Sailing into Ikaria’s port, Evildos, you immediately start imagining pirate life. The swashbukle town curves around the port’s bay filled to the brim with all sorts of boats serving different purposes. The main drag is awash in outdoor seating and quaint street lamps. Bougainvilleas, Fig and Magnolia trees provide much needed shade during peak hours of the day. Red terra-cotta roofing contrasted with the stark white buildings set against an unusually green landscape leaves you wondering if this is in fact still Greece.
Ikaria, one of the Northeastern Aegean Islands, is topographically different than the familiar Cyclades. Where the Cyclades are rocky and more or less barren the Northeastern Aegean Islands contain lush forests, jagged valleys, and waterfalls (in semi-tropical Samos).
The communist hammer and sickle are painted outside many restaurants and businesses. Ikaria became a safe haven for communists and communist sympathizers during Greece’s Civil War (1946-1949). Communism again needed place of sanctuary that Ikaria provided during the ‘time of the colonels’ - a military dictatorship (1967-1974).
Agios Kirykos is Ikarias main city and largest port. It lies opposite of Evdilos on the other side of the island. The size and terrain of the island makes it near impossible to really walk anywhere. A car or vespa is necessary to tour the local towns and to access the beaches, hot springs and ancient sites. There is a bus. However it does a lap around the permitter of the island once a day and pick up times can be as early as 7am. You just flag him down and get off as you please.
Stunning beaches are easy to come by here but some can be more difficult than others to access. Seychelles Beach, on the southern side of the island, is said to be the most captivating but also the most tricky in descending the rocks and cliffs that surround the cove. Mesahti Beach, on the northwestern side, was our favorite beach. Bright turquoise blue welcomes you as you make your way down the carved out steps in between two cafes offering snacks, coffee, and cocktails. Fine sand awaits your towel or if you prefer, an umbrella with a table and 2 beach chairs for 5 euros. Just a 10 min walk around the bay leaves you in Armenistis, perhaps the town in Ikaria that hosts the best collection of beaches.
We spent our time here amongst the mediterranean soaking up sunshine and sipping beer pretending we were pirates who just happened to wash ashore.
Tinos was weird. We decided to travel there due to the highly rated restaurants and Greek fare. We knew ahead of time that it is the site of great religious pilgrimage as it is home to the Church of Panagia Evanelistria (which, mind you looks like a setting for a religious horror film).
Once we arrived after an hour and a half delay thanks to high winds and traditional Greek fashion we walked to our hotel, Hotel Tinion. Upon entering you're greeted with a smell that you can't quite place and makes you think of decay leaving you a bit uneasy. The breakfast here is top notch though with homemade bread and jams (try the orange jam) and is included in your stay- as it usually is in Greece.
After venturing out of the hotel late Friday afternoon we wandered through the winding side streets around the harbor leading up the hill. It was oddly deserted of people, locals and tourists. There were vendors guiding us all the way up that sold tall tapered candles about 2 meters long...first sign of a highly religious community.
We eventually reached the top of the hill where the church resides. After doing a double take to our left we realized that there was a narrow red carpet, nailed to the ground- there year around, that led from the bottom of the hill all the way up to the doorway of the church. There were two women on all fours crawling up in dramatic form. Second sign.
Entering the church was amazing. There were murals painted in bright blues and golds, huge candle chandeliers hand made of silver and small silver candle holders by the hundreds dangling right above your head. The service was like witnessing an inauguration into a centuries old secret cult that neither of us were invited to attend. Atop the “main stage” if you will, the illuminate eye is staring down at you leaving your skin crawling even more so than when you entered the room with all Stepford-like eyes on you.
Abandoning the sermon and walking a bit quicker now down hill we were flooded with little marble statues of the heads of great religious figures of the past. It was like Disney’s Haunted Mansion but real life. Third sign.
Hora or "Tinos Town," the capital and port, with its religious zeal was a bit unnerving in the beginning but once settled into that atmosphere we found some noteworthy restaurants.
Tarsanas, at the far east end of the harbor, is a true gem. Run chiefly of women with only one man in the kitchen and one man as the host, they’re creating some truly delicious dishes. We had the garlic pasta, a garlic and marinara mash up of sorts, that was savory and sweet on just the right notes. The smoked fish dip served with their homemade bread is a must have- even if you don't eat fish. You can't beat Greek tomatoes and their incorporation into the Greek Salad provide a buttery texture against the blocky feta seasoned with a good portion of island grown oregano.
Pranzo Ostería, is not Greek but Italian. Italian food was a refreshing alternative to all the traditional greek foods at local tavernas. Dishes here are excellent with special attention on the perfectly cooked al dente pasta. The carbonara and penne with garlic, tomato, and spicy peppers were our pastas of choice and left us smug with satisfaction. They offer a Caprese bruschetta that is well buttered and evenly seared to a crisp with basil oil and ripe Greek tomatoes accompanied by soft mozzarella.
Nissos Craft Beer: Tinos has their own craft beer! Brewed by Cyclades Microbrewery locally on the island they pump out some refreshingly crisp beer. Offering a hoppy Pilsner and an “organic” lager you can't go wrong choosing one of these to sip on during the hot summer days.
When island hoping you will almost certainly have to stop in Naxos whether planned or not. It’s the largest island of the Cyclades and Hora, the island’s capital and main port, serves as a major hub for transfer connections between smaller islands. The city drawing as many daily crowds as it does provides numerous restaurants, boutiques, and knick knack stores enabling you to still get a feel for the city even with only a few hours to spare before your next boat.
I’ve never stayed over in Naxos but I’ve had at least 4 layovers there and have found some great places that meet the many different needs of travelers.
Escape Cafe: Is located just 50 ft off the main port on the road that wraps around the harbor. Old Greek men tend to gather here during the day and you can sometimes witness their lively coffee fueled conversations. They have wicked fast wifi and in Greece that is throughly hard to come by. Their frappes are made with care, the thickness attests to that. It is a comfortable place to relax for those layovers that only leave you an hour or two.
520: Finding a good restaurant in the early afternoon hours, that is more than just a cafe, is hard to find in Greece. Most places don't open before 2pm. If you're looking for an omelette or a burger and chips, something not so Greek, this is the place for you. Locating it can be a bit tricky but the process is part of the fun. Hidden in the winding roads of the Old City, this tucked away place with a rooftop patio provides excellent views of the harbor. A great place to be if you have time to leisurely sip some beer and watch your boat come in.
Papyrus Books: To come across a bookstore in the Greek islands can be tough but to come across a book store that offers English or Spanish or any other language than Greek is near impossible. Papyrus is just around the corner from 520 and offers an assortment of books in languages from English to Japanese to Swedish. When you're between islands and you're next stop is a small one then head here to replenish your reading material.