Cruising the Greek islands

(with a little help from some Netheads)

A honeymoon cruise through Santorini, Crete and Naxos, with an itinerary culled from the Internet

This article — one of the earliest pieces on using the Internet for travel recommendations — appeared in the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Torrance (Calif.) Daily Breeze in 1998 and the San Francisco Examiner (entire Travel cover), Chicago Tribune, Newsday, New Orleans Times Picayune, Buffalo News and the Rocky Mountain News in 1997.
Crete Woman Temple of Apollo Santorini Caldera

CRETE, Greece — Xerxes had led us astray.

Xerxes, the nom de Net of a wired wayfarer on the Internet, had advised my wife and me by e-mail to bypass the resorts on Crete’s northern coast and head straight for the island’s hilly heartland.

“To capture the real soul of Greece, avoid the tourist traps and hit the smaller villages,” he (or she) wrote. “You’ll love Skalini. I’m sure there are rooms to rent there.”

Well, no, as we discovered to our dismay.

That false lead, however, turned into one of the memorable encounters on our trip. In our phrase-book Greek, we asked directions from a 70-year-old villager clad in a black shawl as she hand-watered the fragrant bougainvillia in her garden. She shepherded us into her clean, spare living room and served us a bowl of figs and two slices of lemon pound cake, all the while ignoring our protests. Then she brought out a photo album and began slicing a cucumber for her two guests while thumbing through pictures of her family.

Soon, her teenage granddaughter, Elinor, arrived, not sure what to make of the strangers in her house. Elinor shyly quizzed us, “Are you English?” For she and Agathi, her grandmother, had never before met an American. That touched off a long, animated round of questions — and an invitation to return.

We didn’t find a room for rent in Skalini that night, but no matter. We were on our honeymoon, and we had opted for serendipity over certainty.

Our 12 days on the Greek islands of Crete, Santorini and Naxos last summer were filled with such chance encounters. My wife, Mary, and I both dabble in the Internet, so we thought it would be both fun and instructive to forgo the usual guide books and rely instead on virtual advice from mailing lists, Usenet groups, Web sites and, chiefly, e-mail messages from kindred souls who had made small, enchanting discoveries off the beaten path.

Getting advice from the Internet isn’t just for Netheads anymore. Of Americans who traveled abroad last year, an estimated 33 percent relied on guide books, 27 percent got their travel advice from a travel agent, 24 percent used travel magazines, and 17 percent tapped into the Internet, according to a study by Withlin Worldwide, a market research firm in Mclean, Va.

To be sure, the quality of that advice is uneven, as our experience in Skalini showed. But our online surfing also turned up tidepools of vacation tips that were more timely, offbeat and original than the usual oracles of travel wisdom.

panoramasmall Oia

Santorini

steepleGo to Santorini. It’s awesome. See the volcano and the most romantic sunset I have ever seen.” — Natasha

“Take it from a multi-time visitor to Santorini. Go! It’s a once in a lifetime journey. … Take the footpath to Oia, and a must there is a visit to the small harbor, Ammudi below.” — Pete W.

We knew little of Santorini, a small, crescent-shaped island in the Cyclades group in the southern Aegean, though we’d heard that in the past decade it had joined the ranks of the world’s top resort destinations.

We fell in love with the place the moment we set eyes on the dozens of pure white sugarcube houses perched dramatically atop sheer, gaunt cliffs that plunge a thousand feet to the sea. The capital harbor of Fira sits in an ocean-filled volcanic ring left behind by a titanic eruption 3,500 years ago that devastated the region, nearly wiping out the Minoan civilization on Crete, 100 miles distant. The destruction was so widespread that legend — discounted by archeologists — persists that this was the historical Atlantis.

As dusk fell, we followed the dirt footpath to Oia, six miles to the north. From our perch on the lip of the caldera, we took in the haunting, spectacular view: black jagged lava islands shrouded in a veil of mist, cruise liners in the blue harbor, whitewashed houses and blue-domed churches spilling off the red cliffs. We passed a cliff face sculpted with rich, thick layers of sienna red, charcoal and gray pumice, betraying the island’s tumultuous geological past.

As a perfect sunset faded, the purple sky twitched with young stars, and Fira — the main town on this island of 7,000 residents and 5 million annual tourists — began to light up like a fairy town in a Tolkien novel.

We reached Oia at nightfall, just as as a young boy was scaling a catch of mackerel on the wharf outside Tokyma, one of the dozen idyllic dockside tavernas of Ammoudhi. We ate a satisfying local dish of monk fish and shrimp the size of sea serpents on the cozy terrace of Koukoumavlos and then strolled along Oia’s narrow, mazelike cobblestone streets to the town square, where we bought small, intricately painted vases and silver bracelets as gifts and keepsakes.

