The small cyclades (Μικρές Κυκλάδες) are a set of satellite islands out from Naxos that are some of the smallest inhabited islands of the Aegean. The islands of Iraklia, Schinoussa, Koufounissi (or Ano Koufonissi) and Donoussa make up the motley crew. They might be less well- known to tourists, but are certainly not undiscovered. Their charms are simple; beaches, relaxation and peace. But their popularity is growing every year.
We started the near day-long journey on the Aqua Jewel from Syros at 7am, (the replacement for the Aqua Spirit) this route gave us a 3 hour break for a long lunch in Naxos before hopping on the Express Skopelitis. To say this boat is a bit of legend might be an understatement; it’s been ran by three generations of the same family for 30 years bringing thousands of tourists every season. The historic ferry runs a loop connecting these ‘barren islands’ every few days, a life-line to bring tourists, food supplies and is certainly a big event when the small cyclades ferry enters each port.
Given how ferocious the meltemi wind has been in recent weeks we were lucky with the weather as it was relatively calm and sunny. Koufonissi was the first stop on the 4 hour long trip, this being the most ‘popular’ island and from what I could ascertain attracts the bigger crowds, with more restaurants and places to stay – it is also better connected with a couple of regular high speed ferries each week. Schinoussa felt even less busy, as much of the island is out of view from where the ferry docked at Mersini with the inhabited Chora 1km further uphill. On the ‘tour’ route of the Skopeltis we might not have experienced the other islands but it was impossible to miss the deep aquamarine of the sea and the pale sand – making these islands appear at first glance more like the caribbean than the rocky barren Greek Islands they are. Iraklia also similar approach – blue seas and beaches – only a couple of buildings visible at the port but has the largest land mass of the group at 19 sq KM.
The 13 sq KMs Donoussa seemed like a dry-land paradise by the time the boat docked. What started off as calm waters was shattered after we sailed into a choppy stretch of sea out of the sheltered waters of Naxos and out to the wild open stretch of sea with Amorgos island in the distance . The tiny port Chora of Stavros is the main settlement of the island with a permanent year round population of around 200. It has just one handful of taverna’s and one supermarket – it’s as big of a slice of civilization as you’ll ever need. It being the first week in September we had booked ahead, apparently in August it’s impossible to get a room to rent without advance planning. The garden facing studio at Firoa Rooms was a good call (well done G, you do like booking trips!). The island might not be famous for sunsets of high-end cuisine, but what it does have in droves is peace and charm. The To Kyma Taverna sits over the harbour as an eatery, kafenion and general store, it’s a family affair with mama in the kitchen and daughter waiting tables, serving as the heart of the village as locals play backgammon and wistful cats wander between the tables. We went here for a quick drink to acclimatise ourselves, but went back several times to eat – great food, no menu’s just whatever the ladies in the kitchen have cooked up that afternoon. We gorged on artichokes, stuffed tomatoes and rooster in wine. Delicious and incredible value.
In the blissful 5 days we enjoyed great traditional local food at Illiovasilema and Meltemi as well as visiting Captain Georgios for seafood – sampling delicious stuffed Calamari and deep fried shrimps. There was probably 2 more places we could have tried in Stavros, but there’s enough variety to keep your palate satisfied if you were here a week or even two. Although tranquil and free from mass-tourism, the thing I appreciated were the lack of cars. It was heaven just wandering about and never being passed by more than one or two cars.
Walking on the island was great – well signposted and decent trails that make up the network of Paths of Cultural Interest. Most of them used to be part of the old mule roads that covered the island and united its four villages, Stavros, Mersini, Messaria and Kalotaritissa. We managed to do the three main hiking trails – the first day we went up over to the beaches of Kalotaritissa which you can do a nice detour up to the highest point of the Island at the peak of Mount Pappas – yes, we managed to time that badly with a particularly hot day and I actually thought I would die at one point on the climb up! But the views were well worth the pain!
The walk takes you over some spectacular scenery to the tiny settlement of Kalotaritissa which has one taverna and 5 occupied houses. The beaches were clear and clean and we rested a while to enjoy a swim, before exploring further beaches and the cape. Then we walked back which the climb was steep again, but the sun was lower in the sky and behind us. We also had a chance to have a look at the old mines on the hillside, these were once a huge industry for the island swelling its population into the thousands but closing in the late 1930s . What remains of the mine Spooky and full of goat bones, forcing me to wonder if old goats take themselves off to die quietly in caves?
The second full hiking day we did the route that connects Stavros to Mersini to then onto Massaria. This is a varied route taking inland hillsides across to the Spring at Massaria.
Then on to the amazing beaches at Livadia, and the hidden bay of Fikio. The swimming was perfect, so clear and blue.
We agreed that this might have been one of the best beaches we’d swam on for sheer out-there-photogenic-ness-in-real-life!
We had some map issues where we couldn’t locate paths but eventually found our way back on the trail to see explore the old windmill and then down to Kedros beach. We swam in the wreck of the Orion, an old WW2 German boat which was sunk by allied forces – just the hull remains decaying in the bay but still a fascinating place to snorkel.
Donoussa isn’t quite the land that time forgot, it has enough facilities to keep the more peaceful travellers occupied. It thankfully doesn’t have any big hotels or music clubs and retains a small-island atmosphere is reminiscent of a by-gone time. As tourists we only get to see a small part of an island and experience it in a moment in time, Donoussa has bags of charm and lIke many islands it has suffered from dwindling industry and opportunity, and now turns its hand to tourism to boost its island economy. Over time it has attracted new generations of islanders, returning to set up apartments and businesses. While we were there a village wedding took place on a Saturday, everyone came out to wish the couple well. It seemed like most of the locals attended or were involved in some way, a reminder of what a close-knit community the island still has and one that I hope remains.
What also makes the island unique is a tolerance to that hippie-vibe that tolerates naturism on (most) beaches, there is also a blind-eye turned to free-camping with a surprising amount of tents on the areas behind Kedros and Livadi beaches. This all seems friendly enough, but my only criticism to this is the outward appearance of the tents on the landscape. I know it sounds mean as free-camping trumps an organised beach-bar pumping out music and paid for sunloungers, but it would be better if it was confined to one area like Kedros beach, but we more than once we came across tiny coves with 2 tents taking up the whole beach space. Fair enough, like the first one on the beach rule you can set up wherever you want – but if some people are there for weeks. This little aspect jarred with me – especially when we went on walks and found little piles of rubbish left over from camping and those intolerable wetwipes left in bushes (no they never biodegrade). Free-camping is great for tourism and the island and environment, if you are responsible and leave no trace.
On our last full day we walked out to Aspro Cavo – the cape of the island which stretches out with some amazing rock formations. It is a very barren lunar landscape, with rocky little pools of water forming salt crystals in the sun and driftwood dotting the landscape . That evening the wind was started to whip up a storm which turned our farewell to the island the next morning into a rather eventful mission.
To say the journey back to Syros was a little rough might be the understatement of the year. The Express ran 2 hours late as it made its way from Amorgos, once onboard we hunkered down below deck while it was battered by waves and Beaufort scale 7 winds for a long 3 hours back to Naxos. Main thing is we survived and weren’t sick (thank you miracle travel tablets and tuc crackers) – I cannot imagine how the hardy crew keep going in all weathers!.
Now, back on Syros and into the September slow-down of the season, I am keen to just realx and enjoy life on dry-land.