MYKONOS, Greece: Mykonos is nobody’s secret – for almost half a century the Greek island has been honing its cosmopolitan welcome, luring celebrities, tour groups, families and backpackers alike to its warm but refreshingly breezy shores.
Yet, while thronged annually by a million tourists of every ilk, this 85-square-kilometer arid granite rock in the Aegean Sea is overlaid with a quaint, undisturbed charm.
Blue-trimmed, whitewashed buildings restricted from rising higher than two-stories stud hillsides divided into plots by dry stone walls. Narrow country roads twist across the landscape before winding down to sheltered coves. Small white churches, some 900 of them, scattered across the terrain speak of homey, island traditions.
That this outward homeyness encases a lively and liberal world only adds to its appeal.
For the traveler, Mykonos serves two purposes – as a destination and a base camp. The wily tourist will allot time to ensure the exploitation of both.
Mykonos, locals will promptly tell you, is known among its Cycladic fellows as the “island of wind” and for good reason. The breeze whips across Mykonos at a good clip most of the time, providing welcome relief from temperatures that spike 30 degrees Celsius in the summer months, but also readily explaining the island’s most iconic landmark: its windmills.
No longer in operation, the 16 conical white structures with thatched roofs once ground agricultural produce for export. The easiest windmills to ogle up close are the row above the waterfront area known as Little Venice in Mykonos town, the island’s eponymously named urban center.
Getting momentarily lost, then finding yourself again is part of the charm of exploring the labyrinthine streets of Mykonos town. What is distinctly lacking in charm is getting trapped in the narrow streets amid a throng of lumbering cruise ship tour groups ashore for the afternoon. Retreat for coffee or lunch, or better still go to the beach and leave discovering the array of local and international brands housed in traditional Mykonian houses until evening time when the hoards are safely once again ensconced at sea.
Alternatively head inland and visit Mykonos’ other settlement – Ano Mera. Far less touristy than the main town, it’s perfect for a quiet wander around the main square before visiting the 16th-century Greek Orthodox monastery in the late afternoon. It’s likely you’ll be greeted by the resident monks who may ask about your religion – fear not, they’re just making conversation and all denominations are welcome.
Fans of the 1989 classic “Shirley Valentine” may like to visit Agios Ioannis, the beach where the movie was filmed. Word is that women of a certain age particularly enjoy seizing the nearest handsome Greek to pose for photos at the restaurant where Shirley, a bored English housewife, found romance in Greece.
There is one small problem with escaping Mykonos town, however. With fewer than three dozen taxis on the island, an extended queuing period is likely. You could always hire a vehicle and drive yourself – cars, scooters and ATVs are available – but that may put the brakes on beachside cocktail indulgence or an afternoon sampling of Greek wine.
Anyone who has ever had sand blown in their eyes knows that beaches and wind are an unhappy combination, but fortunately Mykonos’ prevailing wind is northerly, leaving beaches – an essential and likely repeated port of call – tucked in its southern coves adequately sheltered.
Some, like Ornos, are more crowded, with loungers crammed in right up to the water line, and dozens of yachts and other vessels anchored just offshore. Others, such as Super Paradise, which several locals told The Daily Star was their favorite, are developed with seafront bars and restaurants but are simultaneously spacious.
Quieter options still may be found with the right hotel booking: The Myconian Resort and Villas in the peaceful Elia bay for instance is built into rocky terraces above its own tranquil beach.
A word of warning: If you’ve conservative leanings when it comes to unclad skin beware the “trikini” – an ensemble comprising just hat, sunglasses and flipflops – which is donned at some of the island’s resorts. Locals can advise.
One source of pleasure common to all beaches however is their cleanliness. Travelers familiar with tiptoeing around garbage and avoiding swimming in a sewage-filled sea will relish the clean, although often gritty, sands of Mykonos and the transparent, calm waters of the Aegean.
It’s the tranquility of these waters that makes it a perfectly pleasurable experience to board a boat in the Cyclades, either to explore Mykonos itself from the sea, making pit stops at various beaches along the way, or to take a series of day trips by ferry to other islands in the archipelago.
The Daily Star visited Delos, just a 20-minute ferry ride away.
The now uninhabited birthplace of Greek gods Apollo and Artemis was the region’s commercial hub and seat of the Delian League – 25 centuries ago.
For tourists acquainted with Levantine archaeological sites such as Baalbek and Palmyra, the ruins on Delos are at first glance unimpressive. In the presence of a good guide, however, the ancient town comes to life, and instead of stepping between piles of stone one is transported to a lively urban world of fishmongers, jewelers, open sewers and wealthy men imbibing in homage to the god Dionysus.
A good guide to historic sites in Greece is one that is certified – i.e., has spent three years intensively studying the country’s heritage. Uncertified guides abound, and beyond operating illegally, it’s unlikely that they’ll ultimately prove good value for money.
Back on Mykonos, head to the town where cocktail-fueled nights regularly capsize into dawns.
Start with dinner. For seafood lovers, there is an abundance of choices, but ask if the catch is local – it isn’t always.
After dinner, linger over coffee before doing some souvenir shopping or strolling down to Little Venice, a warren of unassuming waterside taverns which start off quietly enough but before long transform into a United Nations of hip-gyrating foreigners.
Mykonos is a long-standing gay friendly island and many of its gay bars are popular with partiers of all persuasions – don’t be surprised if you come across a drag queen performance.
The Daily Star didn’t make it this far, but if you wind up at Cava Paradiso, Mykonos’ famous cliff-top nightclub, reliable sources say with confidence you won’t see your bed before sunrise.
Finding your way to Mykonos is an uncomplicated affair. It is easy to get to by plane or ferry from Athens, and, beginning next month, MEA is operating two charter flights weekly direct to the island from Beirut.
For more information visit http://www.wilddiscovery.com.lb.