Discover islands that rest like a string of jewels in the southern Aegean Sea, with medieval castles, walled cities and exquisite beaches en route.
Karpathos: Best for
Take a 70-minute flight, or the rather more leisurely 16-hour ferry, from
Athens on the Greek mainland.
Constructed centuries ago near the edge of the cliffs,
Karpathos’s whitewashed windmills were built to last. The wind rushes along the
footpath before them, muting the gentle snapping sound of their sails and of
the waves crashing against the cliff face 200 metres below. The island’s
western frontier, surrounded by the temperamental Aegean Sea, invokes a sense
of awe that only nature can deliver.
Karpathos is small, stretching seven and a half miles in
length and a mere two miles at its widest point, yet it manages to squeeze in a
great variety of landscapes, making it perfect for outdoor pursuits:
world-class surfing beaches, roads with soft hills ideal for cycling, and
shimmering, glass-blue water for swimming and snorkelling.
Walkers are particularly enchanted with Karpathos, eager to
explore the trails that seem to have unravelled across the island like unruly
yarn. Manolis Panagiotou is the head of the island’s Friends of Nature group
and leads walks at least once a week. ‘The map shows 155 miles of hiking paths,
but there are at least another 155 miles of trails not on the map,’ he says.
Karpathos is well
endowed with nature. Shaded olive groves, forested mountains, jagged cliffs and
hidden coves make walking an endless treasure hunt. ‘The scenery changes all
the time,’ Panagiotou remarks. ‘This is what makes Karpathos different. And
it’s rare to meet other people on the trail. It’s a lonely kind of place.’
Despite being nestled between Crete and Rhodes, Karpathos
feels far away from everywhere. Its isolated population live just as they have
for centuries, seeming half-pleased and half-snubbed at being left out of the
hubbub of the neighbouring islands.
Over the years, many of the islanders have flown the coop in
search of greater opportunities elsewhere, but recently they’ve begun returning
to Karpathos, recognising the beauty and potential of their tiny, windswept
Manolis moved to the island six years ago. ‘I hadn’t seen
such an island before,’ he says. ‘My family have always been occupied with the
sea – we’ve been sea captains as far back as my great-greatgrandfather – but
when I first came to Karpathos, I was fascinated. The other islands don’t
really make a difference to me. But this one, it’s beautiful.’
Where to eat
You won't get any more local than To Helliniko Restaurant, with its extended
family atmosphere and menu of Karpathian cheese, stuffed artichokes and roasted
goat (mains from £4.50; 00 30 22450 23932).
Where to stay
Perched on the cliffs with views over Kyra Panagia beach, Acropolis Studios has
modern and spacious rooms with balconies overlooking the coast and red-domed
church below. Delicious home-cooked food is served at the shady terrace
restaurant, including seafood dishes and moussaka (doubles from £63, including
breakfast; Kyra Panagia; 00 30 22450 23002).
Rhodes: Best for
Take a 35-minute flight or a 5-hour ferry from Karpathos, heading northeast
across the Aegean Sea.
Alleyways twist and
turn, leading deep into the labyrinth of the walled Old Town of Rhodes. Stone
buttresses arch overhead as narrow passageways open on to leafy squares.
Medieval mansions stand next to Byzantine chapels, Turkish baths and turreted
palaces. All that’s missing are armoured knights galloping past and a Gothic
princess crying out from a tower window. The museums are excellent, but the
history of this place can be felt in the buildings, squares and streets
It’s late afternoon. The sun bounces off the stonework to
create a golden, almost theatrical light as children play in the square and,
one by one, window shutters are opened to let in the cool evening air. As night
falls, this seemingly timeless place collides with modern life: a moped judders
along the cobbles and speeds around a bend, a fashionable wine bar opens its
doors. Music, both live and traditional, rings out along an alleyway, mingling
with smells of fresh seafood and exotic herbs emanating from a taverna kitchen.
