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Greece’s Secret Island: Alónnisos

The dream of an unspoiled Aegean comes alive for Departures on the island that tourism and time forgot.

Darkness was falling on Alónnisos, and the moon glowed pumpkin orange in the fading light, casting a trail of luminescence on the Aegean Sea far below. We were sitting on the patio of the hilltop Aloni taverna, working our way through another bottle of retsina and a platter of zucchini balls, when the announcement blared in Greek and English from the village square: “The dancing will now begin!” The date was August 15, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, one of the holiest days of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendars. Woozy from the alcohol and the long, hot summer day, we wandered down the road that led to the plaka, or the plaza, where long lines of people—mostly Greek—waited for goat stew and retsina distributed free by the village government. The festival was meant to celebrate the Virgin Mary’s ascension to heaven, but in this tiny Greek village the atmosphere hearkened back to the pagan festivals of old. Crowds had gathered around a cleared space beside the square’s taverna, and as a band imported from the mainland played traditional folk music, two dozen teenagers in classic peasant dress circled with a quickening step. The girls wore bright floral headscarves and billowy satin gowns with yellow sashes; the boys black, red, and gold embroidered vests, black skirts, and stockings. They twirled, bowed, and curtsied as the moon rose overhead, and the crowd clapped vigorously and cheered them on.

The Greek islands generally conjure up jet-setter playgrounds such as Mykonos and Páros, where Greek shipping tycoons and international celebrities disco till dawn, then party on their colossal yachts and in their villas by the Aegean. Then there are downscale entrepôts such as Faliraki, Kavos, Laganas, and Malia, meccas for pasty-faced British lager louts on budget holidays, who unleash havoc each summer and earn the ire of the local populace. (Konstantinos Lagoudakis, the mayor of Malia, told The New York Times’ Sarah Lyall recently that British tourists “scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit.”) Alónnisos falls into neither category. It is a sui generis destination for those seeking a journey to another era, before the Aegean became overrun with cruise ships and package-deal tourists. “We consider ourselves lucky,” I was told by Pakis Athanassiou, an Alónnisos native and boat captain who runs tours through the National Marine Park of Alónnisos Northern Sporades, an approximately 872-square-mile protected reserve and home to the Mediterranean monk seal. The nearby island of Skiathos, he explained, with its international airport and strips of bars and discothèques, serves as a magnet for tourists who find their way to the north Aegean and keeps them away from more hard-to-get-to islands. “All the noisy people stop at Skiathos, and they leave us alone,” he said, with no small degree of satisfaction.

To be sure, Alónnisos is not immune to celebrity drop-bys: There have been reports that princes William and Harry sometimes sail in, and former President George H. W. Bush cruised into a cove while on a sailing holiday as a guest of financier Spyros Latsis. But these big shots seek out Alónnisos for the very reasons that other jet-setters shun the isle—its remoteness, its far remove from the Mykonos crush, its isolation from the paparazzi’s pursuit. Regularly hailed as one of Greece’s most obscure islands, Alónnisos is a place for the kind of vacationer whose idea of the perfect summer idyll consists of hikes along goat paths carved into oak- and heather-covered hillsides; boat cruises past near-deserted atolls where Orthodox monks dwell in hilltop redoubts unchanged for a millennium; long days on white-stone beaches half-hidden behind limestone cliffs; wanderings during the island’s four-hour afternoon siesta time through a once-ruined village that today stands as a jewel of restored ancient architecture; and evenings in quiet restaurants whose main source of excitement is their vertiginous views of the sea.

I’d had a standing invitation to visit Alónnisos from my friends, the author Deborah Scroggins (Emma’s War) and her husband, former New York Times correspondent Colin Campbell, whose late mother, Betty, was one of the first expatriates to buy a house on the island, more than a quarter of a century ago. Last summer I decided to take them up on it. The journey was, as Deborah and Colin had warned, not an easy one: My two sons and I flew to Athens, took a two-hour taxi ride to the small port of Agios Konstantinos, where we spent the night, then the next morning boarded the Flying Dolphin, a hydrofoil, for the three-hour trip across the north Aegean. Alónnisos was the fourth and final stop—after Skiathos and two towns on Skopelos, more-developed islands in the Sporades chain, so named because, according to Pakis, our boat captain, the islands had been created by an angry little giant who, upon being confined to solitude by his older brothers at the top of Mount Pelion, randomly (i.e., sporadically) scattered giant stones across the sea. Deborah was waiting for us in Alónnisos (population 2,700), at Patitiri, the main port, crammed with motor scooters and gyro restaurants, T-shirt shops, and scuba-diving stands. We piled into a cab and headed up a two-lane asphalt road that switchbacked steeply above Patitiri.

