To a Greek, everything here seems familiar. Images and sounds lodged in the subconscious since childhood: Portara, the Kouroi, Zas, the “Cretans” of Apeiranthos. The cheeses, the potatoes, the vast beaches, the traditional music of the Konitopoulos family.
Naxos is the largest of the Cycladic islands, self-sufficient and autonomous, and that is the sense you get everywhere here.
The seat of the Duchy of the Aegean for three centuries, “Axia” as the locals call it, played a leading role in military, commercial, cultural and religious events in the archipelago long before and after the feudal era, being a leading contributor to Early Cycladic civilization, the development of monumental sculpture, the Ionic style of architecture and Greek Byzantine painting, while caring for its soil and animals, and giving birth to a different type of civilization, that of measure.
It is only when it comes to size that there is no measure. From the microscopic figurines in the Archaeological Museum to the monumental half-finished Kouroi in the ancient marble quarries, from the domes of the Castle in Chora which force you to stoop, to the imposing Portara in the harbor, from the humble shepherds’ huts to the imposing towers in the interior, from the tiny abandoned medieval hamlets where you don’t meet a soul, to Filoti, the largest village in the Cyclades, and from the little harbors on the east of the island to the vast bεaches of the west, and Mount Zas, the tallest mountain in the Cyclades.
Rich in everything, Naxos is ideal for every type of visitor. This is why you will find here families, alongside teenagers on their first forays without their parents, active types and cosmopolitan types. Here we explore Naxos through the sports activities it offers visitors, and yet again gives us a time to remember.
Windsurfing – Luffing up in Laguna
Luff, aft, beam reach: using a broken reed, Stamatis Promponas draws arrows in the wet sand to demonstrate the different courses on a windsurf relative to the wind direction. A Greek windsurfing champion for many years, it makes you feel slightly foolish to do a celebratory dance in front of him like a kid after managing to stay upright on the board for 10 yards. And of course the kids on the beach don’t celebrate either. They are already good surfers, and often give us instructions.
Eleven-year-old Orestis explains how great everything is about windsurfing – “even capsizing!” – while fourteen-year-old Kyveli advises us on the correct posture. Both learned to windsurf in Laguna because the conditions are ideal for beginners. All the more so when a champion with numerous European and World races under his belt tells you Laguna is one of the best windsurfing spots in Europe. A closed bay, shallow, calm waters, thanks to a reef which stops the waves from entering, and a northerly wind pushing you towards the shore, so that in the worst case board and rider end up on the beach.
This safety, combined with the magical feeling of riding the wind, in control of your course, empty your mind of anything else and make us try again and again: we have certainly found the sport for us!
Laguna Beach Park
Tel. (+30) 697.242.6905 Equipment hire or group lessons from 40 euros.
Kitesurfing – the kites of Mikri Vigla
Can the wind carry you away on a kite? I have been pondering this question for years, and now is the time for it to be solved by experts.
Petros Markakis is categorical: “No. Several mistakes have to happen at once, but you still have several safeguards.” Attached by the kite ropes, with a good strong wind blowing, I do feel the kite lifting me. “You wouldn’t lift off,” Petros explains, holding me by the harness, “and even if you did, which a once-in-a-million chance, you would just let go of the bar, and it would fall. You can also unlock your harness and release yourself from the kite. The secret is to understand how the wind works and not to force it. You just move the bar with your fingers and make gentle movements.”
Around us, dozens of kitesurfers assemble their equipment, while others are already dipping and diving over the sea, pulling extraordinary stunts. In a short time, the sea and the beach at Mikri Vigla are full of sails – a colorful brotherhood from across the world, which sets up camp every year in Naxos. Why? Because Mikri Vigla always has wind, thanks to the phenomenon known as venturi (a local wind created by the compression of the air between two points) which prevails between Paros and Naxos, as well as between the beach and the islet of Parthena. The beach also benefits from thermal winds and the bay effect, while a prevailing north wind blows you back towards the beach (provided you don’t go out too far).
It is easy to understand why the unique conditions make Mikri Vigla famous throughout the world.
Tel. (+30) 690.620.5807, naxoskitelife.com. One-on-one lessons from 60 euros, equipment hire from 40 euros.
