Naxos was great, but before I get into all that, I want to note that finding a Greek island to visit in the first instance was not easy.
There are over 200 Greek islands that you can visit in all, and even in this day and age where the Internet holds answers for almost all questions of life, information was surprisingly difficult to obtain. To give you an idea, Google Page 1 returned mostly a mix of SEO-optimized websites (for example, travelgreecetraveleurope.com, which was mostly just stock photos and keywords strung together into sentences) and aggressively monetized travel blogs (for instance, theblondeabroad.com, which includes a very specific online store of “Greek travel essentials”). On both kinds of sites, the information that was available was pretty generic and it was never clear whether the author was a real live person or just some algorithm. All in all, it was a bit disconcerting and indicative that we certainly do live in interesting times. Maybe the old way of just getting travel recommendations from your friends, who may not be as well traveled as the Internet, but who you at least know are real people not trying to make money off of you, has some advantages. It is something to think about, for sure.
At any rate, we eventually just made an arbitrary decision based mostly on Googling pictures, and settled on Santorini and Naxos. Santorini is uniquely beautiful, and I’d definitely recommend a few days if you have the time, but it is quite expensive and pretty saturated with tourists (to give you an idea of how saturated, one evening we saw at least three different Chinese couples taking wedding photos during sunset). So aside from that, I don’t have too much to say that the Internet hasn’t said already about Santorini.
Naxos, on the other hand, was wonderful. It is one of the larger Greek islands, so there are actually locals who live there year-round and it has a culture that is independent from the tourism industry. The island is still popular with tourists, but it just felt that there was a good balance to the place between locals and non-locals (albeit from the perspective of a non-local). The pace was slow, the food was tasty, and it just felt good being there, I don’t know how else to explain it.
Here’s some recommendations, based on what we enjoyed doing while we were there:
Where to Stay. We stayed at Hotel Grotta, and it was amazing. It is run by a very friendly Naxian couple–Nikoletta and Dimitris–who both treat you like a buddy and make you feel at home (both of them wink at you while making jokes, so you really feel like a true insider). In the afternoon, a carafe of wine magically appears in your room. The location is also great, as it’s very peaceful, but also just a 10-minute walk to the main drag of Naxos Town, which is the main town on the island where the ferries dock and there are lots of restaurants.
To top it all off, breakfast is included here and it is really just amaze balls. Every morning when you wake up, you are greeted with a spread that includes: at least five homemade flaky and savory Greek pies (we ate lamb pies, chicken and red pepper pies, spinach pies, beef and onion pies, feta cheese pies, leek pies, eggplant pies, zucchini pies, potato pies, mushroom pies, you get the idea, they were all delicious); fried tomato fritters; various assorted omelets; at least three homemade cakes (olive oil cake, chocolate cake, pound cake, orange cake, and so on); Greek yogurt and raw honey (the honey here really does taste different and better); and fresh figs, apricots, and watermelon from their garden. Also, Nikoletta told us that the pies were all made by her mother, and while I’m not sure whether that is true, it sure is a nice story and definitely makes you appreciate the pies more. At the end of a packed day, I found myself going to bed with a smile on my face because I was already looking forward to breakfast in the morning. I know it is kind of weird to recommend a hotel for its breakfast, but this breakfast was seriously something special.
Rooms at Hotel Grotta in June ran a touch under 100 Euros a night, which is definitely worth it considering it costs about the same to stay at a Holiday Inn in Washington, DC.
Where to Eat. Naxos definitely suffers a bit from the “thousand restaurants, one menu” phenomenon, and it seems that restaurants distinguish themselves in terms of the freshness of their food, as opposed to actual variations in menu. Accordingly, to keep from feeling too repetitive (and also save some money), I’d recommend eating cheap for lunch—there are plenty of gyro shops that are tasty and filling for just 5 Euros, and you can be a little choosier at dinner. All that said, we didn’t have a bad meal while we were here; you will not go wrong if you order a variety of tasty spreads and grilled seafood, which the Greeks consistently do very well.
