MYKONOS, GREECE — What’s your ideal vacation vibe? See and be seen, or soak it in and explore? Glitz and glamour, sashaying down shop-lined streets, or sturdy shoes and stamina, clambering along less-trodden trails? Celebrity-spotting in nightclubs, or gazing at starry night skies?
Having kept uncharacteristically close to home throughout the pandemic, I’ve been ravenous for a wide range of experiences as travel resumes. That’s why I opted for a pick-n-mix escape to the Cyclades archipelago, feasting on a gluttonous menu of good times by dividing my holiday between Mykonos and Tinos, two wildly diverse Greek isles anchored in the blue-green Aegean Sea.
Above: Little Venice is a line of bars and restaurants beside the harbour in Mykonos Town.
Mykonos, measuring 85 sq.km., is a small but mighty tourism mecca with a chi-chi cachet dating to the 1960s, when Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly and their friends began frequenting its shores. Since then, this rocky oasis has continued to attract models, movie stars and other larger-than-life personalities, including Leonardo Di Caprio, Mariah Carey and the Kardashians. But the vague hope of rubbing sleekly exfoliated elbows with the rich and famous is the least of Mykonos’ temptations.
Many come for its coast, primarily the sandy stretches to the south, notorious for their party atmosphere. Paradise, Super-Paradise, Psarrou and Paraga are among the most popular “organized beaches,” where you can rent sun loungers and umbrellas, as well as drink and dine at seaside tavernas, or “clubs.”
Above: Diners and drinkers lounge around seaside watering holes.
On my first visit to Mykonos, a couple of years ago, I whiled away a boozy afternoon at Scorpios beach club overlooking Paraga. With its log cabanas, golden-limbed waitresses in fringed leather vests, and a bazaar selling beaded jewellery and leather cowboy hats, Scorpios has a Wild West, Ponderosa-on-Sea ambiance, with a New Age soundtrack ranging from Cretan bouzouki beats to Ecuadoran-inspired electronica (admittedly an acquired taste).
I’m more in tune with the siren song of Mykonos Town, also known as Chora or Hora. From a bluff above the harbour, old thatched-roof windmills overlook a cadre of waterfront bars dubbed Little Venice, and white-washed shops which are scattered like sugar cubes along zig-zag streets, where vibrant bougainvillea hangs like celebratory bunting.
The absurdly beautiful, crooked charm of Chora is both its greatest asset and its undoing. From June through August, you can hardly move for pouty-lipped Instagrammers, commandeering postcard-perfect passages for impromptu photo shoots, and conga lines of cruise ship passengers, shuffling past shops stuffed with gauzy beachwear and accessories emblazoned with the evil eye.
Above: A woven umbrella on a driftwood post lends to the castaway vibe on Tinos' Kolimbithra Beach and fennel fritters, like the ones above, are one of Tinos’ specialties.
But like that unblinking talisman, I can’t look away. When my husband and I stop for a fleeting visit in June, we succumb to Chora’s gravitational pull, wandering the same twisting streets, snapping the same photos, never tiring of its movie-set perfection. Only the crowds convince us that it’s time to move on.
Tinos, a half-hour ferry ride away, offers a complete change of scene. For my husband, who is used to big-city traffic, driving around the almost deserted, winding roads is a joy. (At 195 sq.km., Tinos is more than twice the size of Mykonos, and you’ll want your own wheels to explore). As we whizz along, I discover that the terraced hills, which had appeared dry and barren from the ferry, are indeed alive with vast drifts of wildflowers and grazing cattle, sheep and goats. Occasionally, we pass hearty trekkers tackling the undulating terrain on foot.
There are dozens of diminutive villages scattered about the stony slopes, as well. Many are almost abandoned, save for slow-blinking cats dozing amid the picturesque ruins of crumbling walls and faded shutters.
Above: Mykonos Town harbour provides a front row seat to a spectacular sunset.
