Forgo Santorini, forgo Mykonos, the best of all the Greek islands is this little gem…
When one thinks of Greece, one tends to imagine the white-washed buildings, blue domes and jaw-dropping scenery of the Greek Islands. But one tends to assume these scenes stop at Santorini.
Thankfully, one would be very wrong.
Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades (which includes the aforementioned islands), and it is also home to the same celebrated white-washed architecture and scenery that largely put this part of the world on the map.
However, it’s also an island that exists without relying solely on tourism, and one where you can still watch from your window as the 94-year-old man on his donkey goes past on his daily trip to town from the mountain villages.
The beaches here blow both Santorini and Mykonos out of the water, and there’s plenty to see from top to bottom. Mount Zeus is the highest point in the Cyclades, and provides a pleasant hike to the top with a knockout view over the surrounding islands, hidden coves along both the east and west shelter white, sandy beaches framed with turquoise waters, and the food is beyond compare.
Tavernas in the tiny mountain village of Melanes house the best fare you’ll encounter in the whole of Greece, while hiring an Airbnb will help you interact with the (extremely generous and intent-on-feeding-you) locals.
Our favourite beaches are Hawaii (also loved by the nudes) and Moutsouna (not a nude in sight), but this island is all but known for its beachy, laidback lifestyle. Read our write-up of the island’s best beaches here.
But if you can’t be bothered reading that, you can find them also at the bottom of this post.
This is a fairly easy jaunt up a 1004-metre mountain; the highest point of the island and of the entire Cyclades. The cave in its foothills are said to be the place where Zeus himself spent his childhood, thus where the peak takes its name.
The most common route is to take the path that leads up through the springs and through Zeus’ cave, and down the other side via a gradually descending path to a small church. However, if you’re not up for rock scrambling or hoisting yourself up with your arms at times, it’s easy enough to go up and down via the church route. The track is winding and gradual, and doesn’t take a high degree of fitness to complete (our 63-year-old team member bounded up in no time), and you’ll get to the top in about an hour. The view from the top is inspiring; you’ll see as far as Santorini and the other islands scattered around the place, as well as the best view over the island of Naxos.
Most importantly: when you get back to your car at the bottom, do not turn right. This road (and Google Maps, probably) will lead you to a tiny village at the bottom of several death-defying roads barely big enough to not wedge you fast on both sides, where old Greek ladies will refuse to sell you a Coke and inevitably laugh as you drive your rental car down another dead end.
It wouldn’t be a European town without an Old Town, and Naxos is no exception. The old town is largely located on a rocky outcrop in its centre, clearly visible from every angle of town. As long as you head for this, you’ll be able to find an entrance up a narrow path, and once you infiltrate the castle walls there’s plenty to see in its confines.
Much of what you find will be tourist draws – the jewellery shops, art galleries, cafes – but there’s plenty of quirky little bits to take notice of. An antiques shop has preserved what life was like hundreds of years ago through a collection of interesting furniture and home wares, and the Archaeological Museum is worth a look at 2 euro for entry (the mosaic on the roof is worth it alone).
The cathedral is fine to pop your head in, but not worth ignoring the constant signs warning you not to take pictures unlike the ignorant guy beside you, and the Greek Orthodox church just outside the walls is an interesting comparison.
It’s hard to miss – as you pull up to Naxos in the ferry and amble out onto the port you’ll be wondering what the strange doorframe-like structure on the tiny peninsula nearby, and inwardly cringe at the unwelcome thought of a giant frame installed just for Instagram. But, fear not.
The ruins of Naxos’s Temple of Apollo, or Portara, may in fact be a frame, but the fact its the entrance of an ancient temple should put your social media-induced concerns at ease (though there’s still plenty of topless people posing for the camera they’re pretending not to notice behind them).
The ruins are free to enter, and while much of it is roped off, there are plenty of hunks of marble and pillar to inspect up close too.
Just go to Melanes. For the love of god.
