Santorini and Mykonos may be better known, but Naxos, the largest of Greece’s Cycladic Islands, packs in more attractions than any of its Aegean neighbors. From fertile valleys dotted with whitewashed chapels to mountain villages, ancient ruins, and isolated beaches, a longtime resident explains the appeal of her adopted island home.
Photographs by Christos Drazos
I first came to Naxos in 1985 to visit a friend who was house-sitting for an Englishwoman who lived in the Kastro area of Chora (other-wise known as Naxos Town), the island’s whitewashed seaside capital. I returned pretty much every summer after that and have now, to my almost-daily amazement, resided here full-time for 15 years. Living alone on a remote Greek island might not be to everyone’s taste, but it suits me fine.
Naxos is the largest and arguably the most beautiful of the Cyclades, a group of some 220 islands in the southern Aegean Sea. The landscape is magnificent and its size means that you get it all: mountains (including Mount Zas, at 1,000 meters the island chain’s highest peak), green valleys, golden beaches, secluded ruins, and marble quarries that appear like futuristic cities. Unlike the popular stereotype of a Greek island, Naxos is not arid and barren, though in high summer it can look pretty dry. Fertile soil and regular winter rains mean Naxians can grow more than enough vegetables and fruit to feed themselves, and their meats and cheeses are famous throughout Greece. Still, this is a relatively compact island, encompassing only 430 square kilometers—about the size of Barbados. You can drive it from end to end in a couple of hours.
Three and a half hours by high-speed ferry from the Athenian port of Piraeus, Naxos is also where, according to Greek mythology, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on their way back to Athens from Crete after she had helped him escape from the labyrinth at Knossos, where he had killed the Minotaur. She then took refuge on the nearby isle of Donoussa and ultimately consoled herself with Dionysus, the god of wine and bacchanals who is celebrated each year just before Lent during the island’s colorful Carnival festivities. Richard Strauss’s opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, was inspired by this legend.
The Venetians had a more palpable impact on the island, ruling it for nearly 400 years starting in 1207. They were largely responsible for building the hilltop castle known as the Kastro; this is where I bought my own house many years ago, and it’s the most wonderful thing about Naxos, which has no shortage of wonderful things. There are similar castle quarters elsewhere in the Cyclades (on Syros and Folegandros, for example), but they are not nearly as grand and well preserved as the one that looms above Chora. The houses within its fortified walls are beautiful; some even remain in the hands of the descendants of Venetian nobility, families with names like Barozzi, Loredano, Sforza Castri, Giustiniani. My own house dates to the 16th century, and while it has neither central heating nor sophisticated plumbing, the ceilings are double height and the rooms are vast.
With its domed Roman Catholic cathedral and medieval towers, the Kastro is all very atmospheric, especially when there are no tourists around. In the winter, when I walk my dog through the narrow cobblestone alleys, with the black, starry sky above, it’s easy to forget this is the 21st century. But summertime is lovely too, especially at dusk—l’heure bleue—when the views take on a velvety quality. As the light slowly fades, the silhouette of the island’s iconic Portara—a massive marble gateway built in the sixth century B.C. as the portal to a temple to Apollo—glows golden from its perch on a rocky islet at the entrance to the harbor.
Naxos also happens to have the best beaches in the Cyclades. The most famous of them are found along the southwest coast of the island—Aghios Prokopios, Aghia Anna, Plaka, Kastraki, Mikri Vigla, and Pirgaki. They get wilder the farther down you go; Plaka, a onetime hippie beach fringed with undulating dunes, is favored by nudists. But when the south wind is blowing and the sea on the north coast is flat and calm, there is no better place to swim than Abram. A small, pebbly bay near the top end of the island, it lies at the end of a dirt track off the main road and faces west, so the sunsets are fabulous.
It is bookended by high, jagged rocks; to the left, as you look toward the sea, there is a chapel astride a promontory and a beautiful 1930s-style bungalow, which I have long coveted. If the weather is right, Abram is also a good place to stay and eat. There is a simple guesthouse (Pension Abram) right on the beach with a restaurant serving traditional dishes and fish caught that morning by the owner. It reminds me of one of those little hotels in far-off-the-beaten-track Caribbean villages. On my last visit, I spent my days swimming, eating, and reading. All I could hear at night was the crash of the waves and the occasional quack from the family of ducks that lived down below.
Farther along the coastal road on the island’s northeastern tip is Apollonas. This fishing village doesn’t really have much to recommend it, except for a kind of dreamy ends-of-the-earth feel and an enormous and unfinished marble kouros (statue of a nude male figure) dating to the sixth century B.C. (Better examples of this ancient sculptural form can be found near Melanes. One lies in a garden, the other on the hillside above. They are magical, particularly the kouros in the garden; he seems to be sleeping.) But there is a small inn on the quiet south end of the pebble beach called Hotel Kouros that is quite peaceful.