“On Santorini, try to find the small fish taverna run by two elderly sisters, at the end of the road in Perrivolos (you won’t find it on the tourist maps). Great food.” — Demos

As in much of the e-mail we received, the details were a bit off — the owners of the Country Paradise Taverna are not sisters, and Perivolos was misspelled — but the advice was dead on.

We weren’t certain of that at first. Tucked away on the island’s remote southern side, the taverna (as the Greeks call their restaurants) was deserted when we arrived at 1:30 p.m. But then Danezi Paravalu led us into her kitchen to let us pick out the morning’s catch from the refrigerator while Roula Anthi stoked the grill and spread out a checkered tablecloth on the table.

It was, quite simply, the best lunch of our lives: a white bream and red mullet drizzled with olive oil, laced with oregano and grilled over white coals; a Greek salad with cherry tomatoes plucked from the back yard; mashed fava beans; a spinach-like dish of horta and lemon; and the best calamari we’ve ever tasted, all washed down with a sweet homemade white wine. The bill came to $24.

The setting, too, charmed us: an open-air terrace lined with plants, chunks of volcanic rock that served as decorative objets d’art, six finches twittering in their separate birdcages and, a dozen yards away, the black sands of Perivolos Beach.

We invited Danezi and Roula to join us during dessert, and we practiced a few words in Greek — efcharisto (thank you) and kalispera (good afternoon) — while Danezi added “Web home page” to her modest collection of English phrases.

At meal’s end, we left for the secluded beach. Only two other families lolled along the 200-yard stretch of pebbly black sand. Most visitors heeded the guide books’ advice and jammed into Perissa Beach or Kamari Beach, with its package-tour operators and endless rows of concrete villas.

windsurfingPhoto by J.D. Lasica

A windsurfer at Plaka Beach on the west coast of Naxos.

Naxos

tree“Naxos is one of my favorite places. Gorgeous beaches, a neat mix of Venetian & Cycladic houses in Naxos town. Make sure you go hiking in the Traghea valley, it is incredibly pastoral. … Contact Despina on the pier — she is the goddess of the island and can give you lots of info.” — Ruth Savitz

“On our first day in Naxos, we met Alexandros, as the Greeks call him. He is an American from Philly who fell in love with Naxos and moved there. His place, Papagolos has great food. Alexandros gave us some great ideas on places to see on the island.” — Nifa

We wondered if Despina and Alexandros really existed or whether they were electronic ciphers. But within an hour of our ferry docking at Naxos Town, Despina Kitinis had booked us two nights in the Chateau Zevrogli, a 13th-century Venetian fortress converted into a comfortable hotel. And an hour later we had found Alexandros in a chef’s apron in the kitchen of Papagalos.

An expatriate American from Harrison, N.Y. (not Philadelphia), Alexandros — a.k.a. Marshall Alexander Monsell — sang the praises of Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades. “It’s more authentically Greek here than on the more touristed islands,” he said of this bucolic land of ancient silver olive trees, fruit orchards and 18,000 residents, who rely on tourism for only 20 percent of the local economy.

“There are villages where the shopkeepers stop you, sit you down and serve you Greek salads, homemade wine and homemade cheeses made the same way they’ve done it for hundreds of years,” Monsell said. “There’s one village so remote that the mayor offers to put up guests for free.”

Monsell took our map and circled a half-dozen suggestions. We rented a car — unlike in Santorini, where we got around on scooters — and made it to three destinations, all of them worthwhile:

• In the Tragea Valley, we came across a shepherd leading two donkeys down a winding path to a watering hole. He greeted us in Greek, wiped his chiseled Old World face with a handkerchief, then entreated us to ride one of his donkeys. For Joseph and Mary, it seemed the thing to do, and we both took short rides.

• In the small hamlet of Danakos, we found Taverna Florakas at the foot of a steep, remote walkway. Yorgos, the proprietor, served us Greek salads, tzatziki (a yogurt dip) and octopus stewed in wine, and we ate our lunch happily in the small courtyard under the shade of a pomegranate tree. Yorgos learned of our honeymoon, and a German visitor at the next table translated Yorgos’ tale of his tumultuous marriage, which lasted all of 57 days. Afterward, Yorgos let us pick some of the ripe green grapes hanging from his grape vine arbor and, for a small charge, he filled our water bottles with his homemade red wine, the best we tasted on the island.

• The next day we drove to Plaka Beach, a strip of golden sand 40 feet wide and miles long on the west side of the island. The beach, like many on our stay, was clothing-optional, and an international cast of sun-bathers in every manner of dress and undress frolicked on the uncrowded sands and in the warm, placid, startlingly clear aquamarine waters.

For the remainder of our stay, we settled into an easy routine: After breakfast, we would investigate a beach in the morning, then explore museums, shops and tavernas before returning to the beach for a late-afternoon swim. Then came the jockeying with other travelers for the best view of the sunset at the Temple of Apollo.

