The largest of the Cyclades archipelago, Náxos is one of the few Greek islands that is completely self-sustainable and could feed itself. Every square inch of the island, including the main town proudly boasts either a small vine plot or abundant market garden, squeezed in between low rise apartment blocks and villas. Further into the centre of the island, you will see flocks of sheep and goats everywhere, along with row upon row of silvery-green olive trees.
Naxos also has some of the Cyclades loveliest beaches and its most dramatic scenery: vast mountains, lush terraced valleys and traditional white-washed villages. It has a unique regional food identify, famous for the grapefruit like "kitron" which is the key flavouring for the smooth local liqueur and spoon sweet. Naxiot potatoes are also renowned throughout Greece - as is the islands impressive array of both sheep and goat's milk cheeses.
There is more than enough on offer in Náxos to keep you fully occupied for a week or more. Spectacularly clear, turquoise beaches are a short hop from the main town, ancient sites abound and it is easy to while away a day, evening or more in the twisting back lanes of the hilly old Venetian quarter of the main town, known as Kástro. Best of all, the huge cruise ships that land in some of the other Cycladic islands have not yet made their way to Náxos. In this gem of the Cyclades, you can experience the real Greece – Naxos is authentic. Its not a white washed weary, touristy version. Best of all, you will also get to experience the incredible warmth and philoxenia of the Naxiots.
Getting there →
Náxos is one of the main ferry hubs of the Cyclades. There a regular 3 – 4 & 3/4 hour ferries departing from Piraeus (times depend on taking the express or standard ferries). Naxos is also a short 45 minute - 2 & 1/2 hour ferry ride from the popular Mykonos and Santorini. There are also daily 45 minute flights to and from Athens.
Checking in →
For our stay in Naxos, we wanted to be centrally located so that we could make the most of our 5 day visit. After doing a little research online I found the gorgeous “Fragias Boutique Hotel”, located just a short walk to the centre of Naxos town and near to the water - the local town beach called Agios Georgios. Fragias was absolutely perfect for our stay, offering a small kitchenette as well as a spectacular homemade buffet breakfast, full of plenty of local specialities such as Naxiot cheeses (made by family in the nearby mountain village of Apiranthos), spoon sweets, pastries, cookies and divine thick strained local yoghurt, to get us started for the day. The rooms were generous in size and beautifully styled, with a Cycladic feel and plenty of personal touches. On arrival, we were offered a traditional Greek welcome from the lovely owner Argiro and her charming daughter Despina: homemade kitron spoon sweet, a small glasses of cherry liqueur and very chilled, tall glasses of water. One hot summery evening, as we wandered back from the main town, we said hello to Argiro and her family, who were enjoying dinner. We were immediatley welcomed and kindly offered a tray of flavoursome, chilled watermelon. Argiro and Despina were also so kind to us, that on leaving the hotel to head back to Athens, we were packed a very generous picnic for the ferry - including two wheels of the most delicious homemade cheese. I would definitely recommend this hotel to all travellers heading to Naxos. By the end of our weeks stay – we honestly felt like part of the family.
How to get around →
The local buses “KTEL” depart from Naxos town (Hora) with destination several of the island’s villages & beaches. Destinations and frequency of the Naxos’ KTEL buses depend on the time of year of travel. Its best to head straight to the KTEL office (located near the main ferry port in Naxos town) and pick up a copy of the daily and weekend scheduled timetable. However, we found the easiest way to get around was to hire a car. For a small economic car, prices range from about 25-35 euros per day. We used “New Car” rentals, located in Naxos town.
What to see →
The beaches: Naxos has some of the Cyclades most beautiful white sand beaches, with crystal clear turquoise waters. Best of all, you don't need to go far from Naxos Town to find beach bliss. Heading south is Ayios Prokopios, a busy beach with a full suite of lounge chairs, cafes, perfectly clear waters and a long sandy stretch. Ayia Anna, is next along the coast, with plenty of small hotels and fish tavernas. My clear favourite beach, however, was Plaka. It is the next beach along after Anna, with its endless white sands and spectacularly coloured waters.
