I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a caged beast more than I did while waiting in Santorini’s poorly-ventilated and overcrowded departures building in the ferry port. Hundreds (if not more) of people shoving themselves inside to escape the midday sun and wait for a ferry that would arrive to the port 15 minutes after we were scheduled to depart. It could be worse, I thought, as I figured we’d be hopping on to the ferry in a just a few minutes. Nope. We had to wait a further 45 minutes while the massive ferry heaved several hundred to a couple thousand people, and a long line of vehicles from its bowels. The ferry, the Blue Star Delos, was much larger than I was expecting (it fits 2,400 passengers and over 400 vehicles), but otherwise was more in line with what I was expecting from a ferry ride. Not a high speed catamaran as we’d previously taken, it would take about two hours to cover the less than 50 miles distance to Naxos. It was a much more enjoyable journey than the previous ferry however, as there was plenty of outdoor seating where you can relax and watch the neighboring islands pass by.
Arrival in the ferry port deposits you directly in the island’s main town of Naxos Chora. The old town is watched over by the large 13th century Venetian Kastro (castle/fort) that sits at the apex of a small hill on which the old town district inhabits. It also proudly showcases an unfinished Temple of Apollo placed on a small hillside that juts into the sea next to the ferry port. Chora isn’t as pretty as Chania’s old town; it’s simply a small town with both old and some modern aspects (although still unlike the modernity of Heraklion) that is located on a quiet island in the Cyclades where the cruise ships pay no mind. Even during the busy hours, Naxos Chora was the least crowded town we would visit during the trip. Naxos itself is also the largest island in the Cyclades, with the most fertile land, and the highest summit, making it a perfect stop for some peaceful outdoor activities, away from the crowds we’d experienced in Santorini and the inevitable crowds we would soon meet in Mykonos.
Chrora, with both Cycladic and Venetian elements, was similar to the other towns we had visited, in that we were greeted by a mess of narrow (and sometimes very low-ceilinged!) pedestrianized lanes lined with restaurants, shops, and cats. At the center and top of the old town lays the Venetian castle, which is open to visitors as a small museum that can be toured (and free shots of ouzo are doled out at the end). The old town is a nice little spot, but hasn’t as much going on as the other towns we had visited to keep you entertained for an extended period of time.
However, the rest of the island more than makes up for whatever entertainment Chora may be lacking. Naxos is large (for an island in the Cyclades) and offers up ample outdoor activities to keep you busy for a much longer while. It’s definitely a place where you are wise to rent your own car. I don’t know how well-connected the bus system is (and I don’t believe there were a lot of taxis), but Naxos is best taken in at your own pace, leading you wherever your interest or curiosity may take you.
Heading up to Mount Zeus (Mt. Zas) and scoping out the Cave of Zeus was definitely a priority. Mount Zeus, the highest peak in the Cyclades, tops off at 1,004 meters, and a somewhat strenuous hike, but the Cave of Zeus, on the way up, is much easier to reach. Following the road from the interior village of Filoti, you’ll drive a bit of a ways up the mountain, before the road ends at Aria Springs and you’re left to get to steppin’. The Cave of Zeus is not terribly far form where the road ends, but it is not always a simple stroll. While you are first lead along the mountain on a stone path, that soon comes to and end and leaves you to scramble up large rocks and through thorny bushes to finally get to the cave. You should get there in under 30 minutes, and once reaching it, you’ll simply see a door-shaped entrance in the mountainside. The cave itself may be quite remarkable, but I couldn’t tell you. It’s very dark inside (obviously, it’s a goddamned cave) and we did not think to bring any sort of flashlights. And your iPhone or Blackberry screen isn’t a good substitute. It’s very cool inside the cave though; a good chance for a breather if you decide to keep on going to the mountain’s summit, as we did.
If you’re going to head up to the summit in the summer, I would definitely recommend starting as early in the morning as possible (we started around 10am or so, but earlier would have been better). From the cave, it will take you over an hour to reach the summit, and the hike is steep and lacking shade, with the sun beating down very strongly on you. After a few steep scrambles – and always through thorny bushes – you’ll reach a ridge, which is much flatter than what came previously, leading you to the summit. Once at the summit, you can look down on all of Naxos, with a fine view across the Aegean and various other islands such as Paros, Little Cyclades, and Mykonos. On a clear day (it was hazy the whole time we were there), you can very probably see as far as Santorini.