More than one eyebrow was raised when our indomitable host Elias (see below) told us we had to go to a random village about 7 kilometres out of town to get our fill of authentic Greek cuisine. But, hungry and curious, we headed into this tiny mountain village in the hopes we’d stumble upon something incredible. And did we what.
Giorgis’ taverna is set on a hillside, with beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. The entire operation is a family affair too; Giorgis (dad) is in the kitchen, having been a cook for 45 years – 10 of which was spent on a ship, and 35 at the helm of his own restaurant – mama makes the sweets, and their daughter waits the tables.
And we’re going to go out on a limb here and say this is the best food we had in all of Greece. It’s hard to pinpoint favourite dishes, but if you were held at gunpoint and forced to only pick three things (a fairly plausible scenario) you cannot go past the dakos with goats cheese (Giorgis makes 2kg of the creamy, tart cheese of kings every day), the spicy pork cooked in a clay pot with cheese, and the rooster. Yes, rooster.
Giorgis’ signature dish is his male cockerel, one of 500 he has at the height of summer, which he cooks in a beautiful tomato casserole. As with much of the Cyclades, when you ask for the bill and attempt to leave, the opposite happens and you’re usually given a plate of fruit or a shot of raki – but this is no typical Cycladean restaurant.
Asking for the bill here heralds several plates of mama’s gorgeous home-cooked cakes and desserts descending on your table, and a bottle of lemon or bergamot raki to accompany it. We were so enamoured with this place we found ourselves incomprehensibly disappointed with next night’s dinner in Filoti, another recommendation from Elias that probably would have been a 4 star dinner if we hadn’t just consumed dinner of the gods the night before, and ended up returning again the night after.
Trust us, it’s worth the hire car, the mortgage-your-house taxi fare, or a 5-hour donkey ride to get there.
There are just no words to describe the hospitality of Elias, Rosabella and their beautiful three daughters. This gem of a find via Airbnb made our experience on Naxos the best of our trip, one where we were immediately welcomed into the family as soon as we stepped off the boat.
Elias will greet you with a sign at the port, no matter if you arrive on a separate boat from your travel companions and require a return trip to pick up other compatriots, and escort you to the house (which is about a kilometre from the main town) himself. You’ll be greeted with a bowl of luscious fruit grown in his own orchard, and the fridge might be stocked with a beer, drinks, bread and cheese, and plenty of other delicious tidbits that are certainly not part and parcel of any other Airbnb you’ve ever been to.
Elias’ gorgeous wife Rosabella might surprise you with some of her famous cooking if you’re extremely lucky, as we were on more than one occasion. And, if you’re offered their homemade wine – don’t refuse after a whiff of the bottle. It might be strong, and undeniably unlike any other wine you’ve ever come across, but it’s traditional Naxian liquor and rather lovely alongside Rosabella’s famed baklava.
The house itself is light and airy, on the top floor of a gorgeous Greek villa on the outskirts of town, with sweeping views over the nearby fields, the town, the ocean and out to neighbouring Paros. Forget an expensive tour or a jaunt into the mountains by car, taking in the sunset from this balcony is worthy of payment.
When we left, the entire family rushed out with more wine and a just-prepared lunch to send us off. It certainly made our parting gift of a block of Whittaker’s chocolate look like shit. Much more akin to a homestay or a local experience than any old apartment on Airbnb, the warmness and generosity of this family are going to be the most memorable part of your trip to Greece, let alone Naxos.
Oh, and one more place
A circular restaurant right at the tippy-top of the overpass between the east and west, Rotona is a beautiful spot, if not only for the view. Here, you’ll have a 360 degree view out over the villages, the mountains, and the sea in the background.
They also do a damn good frappe. They do an even better frappe with Bailey’s or with ice-cream. They do the best frappe with Bailey’s and icecream. Yes it was 10am. Don’t judge us.
THE ISLAND’S BEST BEACHES
It may be lacking the plethora of cafes and hotels that the east of the island has in spade but the west of the island is just as worthy of a decent look around too. Moutsouna is the biggest township around, but in saying that, it’s barely littered with a dozen whitewashed buildings and two tavernas.