Horse riding – galloping in Chora
Virginia is a white mare with brown patches. I stroke her and talk to her, but she seems indifferent. She is so small that I feel like a child among the other horses descending through the reeds. The reeds are tall and dense, and the track is narrow, but we are just a little outside Naxos Chora. Our excursion will last two hours, coming and going, and will take us on dirt tracks and past holiday homes, crossing paved roads, to end on the beach of Aghios Georgios and the dry lake bed which looks like salt flats a little before sunset.
I would have liked it to be different, to have taken Virginia to explore the island. I worry that she is bored and I am stressing her. “It doesn’t bother her, she is used to it,” Linda Barratt reassures me. Linda came to the island 12 years ago and decided to buy the equestrian club and devote her life to horses on Naxos.
She explains that in the summer when the island is full of tourists they can’t ride in other areas, but the beach is an ideal location for getting to know horses. She talks to us about the fall, when they take the horses galloping to the beautiful mountain villages. My next date with Virginia is already in the diary.
Tel. (+30) 694.880.9142. 50 euros per person.
Trekking – in search of Zeus
“That’s Amorgos! And over there are the Koufonissia! Donoussa, Makares, and that way Tinos and Mykonos.” Like a 3D map, the Cyclades are spread out at our feet. We are at the top of Mount Zas, with the eagles and the kites, surrounded by sea. This is a rare experience, even for experienced hikers, as it is not often you find high mountains on the islands, and most high mountains don’t have a 360-degree sea view.
At 1,001 meters, Zas is not that tall a mountain in absolute terms, but it is the tallest in the Cyclades and it carries its own mythology, according to which the god Zeus was raised here, and this is where he was given his thunderbolt by an eagle.
There are two main routes to reach the peak, each about 1 ½ hour. One starts from the Arion spring, and takes you via Zas cave, requiring some easy climbing. The other starts from Aghia Marina on the road to Danakos and offers a more gentle ascent. The island is criss-crossed by a dense and very interesting network of trails, which take you through beautiful villages, archaeological sites and Byzantine monuments, valleys, mountains, beaches, and even waterfalls.
naxostrekking.com. From 60 euros a person (for groups of 4-8 people, including a meal).
Kayaking – alone in the Aegean
A colleague of Jonathan Livingston Seagull has been following us, squawking, from the moment we set off from Moutsouna. I don’t know what he is saying, of course, but I am sure he approves of the freedom and the new experience we have decided to embark on.
So does Manolis Loudaris, the young man who, after going around Evia, the Peloponnese and Crete in a kayak, now works on Naxos organising amazing excursions by sea, around 5-8 nautical miles long, to different parts of the island. Manolis also organized the first International Sea Kayaking Symposium on Naxos, which he plans to repeat.
An indescribable blue shines to the surface now and then, elsewhere the water is turquoise, green and blue. You are so close to the water in a kayak that it is unlike riding in any other kind of vessel. There is no engine noise to disturb the peace, and you can stop wherever you want.
We paddle following Manolis’s instructions, and discover secrets we never imagined exist in well-trodden Naxos: untouched beaches, narrow passages between rocks, impressive minerals, caves frequented by seals. Out to sea, Makares and Donoussa tempt us to more distant explorations. We hold back and stay with Manolis, who talks about the freedom of kayaking, that can be enjoyed by anyone in the summer, about that wonderful moment when you find yourself on a remote beach alone with your friends, about the other side of the island, which offers unforgettable experiences …
Tel. (+30) 698.070.1092, oceanuskayaking.com. From 50 euros per person for afternoon tours and from 75 euros per person for day tours.
Scuba diving – glimpses of the deep
Swimming with sea turtles, observing life in the Posidonia seagrass meadows, the humble porgies and bream, but also the silver-cheeked toadfish and venomous lionfish – invasive species which have entered the Aegean through the Suez canal and spread throughout the Mediterranean. Finding amphorae forgotten on the seabed, Byzantine and more recent wrecks, which people come from around the world to visit.
“What if you’re afraid of the deep?” I ask Panagiotis Niflis, and he offers to organise a trip. “You only overcome your fear by diving,” he says. Panagiotis says Naxos is ideal for diving, even for beginners, as the sea is calm and without currents, making it safe, while it offers great visibility (out to roughly 30 meters), which makes for a more comfortable experience for inexperienced divers.
