Naxos, Cyclades

As the ferry arcs toward the island you catch the first glimpse of the Portara, a marble gateway on the headland, all that remains of an ancient temple to Apollo. I first came to Naxos 20 years ago, when donkeys were used for rubbish collectionand the ferry from Athens could take 10 hours – and I have been coming back ever since. It is the largest and most fertile of the Cycladic islands. The harbour is small and the airport even smaller. For these reasons, Naxos has not been overrun by cruise ships and mass tourism, even in July and August.

The island has long white beaches, mountain paths, Byzantine churches, Venetian towers and good cafes. Most importantly, it is a working island, and the slow pace, absence of loud bars and the many activities on offer make it perfect for families. The shallow beach at Aghios Giorgos – a short walk from the Hora (town centre) in Naxos town – is ideal for small children. Further down there is surfing, diving and windsurfing, and sunset rides around the island.

South from the town, the beaches extend from the bay at Aghia Anna to Prokopios and around to Plaka, Aliko, Kastraki and Mikri Vigla. The latter beaches remind me of Australia – scrubby sand dunes, a certain wildness. Cedar trees offer shade. To the east, in the bay of Moutsouna, ecotourism has flourished. The northernmost point is the old fishing village of Apollon, close to an ancient marble quarry, famous for a huge male figure, abandoned around 600BC. The Hora rises like a pyramid to the Venetian Kastro – a labyrinth of cobbled streets. The author of Zorba the Greek was educated here, and the Venetian, Byzantine and archaeological museums are city pleasures on a small island.

The lush interior is great for hiking and walking, and in spring the wildflowers flush the fields and roadsides. Each village has its own character. Sangri sits in the middle of a plain surrounded by small Byzantine churches. Halki, with its neoclassical mansions and Venetian towers, differs again from the drama of white marbled Apeiranthos, overlooking a steep valley. Local buses connect with these villages, including a bus to the foot of Mount Zas, the highest mountain in the Cyclades. The return reward is lunch in the village of Filoti and coffee in the shade of a huge plane tree.

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