And the drive from here to Moutsouna, an old emery port about halfway down the east coast, is thrilling. The road doesn’t follow the shoreline but instead loops up through mountain villages that inhabit a lush landscape dotted with tiny white churches. The views are astonishing—on a clear day, you can look straight out to sea and see Donoussa floating mirage-like in the Aegean. If you follow this route or drive cross-island from Chora, be sure to stop for lunch at Koronos before tackling the myriad hairpin bends down to Moutsouna. Set in a picturesque little square at the bottom of a series of steep steps, Taverna Matina serves up home-style Greek food that changes daily depending on what the owner, Matina, has in her larder—lamb stew with lemon sauce and dill, say, or sefoukloti, a traditional local pie with chard, fennel, and wild herbs. Whatever she serves, it’s always good.
As fine as its beaches are, though, the island’s greatest beauty, apart from the Kastro, lies amid the villages and landscapes of the interior. Tourists often come to Naxos as part of an island-hopping itinerary, staying for two or three days. But that’s not nearly long enough. More than anywhere else in the Cyclades, Naxos rewards time and concentration. It’s not immediately spectacular like Santorini, or trendy like Mykonos, or cosmopolitan like Paros, but it is lovely, and each village has a charm of its own. Koronos is among my favorites, as are Kourounochori—with its old Venetian tower and views over the Melanes Valley—and Ano Potamia, where there is a big, sprawling taverna called Pighi, meaning “spring,” under which runs a stream of deliciously fresh water.
On the far side of the island, just beyond Mount Zas, is the tiny dead-end hamlet of Danakos, perched on a hillside thick with sycamores, oaks, and orange trees. I’ve gone there often for lunch, to a stone-clad taverna called Florakas. It used to be run by a charming old man who must have been in his eighties. He would always ask me why I wasn’t married. One time, in exasperation, he exclaimed, “The men in England—do they not have eyes?”
Halki (a.k.a. Chalkio), a former capital of Naxos filled with old villas and tower houses and Byzantine churches, is worth a stop on the way back to Chora. Popular with tourists, it’s home to the famous Vallindras distillery, a fifth-generation family business where you can wait in line for a sip of kitron, a sweet liqueur made from the fruit of citron trees. Better yet is the Church of Panagia Drosiani (the name means “Dewy Virgin”), a short drive to the north near the village of Moni. Said to be among the oldest Orthodox churches in the Balkans, it sits on a little hill surrounded by olive groves and vineyards and contains rare medieval frescoes that date back as far as the seventh century.
Another secluded gem is Keramoti. Home to fewer than 100 people, it lies at the end of a winding road at the bottom of a valley made lush by the presence of two small rivers. In the spring, it is as if green walls surround you. Though close to Koronos, Keramoti remains blissfully free of visitors and is delightfully unspoiled and tranquil, with an old olive mill on its main square (platsa) and a café where you can stop for a drink of anise-flavored raki and a taste of the thyme honey made by local beekeepers.
And then there’s the light. Having lived now for many years in the austere glare of the Cyclades, in what Gerald Durrell described as the “bright, looking-glass world of Greece,” I can testify to its power, to its life-affirming qualities. Never again do I want to reside in a place where the prevailing color is grey. The redeeming light of Naxos causes the few shortfalls of life here (a slight dearth of cultural life; boring shopping) to pale into insignificance.
Whether it’s the light or the island’s pure, thyme-scented air or their so-called Mediterranean diet, Naxians usually live long lives. This is evident at Panagia Drosiani, whose cemetery bristles with tombstones inscribed not with birth and death dates, but with the ages of those interred. Many lived to a great age—97, 102, even 104.
This bodes well for me. I plan to spend the rest of my life on Naxos, and as long as the island continues to exert its magic, that’s likely to be some time to come.
Daily flights from Athens to Naxos take about 35 minutes with domestic airline Sky Express. A less expensive option is traveling by sea; trips from the Athenian port of Piraeus last between three and six hours on high-speed or regular ferries.
Where to Eat
Easily the island’s best restaurant, located 16 kilometer south of Chora (Naxos Town). The cooking is Greek but completely original, with an emphasis on organic produce and local meats: try eggplant with honey and almonds; salads topped with mizithra, a traditional whey cheese; and succulent goat and rabbit dishes. Kastraki; 30-22850/75107.
With a wonderful location at the Stelida end of Agios Prokopios Beach, this breezy taverna is known for its fresh fish and friendly service. Chora; 30-22850/26972.
An excellent Italian restaurant and wine bar beneath the Kastro walls; be sure to book a table in the atmospheric courtyard. Chora; 30-22850/24080.
Where to Stay
Naxian on the Beach
There are only 10 boho-chic suites at this seaside gem on Plaka Beach, each with an indoor or outdoor Jacuzzi. The little sibling to the acclaimed Naxian Collection hotel in nearby Stelida also offers sunbeds on the sand and a low-key beach bar. Plaka; 30-22850/24300; doubles from US$520.
A hillside complex above Prokopios Bay with a large swimming pool, an excellent restaurant, and accommodation options that range from open-plan studio suites to three-bedroom villas. Stelida; 30-22850/23355; doubles from US$280.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“My Blue Heaven”).