Thursday, 28 May 2009
To the east of Naxos, the largest (and most beautiful) of the Cyclades, lie four tiny, exquisite, virtually uninhabited islands, the Small Cyclades or Mikres Kyklades. These are Iraklia (not to be confused with Iraklion, the capital of Crete); Schinoussa; Koufonissia, which consists of two small islands, Ano, meaning upper, and Kato, meaning lower, Koufonissi, and Donoussa.
Everyone has a particular favourite: perhaps Iraklia because it is so laidback, or Schinoussa because it is so untouched. Or maybe it's Koufonissia for its fabulous beaches, or Donoussa for its walks and its air of having been forgotten by time. But one thing is true of all four: they have managed to remain unspoilt, by the passage of time and by the twentieth, or now the twenty-first, century.
Don't bother to go there if you are looking for luxury. You won't find it, except in nature - in the sea, the sun, the sand and the stars. Nor will you find much in the way of shopping or nightlife (except maybe something funky in hippy, chic Koufonissia). The accommodation is, on the whole, simple, but clean. The food the same, though there are some good tavernas and the local people go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. There are few cars and motorbikes, but plenty of mules, donkeys, cats, dogs and chickens. There is usually one public telephone and Iraklia had an Internet café, but, for the most part, they are supremely rural. For peace and quiet, for a sense of being miles from anywhere (but, unlike the Caribbean, at a practical distance and a reasonable price), they can't be beat.
Donoussa is the nearest to Naxos, a mere half hour by boat taxi to the north-eastern fishing port of Moutsouna where once they used to mine emery. But Iraklia is the most accessible because it is the first port of call for the Express Skopelitis, a small ship, which sets off from
Naxos six days a week in the early afternoon.
In July and August, the Cyclades are very crowded with tourist. By September, the Islands are more tranquil and the landscape is at its most typically Cycladic. Spring, when the land is green and the hills are full of wild flowers and the song of birds, is glorious and also the best time for walking, but the sun-baked harshness of the islands at the end of summer has a terrible beauty. Iraklia is beautiful, sleepy, low-lying Iraklia, the largest and most sparsely populated of the islands - its core population is just one hundred and twenty people. In Iraklia, as on the other three, there is not much to do, except read, sleep, walk and swim. The main town, Aghios Georgios, has one surprisingly well-equipped supermarket, the only one on the island, owned by Anna, a cheerful redhead.
Koufonissia, the smallest and most populated of the islands, is the St. Barts of the Small Cyclades, beloved of rich Athenians and trendy Italians in search of wonderful beaches and nude bathing. The island has a heliport. Doesn't that tell you something? And the fact that it is the only one of these islands that has a petrol station. Here the beaches are amazing. The atmosphere is subtly different.
Schinoussa, which people tend to adore, is often described as 'dreamy'. It is even sleepier than Iraklia with many more, even more beautiful, kittens, and a couple of dogs, but of its population of one hundred and fifty, few people were in evidence. On the track that leads to the beach at Tsigouri and the Grispos Tsigouri Beach Villas lies the Folklore Museum. The beaches in Schinoussa are not as highly rated as those on the other Mikres Kyklades as they are coarse grey sand, but still you can enjoy a nice swim here.
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