Periklis Sirimis, alongside his father Basilios, is a
painter of traditional Byzantine icons using natural pigments mixed with egg
yolk, vinegar, holy water and 24-carat gold. ‘To be a painter you usually copy
something from nature,’ says Periklis, ‘but Byzantine artists were afraid to
paint the holy people and so we try to paint their spirit instead. We try to
make something that’s between here and the sky.’
Their studio, overflowing with colourful, stylised religious
icons of every size, is hidden away next to one of the ancient fortification
walls. ‘I like that the people who are interested come to see,’ Periklis
continues. ‘We don’t need to be like the tourist shops where people are around
us all the time. I want to be in a secret place.’ In the ancient, maze-like Old
Town, his secrets are guarded well.
Where to eat
Mandala offers modern Mediterranean dishes, like pasta with red pesto and
walnuts, and a well-stocked bar (mains from £9; restaurant-mandala.com).
Where to stay: Marco
The magic of the Old Town has found its way to this restored 15th-century
house in the old Turkish quarter. A rustic atmosphere sits comfortably with
plush décor and warm colours. Have breakfast in a private garden with views of
nearby minarets and the city’s walls. With just a few rooms, preference is
given to guests staying at least a week (doubles from £80; marcopolomansion.gr).
Kalymnos: Best for
life by the sea
Curve around the island of Kos, heading northwest on a 3-hour speedboat
trip from Rhodes
A boat chugs into Pothia harbour, colourful paint peeling
from its railings and the taste of salt heavy all around. It’s the perfect
vantage point to see the spirit of Kalymnos bursting forth at its most lively.
The air is filled with the sounds of fishermen unloading their boats, of dishes
banging at the waterside cafés, and of mopeds zipping past at full throttle.
Ashore, the colours begin their assault: the deep reds and bright blues of the
buildings, the orange of drying octopi, and the brown and stark white of
sailing masts piercing the sky.
Sponge diving has been the main industry of Kalymnos since
the days of Plato and, at heart, the people here still belong to the sea. They
are instantly recognisable as hard-working and downto- earth, ensuring that
island life here remains at its most authentic.
Each afternoon, next to Pothia’s harbour, sponge divers haul
in their catch. Facing the sea, backs leaning against the dazzling yellow
cathedral, they pull the sponges from large nets and lay them to dry with an
ease born of incalculable experience.
Many of these sponges find their way into Nikos and
Aphrodite Papachatzis’s shop, filled with sponges sized from tiny balls to
flutes large enough to lose an arm in. Since the 1980s, the industry has
flagged, but Aphrodite believes it is integral to the island’s identity and
remains hopeful for its future. ‘There’s no formal training – divers learn from
father to son – and you have to go very, very deep. But I hope more young
people will go back to the traditional ways.’
Boats are everywhere – from elegant schooners to colourful,
bobbing fishing vessels. Swaying with the waves, salty and sun-soaked captains
tell tales of Kalymnos and of what lies beneath the big blue.
Where to eat
Using produce from its own land, Harry's Paradise has an eclectic,
ever-changing menu featuring wine and garlic-marinated pork, and delicate
edible flowers (mains from £5.50; harrys-paradise.gr).
Where to stay
Set amid a flower garden in laid-back village Myrties, Villa Myrtia has
spacious apartments and studios – nothing flashy, just traditional comforts
that refuse to compete with amazing views from shaded verandas. The hotel is
right next to the sea, looking out to moored fishing boats and the Teledos
islet beyond (doubles from £36; villamyrtia.gr).
