Paradise on earth
Koufonisia is a -not so- well-kept secret among Greeks. Located a little further down the key mainstream islands of the Aegean (namely Mykonos and Paros) they are part of what is known as the Lesser Cyclades. It is in fact a complex of 3 islands: Pano (Upper) Koufonisi (the main hub of action), Kato (Lower) Koufinisi (mostly uninhabited but accessible for camping and visiting) and Keros (not only uninhabited but off-limits as well due to its archaeological significance). What’s special about them? They are marketed as paradise on earth. Despite the intriguing claim, I hadn’t happened to visit until recently. Big mistake.
The main attraction of Koufonisi is its spectacular waters. In the face of a certain world-weary, “meh” attitude, this became instantly apparent as we approached the island’s port. Impressed, we quickly settled into our hotel and hit the road to experience the magic. All beaches are located on the east side of the island. Starting from the port (Ammos beach) -assuming you are ok with the concept of walking under a very hot sun- you can walk your way up to the Northeastern end (around 1 hour of walking); a coastline of back to back little beaches is waiting for you. We decided to give it a shot, capping our level of engagement at a 15 min walk. After 7 minutes we run into the gem pictured below. It is called Piscina and its beauty is maddening.
The water: transparent yet encompassing all shades of blue and green. Like a private pool fabricated by nature, sitting at a cliff atop the -equally impressive- sea. We took a dive (getting in was somewhat challenging, getting out even more so) and marvelled at it but despite the unreal beauty, we felt like exploring some more (and crucially be around fewer sea-urchins). It turned out we only had to walk 5 more minutes to arrive to a small but wonderful sandy beach, with glass-like aquamarine waters. We stationed ourselves there and took in what felt like the essence of summer.
“Sorokos” is the island’s oldest bar and a must-visit destination for day and night alike. Strategically situated a few hundred meters from the port, right above a tiny beach, it offers a laid-back atmosphere and a thoroughly furnished drinks & cocktails list. You will need extra luck to get one of the boho-chic seaside seats (only a few of them) but the inside of the bar is positively pleasing too in the evening. It was our first discovery but instantly became a staple of the Koufonisi experience (read: we returned there nightly).
In the morning we headed to the port to catch our ride to the beach. Miniature ferry boats are the official transportation vehicles of Koufonisi. Routes run hourly and cost 5€ per person for a ticket that is good for unlimited use within the same day. The idea is that you hop on the boat, spot a beach of your liking, get off at the nearest stop and walk towards it. Then rinse and repeat. If you are not the walking type you can select between the 3 official beach-stops, all of them way above standard, no matter how peaky you are.
Koufonisi is a sunbed-free zone and you need to bring your own umbrella in order not to fry under the sun. Luckily they are on sale at the local market (we got ours courtesy of the hotel). Overall the idea is that it is a place of relaxed freedom, as opposed to resort-style luxury. This may sound scary for some but in truth it allowed us to have the most stress-free holiday ever. We were amazed to note there was zero scrutiny; nobody gave a toss about anybody else, everyone was immersed in their own enjoyment and failed to notice if you had developed a beer-belly or if your flip-flops were not designer. It was pure freedom.
We naturally headed to the end of the line first, to visit the renowned Pori beach. We intended to proceed backwards from there. The beach was vast and beautiful indeed so we parked ourselves and happily alternated between sunbathing and diving in. Then we saw people walking towards the back of the beach and remembered the hotel owner’s tips about a nearby place worth exploring. A couple of minutes walk away was another, smaller beach, looking 10X stunning. This time the scenery was surreal.
It became apparent that there was more of it so we kept on. A few more meters up the path we came face to face with the most breathtaking seascape ever: the Xylobatis Cove. An assortment of stone caves, showered by clear emerald waters, wild and exotic – a beauty hard to describe. Access is somewhat challenging (there is serious rock climbing involved) and for the full experience it is best to approach by boat. Either way, it is a wonderful site and as photogenic as they come. It is a place you will remember for the rest of your life.
