Iraklia Island

Precious vacation gem

What happens when a creative and a technocrat suffer from burn out, have limited time resources and it’s the dead of summer? They go on a holiday to Iraklia – a small island in the Lesser Cyclades, where time expands and stress is an unknown word.

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The story
Last year’s visit to Koufonisia put the Lesser Cyclades on my radar, especially so Iraklia for I was captured by its majestic port. As picturesque as they come, a colourful expanse of crystal waters adorned with the eccentric combo of fishermen’s boats and luxury yachts, offset by the typical wild Cycladic landscape. A postcard from heaven coming alive. The desire was amplified by my friend Maro’s social media posts who, for the last 3 years is as a self-appointed ambassador of the island, rendering everyone on her timeline green with envy with her inspiring posts. It had to be done asap and so it happened.

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How to get there
Getting to Iraklia is only a little tricky. There is a direct marine connection from Piraeus, operating 3x weekly, as well as daily routes that involve changing vessels and wasting some time. The direct sail is just sort of 7 hours and leaves at 6.45 am. Prices start at 37.50€, one way, and escalate accordingly.

If you are visiting from abroad it is a little trickier still, since it involves adding a flight to a corresponding airport (Athens and Mykonos are typical choices) on top of everything, which – in order to match connections – can up the time to as much as an entire day, even if you are coming from a nearby mediterranean country. But it is worth the hassle.

Note: Make sure you have planned your return in advance. Availability is not necessarily daily and leaving the island is always subject to wind and other phenomena.

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The Vibe
Upon arriving (see hero image) it is understood that the vibes are cool. Iraklia is effectively shielded from the hordes of tourists that flock into the Greek islands in search of thrills. Here you will find just the right amount of visitors who, as if by consensus, are all laid back, discreet and essentially not-touristy (aka noisy). Local people are wonderfully approachable and helpful, without the typical Greek feat of imposing themselves or “pulling rank”. The island exercises a certain allure to its visitors, automatically planting the seed of “what if” (I decided to move here permanently, etc) – this is somewhat of a reflex reaction to the inviting qualities of the place.

Interesting fact: Iraklia only has around 80 permanent residents.

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Moving around
There are no taxis in Iraklia. And nowhere to rent a car either. The public transport network consists of one makeshift bus that executes basic routes; it runs between morning and 8 pm (exceptions apply in the case of special occasions, and this includes parties). Stratos, the driver, is very friendly and accommodating, in the vein of a beloved relative rather than that of a public servant. Other options include bringing your own car (an unnecessary complication), walking (method of choice for the majority of people) and – rather bizarrely – hitch hiking (although we didn’t try this, it was recommended as a legitimate and perfectly safe way of going around). For beach expeditions you can, of course, hop on a boat.

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Where to stay
Availability is limited, which renders last minute planning near impossible. Book in advance or risk getting disappointed. Things cool down the first week of September.
We stayed at Venetiko, a complex of 5 small studio flats, a 10 minute walk from the port and another 10 from Livadi beach. Do not expect luxury but expect a clean (serviced on a daily basis) space, furnished with all essentials and complete with a cute little balcony with killer views. I’d normally prefer a couple more stars ✰✰ to feel good about things but most of the evenings it was hard to part with the veranda experience, and we ended up happily chatting and drinking under the starry sky.  Owners Maria and Dimitris offer a very fair deal and as a bonus they are super helpful (thank you for the late night rides and everything). We paid 75€ per night for a “first-week-of-August” reservation – which translates to peak of the peak season.

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The Beaches
Contrary to what one might assume, there are not that many beaches in Iraklia. The St. George port doubles as a beach and, as counter-intuitive as this may sound, it is a top choice. It is in fact the best port-beach I have come across in Greece, outperforming even the spectacular Koufonisi one. Another interesting option is Livadi beach – a large expanse of sand, guarding crystalline, aquamarine waters. We failed to visit Tourkopigado beach (too lazy to catch the singular 9.45 buss ride) but it transpires its beauty is breathtaking. After that, all other options are approachable by boat. Do note that the sunbed concept does not exist in this island. It is you on your own, either with your portable umbrella or competing for a spot in the shade of the trees, which are few and far between. And if you are a lunatic (like the author) you can enjoy the energising, direct exposure to the sun.

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Don’t miss out:
Captain Mitsaras runs daily tours of Iraklia, as well as to nearby Schinoussa island. Hop on his retro boat “Anemos” to take in a 360 view of the island and discover no-access beaches. The itinerary includes 2 stops where you can privately enjoy the impressive Alimia & Karvounolakkos beaches (ok, maybe share passing-by marine travellers). You need to book a day in advance (at the local grocery store, which is hard to miss. While at it, buy some water and anything you might want to eat too – there is nothing en route) and meet the Captain at the jetty. Prices are 15€ a head.

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Eating & Drinking
Choice is somewhat limited but no way will you be left starving. More importantly, it is guaranteed that wherever you go, it will be above average – so feel free to enter any place you come across. En Lefko, strategically situated above the port beach, is the  village’s absolute hang-out. The owner Anna runs a tight ship, starting at 9 a.m. for breakfast through to the early a.ms for drinks – it is basically the only bar in the port area and a meeting point for everyone. In the kitchen, Maila is cooking up some memorable dishes with a decorative touch – do yourself a favour and don’t leave without having the savoury pancakes. Akathi restaurant, a short walk up from the beachfront, is famous for its seafood. Thymari restaurant & its adjacent Surfing Bird bar, near Livadi beach offer seriously good food and cocktails respectively. They became our go-to places, visited at least once daily for the delicious cuisine of unpretentious gourmet dishes (the beetroot bruschetta and the fava & rose chutney spring rolls are absolute musts). Drink-wise, Fotis at the bar makes sick cocktails – everything we tried looked and tasted amazing, but my vote goes to the rum-based Sexy Bird & 3-spice Zen.

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Cost $
The narrative of Iraklia alludes to 20 euro sleepovers and 10 euro lunch feasts. This is not the case at all. The island has a very small season (peak lasts only ~1.5 month) and, understandably, people need to make a living. Especially in the case of accommodation, with very limited outlets available, 75€ per night seems to be the bottom price for decent lodgings. For dining, it felt like we paid 50€ a pair no matter where we went or what we ate. Groceries are on the expensive side. Drinks on the normal. In any event, prices are very reasonable by global standards and a bargain if you take into account the psychological benefits at play.

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What to pack
Swimwear, casualwear (feel free to express yourself but dressing up doesn’t really cut it here), a thick beach towel, some good flip-flops for the challenging walks, the occasional jacket in case of wind and for the boat rides. Hats. Tons of sun protection.

If you plan to drink at home it is advised to bring your own liquor (prices are exorbitant for Greek standards). Ditto for sunscreen, and cosmetics of any kind, mostly because they are not available. Overall, come prepared with any luxury essentials, or else be prepared to do without.

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Is it good for me?
YES it is!
It is great for you if you want to decompress / shed stress / reconnect with nature and the good nature of people / indulge in quality, serene time / double down on the romance / relax / go back to basics / enjoy crystal waters & real food / recharge your inner battery. The island is great for couples but also excellent for lone types who want to take it down a notch. Apparently it is great for families too (I wouldn’t know). It is not so great if you are a luxury resort “bring my cocktail at my sunbed, now” type of person or a noisy, fussy type of any sort.

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