The beautiful Greek Islands have been popular amongst tourists for many years now. With warm seas, sandy beaches, stunning coastlines and so much culture and history to discover, it is no wonder visitors flock there in their hundreds of thousands each year.
If you want to discover the real country, without the trendy hotels and bar strips, you may have to dig a little deeper and find alternatives to the well known resorts. Fortunately many of the 227 inhabited Islands remain relatively unheard of by the masses. Some may require a certain amount of ‘island hopping’ to get to but all can be accessed by boat or ferry. I have found a few locations that are ideal for exploration, relaxation and experiencing a real taste of this magnificent ancient civilisation.
Shinousa is a small island that lies to the south of Naxos, part of the Minor Cyclades group of islands. It has a land mass of just 8.5 square kilometres, and its stony landscape is both beautiful and unspoilt. Schinousa has 15 idyllic beaches unaffected by development and a harbour, Mersini, which was once a hideout for pirates.
The locals are friendly and hospitable, and still make their living by traditional means such as fishing and farming. According to the 2011 census, the population count was just 256. However, despite the lack of tourist-based development there are many delightful villas to accommodate visitors and places to sample the traditional cuisine.
This stunning island is a haven, a true escape from civilisation, with quiet beaches and coves, surrounded by crystal clear water. What you will not find here is banks, fuel stations or public transport such as busses or taxis. Because the island is so small, it is easy enough to explore on foot or by bike. You can however take a boat trips to the neighbouring island of Koufonisia if you need to access other facilities, or have a ten-minute leisurely swim to Heralkia. Alternatively you could hire a jetski. The welcoming locals are happy to include tourists in their traditional festival celebrations with music, singing, and plenty of food.
Ikaria, also spelled Icaria, lies close to the Island of Samos, at the Southern tip of the Aegean group of Islands. Its name is derived from Icarus, who according to Greek mythology, burnt his wings by flying to close to the sun and fell into the sea nearby. This large island is one of only 5 ‘blue zones’ in the world, meaning that the people here live measurably longer lives than most.
Ikaria remains unspoiled by tourism and commercialism, with no airport and limited access by ferry. Although it has only a handful of accessible beaches, and the coastline is made up of slightly perilous cliffs, the island is home to a beautiful forest that is teeming with wildlife. Hidden in this paradise are lakes, waterfalls, small traditional villages and ancient monasteries to explore.
Ikaria’s natural spas, heated by thermal springs, are a secret it has somehow managed to keep from the rest of the world, but attract Greeks in their thousands. There is accommodation available to tourists, as well as a good selection of restaurants, shops and other amenities. Many come to visit the Island to join in with the ‘Saints Day’ celebrations and to indulge in the local wine, fish and traditional music.
Gavdos lies in the most Southerly part of Europe and is neighboured by Crete. This island now lies relatively abandoned, with only around 50 permanent inhabitants, but remains popular with visitors who enjoy hiking through its unspoiled wilderness and admiring the spectacular scenery.
Gavdos is a peaceful haven with stunning beaches, and is steeped in history. During the first Byzantine period the population exceeded 8,000, and evidence of this occupation can still be found in the hidden ruins.
Although many prefer to visit the island for a day trip, as opposed to a long stay, there is accommodation available to tourists and even a supermarket. The inhabitants collect water from rainfall and obtain electricity through generators which are shut down at night, so you can’t be guaranteed a hot shower!
Antikythera may sound familiar. In 1900 the Antikythera Wreck was discovered, containing an ancient mechanical calculator, often described as the first mechanical computer. The discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism brought this tiny island to the attention of the world, and it is a hotbed of archaeological interest.
This is also a very important location for migratory birds, and an observatory was set up by the Hellenic Ornithological Society. There are some fantastic historical sites to visit, such as the ancient citadel of Aigyla. Beneath the ancient city is the beach of Xiropotamos and nearby is the temple of Apollo, as well as the Apolytara lighthouse at the southern tip of the island.
Located around 18 nautical miles from Crete, Antikythera remains one of the poorest and smallest communities in Greece with less than 50 permanent residents, yet is one of the hidden gems of the world that deserves exploring. Very basic accommodation and facilities are available to visitors.
The Koufonisia Islands are made up of the upper and lower Koufonisis otherwise known as Kato and Pano, two small islets within the group of the Cyclades Islands, and the archaeologically protected Keros. Because of their outstanding beauty, word is starting to get round amongst travellers who have until now been kept in the dark about this spectacular haven. Kato (lower) Koufonisi has a land mass of only 3.2 km and is practically uninhabited but for a small group of rural houses, a small church built on top of ancient ruins and a picturesque port that provides access to fishermen and tourists. Pano Koufonisi is more densely populated with the most residents of the Cycladic Island group. Most inhabitants still live by traditional means.
When compared to the population, the Koufonisia fishing fleet it the largest in Greece. However, development in recent years means than tourism is beginning to play a part in the economy. More accommodation, restaurants and activities for visitors are becoming available, yet Pano still maintains it traditional feel and appearance. Tourists can take part in scuba diving, surfing, cave exploration, hiking and investigating the old lighthouses and churches. The beaches are covered with soft golden sand, the sea is clear and blue and the cliffs are brilliant white and uncluttered.
Text by Charlie Holland from DirectLine Holidays