Add a dose of fantasy and desire, then observe
You’d think across today’s interconnected media-scape little could be added to the plethora of information on the fabled Greek islands. Everything is at your fingertips from Trivago to Rick Stein to Lonely Planet guides. Drowning in information is yet another possible holiday mishap. And yet each traveller holds a stash of secrets, with some little known gems worth exploring. So for what it’s worth, here’s my list of Greek islands worth searching for. Some pleasant surprises are in store.
Firstly, which island to choose? So many options are available as you stare at Google maps and scroll across the sea. Will it be in the Cyclades or the Dodekanissia? In the northeast Aegean, the Saronic or the Ionion seas? The Bermuda Triangle of Mykonos-Santorini-Ios is well established without a doubt. But after partying till dawn, glorious sunsets and the occasional debauchery, intrepid travellers may be seeking something more authentic. Jot down these places.
Angistri- the beauty of this tiny forested island is its proximity to Athens. Aboard the shonky passenger ferry the Aheos, it’s a mere hour and a half from Piraeus (assuming the ferry doesn’t plunge into the depths midway). On this picturesque island, a blind eye is turned towards pitching tents upon the bluff overlooking the sea. Camp and sleep under the stars and watch the twinkling lights of Aegina in the distance. Once upon a time, the beaches were patrolled by moral police consisting of a village priest and a few black-clad crones who scaled beneath cliff faces to perform citizen arrest on anyone minus their bathing suit. Things changed and even the priest today wears an earring when not officiating.
For cultural vultures, a trip to Hydra and neighbouring Spetses is a must. Whilst the islanders here battle over ancestral rights to revolutionary leader Bouboulina, the cultural stakes are equally high. The Magus owes its magical atmosphere to the time the author John Fowles spent teaching on Spetses. Iannis Xenakis, composer of abstract scores was schooled here.
Hydra can lay claim to Leonard Cohen (Bird on a Wire written when electrical wires looped from poles acting as a rest stop for birds) and Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin. youtube.com/watch?v=lPiZoPFpwG4
Only 1-2 hours by Flying Dolphin. On car-free Hydra the local taxi is the mule!
But let’s say you wish to spread your wings as Icarus did in mythology, thence Ikaria should be pencilled in. Its wild terrain is the setting for Dionysian revelry- the panegyria are something special- and thus this remote island has transformed from a place of political exile to pleasure escape. Old-timers and young travellers rule. Visit the thermal caves to be rejuvenated. Its rugged landscape, difficult to access beaches and laissez-faire attitude by the islanders is worth the 7-8 hour journey by sea. If the rust bucket European Express is still in operation, better take the inflatable dinghy. Trust me, it’s safer.
Whilst Lesbos gets all the media coverage (hoary jokes over its name- the ‘Lesbian Brotherhood of NSW’ was once such association that was laughed off the register in Sydney circa 1960), consider adjacent Lemnos and that speck of an isle Aghios Stratis. The austerity of the landscape and abandoned villages since the 1968 earthquake make for intriguing travels.
If the Oz connection gives appeal- then chase the letter K. Kastellorizo was the biggest island in my mind given the Kazzis in exile in Kingsford (a suburb in Sydney’s east) but the island remains the smallest in reality. A trip to Kythera is worth it too. Deemed a Little Oz given the generation of islanders that migrated to Australia, this exceptionally beautiful island contains not just divine beaches and rugged contours, but if you stay long enough and talk to its denizens you’ll hear of ghost tales, pirate history, underwater cannons and 19th-century artillery, and listen to opinionated matriarchs speaking perfect French.
From here once you board the Vincenzios Koroneos, the PA announcement is a siren’s call to the obscure, far-flung isle called Antikythera. Few journeys here as it has few amenities, and it’s off the grid style, not to everyone’s tastes. It’s hard to believe that in the Byzantine era its population reached 8000. Nowadays its off the beaten track aura attracts enquiring tourists drawn by its most notable item: the Antikythera mechanism (held in the Athens museum). Wifi is available given the Antikythera Mechanism is regarded as the world’s first computer, so it stands to reason you’ll get online (just beware of the pesky trojans who may corrupt your PC).
Equally remote is Gavdos with under 50 permanent residents. In high summer 3000 will descend to the island in the Lybian sea and hours from the port of Crete.
The island has 45 residents. There is no fresh water and the inhabitants collect rainwater for use as drinking water. Showering is not always possible. The island also has no own power and energy is served by generators, which are (usually) shut down at night. There are only a few ferry connections with the island. Archaeological finds have shown that Gavdos was already inhabited 3000 years before Christ. The nymph Calypso from the Odyssey would have lived on Gavdos. The name of the island has been changed many times over the years. In the Byzantine period, quite a lot of people lived on the island. In the Venetian period, Gavdos was abandoned, after which Gavdos became a stronghold for the pirates.
Finally from left field, I’d recommend Dionysus Island, Balueta, and Odos Isle which fit in the same category as Xiros. The first has trees in the shape of women, whose hair is made of leaves and ‘grapes spring from their fingertips”. The second is modelled on Plato’s philosophy (poets are banished because they can lead people astray, didn’t you know?). And the last carry roads that never stay still- they move you to your destination (the yellow brick road apparently originates from here).
Alas, these islands aren’t to be found in reality but in the Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Xiros is “somewhere” in the Aegean and once seen “cannot be forgotten, its image will haunt the traveller through his life, he will pine for its white sand and scorching sun”.
One proviso though: immediately after this encounter, you end up dead. So be careful what you wish for. But in thinking of which Greek island to head to remember wherever your imagination goes, it will find an island to match it.