While the northeast Aegean is off the main tourist routes, even in the well-known Greek island groups you can find the odd place that’s little changed over the decades
ASTYPALEA DODECANESE WHY AM I GOING? On the map, Astypalea appears to be a butterfly captured mid-flight between Kos and Santorini; the island’s two wings are linked by a narrow strip that’s also home to the tiny airport. This wayward member of the Dodecanese is conveniently overlooked by most non-Greeks, and development has been blissfully low-key. The prize view on the island is of hilltop Hora, the pristine white old town, seemingly flowing along a spur capped by eight defunct windmills, then down the slope until it reaches the harbour at Skala, Astypalea’s main settlement. The island’s beaches – mostly a mix of pebbles and sand – give onto vivid blue bays. The most eye-catching are actually a short boat trip away, to the neighbouring, uninhabited islets of Koutsomyti and Kounoupi. The latter’s beach is a ribbon that unites the two parts of the island, rather like an Astypalea in miniature (day trips from £13; astypaleatours.gr). WHERE SHOULD I STAY? At Fildisi, a villagestyle cluster of 10 whitewashed houses with royal-blue shutters steps down the hillside to the infinity pool and bar, which look out over Livadi Bay. The purist colour scheme continues inside the studio apartments (from £90; fildisi.net). WHAT AM I EATING? Seafood comes with a dash of sophistication at Astropelos, set on the beach at Livadi and shaded by tamarisk trees. The ceviche catch of the day, grilled octopus and lobster spaghetti are highlights (mains from £8). WHAT AM I DRINKING? The Latin-Caribbean influence on its cocktail menu aside, Castro Bar is no Cuban pastiche: its sunset-friendly terrace perches under the old Venetian kastro (castle) in Hora. Keep things sort-of-local with a Mellow Mint, which includes mastic liqueur (facebook.com/ castrobar.astypalaia).
KYTHIRA IONIAN ISLANDS
WHY AM I GOING? The southernmost of the seven main Ionian Islands is a beautiful outlier, closer to Crete than it is to the rest of its group. Greenery blankets most of the island, growing out of control around waterfalls such as the Neraïda cascade at Mylopotamos, whose pool changes shades of blue and green in a play of light. The island’s tiny hilltop capital, also known as Kythira (or Hora), has a good choice of tasteful small shops selling hand-woven clutch bags and bespoke jewellery, while inland Potamos hosts a Sunday-morning flea market as the surrounding cafés fill up. The village is also the base for Pyrgos House, which runs a fabulous choice of outdoor activities on the island, including guided walks, sea-kayaking, olive-picking and canyoning (pyrgoshouse.com). The Ancient Greeks picked Kythira (along with Cyprus) as one of the two mythical locations for the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love. If you head to the southeast-coast sands of Kaladi, keep an eye out for any Renaissance painting- worthy beauties floating in on a giant scallop shell. WHERE SHOULD I STAY? Be the lord or lady of all you survey at Xenonas Fos ke Choros (‘Guesthouse Light and Space’). On a hilltop in the centre of the island, with views to the Ionian Sea, this sturdy traditional villa has four rustic rooms, with cushioned flagstone benches, metalwork lanterns and driftwood-framed mirrors (from £85; agreekisland.com). WHAT AM I EATING? Rabbit stew, veal chops and other hearty dishes are the mainstays at O Platanos, along with salads that include island barley rusks. This utterly charming kafeneio (café) takes its name from the plane trees that shade it in the centre of Mylopotamos village (mains from £5). WHAT AM I DRINKING? Frappé (frothy iced coffee) might be the Greek standard, but Veranda Café prides itself on its freddo cappuccino. This smart spot in Hora also has a well-stocked bar and a terrace with sea views that’s perfect for a beer at sunset (veranda-kythira.gr).
WHY AM I GOING? Near the centre of the Cyclades, but far from mass tourism (there’s no airport, only ferry access), Sifnos has dreamy views – particularly around the town of Kastro, a cluster of sugar-cube houses on a rock above the east coast. If you like your beaches to be big, on sheltered bays and backed up by a choice of tavernas, look south and west at Platis Gialos, Vathy and Kamares. For more intimacy, head south to Fasolou or north to Vroulidia. Sifnos also has a strong culinary reputation for an island of its size, and one place visitors can share in its creative side is at Sifnos Farm Narlis, whose cooking classes begin with picking herbs and vegetables in the garden (from £55; sifnos-farm-narlis.com). WHERE SHOULD I STAY? From its vantage point high on the east coast, Verina Astra has endlessly compelling Aegean views from the verandas outside its seven suites. Traditional techniques are used inside and out – dry-stone walls, basketwork – for a result that still looks very contemporary (from £125; verinahotelsifnos.com). WHAT AM I EATING? In labyrinthine, hilltop Apollonia, Rambagas Restaurant’s tree-shaded terrace is a venue for Cycladic cuisine in new guises: summer tomato fritters in yoghurt and mint sauce, or pork shoulder souvlaki with lemon tzatziki (mains from £12; kikladonxoros.gr). WHAT AM I DRINKING? Choose from more than 50 Greek wines – mostly from small producers – at Omega 3. Ones from Assyrtiko grapes are a favourite. The nutrition-minded name of this south-coast beachfront bar hints at its other mainstay: all things fish (facebook. com/omega3greece).
HYDRA SARONIC ISLANDS WHY AM I GOING?
Only four miles off the Greek mainland, and less than two hours’ sailing from the port of Athens, Hydra is not remote in any geographical sense. Cars and motorbikes are banned here, however, so most of island life has stayed within walking radius of the main – indeed, only – town. This rises like an amphitheatre from the small harbour, in tiers of terracotta-tiled stone houses. Here, the most vivid sounds are the clop of donkeys’ hooves and the babble from café tables. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was a honeypot for the rich and artistically inclined: Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren among them. Each summer for the past decade, a branch of Athens’ Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art has put on an exhibition in a stone-built old slaughterhouse (deste.gr). Striking out further into this spindly, but mountainous island depends on how far you’re willing to hike to a beach, though water-taxis do reach some coves and there’s also the option of saddling up with Harriet’s Hydra Horses (rides from £23; hydradirect.com).
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
Used in the 19th century as a sponge factory, Bratsera Hotel offers 25 rooms with wood-beamed ceilings and plastered stone walls, all arranged around its courtyard pool in the heart of Hydra Town (from £165; bratserahotel.com).
WHAT AM I EATING?
Overlooking the entrance to Hydra’s main harbour, Omilos serves attractively presented, yet simple dishes such as seafood risotto or sea bass with crushed potato. In its 1960s incarnation, the restaurant was a jet-set favourite and its interior is still modishly white – the canopied waterside terrace is the highlight (mains from £12; omilos-hydra.com).
WHAT AM I DRINKING?
Continue a little further along the coast from Omilos and you’ll reach Spilia Beach Bar. With cocktails on the menu, and swimmers jumping off from the rocks below the terrace, it’s a carefree place to await sunset (email@example.com).
Dusk falls over the hilltop town of Hora and the old port of Astypalea island
The whitewashed houses and narrow lanes of Hora, the main town in Kythira. BOTTOM RIGHT The fishing village of Avlemonas
The beach of Vathy with the Monastery of the Archangels (Taxiarchis). INSET Basket bowls adorn the wall of a room at Verina Astra
The waterside terrace at Spilia Beach Bar. LEFT A fishing village on Hydra