Soon the last shops and tavernas disappeared, and we found ourselves in a rugged landscape of olive groves glinting silver in the sun and conifer forests filling precipitous draws that plunged toward the Aegean. From these heights the sea sparkled with a translucent aquamarine, deepening to azure; white foam pounded against steep cliffs and fingerlike outcrops of limestone. After a ten-minute climb we rounded a last hairpin curve and Alónnisos’s Old Village came into view—a small cluster of stone-walled houses hugging the summit of the island’s highest hill, partly obscured by pillarlike cedars and explosions of purple bougainvillea.

The taxi let us off in the plaka, and the boys made a beeline for the playground, perched at the edge of a sheer drop-off 2,000 feet above the Aegean. A grizzled local, his almost-toothless face and brawny arms burned brown by the Mediterranean sun, led two white billy goats past the village’s single supermarket. Nearby was a bakery, whose chocolate croissants and flaky cheese-and-spinach pies would become an integral part of our morning routine. Another local herded a pair of pack horses up a cobblestoned alley that wound past the ancient Greek Orthodox church; the animals were laden with bottles of retsina and jars of honey brought up from Patitiri. We followed casbahlike lanes that twisted up the hillside, too narrow for the passage of anything wider than a scooter, horse, or donkey. Each turn brought another sweeping view of the sea. We passed a spectacular Aegean overlook dominated by a Greek flag and a memorial plaque inscribed with the names of nine resistance fighters killed on the spot by Nazis on August 15, 1944. We turned down a lane lined with fig trees, skirted the overripe fruit that lay across the paving stones, and found our way to House Nick, a two-story, 300-year-old cottage with a shady garden filled with lemon trees that would be our home for the next two weeks.

For an island that seems synonymous with mellowness, Alónnisos has had an eventful and often calamitous history. Originally known as Ikos, the island was settled by Minoans in the 16th century b.c. (the ruins of their acropolis still rise on the eastern shore). In the fifth century b.c. the island became famous for its vineyards: More than a decade ago divers plumbing the Aegean’s depths off the coast discovered a 100-foot-long sailing vessel dating back to around 423 b.c., laden with wine amphorae from the islands of Skopelos and Ikos—both highly regarded for the quality of their wines. In 1538 the Muslim pirate Barbarossa rampaged across the Sporades, massacring much of the Skopelos and Ikos populations. During the Greek revolution of 1821 and subsequent years, the island was repopulated and the vineyards returned, until a pair of back-to-back disasters scuttled the recovery once again. A 1952 blight destroyed the wine industry for good and forced many of the island’s residents to leave, and a 1965 earthquake damaged numerous houses in the hilltop village. The Greek military forced the few hundred souls who remained there to live in tents for two years, then built prefabricated housing for them in Patitiri. The Old Village was abandoned and crumbled into ruin.

One morning I descended a steep set of steps (nearly every walk here involves a strenuous ascent or descent) to the home of Neville Maryan Green, a retired London barrister and one of the expat pioneers who brought Alónnisos’s Old Village back to life. In 1979 Maryan Green, vacationing in Skiathos, took a daylong cruise and landed on the island for a two-hour stopover. But the crossing had been turbulent, and, seasick, he decided he needed a full day to recover. “ ‘What can I do in the next twenty-four hours?’ ” Maryan Green recalled asking himself. “A local said, ‘There is this [deserted] old village that you can get to by donkey track.’ So I walked up on a hot August day, and I got to the village and nearly every house was a wreck. There were about three hundred houses, and five couples were living there. There wasn’t even a cat in sight.” As he walked along the main street—today the center of the village’s small but vibrant café and restaurant scene—“I saw these marvelous views at each turn, and I was speechless,” he said. “I spent the next few hours in a daze, asking myself, What have I found?” A few days later Maryan Green bought the village donkey stable for $600; he and his family have returned every year, restoring the old structure and gradually expanding their property to encompass the surrounding olive groves.