See the Portara: the symbol of Naxos, it is the first thing you will see if you travel to Naxos by ferry. The marble gate, the only remnant of the unfinished 6th century BC temple of Apollo, stands atop of a small islet that is connected to the Town of Naxos. It is the best place to watch the sun set over the island.
Walk in Kastro: the oldest quarter in Naxos Town. With stone buildings, paved paths and arches, Kastro was constructed by the Venetians and this romantic quarter is now a host to boutique shops, bars and cultural venues.
Visit the inland villages: authentic mountainous villages in the centre of Naxos island are true gems. Rustic Apiranthos, Melanes and Halki (home to the islands famous distillery specialising in the famous kitron liqueur) are the most picturesque villages, surrounded by silvery-green fields of olives, fruit and citrus trees – as well as plenty of vine plots.
Open air cinema: a favourite past time on hot Greek summer nights, check out Cine Naxos Open Air Cinema, screening new releases. The cinema is also the venue for old school fun such as the traditional "Karagiozis" puppet show, perfect if you have little kids on holidays - and for grown ups who like to relive their childhood.
What to Eat →
Of all the Cycladic islands, Naxos is the one to come to for food alone. All of the local tavernas that we visited cooked in an authentic, old fashioned way - with much love and care. However, before we get to these hotspots, some of the most famous local products to try on your visit include:
Cheese, glorious cheese: The legendary “Graviera” of Naxos is famous throughout Greece as the best kind produced in the country. It is made from cow’s milk. It is smooth, voluptuous and slightly piquant. Bring it to room temperature and slices of it make the perfect (and easy) hors d’oeuvre to accompany white wine, raki, ouzo or tsipouro. If it makes it past the hors d’oeuvre, it can also be fried as “Saganaki” - drizzles of local honey and a dusting of sesame seeds remain optional. Other cheeses to try include: xinotyro (it can range from a sour, pungent fresh ricotta style cheese made from sheep and goat milk to a harder cheese aged for six months to about one year), kefalotyri (made of goat and sheep milk from the mountainous villages, is aged for around 18 months and characterised by tiny little holes and has a slightly sour, earthy flavour), Myzithra (made of goat and sheep milk like a soft, sweet fresh ricotta), Anthotyro is similar to myzithra but is aged for more than a year. It has a milk white interior, and slightly crumbly texture. The homemade anthotyro we were given made the perfect hors d’oeuvre served alongside some slices of very aromatic fresh peaches and chilled local rose wine. A drizzle or two of thyme honey was also welcome.
At this point, its probably also relevant to note that more 14% of Greece’s dairy production comes from Naxos. You should definitely also try the local milk and the indulgent, thick strained yoghurt - perfect with a big dollop of homemade orange spoon sweet. The local "krema" - a chilled custard like dessert made from local milk which comes in a classic vanilla or chocolate flavour, are also delicious and will bring back plenty of memories of the desserts grandma used to make.
The local rose wine: don't expect Château Lafite-Rothschild and you will be pleasantly surprised by the local, easy to drink, rustic style wine. Most of the traditional tavernas serve their own homemade wine and it can vary from place to place, depending on the patrons preference. The rose wine is always served cold in clay jugs or traditional aluminum carafes. It is usually quite dry, but with some good fruit flavours on the palate.
The potato: is king in Naxos and you will see them being collected from the fields as you drive around. While the potato is famous, Naxos' tomatoes, onions, olives, olive oil, grapes, sour cherry, orange, bergamot, fig and melons are also wonderful. This is also the place to indulge in fresh seasonal greens. There was plenty of fresh summer vlita to be enjoyed on our recent trip - so fresh, we could watch the yiayia's meticulously cleaning and selecting the best leaves for our meal, while sitting next to us at one of the taverna's in the village of Melanes.
The kitron: this large yellow fruit is all skin and pith. It is used to make the renowned liqueur and spoon sweet. The skin is also dried, sweetened and sliced - to be nibbled on like any other dried fruit or to be used in baking and cooking. The closest flavour I could liken it to was grapefruit - but it is so, so much better. Vallindra was the first distillery to produce Kitron and still does, it is definitely worth a visit, if you explore the inland village of Halki. Also look out for the raki (with honey and cinnamon) - something to store away on your home drinks trolley for cold winters - enjoyed preferably by a fireside.