Some other assorted observations. Dinnertime is late here (places pick up around 9pm and are pretty dead before that). Tipping is a mystery—we asked a fellow traveler who was an Athens native what the custom was in Greece, and he told us that people tip “if they want to,” and it’s “not so much about a percent” but “to show thanks for good service,” and that “some tip 5 Euros, some tip 10 Euros, some tip 20 Euros,” so altogether, still no clarity. There are feral cats everywhere that hang around the restaurants but they keep their distance and can be cute. And at the end of a meal, many restaurants will bring you a sweet bite (often baklava or orange cake) and an even sweeter digestif like ouzo (a liqueur that tastes like anise) on the rocks, all on the house, which is a very nice touch and makes you feel very classy and sophisticated.
Anyway, here are some places we enjoyed, each of which will likely run 20-30 Euros per person, including wine.
What to Do. In case it’s not obvious by now, Naxos is probably best for couples and families. There is nightlife and people are out late, but the vibe is more drink-late-with-people-you’re-familiar-with than it is bar-hop-and-meet-new-people, if that makes any sense. We did see a few American frat bros, but they were largely well behaved and I think that was probably because even they couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious about ruining the idyllic holidays of all these nice Scandinavian and German families who were just trying to have a nice time. The island really does cast that kind of spell on everyone, it seems.
Drive. You should absolutely rent a car, and if you are American and used to automatics, you should make a rental reservation at least a week beforehand because most of the rental cars here are manual. Driving around Naxos is pretty awesome because the roads are super winding and the views are both spectacular and harrowing. Roads here hug cliffsides pretty closely and often lack guardrails, so if you go off the road just a few feet, you will most likely plunge to your death. It is a real rush. There are also a bunch of cool villages deeper into the island that are fun to explore, and some are pretty free of tourists and populated entirely by locals who I can only presume are Real Naxians.
Alternatively, in lieu of a car, you can also rent an ATV or motorcycle. The pros/cons of an ATV/motorcycle is that the market is entirely unregulated, so you can either get one from a shop with a designated parking lot, or some guy in an alley with a handwritten sign. You might also want to keep in mind that these vehicles don’t have as much cover, so if you burn easily, you should probably go with the car because the Greek sun is no joke. All that said, ripping down a winding mountain road on an ATV or motorcycle with the wind in your hair and the sun on your bare back is pretty great. You will feel like a total boss. So in conclusion, it is a decision with costs and benefits that everyone will just need to make for themselves depending on their own individual risk tolerances.
Whatever you decide, make sure you have GPS and a map, and ask a local for a suggested driving route beforehand. I would also avoid driving at night, we didn’t do it, but I bet that is pretty challenging and scary because as you can see in the pictures, the mountain roads did not have street lights.
Beaches. Naxian beaches are lovely, and primarily places to relax. Sand is soft and white, and nudity is also fine at most of them if that is your thing. The water is very calm, almost still, as there is little ocean swell—so surfing isn’t usually feasible, though you will see a lot of windsurfers on windy days. In June, the water was chilly to start, but pretty comfortable once you got used to it. On a calm day, stand-up paddleboarding is fun–Plaka Watersports on Plaka Beach rents out paddleboards for 15 Euros an hour or 25 Euros for two.
The more popular beaches like Agios Georgios (walkable from Naxos Town) and Agios Prokopios (a 15-minute drive) are filled with couples and families, and have amenities like beach chairs and umbrellas and chair-side service that delivers cold beer to you as you unwind. Perhaps the most impressive thing is that beer is served in glass mugs even when you’re on the sand, which tells you just how well behaved everyone is on this island.
Sidenote, these beaches seem especially popular with Scandinavian families, and I saw at least a few older Scandinavian men and women who were so sunburned that I am almost certain I was witnessing them get skin cancer in real time. They didn’t seem too bothered by it, though. Anyway, the popular beaches are all nice, but if you have time, it’s probably worth driving out further and seeing if you can find one that’s a little more isolated and away from the crowd.
Sunset. Naxos’s signature landmark is the Temple of Apollo, a ruin of a structure built a long time ago around 500 BC. All that remains is a large entryway, which is very grand and stately. The ruin is situated on a little islet connected to the main island by a narrow walkway that is just a 10-minute stroll from the main street in Naxos Town. Even though it is a popular spot to watch the sunset, the wind really picks up here, and makes the sky feel big enough for everyone to find their own spot to take it all in. And one thing I’d like to share that we discovered while we were here is that if you get lucky with the clouds and the light and somebody you like, it is a very nice place where you can make something singular out of an everyday moment. Five stars.