UNCOVERING THE SECRET CYCLADES

The only crisis on the unknown Cycladic islands of Ios, Sikinos, Folegandros and Sifnos is of a personal nature: should you be lounging on an empty beach; sharing leisurely lunches with like-minded travellers; or strolling through whitewashed villages? Debbie Pappyn ponders how to spend her days on these forgotten Greek Islands.

All travellers should have a Maria Nikolakaki Koletsou as their personal concierge, although the enigmatic Cycladic islands do not require a lot of explanation or promotion. Of course, there’s Mykonos and Santorini; but hop just one island further away, and you’ll find a collection of Cycladic islands where the real Greek life has not yet been compromised by (mass) tourism. When I ask Maria from Beyond Spaces Villas, an expert in Greek travel, where we should head next to sense the real Aegean charm (minus the busloads of tourists), she quickly directs us to the east, west, south and north of Mykonos and Santorini. What we find is total Greek bliss.

Quiet Sikinos

A hop away by public ferry or private yacht is Sikinos, a little known island rarely featured in any travel guide or blog. There is just one petrol pump, only open two hours a day during the summer and once a week out of season. George Manalis is the pump keeper. He is also the ex-mayor of Sikinos; runs a delightful, albeit simple, guesthouse; and owns a vineyard together with his wife Maria.

Sikinos Manalis Winery

If you want to survive on a quiet island like Sikinos, measuring 41 km² and with only 200 permanent inhabitants, you must be both polyvalent and creative. George’s passion is wine, and his Manalis vineyard overlooks the Med and the island of Folegandros in the distance. The terrace is a favourite meeting spot for locals and the few travellers who find their way to the island. Around dusk, we descend to relax over a glass of wine and watch the darkening sky, which turns flaming red after sunset. In the old days, Sikinos was the wine mecca of the Mediterranean and local grapes such as Asyrtiko, Aidani, Madilaria and Monemvasia were grown here in vast quantities. With his eleven-year-old vineyard, George Manalis wants to revive this illustrious past through the reintroduction of local grapes and the production of beautiful, straightforward wines. Call it a small wine renaissance on a tiny island nobody has ever heard of.

Then there’s Chóra (or Kástro), a calm but cosy village with a walled square and at its centre, the chapel of Pantánassa. On Sunday, there’s church and men play the Greek version of petanque in front of a sensational Mediterranean backdrop. Don’t come here if you’re looking for crazy nightlife; what you’ll get instead are several lively tavernas in the narrow streets, covered with old vines and serving amazing home-made dishes, while somebody plays guitar in the distance and cats run through quiet alleys. We soon discover that less is always more on the Greek islands.

Long hikes on Sikinos

Secluded Sifnos

Another well-kept secret is Sifnos. Lovers of the good life often find their way here just before or after the summer, especially for the yearly food festival in September. Past the compact and energetic port, Artemonas, the inland villages have narrow streets flanked with small white-washed houses. Around the island are many secluded beaches and bays where you can spend a whole week relaxing without feeling guilty. Vathi Beach is our favourite for a few reasons, but the main one has to be “To Tsikali” taverna, right on its shores. Nikolaos Frazeskaros, together with his wife Flora and two sons Dimitris and Giorgos, has been at the helm of this pieds dans l’eau restaurant in the dreamy bay of Vathi since 1983.

Nikos has his own farm where he keeps chickens, rabbits and goats – “the best meat on the island!” says this super friendly chef. He cooks this magic meat for hours in a special sauce made with white wine and local herbs. Everything served on the table, from the homemade cheeses to the homemade spinach pies and keftedes, is heavenly and 100% natural. After lunch, head back for some dolce far niente in one of the luxury villas on the island, like the brand-new Villa Horizon from the Beyond Spaces Villas collection. It sleeps up to 12 guests and has sensational views over the Med. The villa even has its own private herb and veggie garden, so a private chef can continue the tradition of the Frazeskaros family and cook local while sticking to the healthy Mediterranean diet – washed away with beautiful Greek wines, of course.

Idyllic Ios

Ios is a lovely and rather compact island where Le Grand Bleu was filmed. Besides Manganari Beach, there’s another reason why we picked this island: Ios is known for its superb cuisine. We had the best fish ever at Taverna Drakos, a family-owned eatery where the owner’s son Georges Drakos is in charge. He is a textbook example of a strong, athletic Greek. In his tiny shed beside the restaurant Georges weighs and fillets the catch of the day together with a couple of his friends and fishermen. The small tables almost tumble into the azure blue sea. Don’t feel bad about spending hours over lunch; slow food is the norm here.

Another one of our favourites to experience Ios on your plate is Taverna Bilaeti, located in the heart of the island. No fish is served here, but anything that grows and runs around freely is on the menu: rabbit, lamb, goat and kontosouvli (marinated pork on a skewer) are all slowly grilled over a glowing fire. Everything is served with generous helpings of vegetables from the family’s own garden. While matron Anna Batsali is the chef, her husband stands firmly behind the grill and her father fires up the wood ovens early in the morning so enormous casseroles of rabbit or goat can slowly simmer until midday. On Ios you’ll find delightful places to stay, from the stylish, designer Liostasi Hotel to beautiful, private villas like Villa Giorgia from the Spaces Beyond portfolio. Just avoid July and August, when the island is in the firm grip of a fairly large party crowd. The rest of the year, however, it’s blissfully quiet.

Fun Folegandros

In the summer, many sophisticated thirty or forty-something Athenians flock to the island of Folegandros. They come every year, they all know each other, and they don’t need much more than sun, sea and good food to enjoy a great holiday. Recently a brand new luxury property has popped up: Villa Maia, located in a remote spot on 8000 square metres of land, is the perfect villa for a get-together with friends or family.

Folegandros has a stunning, car-free chora (centre) without stairs or hills but with a labyrinth of whitewashed houses, where in the evening a range of vibrant little tavernas and bars are perfect to socialise in after a day of sun and sea. We start our day in the Pounta (coffee) bar and restaurant in town and then head for Agkali beach, where we munch on freshly caught fish for lunch in Taverna Agali. We sometimes walk to the other beach of Agios Nikolaos where there are even fewer people and we get the Med to ourselves. In the evening, we have our aperitif on the square next to Taverna Chrisospilia and then eat at Sic, owned by a German lady who fell in love with a Greek. Ah, the romance!

Kastro, the old town of Folegandros

What we love even more about Folegandros is that there’s also a quiet side to the island. The only other village is Ano Meria, ten minutes from chora. Venture here for the restaurant To Iliovasilema (or ‘Sunset’), where the entire Marinakis family produce and grow everything they serve. Try their matsata, the local handmade pasta, served with home-raised pigeon or cockerel. A dish like this is perfection in its simplicity. While I watch Mamma Marinakis prepare her matsata, I ask if the family felt the recent economic crisis? “No, not really,” she smiles, while whipping some flower from her apron. When you are almost 100 % self-sufficient on a small Cycladic island, where everyone looks after one another and the kind of traveller likes to spend his money at local establishments rather than in huge, international, all-inclusive hotels, then all is well. As long as the sun is shining and the Meltemi wind is blowing, life is good on the beautiful Cyclades.

Agkali Beach on Folegandros

Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.