Greece: Isle Be There
To go, or not to go? That was the question.
I had just returned from ten days in Africa, and was regretting not having seized the opportunity for a European August upon our Amsterdam layover. Enter best friend Ashley, once again proposing a jaunt to meet her brother abroad (as we had for a March Tulum trip), this time in two weeks in Greece. Cue the time vs. money argument in my head. I couldn’t justify the $1,600 airfare, but when I changed my return city from NYC (I needed to be on the East Coast for most of September anyway) to Boston in a final Hail Mary search, the price dropped by a whopping $1,000 dollars. Having never regretted one penny spent on travel, I packed five weeks’ worth of summer clothes into my carry on and set off for a Santorini-Naxos-Mykonos itinerary.
After a fortunate 10-hour layover in Newark (filed under: things you don’t hear everyday) that afforded me a Saturday in Hoboken with my family, I was airborne once again, waving to Mystic, CT and Montauk (both where I’d spend some days upon my return), and onward to mythical isles.
I spy a familiar face through customs on our synced arrival, and Ashley and I find our way to the tarmac shuttle for the quick flight to Santorini, where we will be checking in to the most luxurious hotel on the island. Just kidding! I had chosen lodging based on the self-instated tag line of “this isn’t my honeymoon,” and, unbeknownst to Ashley, booked us into an $80/night “mini economy” room. (My only stipulations for our two nights in Santorini were a clean room, near town, with a comfortable bed and air conditioning.) I trusted the Grecian wine and hotel’s rooftop would ease all spatial concerns. They did:
We spent Sunday afternoon riding donkeys in dresses (we are wearing dresses, not the donkeys…though they did have fabulous headpieces, see below) and dining cliffside in Fira, just steps along the pedestrian path in front of our abode. Greece’s excellent stair, door and balcony game becomes immediately apparent, as it does in most of my European travels. Here, it seems, marble is as abundant a material as wood composite is in America - a design element I'll admire throughout the trip.
Monday, we booked a catamaran island cruise for our first (and only) full day on the island, because when is a catamaran island cruise not the best way to spend a day? The 10 a.m.-3 p.m. tour began at the southern tip of Santorini and sailed past the famous Red and White Beaches, through the Caldera (the sea-flooded crater formed by a massive volcanic explosion c. 1600 BC that essentially sunk the middle of Santorini) for a dip in sulfuric hot springs, and ended at the village of Oia (é-yuh is my best pronunciation guidance) at the northwestern tip. There was a tour van to bring guests back to their hotels, but we opted instead to explore Oia’s renowned marble pathways and sunset vantage point while gazing longingly at plunge pools. We also managed to squeeze in a somewhat less conventional but oh-so-invigorating fish pedicure - a titillating experience, if you can manage to sink your feet fully into the bath once the fish swarm. And swarm they will.
Oia, and Santorini itself, are depicted so frequently in photographs that I almost felt like I’d already been there. The view from 1,000 feet is every bit as scenic as the pictures portray, but I don’t think we needed much more time on the requisite Santorini stopover than we had planned. Tuesday morning, we were ferry-bound for island number two: Naxos – the land of plentiful beaches and cheaper food.
It had been a toss up between Naxos and Milos for the second slot of our three-island tour, but ultimately, Naxos’ situation halfway between Santorini and Mykonos gave it the winning logistical edge. For Naxian lodging, I threw Ashley a bone and booked us two nights in a Junior Suite at the upscale (by Naxian standards – the whole island is pretty salt-of-the-earth) Nissaki Beach Hotel, and two nights back at the $80 rate at Nastasia Village. Both were delightful in their own right. The breakfast spread at Nissaki featured enough cheeses and Nutella confections to please, our suite doors opened onto a (marble!) seafront patio, and the onsite beach bar and restaurant were more than convenient. Nastastia Village, our boutique option, could charm the pants off a never nude. Our spotless (marble-floored!) abode was tucked off the side of a stone stairwell’s landing, the top-half of the stable-style, mint green door welcomingly ajar. From our balcony above the gardens and interior courtyard, we enjoyed a bottle of Prosecco that Jake had arranged (A+), and then caught a bus for an afternoon at a fabulous beach.
Nobody told us Greece was so windy...at least in early September. Does anyone talk about this? The sand was whipping our towel-strewn bodies but respite was to be found in the tranquil protected water. Our day sail had actually been cancelled due to high winds, but we were on for the next day. When the time came, the sudden realization that this was a ten-hour cruise in close sailboat quarters nearly had us backing out. Having already been firmly sandwiched between others in the stern, I convinced Ashley to stay. As we motored through the port, Ashley and I took the first opportunity to sprawl out on the bow. The captain didn’t seem concerned for our safety as we entered the open sea and the swell began to soak us, so we hung tight, with a death grip on the ¼” line running the length of the bow. Thankfully, we quickly passed the more perilous portion of the sail around the peninsula, and settled in for a cruise around the southern coast. Once the ship glided into one of many protected coves accessible only by boat, all semblance of wind vanished and the water became as calm and clear as a pool, fifty feet straight down. Cave snorkeling time! The captain handed out the gear, and a sea life-shy Ashley inquired as to what we might expect to find. “Nothing,” whispered our wry captain, “but don’t tell the others.” Dive on! We spent the rest of the day jumping into paradisiacal waters, before bracing against sheets of seawater on the trip back, still plastered to the bow. At this point, I think it had become a test of our bravery to stick it out up front. I can think of no other explanation.
