Visiting the Little Cyclades, Greece With a Dog
Behind Naxos is a series of small islands known as The Little Cyclades or “Back Islands”. They number about 12 in all but only 4 are inhabited; Donoússa, Páno Koufoníssi, Skhinoússa, and Irakliá. I’ll admit Dear Reader, that I am not sure if the name “Back Islands” comes from “being behind” or” at the back of” Naxos or if it is because they are the last of the islands in the Cyclades to ever get anything considered modern and thus considered “Backwards”. As an example, electricity arrived only in 1982. Until then they used oil lamps! And Wi-Fi arrived only in 2011 and its spotty at best even now (2013).
As we sailed past some of the islands I noticed right away that the 4 main ones are strikingly different from one another, each it would seem with their particular draw. None of the islands can now be ranked as undiscovered; but given the very limited availability of accommodation they are certainly no-go areas from mid-July to September. Unless you are happy to camp out or happen to have a sailboat, travel agencies are unlikely to be able to help with advance lodging reservations; except for maybe Páno Koufoníssi and Skhnioússa that now have some “luxury” complexes.
This is what I managed to figure out about the islands to share with you:
- Páno Koufoníssi has the best beaches, with Donoússa not far behind;
- Irakliá has the best walking, with Donoússa running second.
- Little islands do not mean little prices, accommodation can be cheap but dining out is not.
- While all four islands have a single ATM each, best not to rely on these and come equipped with plenty of cash. No one takes cards.
- There are no cars, scooters or 4 wheeler rentals on any of them – in fact some don’t have anything other than dirt roads
Of the 4 small islands we only really stopped at Irakliá for a proper visit. It’s the most southeasterly, and largest, of the inhabited “Back Islands” with a population of 120 and only 1 “permanent” resident. In the past it was the most agrarian of the islets, although bad weather has conspired against those endeavours. There’s little enough of the excellent local thyme honey on a good year but usually none at, when the spring rains don’t come. The vineyards have mostly fallen victim to large flocks of untended, abandoned goats; and hundreds of handsome but greedy crows and gulls have ruined all other attempts at agriculture. As such, tourism has proved a life-saver and the locals (even if there part time) are perhaps as a result exceptionally friendly.
On Irakliá, boats normally (more on the word “normally” in a moment) anchor at Ágios Geórgios, where most facilities are found. It’s a pleasant spot situated on either side of a ravine descending to a smallish but sandy harbour beach. We had a long and quiet afternoon at the little restaurant in Ágios Geórgios with good food, a game of cards in a shaded, peaceful ambience. There were quite a few stray dogs near the restaurant waiting for scraps so I was kept off the ground and out of reach… in fact the restaurant manager asked that I be kept on a lap. That was no problem. A lap is where I prefer to be anyway!
We took a little walk from the restaurant to the Church at the rear of the village. It’s the only real “sight” but worth the short walk to visit. There is a really nice view there even if the Church itself is traditional. Not far from there is the bay of Voriní Spiliá that is really pretty. Take trail #8, from just beside the village’s last, big house with cars and a boat in the fenced front yard. It’s about 25 minutes’ hike down to the bay and its lovely water and sand. There is a sign asking people to help keep the place clean and you can see that washed-up garbage is a small problem. But with the big dumpster provided, and everyone pitching in when they stop by its quickly dealt with and a beautiful place to luxuriate in the Greek sun and sea. Since Greece joined the EU the island has benefited from some “EU” funding with money for signage and maintenance of some fantastic walking trails (numbered simply from 1 to 8). Oh and … don’t be surprised to find nudists on the island by the way. Consider yourself “warned”.
We became quite familiar with one of the smallest beaches of Irakliá. A pebbly one called Tourkopígado. The reason we came to know it so well, was that on the day of our visit the dock was not available forcing us to drop anchor and dingy to shore. Now Dear Reader, this may sound charming but allow me to tell you that it was not all fun and games. During our wonderful picnic under the stars on a remote beach of Naxos, we lost the propeller for the motor of the dingy. This meant poor Dad had to row Mom and I, with all our gear wrapped in plastic bags, to shore. Fun, until you realize the dingy is a small cheap amd not really designed for rowing very far. And far we had to be in order to keep the keel below our 50ft Bavaria safe from damage. So after strapping the sailboat to two massive rocks and the third point anchored with the … well ummm… anchor… Dad helped Mom and I get in the dingy and got to work. Mom held onto me really tightly, her bum getting wet. She held the camera and my sling bag well out of harm’s way but still visions of the dingy tipping over danced in our heads.
Luckily – nothing bad happened. Once on shore we pulled the dingy way way up and tied it to a rock knowing the tide would likely come in before we rowed back. We had a good 15 – 20 min walk to Ágios Geórgios. Our other crew members, dropped their things in a big plastic bag in the boat as well, but chose to snorkel to shore rather than row. Had I been a willing swimmer (and the distance shorter) I believe Dad would have preferred that option as well. But I was. Not. Getting. Wet.
Just as the sun was about to disappear behind the horizon and after far too much food, we did return to our dingy with the father and son duo from New York City. Marc (the dad) like us was ready to settle on the sail boat for the evening and an early night. Everyone else wanted to stay at the restaurant for the party. So poor Jacob (the son) came and swam behind us as we rowed the dinghy to the sailboat; coaching his nearly blind (without glasses) father behind him. Once we were all on the sailboat, poor Jacob swam the dingy back to shore so the rest of the crew (Captain Toby, Mike from Australia and Matthias from Germany) could use it if needed to return later. He walked back to the restaurant in the pitch black dark with only a flashlight to guide him. That’s just … crazy! Crazy I tell you!
I nearly forgot to mention that we also sailed to Alimniá beach, beyond the Ágios Ioánnis cave (How … HOW… HOW DID WE MISS THIS?). It has a lovely sandy beach and the well preserved remains of a crashed World War II plane. While I remained on board with Captain Toby, Mom and Dad went out to snorkel above the wreckage and told me it was pretty neat. Dad even did a little free diving. After everyone left, Mom lingered above the plane solo for a time and a large octopus came out of the wreckage. She believes the beast has made the plane its home. It’s a great way to re-use/recycle don’t you think?
So all and all we really loved the desolate, arid and solitary islands of the Little Cyclades. Frankly it’s the real joy of sailing; you get access to all these places that have limited (or no) means of public transportation. At night, you can look up at the sky and enjoy the magical sight of a bazillions stars without the dampening effect of light pollution. It’s quiet. It’s unpretentious. It’s true bohemian adventure. It’s freedom. For loads more photos check out our FB page!