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Friday, 08 June 2007

The Cyclades: Thira and Naxos

Written by Amanda Lynch
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cycladesThe Cyclades are ancient, breathtaking, and in large part gloriously untouched by the modern hustle of city life. I once assumed they were also inaccessible to someone without lots of money to throw around (which was me, three weeks into a four-week journey across Italy and Greece, and about 99.9% into my budget). Luckily, my husband and I were there outside of “high season,” when prices and temperatures soar and the islands become overrun with tourists.

 

If you’re looking for a unique, inexpensive fall getaway (or are already planning ahead to the spring), then the Cyclades are a great choice. If you’re in Europe or Asia, getting to Athens on the cheap is no problem. From the US, splurge a little bit on the ticket (expensive, but cheaper than it would be at high season) and the rest will be worth it. On the islands, you can eat, walk, visit historic sites and museums, browse shops, enjoy the view, take in the culture, sunbathe, and just relax.

 

To get the maximum out of the experience (and your buck), travel during “low season” – March/April/ beginning of May and end of September/October. The further away from summer you are, the lower the prices. You’ll miss the hot weather, which is nice for lying on the beach and swimming, but you’ll also miss the high prices, the crowded restaurants and the loud hotels. And while it may be a bit cooler outside the summer months, make no mistake – it’s still crystal clear, gorgeous, and plenty warm enough for tank tops and shorts during the day. Some people (though never the locals) even venture a swim at this time of year.

 

After a stay in Piraeus, where cheap (if slightly seedy) hotels abound, my husband and I set out for Thira, as the Greeks call Santorini, and Naxos. Ferries to the closest islands start as low as €15 (US$20) one way. You can book online in advance, but the websites are notoriously unreliable, and it is oftentimes easier to purchase tickets from a vendor (found anywhere near the ferry docks) during business hours.


thiraThira is the quintessential Greek island – whitewashed houses with blue trim built into dazzling cliffs, clear sapphire water sparkling at every point, and scenery worthy of inspiring ancient Greek poets. The island is also the site of a massive underwater volcanic eruption 3500 years ago. Some believe that this eruption may have led to the fall of the Minoan civilization on Crete, and others believe that this makes Thira a strong possibility as the site of the mythical Atlantis.

 

This mythical connection is pretty convincing when you get to the top of the 300-foot cliffs that border the inner curve of the island. From there, you see that you are on a giant crescent, with a smaller island perfectly situated in the lagoon created by the curve. While it may not be Atlantis, there is no doubt that this was the site of a massive underwater volcanic eruption.

 

hotelOnce on the island, there is no lack of hotels and resorts to choose from. The two of us stayed in a beautiful Greek villa for about €35 per night (US$47). The room was satisfyingly simple, with ceramic tile floor, an ensuite bathroom, and within easy walking distance to a beach with a row of shops and restaurants. Most importantly, the room was clean, which is typical of the islands even at such low prices. A final plus on rooms: a wonderful, home-cooked breakfast is usually included (but double-check before you book if it’s important to you).

 

To book a room in advance (a good idea, even in low season, so that owners can be ready for you), we used www.greekhotel.com/cyclades/. This website will put you in direct contact with the hotel owner, and you can often bargain lower prices, especially if business is slow. Most hotels communicate by email, so you can contact them from an internet cafe as close as two or three days in advance to request a room. Just make sure you print your confirmation – nothing is less fun than showing up on an island arguing with a hotel owner who doesn’t believe you exist.


Outside of high season, the beaches and restaurants are largely deserted, and many places are preparing to open (or close) for the season. However, we found no lack of good food or good service, and it was relaxing to take in the experience, meet the locals, and enjoy the scenery without the flurry of tourist season.

 

Other highlights of Santorini: The Museum of Ancient Art, which houses some truly astonishing works and is cheap (€5, free for students); walks through the picturesque towns; and the world-famous sunset.

 

Food on the Greek islands is fresh and healthy, and wonderfully inexpensive. At a restaurant, a decent meal will cost about €12 (US$16), and you can get a hearty Greek salad with fresh herbs and feta cheese for €5 or €6 (tip is included – just round up the bill). If you want to go cheaper, bread and cheese from local stores cost next to nothing, and snacks like gyros and souvlaki cost €2-€3. Expect to pay more if you want to sit down at a table rather than walk away food-in-hand. And if you order coffee, be prepared for something more akin to Turkish coffee than to Starbucks (read: the Greeks like their coffee strong).

 

Renting a car is not necessary on Thira (most of what you would want is within walking distance), and hotels often provide free shuttles to and from the port. When we got to Naxos, however, we found that the island was big enough, and boasted enough historical points of interest, that we chose to rent a car.town

 

A car can be rented for €30/day according to the internet, but, as with the ferries, it is easier to just visit one of the many rental outlets on the island. Once there, you can deal directly with an agent, and often get lower prices. Make sure you get the deal in writing (most rental agencies are family-owned), and read carefully before signing it (you don’t want to have to put $3,000 down for scratching the fender). Finally, return the car well before you need to catch your ferry, so if there are any problems, or the office is mysteriously closed, you don’t miss your ride.


While tours and other transportation are available between some parts of the island, a car is a must if you want to see all that Naxos has to offer. It’s a relatively big island with gorgeous views of rustic farms and towns from the high points, and many out-of-the-way beaches. It is also dotted with unfinished kouros, which are ancient Greek statues of young men. These statues, half carved, are still lying down, supposedly where they were left 2,500 years ago. You will find them on any map the rental company gives you, but beware the C “roads” – these are not roads so much as piles of rock or someone’s back garden.kouros

 

Both Thira and Naxos are intriguing, entertaining and tranquil islands, and the perfect getaway for any type of traveler. I was overcome by Greece’s ancient beauty, the hospitality of locals, and the preservation of the island culture.

 

If you decide to splurge, keep in mind the islands’ first-class resorts, fine restaurants, and faster boat rides. While more expensive, these alternatives are still far less expensive than their equivalent in other European countries. Do some research, decide what you can afford, and enjoy your travels!

 

© Amanda Lynch

 

Amanda Lynch is a freelance writer currently living in Seattle, WA. She spends a large part of her non-writing time teaching English to immigrants and refugees – her favorite way to come into contact with other cultures when she’s not traveling. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Photos © Amanda Lynch, Robert Lynch

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012