In the spirit of cheating death, the next day we rent an ATV to explore the island’s mountainous interior. Naxos, the island of Zeus’ childhood, is deeply rooted in Greek mythology; history buffs can take their pick among geological, archaeological, folklore, and natural history museums, and we set out for the mountaintop village of Aperinthos that houses at least three. I enjoy the passing olive tree groves and fertile valleys of the greenest island in the Cyclades as we ascend the slope-hugging road, while Ashley focuses only on navigating an ATV for the first time. She was a real star. We arrive at the pinnacle in tact, and wander the pedestrian (marble!) streets, marveling at the seemingly endless number of pastel doors at every turn.
With the ATV safely returned in one piece, we spent our evening strolling through Chora, or, Naxos town – the main port. This seaside promenade is alive at night with families, waterfront bars and restaurant, and shops along the stone alleys winding up like veins from a main artery, all watched over by a medieval Venetian castle, aglow on the hilltop. Every bar - one after the next, little mom-and-pop operations, are decorated as beautifully as a Soho House, bougainvillea drifting down rooftop terraces seemingly effortlessly. It’s a surreal scene to take in, as my eyes scan over the 2,500-year-old Temple of Apollo, across the sailboats and out onto sea and stars.
The next morning, we rolled our suitcases into town to catch a ferry to Mykonos, stopping along the way at our favorite gyro joint for one last taste of €2 heaven. We were, however, too embarrassed to go in, as the same staff had been working during our previous night’s - and afternoon, and morning – visit. Shamed by our gyro dependence, we went hungry, which may have been for the best, seeing as the woman seated behind us became ill on the ferry the seas were so rough. Skilled captains must be used to the challenge, as we arrived on time, where we finally met Ashley’s brother and friend for the final leg of our holiday: Mykonos Style.
If I had tried to be budget conscious throughout the trip, all bets were off in Mykonos. We rented a car and drove to the famous untz-untz deejayed beach clubs on Super Paradise beach, just to see them and get it out of the way. There was a bottle of rose on the menu for €20,000. Maybe more. Our new travel companion laid out the typical Mykonos schedule: 12-4 p.m. lounge at villa, 4-8 p.m. beach club and lunch, 8 p.m.-12 a.m. chill time back at villa, 12-4 a.m. dinner/out, 4 a.m.-12 p.m. sleep. We did indeed have a midnight dinner reservation in the festive garden of Interni, in town. The truth is, though, Mykonos is a choose-your-own-adventure island. You could follow the aforementioned routine easily, if that’s what you’re looking for. But Mykonos also offers some of the finest beaches, and you can avoid the party scene entirely. There’s something for everyone.
But back to this villa “lounge/chill” time. After weeks of indecision, at the eleventh hour Kyle landed us the pièce de résistance of the trip’s lodging: the aptly named Sea View Villa of Zinas Villas. Built around the natural edges of a rocky outcrop on top of the world, an expansive wooden deck with three levels and no fewer than seven intimate lounge areas sprawled out before my eyes as we ascending the stairs leading from the driveway; it even took me a second to notice the corner infinity pool I was so overwhelmed. Beyond stood our whitewashed, sky blue-shuttered, pebble-and-seashell-adorned four bedroom oasis. Surprises and delights were found as we explored each room, floor to ceiling - seashells for doorknobs, sandy scenes delicately arranged beneath glass tables and between door panels, amusing eccentric touches like faucets that light up and purple plexiglass shower doors. Balconies off each en suite bedroom. A boat for a daybed. A litter of villa kittens! (My party was rather unenthused about the cats, insisting I chase them away when my feeding them became an “indoor issue”). I was starting to feel very grateful for our designated villa time, but there were beaches to be seen!
From a lengthy swim in the enchanting water at undeveloped Sostis Beach, to the exquisite Principaute de Mykonos beach club at Panormos Beach (seriously, this place is the epitome of beach chic. I think I was mostly too awestricken to take photos but Google it and you will see), and onto the Tulum-esque and very windy Alemagou Beach Bar, we put our car and backstrokes to good use that day.
The next day, we drove across the island to another crystal-clear cove, Agia Anna Beach, for a unique gastronomic experience in a cave. Navigate the slick rocky “steps” around the point at the southern end of the beach, and Spilia Seaside Restaurant reveals itself, whose name does indeed mean cave. We dined beneath a sun-dappled canopy on sundried octopus and squid and seafood linguini and uni plucked right from their tidal pool basin mere feet from the table (okay okay I lied, no one in our party actually eats sea urchin but damn it was a magnificent sight to behold) while a DJ spun house music from deeper in the cave. Highly recommend, and you may even be able to access the restaurant from the small hotel above, but where’s the fun in that?
When the final evening came, too soon, as it always does, I stood on my balcony and soaked in the view of twinkling Mykonos town below, its revelry too distant to be heard. I surrendered to the sweet ecstasy of softly closing a balcony door, turning on the air conditioning, and crawling into a fine king size bed. The boys had just driven off for one last night on the town when the power went out. Oh dear, I thought to myself as I shot up, this is it. The robbers have seen the car depart, I theorize, and assume nobody is home. Ashley and my presence will startle them and it will go downhill from there. Ashley wants to literally hide under the bed (and she’s seen Taken!), I am stomping around making as much noise as possible to give said robbers a chance to flee. We peek out the window and see two figures moving around in the dark. I see a flashlight. The end is near. Just then – voila – the power comes back on as the maintenance guys reset the circuit breaker. It turns out, power outages are quite common. Noted for next time.
All that is left in the morning is a trip to the airport. Fair warning for all who travel RyanAir: do whatever it takes to print your boarding passes in advance. If we hadn’t, we definitely would have missed the flight at chaotic, disorganized Mykonos airport and paid a hefty fee at that. One Liam Helmsworth sighting later though, and we were calmer and airborne to Athens for our goodbyes. I had a layover in Zurich, and the landing was flanked by forests and fields and rivers and country roads, scenery clearly not lost on the designers of the glass airport. And I now have a Swiss stamp in my passport, which I will have to do justice one day…