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Greek Islands

Greek Islands - Mandrakia Milos - Dodd Family Adventure Blog

Day 1-2: Santorini

Our first flight, post COVID-19, went smoothly; airports were home to tumbleweeds and fellow passengers were avid mask wearers. It was a strange new norm but we were happy to escape the monotony (and weather) of UK life. Our next three insouciant weeks, were to be spent Greek island-hopping, seeking uncrowded beaches and freedom, after such a torrid year.

Our first stop, uber-famous Santorini, was frosted with sugar-cubed houses, blue-domed churches and vertiginous cliffs in psychedelic hues. We arrived in time for a quick dip in the pool before heading to the Akrotiri Archaeological Site, an ancient Cretan settlement unearthed under tons of lava. After a quick history lesson, we headed to Aroma Avli winery for dinner. After four long months of cooking seemingly thousands of dinners for three ravenous children, being served fresh sea bass was heaven on a plate.

We only had a short time to explore Santorini so we wanted to make the most of it. We were up bright and early the next morning to grab fresh spanakopita at the local bakery, before the start of our Fira to Oia coastal hike. 10 km in length, along the rim of the caldera, it should have taken 3-4 hours to complete but embarrassingly took us a whole day, due to the sheer abundance of pretty churches, rocky outcrops, quaint villages and the most breath-taking caldera views imaginable. The last section of the walk was the wildest with cobbled walkways turning into narrow, cliff paths reminiscent of Frodo’s journey to Mordor.

In Oia (pronounced EE-ah), we popped into Atlantis Books, a whimsical bookshop with hobbit-like rooms, before a sunset dinner overlooking the caldera.

Day 3-7: Naxos

If a shot of adrenaline (or bitter Greek coffee) is required before any island-hopping adventure, Santorini port provides. We settled ourselves into one of the tavernas amidst the bustle of port life. Over chocolate croissants and fresh juice, we witnessed the booming ship’s horns, the screeching sea birds and the throng of travellers swarming to catch the next ferry. Much to the kid’s amusement, a socialite in heels tripped on the ferry gangplank, causing a wheelie case pile up.

Just a 1½ hour ferry ride from Santorini, Naxos is our home away from home, our favourite Greek island. It’s hard to put our finger on why this is but probably because life is much simpler here, tourism is young and the locals genuinely pleased to see you. There are no characterless, cookie-cutter resorts or large hotel complexes, just low-rise cubist architecture covered in hot pink bougainvillea. While most of the other Cycladic islands are as dry as toast, Naxos is covered in verdant valleys and clusters of whitewashed houses nestled into a Bruegel-like landscape. There are fabulous sweet tomatoes, super-tasty potatoes and honking farmhouse cheeses. On the coast, Naxos boasts the best beaches in the Cyclades with long stretches of powdery-white sands flanked by unbelievably turquoise waters.

We spent the next four days adjusting to island life - long breakfasts, good books and beach walks interspersed with an occasional dip in the pool or sea. We’ve visited Naxos many times in the past but always make time to explore the island a little more. On Day 5, we headed across the mountainous interior from our base in Stelida to Apollonas on the north-east coast. This tiny traditional fishing village built around a sheltered bay, boasts a great selection of seafront tavernas selling freshly caught seafood. It is idyllic, authentic and utterly charming. The kids spent a happy few hour jumping off the stone jetty and swimming in the crystal-clear waters.

Afterwards, we called in at the nearby bakery for freshly baked pastries and find owner, Nikos, wrapping small chocolate cakes in foil. As he carefully wraps cakes (and eats them), we estimate that he must be well over 90 years-old. He attributes this to the local wine and his love of figs. We left his chatting to an elderly customer of equal vintage.

Day 8-11: Milos

We were booked on the slow ferry service from Naxos to Milos where a combination of strong winds and excessive ice cream consumption resulted in sick bag central! Despite our late arrival and vomit splattered clothes, we were still greeted by our host, the slightly over enthusiastic, Aris. Don’t get me wrong, he was very sweet, but the accommodation branded uniform and clipboard were a little unsettling as was his request to meet us in the morning to discuss his ‘proposals’ for our stay in Milos (time to shimmy down the drainpipe to exit via the back entrance).

We had three full days to explore Milos, an island smouldering like King Alfred’s cakes. On Day 1, we headed to the medieval mountainside town of Trypiti to visit the early-Christian catacombs and ancient Roman amphitheatre. It was a 2 hour wait for the catacombs so they were hastily scrubbed off the list so we bellowed Shakespearean sonnets in the amphitheatre instead and examined the spot where the famous Venus de Milo was discovered 200 years ago. Next, we headed to Firopotamos where the kids rolled around in the waves and jumped off jetties and Mandrakia where we stopped for dinner looking out over the syrmata (colourful boat houses). Milos, we were fast realising, is different on a whole different scale to the other Greek islands we had visited: starker, sharper and sometimes downright weird. There’s a beach only accessible by ladder, a taverna that stands in the sea and strange coloured rock formations everywhere.

