There’s a reason why Santorini and Mykonos are Greece’s most popular tourist hotspots. Both islands are completely beautiful and special places on this earth, filled with natural beauty, hospitality and history.
But having spent much of my life popping around the Cyclades (key-KLAH-dez) — the most famous and most visited Greek island group — and one that people associate with idyllic photos of whitewashed houses, teeming bougainvillea and perfect endless beaches — I am going to argue that you should skip the big islands, in favour of another, lesser travelled side of the Cyclades.
The Small Cyclades offer the beauty and splendour of the big boys, without the tourists, the crowding and the exorbitant high season prices. And for those of us who centre our travels on good food, I’d argue that the eats are so much more delicious, usually cooked by a Yia-Yia in her home kitchen or a small family-run taverna, versus a restaurant. I’d take a small Cycladic island over a big one any day of the week.
Earlier this year, I was stoked to see that Conde Nast Traveler made my beloved Small Cyclades its April 2015 cover story, in preparation for summer travel season. A stunning multiple-page spread was devoted to a handful of the Cyclades’ smaller beauties: Paros, Antiparos, Naxos and Pano Koufonisi.
In her article, Lindsay Talbot quotes photographer Cecil Beaton, in a line about Paros that I think sums up the Small Cyclades in a swift tug:
“We have lived in a timeless haze of repetition. Life is nothing but sleep, swim, eat, and read. One day merges soothingly into another without incident. Each day is a pattern.”
The Small Cyclades are the places we go to forget this world, to forget the day of the week, to become lost in the quiet rhythm of island life — wake by sunrise to climb the big hill and pet Achileas’ goats; pick suka (figs) and stafilia (grapes) from an abandoned grove; laze down to the sea for a swim and nap in the low-slung sun; shower away the saltwater in the open air; tuck into a feast of village salad and stuffed vegetables and whatever fish was reeled in that day; catch a siesta on the porch before an evening swim; and linger over mezes and ouzo and glyka on the porch of the village taverna, talking and yelling and dancing into the starlight with locals and summer sisters, alike. Everyone together, in the same honey-slow rhythm. Repeat. Over and over.
Yes, I romanticize. But this is Beaton’s Cyclades, this is my Cyclades, and the Cyclades of so many others I have been grateful to meet through the years.
To that end, here are my top small Cycladic islands, should you want to branch out on your next — or take a less-traveled route on your first — visit to the Greek islands.
I have a big ol’ soft spot for Paros, as it was the first of the Greek islands that I was allowed to visit alone as an “adult”… my sister, cousin and I took a day trip when I was 13 and we famously (in our family) almost missed the final ferry home. My grandpa would have had our heads!
Paros received top billing in the Conde Nast feature for good reason. Just west of Naxos, it’s a decent-sized island (but not too big) with all the charms of a tiny dot. Paros was an island made famous for her white marble, and abandoned quarries still dot the island. You can take the ferry into either the main port of Parikia or Naoussa, a little port on the island’s north side (many of the smaller ship lines dock here).
Don’t miss: The tiny inland mountain village of Lefkes, located about 10 kilometres from Parikia — completely instagram-worthy with narrow, whitewashed lanes and teeming pink flowers affixed to each house front.
Naxos is the big fish in the Small Cycladic sea, a massive island where most of the group’s animal husbandry and fruit and vegetable farming occurs. I will always think of Naxos as the place my grandpa goes to run all the big errands — talking to the telephone guy, buying tools and supplies for the house or making a pre-holiday grocery run. For that reason, it was always less glamourous to me as a kid, but has grown on me as an adult.
Now I see that Naxos’ bigness is part of her charm. You can just as easily spend a day roaming through her capital, Chora, as you could spend weeks enjoying the far reaches of the little villages that make up this rolling island.
Don’t miss: while in port, veer left toward the Portara, an ancient structure that stands proud at the island’s edge. This beautiful monument is especially spectacular at sunset when the sun passes right through the arch.
Full disclosure — this is my grandma’s island and not one many tourists visit, though that’s slowly changing.
Our family has a house on this tiny rock of 250 year-round inhabitants — and the island likely is not even on your map, because it’s too small. But that’s what makes it so incredible. Made up of two small villages and the descendants of two main families, half-a-dozen sparkling turquoise beaches, a dozen restaurants and more goats than people (even in the high season) it’s an island paradise.
Through my life, our family has become friends with tourist families (French, Italian, Australian) who have up and made Schinousa their forever summer home, because it’s such a special place.
Don’t miss: stay at one of the beautiful apartments on Livadi Beach, one of my favourites on the island for its pristine shoreline and near-endless sandbar into the water. Stop in at Loza along the main street for a glass of ouzo and mezedakia as the sun sets over the island.
While I haven’t visited Amorgos in some time, I carry a deep fondness for this island clearly in view directly east from my grandparents’ porch. This is a dramatic, cliffy island and much more mountainous than the other smaller Cyclades, which tend to be low lying and hilly. You can reach the island through either the maze-like and picturesque main town and port of Katapola or the smaller Aegiali port. Amorgos isn’t an island for beach-going as much as it is one to wander and take in the epic landscapes and extraordinary views.
Don’t miss: On the southeast coast is the 10th-century Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa, built into the steep cliffs of the island. It’s an incredible sight and worth the 350-step steep climb to see in person!
Reaching the Small Cyclades
I’d only recommend purchasing your ferry tickets in advance during the high season (July-August). Otherwise, just show up to the port and request a ticket for the next boat to your destination. And for goodness sake, please don’t fly! The Greek Islands are not a place you should be rushing through. Take your time and the leisurely ferry ride, sitting high up on deck, the salty wind whipping your face.
From Piraeus (Athens): My favourite line is Blue Star Ferries, hands down. They run on time, have decently clean ships and offer regular service to all the Small Cycladic islands. Be sure not to book your tickets too far in advance, as sometimes the schedule changes. The Blue Star will have you from Pireaus to most of the Small Cyclades in 5 to 7 hours. An economy ticket will run you about 30 Euro one way.
Tip: find a seat on the top deck at the back of the boat, on the aft side. Partially sunny, partially shaded, breezy… it’s the ideal way to make the trip and watch the boat enter each port of call.
Another option is the high speed boat lines (Flying Cat, Anek), which will shave about 1.5 hours off most trips. With that said, I’d offer caveats. First, they’re more expensive. Second, seating is indoors, because they travel so fast… and what’s the fun of sitting indoors on a boat?! Third, in my experience, they never run on time. On a recent trip from Naxos to Piraeus, our Anek was over two hours late, for no rhyme or reason.
While you’re here: You can approach visiting the islands in a couple ways. One approach is to find a home base on one island in a pension (a longer-term apartment rental) and take day/overnight trips to the other islands. Alternatively, you could spend a few days on each island — literally, island hopping from one to the next. Either way, there are dozens of small local carriers to transport you the 30 minutes to 2 hours between these islands. My favourite is the Express Scopelitis (Small Cyclades Lines) run out of Naxos, but pop into a local travel agency in port on any of the islands for help booking your ticket. Commissions are low, and English is always spoken.
Tip: Many of the small travel agencies on these islands don’t accept credit cards. Save yourself the ATM fees and come equipped with Euros to pay for your ticket.
Whichever combination of islands comprises your visit, take Beaton’s advice and embrace the timeless haze of repetition and island time. No agenda, no itinerary, no days of the week… and all the time in the world to do nothing at all.
A recent (2017) Conde Nast Traveler piece on Milos, another gorgeous Cycladic island.