Leros: Best for
slowing down and relaxing
Kalymnos’s chilled-out northeastern neighbour is just 50 minutes away by
Time goes slower on
Leros. As the ferry sidles up into Agia Marina, next to faded fishing boats and
dozing taxi drivers, it’s almost possible to feel the mellowness in the warm
air. There are no big-hitters – only a couple of museums, a few ruins and a bit
of diving. The draw isn’t in the doing; Leros is the ideal location to just
‘be’. Sitting on the edge of the dock is the perfect way to be embraced by the
warm sunshine, while the breeze carries the smells of fresh baking, burnt
almonds and coffee. Cats stretch and locals wander by, but no-one’s going
Thanasis Argyroudis runs the Hotel Nefeli on Leros and has
lived here for over a decade. He believes the main attraction of the island is
its tranquillity. ‘The island is a unique place that gives people a certain
serenity. It reminds many people of the way islands used to be in the ’60s and
’70s because Leros didn’t have a lot of tourism growth over the years. The
traditional architecture has been preserved, which gives people a feeling that
they’re staying in a place that hasn’t been touched by time.’
Narrow roads wind their way between beautiful pastel-hued
buildings. Traditional bakeries display temptingly sticky sweets. The
10th-century Pandeli Castle fortress is perched like a sandcastle at the top of
town, catching the sunset on its stone walls and promising 360-degree views to
those who can bring themselves to leave their patio chair and climb to the top.
Beyond the castle, a row of creaking, old-fashioned windmills catch the sea
By the waterfront, hours can be easily whiled away doing little
more than sipping coffee and watching the colourful fishing boats – a prime
occupation on Leros. When asked to recommend activities on the island, Thanasis
considers for a moment. ‘There are hundreds of walking paths leading to
magnificent and beautiful places,’ he says. ‘But really, why do that when you
can just walk down a short path and watch a beautiful sunset?’
Where to eat
An artsy little restaurant serving calamari with pesto, Milos is easy to
find – it's by the famous watermill of Agia Marina (mains from £5; Agias
Marina; 00 30 22470 24894).
Where to stay
Whitewashed and spacious, there is something entirely comforting about the
rooms at Hotel Nefeli. Maybe it’s the villagestyle architecture or the elegant
bohemian touches of local art and textiles? Grab yourself a top-floor room and
contemplate the answer on the peaceful balcony with views over the
flower-filled garden to the sea (doubles from £71; nefelihotels.com).
Patmos: Best for
This Dodecanese spiritual centre is 45 minutes by speedboat
from Leros, northwest across the Aegean.
The air is filled with heady plumes of incense, bells are
tolling and the gathered devotees begin a chant that echoes under a lavishly
decorated ceiling. This is the Monastery of St John, a fortified Orthodox
priory perched high on a hill in the Old Town of Hora. Nearby, the nuns at the
Holy Monastery of Zoodochos Pigi light hundreds of candles to reveal walls
covered in intricate frescoes.
For centuries, Patmos has lured religious travellers, and
countless Christian pilgrims still come from all across the world to see the
island, considered one of the most sacred sites outside of Jerusalem.
The reason is just down the hill: the Cave of the
Apocalypse. It was here that the exiled Saint John of Patmos ensconced himself
in 95 AD and wrote the Book of Revelation. In the low ceiling of solid rock is
a triple fissure, through which the voice of God is said to have dictated the
The islanders of Patmos are a mix of proud locals and
long-term expats, most drawn here by a desire to express themselves spiritually
– or artistically. Shops selling handmade jewellery, paintings and other crafts
line the alleys.
Archmandrite Antipas has led a monastic life here for 24
years, and is not surprised that Patmos continues to draw visitors searching
for something sacred. ‘They hope to find positive energy, as young people say
nowadays,’ he says.
A large part of the
Patmos experience is simply relaxing and enjoying a feeling of peace as evening
light bathes the landscape in warm, reverential tones.
Where to eat
Benetos Restaurant features Mediterranean food with a Japanese kick, such
as house-cured salmon with wasabi (mains from £5; benetosrestaurant.com).
Where to stay
Stepping through the door of Archontariki Hotel is a magical experience. It
is a world away from the ancient narrow streets of Hora, with five luxurious
suites housed within a 400-year-old mansion. The rooms are furnished
traditionally with very plush touches. Relaxing under the fruit trees in its
tranquil garden is blissful (doubles from £133; archontariki-patmos.gr).
The article 'The perfect trip: The Dodecanese Islands' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.