The island’s single central road accommodates the majority of the action: restaurants, bars, cafes and shops, one next to the other and the choice is ample. It comes alive with a lovely buzz after 7 pm. Other than that the offerings are few and far between and you will discover everything by walking. Tricky part: there are only a couple of ATMs at Koufonisi, of which one is inside the tiny supermarket above the port.
On the third day we decided to take the mandatory ferry-ride to Kato Koufonisi. The fair was 5€ again (same conditions apply), the ride was a little longer but very pleasant, with magnificent vistas all along. There are only 2 stops on this itinerary: Taverna (named after the small restaurant, the only one in the island) and Nero (meaning water, presumably after its beautiful water but just a thought…). We had heard such amazing things that we inevitably ended up disappointed, upon arrival.
For starters it was pebbles as opposed to golden sand (and by now we were spoiled!). A quick glance suggested that the dress code was strictly nudist so we were thoroughly overdressed. Dozens of tents occupied the beach, behind which we spotted a congregation of people that resembled a community of sorts, or a bar without a bar or something where people were being too loud (I guess having fun) together. Having said all that, we are definitely not the “camper” type of traveller and it is very safe to say that, for aficionados, Kato Koufonisi must be a camper’s wet dream. Not for us though; We left with the next boat (a 2 hour wait in this case) and opted to finish our day with a swim at the port beach of Upper (chic-er!) Koufinisi, which felt unexpectedly paradisiac.
Koufonisi is also famous for its quality food, more notably the seafood. Kapetan Nikolas was suggested by the hotel as a top choice. Reluctant by nature with such proposals, we made it there on the 3rd day. The restaurant (a big taverna) is scenic in the traditional Greek way and offers beautiful views over Koufonisi. The real offerings however are hidden in the kitchen. Patrons are invited to inspect the goods and select from a vast variety of exciting (and in some cases rare) dishes. We literally didn’t know where to start so we ventured ordering several plates (the lobster salad is a must). It turned out that all portions were gigantic (and delicious enough to be taken home doggie-bag style). Despite the numerous culinary destinations we urgently meant to explore, we simply had to return there for our final meal.
The next day it was eagerly back to the local route. We took the ferry to Pori in order to conquer Xylobatis. We were determined to climb down and swim at least in the first section of the cove. Unfortunately it was very windy, which makes entry to the water near-impossible. Not a single person was inside. The strong currents destroyed our swimming plans but we settled for a photographic extravaganza (more of this if you follow me on instagram :D) and had the best fun.
Vanity satisfied, we hopped on the ferry once more in search of calmer waters. The boat rides parallel to the coastline, allowing close inspection of the various spots. The tiny beaches by the coast, each more beautiful than the other, are only accessible on foot. Supply is so vast there is no need to share in Koufonisi; if you are willing to take the walking trail that is, which we weren’t. We opted for the popular Italida beach, welcoming with its fantastic, still, aqua waters.
Accommodation-wise, the choices are limited and gravitate towards the basic. We stayed at the Keros Art Hotel, a notable exception to the rule. Ideally located near the port, it has a traditional feel, peppered with a touch of luxury – enough to make you feel pampered, while retaining its local colour. Homemade liquor is offered upon arrival, while the owners give you the orientation tour, complete with a cheat sheet of useful tips. Mrs Helen and her team do a wonderful job at making you feel welcome, remembering every guest’s name and gladly catering to every need. Book in advance because the number of rooms is limited and they are always packed.
We spent the final morning at the hotel, enjoying the breakfast buffet and lazying about at the pool (an unnecessary but very welcome bonus) which we had yet to try. We were offered a complimentary lift to the port and boarded the Hellenic Seaways high speed boat to Athens (a 5 hour affair), already missing the place.
Although the island is towards the tiny side, four days seemed nowhere near enough to take in the beauty and to experience it in full. There is no end to the number of places we noted down for visiting later. Not to speak of the countless little beaches. Last but not least, to experience a lengthier disconnect from the grim grasp of reality.
Paradise on earth it is.
I am already dreaming of my return and it cannot be soon enough!
For further info visit the island’s official website.