A few of the smaller settlements have some claim to fame. Tarampados, for instance, is known for its dovecotes — ornate towers, built to house pigeons, which appear throughout Tinos, but which are most numerous in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town, where the only sounds we hear are wind and birdsong.
Volax, nestled in a gorge where enormous boulders are strewn like marbles tossed aside by a tempestuous giant, has achieved notoriety for the Greek poems and songs that are neatly penned on many of its buildings and doors. It’s hauntingly atmospheric but not quite a ghost town, thanks to a few shops run by local craftsmen, a café built around a massive rock, a small outdoor amphitheatre, and about 10 tourists on the day we visit, including ourselves.
Pyrgos, in the northwest, is Tinos’ answer to comely Mykonos Town. Here are the pristine white buildings swathed in garlands of flowers, the fashionable boutiques with their handcrafted jewellery and gossamer dresses, the attractive square filled with al fresco diners. For the culturally minded, there are a couple of museums devoted to the island’s tradition of marble sculpting and quarrying. All that’s missing, thankfully, is the tourist tsunami, and there’s not a selfie stick in sight.
In the port of Tinos Town (also called Chora), we lunch under the watchful gaze of a ginger cat at To Koutouki Tis Elenis, where tables laden with local delights like fennel fritters and pigeon stewed in tomato sauce spill down a rainbow-hued alley.
On a Saturday night, we join a jubilant throng of locals enjoying an al fresco evening amid a buzzy labyrinth of tavernas and bars behind a dolphin fountain near the marina.
For shops, we need look no further than Evangelistrias, an attractive boulevard which leads to the pilgrimage church of Panagia Evangelistria (a.k.a. Megalohari), which attracts hordes of the faithful, especially on August 15, the feast day for the Assumption of Mary.
For sun worshippers, there are dozens of beaches, both “organized” and untamed. We tour half a dozen of the “organized” variety, dismissing those in the southeast as too populated for our taste, while Kolimbithra and Rohari to the north are too windy during our visit, although we love their bohemian-surfer feel.
We finally find our happy place to the west: Ormos Gianaki, a narrow strip of sand and pebbles in a quiet cove at the end of a steep, corkscrew road. It’s served by a laid-back taverna called Dear John, where the music is mellow, the menu ranges from local sausage to ceviche, and the staff greets our return day after day with genuinely friendly smiles. Floating in this sea of tranquility, I feel like one of Odysseus’ Lotus-eaters: utterly content, satiated and loathe to ever leave.
JUST THE FACTS
Getting there: Fly into Mykonos Airport. Ferry rides to Tinos are approximately 20-30 minutes. (https://www.go-ferry.com)
Where to stay:
On Mykonos, Katikies Mykonos is a luxury five-star property with a spa, swimming pool and gourmet restaurants. Located above Agios Ioannis beach, about a 15-minute drive from Mykonos Town.
Island Mykonos Suites & Studios is in the heart of Mykonos Town. You may hear some noise from passing revellers at night, but rooms are comfortable and extremely convenient, and the proprietors are friendly and accommodating. https://www.islandmykonossuites.com
On Tinos, make the most of your escape from the crowds and consider renting a private villa through a platform like Airbnb. Personally, I would choose a property on the south or southwest coast, near the beaches and Tinos Town.
When to go:
Your best bet is shoulder season: May — early June or September — early October. In summer, you’re more likely to encounter extremely strong winds, as well as higher temperatures and more visitors.
More info: www.visitgreece.gr
About the Author
As a UK-based writer and photographer (and self-confessed natural coward attempting to conquer her fears through her travel adventures), Amy Laughinghouse has paraglided 007-style in the Swiss Alps, walked with lions in Mauritius, swum with sharks in French Polynesia, dangled from chains on Scotland's Fife Coastal Path, and--her most terrifying challenge ever--taken ballroom dance lessons in London. In addition to her own website, AmyLaughinghouse.com, she has contributed to many travel publications, including LonelyPlanet.com, Qantas Airlines’ in-flight magazine and Virtuoso Life magazine.