Why Naxos Should Be Your First Greek Island
Screensaver-perfect Santorini. Party-mad Mykonos. Giant Crete. Historic Rhodes. People who have never been to Greece often ask, "Which island should I go to?". There are so many - where do you even start?
Choosing between any of the jewels of the Aegean and Ionian can seem like a daunting task for someone who's planning their very first trip.
Folks would ask me the same thing about Hawaii. Over the years we've had the good fortune to visit a few of the Hawaiian islands, and I'd get asked the same question.
Although quiet, jungle-y Kauai is probably my deep-down favorite, I always recommend Maui, because it's what I describe as "Hawaii 101". It has it all - great beaches, cute towns, restaurants and nightlife, a volcano, surfing, diving, etc. etc. etc. There's something for everyone.
So when considering the Greek islands, I applied the same criteria.
For me, Naxos is "Greek Islands 101".
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Classic, picturesque Cycladic architecture? Check. Miles of gorgeous sandy beaches? Check. Adorable villages? Antiquities? Hard-to-get-elsewhere local products? Close enough to other islands for a day sail? Check to alla that!
And all without the crushing hordes of a Santorini summer, or the Santorini prices. (I'm not picking on Santorini - I love it, but I'd only go again outside of the insane summer season!).
Naxos has the same lovely Cycladic feel but is remarkably more affordable and far less crowded.
There are so many fantastic islands in Greece, of course, and people could come to fisticuffs defending their favorite, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one that ticks all the boxes that Naxos does.
Let's start with the main town, Chora.
Once you arrive at the tiny Naxos airport, it's a short drive to Chora. The town rises up slightly on a hill, topped by the Kastro, a modest Venetian castle. There is an Old Town - a twisty maze of shops, restaurants and old pirate alleys that is a must-visit (Naxos, as well as much of the Aegean, had problems with Barbary Coast pirates back in the day.).
Some wonderful artisanal products like ceramics, local foodstuffs and jewelry can be found in the tiny hidey-hole shops. Stop in at a place that sells Kitron, the local liqueur, made from citron fruit, and taste a sample.
Stroll along the waterfront, which has tourist shops and some pleasant outdoor restaurants. Keep walking past the boats until you come to the causeway that leads to Naxos' unique trademark antiquity, the Portara.
The Portara is singular, to my knowledge. It's...a giant door. With no temple attached.
But what a door!
How many people through the ages have gazed at it and wondered - if the stars were aligned just right and there was enough magic in the soft Aegean air - if passing through it would conjure them into a land of gods and heroes? It has that effect. A door to Nowhere. Or Somewhere Else.
It was originally built as part of what was planned as a massive temple to Apollo, begun around 520 BC, but the ruler who commissioned it was overthrown and the temple was never completed. It sits on a tiny island, called Palatia, connected to the town by a causeway. This, according to legend, is where the Minoan princess Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus after helping him vanquish the Minotaur.
The princess' story has a happy ending, though - she may have been betrayed by a man, but she upgraded to a god. Dionysus, the god of wine, found her and they lived happily and presumably inebriatedly ever after.
Driving south from Chora takes you to a length of astonishing beaches, starting with Agios Giorgios, which is in the town proper, and then past the airport again down to the stretch that starts with lively Agios Prokopios, then continues for miles past the stunning Agia Anna and down to Plaka and beyond. And they are golden sand beaches - not pebble beaches like you get in many places in Greece.
The closer to town you are, the more the beaches are organized. There are "organized" and "disorganized" beaches, we found, much to our delight.
Organized beaches have lounge chairs and umbrellas you can rent pretty cheaply for the whole day. There are bathrooms nearby. Attractive young people will come from the cafes and bars across the road to bring you an icy beer, cocktail or snack.
This is an excellent arrangement.
Disorganized beaches have few or none of these amenities, and are a good option if you just want peace and quiet and to lay on a towel without a crowd around you.
Personally I will take a comfy sun bed in the shade and a smiling server bringing me a plate of fresh loukoumades drizzled with Nutella, but your mileage may vary.
Palatia and the Portara
I still dream of these...
Naxos is a mostly dry, rocky island, although there are green, fertile valleys in the interior. It's worth doing a little road trip into the middle of the island, to seek out the mountain vistas and scenic traditional villages that dot the mountains.
One such place is Filoti. A scant 30-40 minute drive from Chora along some very twisty but otherwise good roads takes you to this photogenic little town.
Gosh, I just checked Google street view for Filoti and they must have been there several years ago, and at the start of winter. The place looks grim. We were there in early July, and it was leafy and colorful and generally delightful, as you can see here.
Other villages we passed through were Apeiranthos, with it's attractive views of white Cycladic homes on terraced plots with the mountains behind them, and tiny Halkio, which I'm embarrassed to say we didn't even realize we had passed entirely through until we saw the 'leaving Halkio' sign on the road.
Next time, Halkio!
From the harbor at Chora you can take a boat to Naxos' sister island of Paros - a very short ferry trip of maybe 20-30 minutes. You can also do as we did - take a day sail to Santorini - about three hours each way. There are sails to Amorgos and Koufonisia, too.
Mountain quarry where the famous Naxian marble comes from.
If you're on Naxos for a few days at least, I would strongly suggest taking advantage of it's proximity and getting onto one of the nearby islands. And I say this as someone who has avoided boats since 1992, because they keep trying to kill me.
I used to be a great sailor, and then suddenly I wasn't. Somehow my system clicked into a new gear without warning and I couldn't even look at a boat for the longest time without horrifying, death-wishing seasickness. Even in calm waters. Even on catamarans. Even with over-the-counter seasickness meds, ginger candy and prayers to Poseidon. No boat would work for me. They all wanted me dead.
This last trip I was determined not to be left behind on the dock, waving my hanky like some sad heroine in an old movie while everyone else went to glamorous Santorini. I got those patches you wear behind your ear.
I will never be without them again. Three hours each way in a cramped, hot boat and I was fiiiiine. In the past this, er... disagreeable set of circumstances would have had me praying, between heaves, for the sweet mercy of death.
Instead, I was so pleased by my new seaworthiness that I came alarmingly close to singing whaling shanties and taking up scrimshaw.
Greece has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to islands to visit. With a little research you can find any number of them that will be a good fit for what you're looking for. You can almost throw a dart at a map and if you're an adaptable traveler, you'll probably make your own good time wherever it lands.
But if it's your first time and you want a place that has just about everything a Greek island should have, beautiful Naxos is for you.
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