The beach itself sits right outside these small, family-run eateries, and amounts to a strip of white sand and calm, clear seas. There’s a weird steps-to-nowhere type structure jutting out of the water for all the Instagram aficionados, a pier of sorts to plunge into the seas from, and a crane that looks as though it shouldn’t be in service.
Best of all, it’s extremely sheltered by being behind a peninsula so you’re sheltered from the blustery winds. Don’t leave without trying some fresh seafood from one of the tavernas – it’s all usually brought in from their boats the same day.
Psili Ammos beach
Just 8km south of Moutsouna is a favourite haunt of the locals; a long stretch of white golden sand and some good-sized shrubbery for those who prefer to lurk in the shadows to avoid sunstroke. It’s a bit more rugged and windswept than Moutsouna, but that also means less people and not a cafe or tout in sight. The sea also stays shallow for a good few hundred metres, so it’s a great one for young kids or those who just want to get their knees wet. The downside to this location is its lack of shelter and openness to wind – so save this one for a calm day.
We’re not sure why it was named as such, as we can’t imagine Hawaii beach is anything like its misnomer. It’s a sizeable strip of golden, sandy beach with a few craggy rocks at either end and a fairly steep drop into the ocean.
Another notable mention is probably the amount of people wandering freely without a strip of clothing on. When we first turned up, we were slightly surprised when a pair nearby proceeded to peel away their swimwear and frolick into the ocean as bare as the day they were born. Surprise became amusement when more arriving couples stripped down without thinking twice, and amusement turned into horror when we figured we were just about the only people on the beach with our genitalia covered up. But, fear not, dear beachgoers – this isn’t a nudist beach.
It just so happens that a fair few Greek people prefer to wear their birthday suits for a day in the ocean. And actually, power to them. If you’re fine with (mostly geriatric) people with their bits hanging out, the cedar tree-shrouded beach is quite lovely. It is a slightly exposed beach though (obviously in more ways than one), so make sure you’re visiting on a less gusty day. There’s also no nearby cafes or facilities, and it’s a short walk down from the carpark.
If you’ve gone with the ‘can’t beat em join em’ mantra on your trip to Hawaii beach and are really feeling the newfound freedom you’ve acquired in your skinny dipping phase, perhaps Plaka should be next on the cards.
The beautiful sandy beach and clear, shallow shores of Plaka beach stretch for several kilometres, and might one of the more commercialised strips of shoreline on the island – but the result isn’t touristy or crowded. You can rent a lounger for a couple of euro, or a bit more for the fancier wooden cabanas, and spend the day jumping in and out of the water.
While there’s plenty of people letting it all hang out here, there’s also plenty who prefer wearing clothes, so whatever your preference you’ll be in good company.
One for those who don’t want to travel too far out of Chora, but want to pretend like they’re at a tiny beach town miles from anywhere – this little cove is for you. About seven kilometres south from the town, past the airport, is another little inlet sheltered by a peninsula jutting out to protect it from the strong north winds. The golden sands of Agia Anna are soft and the water is clear and calm, so it’s a great one for a windy day. There are plenty of cafes, a supermarket, cars and motorbikes for rent and other facilities right by the beach.
By the Portara
If you prefer your swims to be around old ladies doing their aquasize and in full view of the glare of hundreds of camera-wielding tourists – here’s the perfect spot for you.
Along the main promenade, on your way out to the rocky outcrop where the Portara sits, is a sheltered inlet with crystal-clear, warm waters that are frequented by the locals of Naxos.
Every morning, the Naxians (Naxites? Naxosish?) stroll down the stone steps and into the water to bounce around with their mates, or let their children off the leash for a bit of fun. And just one hundred metres to the right, ancient ruins are pulling in a bounty of tourists every hour.
It’s quite a fantastic sight, realising that the dozens of brightly-coloured hats bobbing around in the harbour aren’t actually buoys, but are mostly elderly getting their daily exercise in, before pulling themselves up the stone stairs and sunning themselves on the steps.