After scrambling back down, it was definitely time for a dip in the sea, and having surveyed the beaches from on high, we decided to check out Plaka beach, a 4km stretch that seemed easy to get to, yet not too busy. We entered at the southern end, which had one beach hotel/cafe/bar at the start, but then went quiet. As we walked down the beach we’d occasionally come across sunbathers (of whom more than a few were totally nude. This is a popular nudist beach, particularly at the southern end, so if nudity is not your thing you may want to go elsewhere.) but so far, this beach was the emptiest we’d come across in the islands. It was a pleasure.
At the southern end, you are also very near to the beach at Mikri Vigla, a neighboring beach where the windy conditions make it a popular spot for windsurfers. From our loungers on Plaka, it was easy to spend a very relaxing afternoon with views of Paros, which practically looked close enough to swim to, and all of the water sport action going on at Mikri Vigla.
Leaving Plaka, and driving back towards Chora, we passed two of the island’s most popular and active beaches: Agia Anna and Agios Prokopis. While we chose not to stop at them, these beaches looked pretty happenin’, with rows of sunbeds, and a line of tavernas and bars along the beach, pumping out music and drinks. With crowded Santorini in the past, and unrelenting Mykonos coming up, it wasn’t something we were interested in at the moment, but definitely would add a bit of variety for a longer holiday when the mood strikes for less relaxation on the beach and more fun.
Naxos is large enough, and has enough beaches, that you could easily spend days driving around testing them all out. And that is exactly what we set out to do on another day, checking out beaches as we drive from Chora on the west up to the northern tip of the island, and then much of the way back down south on the eastern side of the island. Here’s what we saw:
Abrami: A small pebble beach about a 30 minute drive from Chora that originally attracted me because I had read that it had “hot waters.” The (sea) water was not hot (to my great disappointment), and I didn’t find any hot springs around, but I think the latter must have been somewhere – I just didn’t know where exactly to look. The beach was surrounded by cliffs and stunning rock formations that formed a small cove within the already-calm beach. There was a small village nearby and only one home (or hotel?) on the beach.
Apollonas: This beach and fishing village is located on the northern tip of Naxos, and moderately busy. The white sand beach is lined with a handful of tavernas. Up the hill and across the main road from the beach you can visit an old marble quarry, where a kouros of Dionysus or Apollo can be seen.
Moutsounas: What used to be a busy port (there used to be a lot of mining in the area), is now a rather sleepy beach village. The small beach is as calm and crystal clear as you’d expect, and has a couple beachside tavernas serving up freshly caught seafood. We stopped for lunch here, where I ordered a dish of “small fresh fish and vegetables.” I thought I would get a single, small, fresh local fish grilled up with some veggies, but not quite the case. The dish arrived and I was greeted by vegetables, yes, but also about two dozen tiny freshly-caught local fish. They were lightly fried and meant to be eaten in a single bite, head and all. For the first few, I removed the heads before eating, but figured I should just man up and eat the whole damn thing. It was just like a crispy little fishy thing. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. The entire time I was eating, all I could think of was this song (scroll to 2:20 mark for the music to start):
Panormos: We were under the impression that this was supposed to be a rather empty beach, but a newly constructed asphalt road seems to have put the kibosh on that. Located towards the southern end of the island, and about a 30 minute drive from Moutsounas, this is just another nice little beach. We decided not to stay long due to the number of people on the beach (which was still very quiet in comparison to beaches on the other islands) but there was a prehistoric acropolis within short walking distance, so we checked that out. Greece: so many archeological sites, so little time!
Psili Ammos: Between Moutsounas and Panormos lies Psili Ammos. This actually seemed less like one long beach, than a longish beach with a series of small coves around it. When driving to Panormos, we noticed how empty it looked, and decided to stake out a cove of our own for the afternoon. There were more than a few to choose from, and it was incredible being able to have a beach entirely to yourself in the Cyclades during peak tourist season!