to perfection. Dining at Taverna Paradiso on Plaka Beach, toes in the sand and sunset streaking the sky, we watch as our children roll like puppies by the water’s edge. It’s all just so easy.
Naxos also throws up wildcards, such as an abandoned hotel turned over to international graffiti artists. We were on a quest for a pristine Hawai‘i-like beach, but for a moment felt we had ended up in Berlin.
But this is the Cyclades – head out for one adventure, stumble across another. For one of the world’s most family-loving destinations, where kids are kings, life slow, food delicious and activities sublime, set your compass and splash into your own, epic odyssey.
Flip Byrnes travelled as a guest of Discover Greece and partners Blue Star Ferries and Aegean Airlines.
Several airlines, including Emirates and Etihad, fly from Australia to Athens. Aegean Airlines flies from Athens to a number of Cycladic islands, including Mykonos, Naxos and Santorini. Blue Star Ferries has regular inter-island services throughout the Greek islands taking both people and cars. bluestarferries.com.
WHEN TO GO:
The good news is you can avoid the crowds any year – just visit in the last two weeks of September, when seasonal shops are still open, the water warm and there are fewer tourists around.
More information: Discover Greece