When Maryan Green began summering on Alónnisos, the island had no electricity and at most one paved road: Goat tracks led down to Patitiri, to Megalos Mourtias—the Old Village’s beach—and to the scattering of fishing hamlets, ancient shrines, and deserted beaches. But an expat buying-and-rebuilding boom accelerated in the eighties and nineties, bringing in money, transforming the Old Village—and at last putting Alónnisos on the Greek government’s radar screen. The island was connected to the mainland power grid in the mid-eighties; paved roads were built a decade later. “We weren’t happy to have the electricity at first, but we realized its usefulness, though others haven’t; they’re still lighting the oil lamps,” Maryan Green said. And through the years the Alónnisos community took on the feeling of an extended family that reunites every summer, a vibrant mélange of English, French, Germans, Dutch, Italians, Americans, and mainland Greeks that has, over time, sunk deep roots into the island. Maryan Green’s oldest and Cambridge-educated daughter married the Greek owner of Astrofegia Restaurant & Bar, the best place to eat on the island; the couple’s three children have never missed a summer on Alónnisos. There are now about 200 expatriate families in the Old Village, and each year a handful of first-timers who make their way here—usually at the invitation of a longtime resident, as in our case—succumb to what’s known as the Alónnisos Illness and buy houses themselves.

Becoming indoctrinated into Alónnisos’s tight-knit expat community means learning some of the island’s many secrets. It means finding out where the wild thyme and rosemary grow on the trail that winds down to Megalos Mourtias, where the hedgehogs lurk in the olive groves, and which Old Village café serves the finest rice pudding. It means learning about the hidden lives of the locals, such as Panayotis, the late owner of the Aloni taverna, who refused to leave for 25 years because he believed he had been cursed by the evil eye. (A few years ago Panayotis suffered a heart attack and was taken to a hospital on the mainland. Upon waking and learning where he was, he proceeded to waste away and die.) Or of the feud between Thin Maria and Fat Maria, the two shopkeepers whose stores stand near each other on an Old Village alley, and who have competed—fiercely and nastily—for the business of well-heeled expats for over two decades.

But even for those who come here uninvited and aren’t privy to Alónnisos’s hidden life, the island still has an irresistible allure. On the morning of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary festival, as workmen constructed makeshift benches for the village feast in the plaka that evening, I met a German couple at the playground who coincidentally lived just a few blocks from us in Berlin. “How did you find your way to Alónnisos?” I asked them. They had no connection to the place; they had merely done an Internet search for “obscure” and “island” and “Greece” and picked it at random from a list. Now, after two weeks of exploring every corner of Alónnisos, they were on their way to a real estate agent to investigate the possibility of buying a house in the Old Village. “We never want to leave,” the woman told me. The Alónnisos Illness, it was clear, had struck again.

Getting to Alónnisos

The Old Village has several houses, from one-bedroom cottages ($55 a night) to four-bedroom villas ($570), for rent each summer. Call Gabriele Schwarz, who will connect interested renters with owners (49-172/893-0010). If you fly into Athens late, hire a taxi from the airport to Agios Konstantinos, the port of call for the Flying Dolphin/Flyingcat hydrofoils to Alónnisos; Thanasis Besiris’s taxi company will dispatch a Mercedes to pick you up (two-hour trip, $200; 30-697/240-1415). Once at Agios, stay at the Hotel Astir (30-223/503-1425), a few blocks from the ferry dock, with decent double rooms ($80 a night). Book your ferry tickets in advance from Bilalis Travel Agency on Agios’s main square, just steps from the dock (30-223/503-1614); pick up your ticket at the counter, then jump right onto the boat. It leaves twice a day in high season, at 10:30 a.m. and 7:15 p.m., and takes about three hours (round-trip, $130). Rent a car in Patitiri, the port town on Alónnisos. Or rely on taxis ($8 for the 2.5-mile trip between Patitiri and the Old Village) and public buses, which travel around the island into the night (pausing for a Greek siesta between 3 and 7 p.m.). You can drive, walk, or taxi ($11) to the Old Village’s main beach, Megalos Mourtias, and savor the views over retsina and fresh squid at Meltemi (dinner, $16; 30-242/406-5755), a family-run taverna. Another favorite is Astrofegia Restaurant & Bar in the scenic Old Village (lunch or dinner, $6–$16; alonissosastrofegia.com)..

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