Where to Eat (and shop) →
Old fashioned food and hospitality - O Vasilis, Melanes
O Vasilis (in the village of Melanes): is the best place for rooster in red sauce and homemade hilopites pasta, dusted with kefalotyiri cheese. The marathokeftedes (wild fennel fritters) that are famous in the Cyclades were also excellent. The taverna has sweeping views over the church and village below - as well as the olive tree dotted hillside, complete with striking marble quarry cutting. All of the game and poultry served in the taverna is home-reared, as is much of the other produce served. Leave plenty of room for the complimentary platter of seasonal fruit, spoon sweets and homemade dessert of the day, which on our visit was a biscuit based slice with a layer of thick cream and freshly picked strawberries. O Giorgis taverna in Melanes also comes highly recommended for its rooster in red sauce and also rabbit.
Cheap and cheerful - Tomata, Naxos Town
If you can't make it up the hill to Melanes, you can try rooster in red sauce at Tomata in Naxos town, which is owned by the son of Mr Giorgis of Melanes fame. While there are plenty of reasonably priced traditional dishes on offer at Tomata, most of locals were enjoying pork souvlaki doused in a mustardy lemon and rigani spiked dressing, accompanied by Mythos beer on tap - as well as large, fresh horiatiki salads bursting with juicy summer tomatoes. This is also a great place to indulge in plenty of those divine fried Naxiot potatoes.
Sweet treats - Rendez-Vous, Naxos Town
Just across the road from Tomata is dessert heaven at zaxaroplasteio, Rendez-Vous, filled with plenty of tempting sweet treats made from local milk, eggs, butter, cream and fresh fruits. You can find Rendez Vous in two different locations in Naxos town: one at the port road and one opposite Tomata/Cine Naxos.
Don't be put off by the salty old sea dogs sitting outside the taverna, enjoying a little raki as the dusk settles. This is the place for the freshest grilled sardines or anchovies - and a range of other simple mezedes. Walk inside the small taverna, called The Jetty (right alongside where the big ferries dock) to select the small fish you would like to have grilled. We also enjoyed smokey eggplants smothered with fresh garlic and tomato, as well as the complimentary pickled octopus and vegetables. This is the perfect spot to sit and enjoy uninterrupted views of the sun setting over the Portara - you might even pick up a few fishing tips from the old sea captains sitting next to you.
Grilling heaven - Giannis Taverna, Halki
You'll be lured in by the chickens slowly turning on the rotisserie out front, along with the aromas wafting from the kontosovouli that is also slowly turning. Gianni’s Taverna is in the center square, known for the said kontosouvli. Gianni's equally famous gigantes (large white beans in homemade tomato sauce), grilled lamb chops and souvlaki will more than line your stomach before a visit to the Vallindra distillery - a short two minute stroll away.
Local delights - O Platanos Taverna, Apiranthos
Sit beneath the cool of the plane tree and enjoy a variety of traditional homemade dishes, such as ‘rosto’ pork in tomato sauce to cheese pie with mastic ice cream.
Self catering →
If you are self catering (or you want to take a little of the Naxiot food culture home) visit Kiriakos Tziblakis, dating from 1938 this store is packed to overflowing with bulk spices and plenty of local olives, olive oil, raki, honey and cheese. There is also a very (very) small (about five or so local farmers) laiki (the greek word for local market) in Naxos town, opposite Mythodea taverna most days in early summer until noon - its probably something to chance if it is actually on, rather than lock into your itinerary, given the flexible operating days and times.
The huge Koutelieris supermarket stocks nearly all local produce, as well as all other Greek essentials. Not like an ordinary supermarket we were bowled over by the friendly staff - especially at the deli section, where we were offered tasting after tasting of the local cheeses, to help us select the perfect one for that particular evening.
*This article first appeared at mulberrypomegranate.blogspot.com.au
*All images by Katrina Kallos