The huge marble portal, connected to Naxos Town by a narrow causeway, was begun in 522 B.C. on the orders of the tyrant Lygdamis but never completed. At night we wandered the city’s twisting, bewildering back alleys, exploring the fortified stone mansions left from the Venetian occupation, shopping for leather goods, then returning to the waterfront for dinner or a drink of ouzo or retsina while taking in the nightlife scene, which rambled on well past midnight.

chaniasmall Crete Field chapel

Crete

“Get to some of the smaller villages. If you’re lucky you might catch a traditional Cretan dance ceremony.” — Disco76

We spent only four days in Crete — far too short a time to explore Greece’s largest island, whose people retain a distinct cultural heritage. We were captivated by the medieval port city of Chania in the northwest, with its postcard-perfect harbor jammed with tavernas, funky cafes and a worldbeat blend of pastel-hued Venetian buildings and Turkish minarets.

Fascinating, too, was the Palace of Knossos at Kournas, an hour’s drive to the east, where the Minoan civilization flourished from 2800 to 1100 B.C. Visitors can climb through the extensive excavations, which include the throne of King Minos — the oldest known throne in Europe — as well as 3,800-year-old wine storage jars and the ruins of shrines, royal apartments and the remainder of the 1,400-room palace.

But what stayed with us came were memories of the Cretan people: Agathi, the kindly homeowner in Skalini; and Nick, a gregarious former race-car driver who helped us hike the rough-hewn six-hour trail through the Gorge of Samaria.

Our most lasting impression, though, came on a midnight walk along the waterfront of Rethimnon when we chanced upon the annual St. John Prodromos festival. A circle of 30 women, men, girls and boys danced traditional Cretan dances — the syrto, kastrino, sousta and pentozali — while a trio of men played Cretan songs on lyras and lauto and sang lyrical couplets called mantinathes. Maria-lena Bourbakis, smiling proudly as she grasped the hands of her niece and granddaughter, stepped from the circle after a particularly lively kalamatiano and explained the local tradition to a visitor.

“One month ago the women of the neighborhood made a wreath of clover blossoms for the festival. Tonight, the wreath is burned to ward off bad influences, and the girls go to the well of the village, throw in their wishes — an apple blossom, coin, ring, bay leaves — then draw out a token to foretell who will be their future husbands.”

Boubakis’ niece, who is perhaps 20, rolled her eyes at this, but she, too, took part in the traditional dances and in the well ceremony.

Bourbakis had the last word as she draped an arm around her niece. “It is our way to pass on the traditions, the dances, so the young people do not forget.”

Greece resources

Delos circleWhen to go: The best time to go is from April to June or September to October; the Greek islands are busiest, hottest and most expensive in July and August, when many Europeans are on vacation. Temperatures average in the 70s in spring and fall and 80s in early summer.

Getting there: Olympic Airways, Delta and British Airways are among the major carriers flying into Athens. The islands can be reached by ferry from the mainland port of Piraeus; ferries run several times a week between the islands. (It’s a four-hour ferry from Santorini to Crete; fare, $13. It’s a three-hour ferry from Naxos to Santorini; fare, $18). Several airlines make the 40-minute hop from Athens to Heraklion, Crete, for under $80.

Lodging: A room for two typically runs $35-$90 a night, depending on amenities and season. Accommodations can be made through your local travel agent or through the Greek Hotel and Cruise Reservation Center, 17220 Newhope St., Suite 227, Fountain Valley, CA 92708; (800) 736-5717.

Dining: In Oia, we dined, during a fabulous full moon, at Restaurant 1800 (reservations required). An old ship owner’s stone mansion built in 1800, it features authentic decorations, local cuisine and sunsets to die for. The price of a meal with wine came to $50 per person.

Currency: The drachma is now trading for about 240 drachmas for one U.S. dollar. That’s one of the best rates in years — a 40 percent increase in the dollar’s purchasing power in Greece since 1992.

Car rentals: Rental cars on the islands cost less than on the mainland. They run about $50 a day, mileage included.

For more information: Contact the Greek National Tourism Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10022; (212) 421-5777; or e-mail: [email protected]

Greece links on the Web:

The Hellas Discussion Home Page

Tourist Guide of Greece

Santorini.net, including a live webcam of the caldera.

Greek Isles photo gallery

delos delosamphitheater Delos circle

D E L O S

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Crete Woman fort Crete Field

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chapel market chaniasmall

C R E T E

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griffin jugs knossos knossos2

C R E T E

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Santorini Caldera pumice panorama

S A N T O R I N I

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donkeysteps-thumb taverna mary_dining Oia

S A N T O R I N I

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Temple of Apollo donkey windsurfing

N A X O S

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lion acropolis statue-trio

A T H E N S

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT