Hopping through the 200-island archipelago, Sankha Guha finds an enchanting region of Greece that offers a chance of beating the crowds.
Kea rises from the sea like a skin-headed, rock tattooed beast. Almost treeless and untamed, this is not the Greek island of sweetly whispering pines conjured by Captain Corelli or Mamma Mia! (filmed respectively in Kefalonia and Skopelos). To get here my boat has skirted the equally barren island of Makronisos, where the junta that ruled Greece some 40 years ago incarcerated its enemies. The prison island has been left unpopulated and undeveloped as a monument to those dark times. At first sight, Kea looks scarcely more welcoming, but that may well have been its saving grace.
From Lavrio, one of the ports that serves Athens, it is scarcely an hour's crossing to Kea. In effect the capital is within commuting distance. But somehow the island has remained below the radar of rich Athenians seeking a weekend getaway until recently. Package tourism has yet to make any significant impact either. As I disembark at Vourkari there are a few small boats bobbing in the swell, a handful of sleepy tavernas, a grocery shop and a couple of bars. This, I am told, is the pulsing centre of nightlife on the island. I like Kea already.
Though it is one of the bigger islands in the Cyclades archipelago, Kea has a modest population of around 2500. The capital, Ioulida, is not on the coast a precaution against marauding pirates in less lawful times. Situated in a natural amphitheatre in the mountains, Ioulida is a vertical town of stegadi buildings which seem to have grown organically into and out of each other. Narrow alleyways run through residents' homes as the contours take them. The steep hillsides and the random twists and turns would have posed problems for any would-be conquerors.
In early season when I visit, Ioulida still belongs to the locals, though there is a smattering of souvenir shops to suggest the balance tips later in the year. The neo-classical former town hall forms one flank of the main square its small-town ambition contrasts with the vernacular simplicity of the taverna opposite. On the terrace between these two landmarks, under a canopy of mountain ash trees, a long table is laid out. Tonight local businessman Christos is hosting a party and I am invited.
Iannis, the owner of the Ton Kalofagadon taverna, has the kind of girth that inspires confidence in a chef. He commutes from his kitchen a few metres away bearing simple but wonderful fare highlights include a deeply earthy beetroot salad, a pork fry up with egg and tomato, and roasted aubergine stuffed with minced beef. The vegetables are all grown in the rotund chef's garden and have been nurtured with evident pride and love.
The conversation ebbs and flows around the fortunes of Kea and Greece. How, I wonder, did this island escape development? Christos, a semi-retired Athenian who has adopted Kea, explains that Athenians are spoilt for choice; there are other islands more conveniently situated for weekends. Kea only began to be noticed about 20 years ago, which prompted a mini construction boom. And then came ``the crisis'' and it all stopped. A small black cloud seems to pass over the table. But laughter and banter reassert themselves quickly. "Life is good," says Christos regularly and in the soft glow brought on by honest food and wine I cannot disagree.
The crisis is, however, all too apparent on a boat trip the following day. I am on my way to Karthea, one of four city-states of ancient Kea. I putter past some expensive-looking real estate perched on the west-facing cliffs, but many skeletal concrete structures are also evident, where developers have stopped work mid-project as demand has tanked.
Karthea itself presents a more noble ruin. Isolated on the south-east coast, it can only be reached by boat, on foot or on horseback. Aside from a couple of workmen and their pack animals, the site is empty. Its inaccessibility only adds to a brooding sense of mystery. Not much remains of the Temple of Athena, dating from the 6th century BC, or the other buildings of the Akropolis, but their location on a ridge that commands the twin bays of Mikres and Megales Poles on either side is evocative.
I close my eyes and try to imagine the deserted beaches as busy ports two and half millennia ago.
On the western flank of the Akropolis a 2000-capacity theatre has been discovered. The site is being excavated in carefully defined rectangular plots. Within these deep trenches, the recently exposed tiers of seating are eerily well-preserved as if awaiting the arrival of a ghostly audience.
On the ferry to Syros, reassuring humps of land are always in clear sight. You are never truly out at sea in the Cyclades there are more than 200 islands in the group. Many are little more than rocks, but on this crossing the substantial outlines of Kithnos, Serifos, Gyaros, Andros and Tinos keep us company, their profiles changing with our approach and the angle of the sun.
Ermoupoli, the capital of Syros, is something of a shock after the somnolent pace of Kea. Seen from the sea, the density of buildings tumbling from the hills seems jarringly at odds with the promise of island-hopping. There are numerous sizeable churches (both Orthodox and Catholic), docks, shipyards, strutting civic buildings, hotels, banks and office blocks. The city is the administrative capital of the region and has a population of more than 20,000.
Overwhelmed by the noise and hyperactivity, I drive out of town, quickly climbing the central spine of the island. Instantly as I go over the hump normal service is resumed. Kini on the west coast is a fishing village with a handful of waterfront tavernas and a low density sprawl of maybe 50 traditional white houses.
I am staying at Pino di Loto, a new development of just four apartments on the Rigouzzo family plot. They're keeping it small and personal. Mum and dad can be seen fetching, carrying or doing odd jobs, while daughter (and manager) Terezdina fusses around guests like an indulgent mother hen. My room is simply and tastefully furnished. Despite the homespun ambience there is nothing scaled-down about the pool and terrace, which have glorious sunset views over the tight arc of Kini Bay and beyond to the receding blues of the Aegean.
Iannis and Nikos offer to show me around on their boat. It's an overcast afternoon and though the water is robbed of its luminosity, it is nevertheless crystal-clear. I pass numerous pebbly beaches with no sign of human activity. It is hard to square such conditions with the buzzing town just a few miles away.
At the southern cliffs of Galissas Bay, I am dropped at the mouth of a vast cave. Rough steps carved from the bedrock lead to the 13th-century chapel of Agios Stefanos. In this wild and lonely spot, all that is missing is the presence of a bearded hermit to complete the time warp. I clang the bell as visitors are urged to do. The peals echo out to sea and are answered by a blast from the fog horn on Iannis's boat waiting below.
Later I return to the populated side of the island to loiter around Ano Syros - another Cycladic town built inland on a steep-sided hill to deter wannabe invaders. It is referred to as the island's second town but it has been all but swallowed up by the conurbation of Ermoupoli. The alleyways here are even more densely jumbled than those of Kea's capital but the concentration of large churches, monasteries and museums on the hill are indicators of Ano Syros's size and sophistication.
Despite the complexity of the lanes, it is hard in the end to get lost. The only way is up if you're starting at the bottom or vice versa. Every corner turned reveals new and striking colour palettes cobalt, terracotta, mint-green, duck-egg blue, cream and white. Ano Syros is good enough to eat. Some walls are even textured like nougat and as I trudge upwards the splashes of bougainvillea take on the attributes of raspberry syrup. In the heat I am re-imagining the entire citadel as a colossal ice-cream gateau.
The final island of the trip is Paros - the only one of the three that is substantially developed for volume tourism. Even here, especially pre-season, it is possible to lose the crowds. Paros has a gentler and more accessible coast compared to Kea and Syros. The beaches in the south are some of the most benign and family friendly in the Cyclades, offering the perfect opportunity to chill at the end of an island-hopping adventure.
Faragas Beach is small and discreet; there is no development here apart from some private villas. The iridescent water has a Caribbean intensity as the gently shelving sandy floor tilts almost indiscernibly towards the deep. Teenagers play ball games on the waterline, lovers frolic in the bath-like shallows, children explore the rocky outcrops and a solitary yacht undulates a hundred metres offshore.
My cup of joy overflows when I find Thalassa Mou in nearby Piso Aliki. The restaurant is on a beach, but it is Anna Kouda and her chef husband Mario who are making waves here collecting rave reviews since they opened last year. Their modern take on taverna fare is a revelation. For example, Mario reworks dakos a traditional Cretan mezze by crushing desiccated barley rusk to create the base layer, which is topped with tongue-tingling home-grown cherry tomatoes and goat's cheese made by his mother. The dish is best eaten fresh at the tables under the tamarisk plants at water's edge.
On the balcony at the Poseidon Hotel in Chrissi Akti I watch a squadron of swallows swoop in and perform an exquisite aerobatic display in the vast theatre of sea and sky. The hotel occupies a headland at one end of the Bay of Drios. The beach curves south in an impressive crescent. It has been named unimaginatively but with admirable precision Golden Beach.
As the sun descends a sea mist rises from the water along the base of the other visible islands, which appear to be floating on clouds. Naxos is to my left. Drionisi, a tiny rock on the map, acts as a breakwater to the bay. Over the shoulder of Drionisi is the hump of Irakleia. In the distance I can just make out the elongated strip of Ios and to its right Sikinos. They feel like family.