“I don’t need much. Just give me a glass of Ouzo, an octopus to grill, a small boat to take me to a remote beach and nothing else. No trendy beach clubs, no seen and be seen. Just a simple life.” My travel companions interrupt me immediately. “And what about your parties in Amsterdam, your lounge bars, city breaks, Nikki Beach and Body Combat training?” After five days I managed to prove myself and I invite everyone to take part in my undemanding, low-key and yet unforgettable experience on Symi, possibly my favourite small island in Europe. No trendsetters allowed.It had been fifteen years since I last visited Symi, a Mediterranean destination that leaves a lasting impression. This Greek island lies close to Turkey and the journey starts with ferry crossing from Rhodes, Kos or the Turkish resort Marmaris. Depending on which boat you choose the journey takes between 1 and 2 hours. As you arrive in Symi’s harbour you’ll feel like you’re melting into a picture-perfect postcard; it’s truly breathtaking. The harbour welcomes you like a mother welcomes her long lost children.
My “Back to Basics” holiday happened to be far from basic. Many expats have further enhanced this little paradise with bars, boutique hotels, shops and restaurants but Symi’s unique character has remained intact. The island has 7 taxis and 1 bus that leaves on the hour and will take you uphill to Panormitis, a beautiful monastery. Pastel, neo-classical houses are scattered around the hills and overlook the harbour. This setting oozes Mediterranean allure, as if a stylist has designed it that way and the harbour extends towards crystal clear water where blue chairs and tables are covered with white linen, set symmetrically giving the illusion that you can fall in. Taxi boats depart each morning to a beach of your choice. For just nine euros per person you can get a return ticket, which allows you to truly get away from it all.
We met the charming Italian Christina who runs the beach of Agia Marina with her French Husband. Their daily offerings of fresh food are fantastic; a winning combination of Italian, French and Greek that will truly tickle your taste buds. For three euros you can hire a sun bed and it is the only beach on the island where you enter the sea by walking over imported sand as opposed to pebbles and stones.
On the taxi boat to Christina’s haven I met the Argentinean Lisandro Damonte who runs the exquisite “Muses” with his brother Fernando. Muses is one of the best restaurants in Greece with a well-deserved mention from Michelin. We enjoyed their mouth-watering culinary expertise, made with love by these two passionate globetrotters who have trained amongst the best chefs in Argentina, Italy and Spain. And all this on Symi! What a discovery. “You want chicken? Go somewhere else” a passer by was told kindly.
Muses stands for culinary creations; contemporary Greek with Italian touches and a hint of whatever Lisandro and Fernando feel inspired by. Their food is experimental but doesn’t make you feel like you’re sitting in a laboratory. Their dishes look like glossy food spreads you might find in Vogue and the taste doesn’t disappoint either; every bite is truly sensational. Another restaurant that it worth a visit lies just around the harbour. “Mythos” is owned my Stavros who likes to surprise his guests. However I strongly suggest you order the sea bream with Ouzo and fennel. Lastly there’s Mylopetra, a local restaurant with London prices and a good reputation for being a popular choice amongst passengers from private yachts.
The only pool on Symi is at hotel Iapetos. A friendly hotel with a relaxing garden surrounded by 25 traditionally built houses containing apartments and studios. The hotel offers a simple but delicious breakfast and is at walking distance from the harbour with its choice of cafes, tavernas, restaurants, shops and taxi boats.
Carlo, a welcoming Italian from London, recently opened the exclusive boutique hotel “The Old Market”. His good taste is apparent from the moment you walk in. Nine small shops from the centuries old market have been converted into a designer’s Walhalla. There are five individually styled rooms with beautiful frescos on the ceiling and mesmerizing views over Symi’s harbour. Carlo, a Cordon Blue alumnus, serves dinner on the roof terrace upon request.
The island offers several exclusive boutiques that you might also find on St. Tropez but Symi comes without the decadence of other ports for the well to do. Soon I discovered that I am not the only one wearing Summer 2011 Espadrilles shoes. In the summer, well-dressed Italians, Scandinavians, Parisians and other fashion conscious guests, temporarily occupy Symi but there is no jet setting. Visitors are chic but friendly and respectful towards the local environment. “Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones left their yacht to dine with us on the terrace and to their own surprise no one paid any attention”, Lisandro from Muses tells me, “Princess Caroline of Monaco was here and people thought to themselves: you might be a Princess, but you’re not from Symi.”
Is Symi a contender for “Greece Next Top Island”? It may not be Mykonos or Santorini and it will not be Greece’s answer to Ibiza, St. Tropez or Marbella. It has been a top island for some time but fortunately too small to be noticed by too many people. A well-kept secret that has led me to define a new term: A Boutique Island.
Fred van Eijk
Free Lance Travel & Lifestyle Writer
General Manager Travel Counsellors Netherlands