Dives take place at Aghios Prokopios, close to the impressive reef between Naxos and Paros, which is also the location of the wreck of the “Marianna.” The reef and the wreck are also ideal for snorkelling, as they are very close to the surface.
Blue Fin Divers
Tel. (+30) 22850.42629, bluefindivers.gr. From 60 euros for beginners.
Biking – pedal to the monuments
Electric? No, conventional. The electric bike is worth it here, … No, best stick to conventional. My dilemma was great, because here on Naxos the electric bike has a special significance. Manos Vassillas designs and builds Aurelia electric bikes here, a brand which is growing in popularity in Greece.
In the end we chose conventional bikes because we wanted the exercise. We also preferred to explore the island rather than join one of the organized cycling tours which usually focus on beaches.
We started off at Sagri, visited the archaeological site of the Temple of Demeter and Bazaios fort, which, among other activities hosts some of the events for the Naxos festival, we passed through the beautiful village of Chalki, which is surrounded by a virtual open museum of Byzantine churches, as well as Panaghia Drosiani in the neighbouring village of Moni.
Archaeological sites, Venetian towers dating to the time when the island was the seat of the Duchy of the Aegean, more than a hundred painted Byzantine churches which have been the subject of scientific studies – all present you with a very special face of the island, and are worth discovering by bike or on foot, despite the steep climbs. We ended our trip at Melanes at the site of Flerio, the eternal resting place of the kouros known as Ellinas, one of the three monumental statues of Naxos, which complete the historical jigsaw.
Tel. (+30) 22850.25887 – Aurelia, tel. 22850-25307. From 15 euros a day.
Good to know
You can reach Naxos by sea from Piraeus (3 ½-6 hours, from 35 euros one way) with Blue Star Ferries (bluestarferries.com), Minoan Lines (minoan.gr), Sea Jets (seajets.gr), Fast Ferries (fastferries.com.gr), or by air (from 65 euros one way) with Sky Express (skyexpress.gr) or Olympic Air (olympicair.com).
Naxos offers a vast range of accommodation options, from luxury hotels and private villas to basic rooms for rent. We recommend Naxian Collection (tel. 22850-24300, naxiancollection.com, from 500 euros). Self-contained villas or suites, simply decorated in harmony with the Cycladic landscape, equipped with all the necessities, and with a view of the countryside and the sea. Breakfast using local ingredients is served in the main building or at your villa. You can idle the afternoon away by your private swimming pool, away from the heat and the crowds, while you can also enjoy a private drink or dinner. A resort which operates with sustainability in mind, and marries luxury with intimacy is located in Stelida, close to Chora, the airport and Aghios Prokopios. Its sister resort, the atmospheric Naxian on the Beach on Plaka beach, will also offer you holiday to remember.
Another excellent choice is the luxurious Naxos Utopia (tel. 22850-25044, naxianutopia.com, from 350 euros) in Stelida, with villas and suites equipped with private swimming pools and all mod cons, as well as a spa. For families interested in taking part in activities, the Casa Orkeli (tel. 6944-776158, orkeli.com, from 260 euros) offers a great alternative. The two-story house accommodates up to 8 people and has its own garden with a barbecue, while it also offers a range of organized activities.
As a rule, food in Naxos is always good, as most restaurants use local produce (from the island’s famous cheeses to meat, seafood, and garden produce). A meal in one of the village tavernas is a must. Among them, Vassilarakiou (tel. 22850-32088) in Kinidaros stands out for its superb meat, specializing in beef, while Platsa (tel. 22850-51243) in Koronos features home-cooked food, Platia (tel. 22850-62617) in Galini offers good meat and cooked dishes, and Platanos (tel. 22850-31038) in Filoti is justly famous. We experienced great food and warm hospitality at Perama (tel. 22850-41970) in Aghios Prokopios and Antamoma (tel. 22850-24324) in Chora.
For more refined cuisine, visit Doukato (tel. 22850-27013) in Chora, and the superb all-day Torguga (tel. 22850-44300) in Plaka.