Day 2 was spent at dazzling Sarakiniko, with its lunar landscape lagoon. We spent a blissful few hours before the kids decided to slide down algae covered rocks resulting in allergic reactions springing into life. Poor Oscar looked like his leg had been attacked by a swarm of angry wasps. We hosed him down with some bottled water and smeared his leg with a variety of creams from my eternally useful medical kit before heading off to Papafragas Cave to float in quiet isolation. A sushi dinner and sublime chocolate pudding in Pollonia righted the days wrongs.

Our last day in Milos was spent at sea on the fabulous Volcano boat. From the south coast at Paleochori, we headed west towards jaw-dropping Kleftiko with its towering, limestone rocks sprinkled like jewels in an aquamarine sea. From here we dived, swam and snorkelled in 25C water and spotted goldblotch groupers, sea anemones and an irate octopus that squirted angry ink. Back on deck, we helped ourselves to bread & fig jam made by the captain’s grandmother - Greek hospitality incarnate. It was a perfect day and one of our favourite ever boat trips!

Day 12-15: Folegandros

It was just a 1-hour ferry hop from Milos to Folegandros, a diminutive Greek island exemplified by shattered hills, pretty white churches and thyme-scented hiking paths. Folegandros offered a Greece of the past; low-key tavernas run by black-clad grandmothers, stone-paved donkey tracks, local kids cannon-balling from wooden jetties and elders knocking back shots of rakomelo. We, fell in love, instantly.

On arrival at the port, we were met by Yiannis, our accommodation host. Our studio wasn’t ready yet so he apologised profusely, directed us to the nearest taverna and paid for a round of drinks. We didn’t mind, the sun was shining and we were sipping freshly squeezed juice next to turquoise blue seas. Life, in 2020, finally felt good.

We were up with the roosters the next morning, to explore the northern side of the island. We headed to Agali beach, first, where we swam and watched a holidaymaker take a beachside yoga class before rebalancing our own chakra at the beachside café. From Agali, we hiked along an ancient coastal path through crumbling antique terraces fragrant with juniper, thyme and sage to the Insta-worthy church of Agios Nikolaos with inquisitive lizards and the occasional obstreperous goat for company.

To celebrate our burst of exercise, we headed to the nearby village of Ano Meria to feast on Greek salads and gyros. The sense of peace and isolation here was awe-inspiring. The village seemed sun-stunned and silent. An octopus hung on a washing line while old ladies swept doorsteps where kittens played. A man rode past on a donkey. Both of them appeared to be asleep. It was the Greece we had always dreamed of.

In the evening, we headed to Chora, where the whitewashed cubism of Cycladic architecture weaved its magic among the artful maze of outdoor eating areas, boutiques and little bars offering the dangerously moreish subterfuge of rakomelo (raki with honey) - the perfect evening setting with not a donkey plop in sight. We settled in a restaurant on the main square and feasted on fresh fish and pistachio ice cream before wandering the cool narrow lanes of the Kastro where an old lady banged tin cans signalling dinner time for the neighbourhood cats.

The next day, after a leisurely breakfast in Karavostasi, we hopped on the water taxi to Katergo beach, visiting coves and caves along the way. Katergo beach was busy with young Greeks enjoying the summer heat. Thankfully there was also a fresh breeze which caused a few flying parasols with one particularly fetching red & white number settling half way up the cliff. We spent a few happy hours swimming, snorkelling and watching cliff jumpers hurl themselves off the rocky outcrop just offshore. At sunset, we made the pilgrimage up the zigzagging path to Panagia church with the most spectacular island views as reward. Folegandros had been heart-breakingly beautiful and we vowed to return one day.

Day 15-21: Naxos

The Blue Star ferry took four hours from Folegandros to Naxos but we scarcely recall a lovelier voyage. The huge boat sucked up salty spray whisked by the intensifying meltemi winds in sea as royally-blue as Cycladic domed roofs. There were also no vomiting children which is always a bonus!

Our last few days on Naxos were spent exploring & eating. We headed inland to the bougainvillea-clad neoclassical village of Halki, sprinkled with arty boutiques, stylish cafes serving tar-like coffee and enchanting village squares. We toured the century-old Vallindra Kitron distillery, where the potent alcohol made from citrus leaves left our tongues tingling and enjoyed Kalymnian chickpea stew in one of the old kafeneions in Apeiranthos. Given the Dantean heat of summer, the majority of our time was spent at the beach. Agios Prokopios and Plaka provided hours of fun with swimming, snorkelling and long, lazy lunches in the boho beach bars. Seeking wilder adventure, the kids boarded banana boats and inflatable sofas, catapulting off waves with squeals of delight before learning the basics of windsurfing at a more sedate pace. We also made time for a trip to our favourite beach, Alyko, home to juniper-fringed coves and guarded by an abandoned hotel adorned with the hippest of artwork.

Our evenings were spent by the beach or in Naxos Town. We got hopelessly lost in the Kastro trying to find the ultimate ice-cream shop, witnessed spectacular sunset views at the 2,500-year-old Portara and enjoyed lamb so ridiculously tender, an ant could push it off the bone. In many ways, this had been a truly old-fashioned holiday where we had spent companionable time together, the enticing lights of the Xbox left back home. 2020 had been a challenging year so far (and we knew it had not finished yet) but the memories of our three weeks in Greece would see us through.

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