Updated: Oct 11, 2020
The Cyclades will bewitch you, much like they did to Odysseus. The archipelago of Greek islands in the Aegean sea will slay your sense of time and beauty and put you back together in a completely different way. You will find yourself watching the rhythmic pattern of the waves coming to shore; stare at them as they go from sapphire, to turquoise, to finally breaking on rocks and sand. You will wait for them to slip, to make a mistake, something to muddy the waters and break the spell. But no, the waves will continue, one after miraculous other. The whitewashed buildings stacked upon hillsides in stark defiance of the sun will tell you that the people here on this island are undeterred with the elements and will thrive as a result. Marble will be magnificently hewn and unquarried at the same time. Everything will look exactly as it does in a postcard, and yet somehow better. And you'll find the whole thing incredibly hard to describe.
That is the Cyclades.
There are the big ones, of course. The ones everyone knows about. The ones that cruise ships weigh anchor in and send their scads of tourists into. Mykonos and Santorini, mostly. Most people plan to spend a little time on each island during their visit. While I don't blame most people for the inevitable FOMO that comes from planning a Greek vacation and subsequent island hopping that ensues, that is just not our jam. We like to sink our roots when we visit a place. Stay for a few days, do some laundry, let the fruit turn in the refrigerator, and make friends with the local shopkeepers.
Most people would ask us "Why Naxos?" as a follow-up question to where we were headed. The simplest answer is that we hate crowds and over-priced lodging. But, really, there were plenty of other reasons why we picked the island of Naxos. We wanted a place that would be less pretentious than Mykonos and had better beaches than Santorini. We wanted temple ruins and quiet streets. We wanted a place that had it all. We're happy to say that this sort of place does exist and it happens to be the fabled childhood home of Zeus and the birthplace of Dionysus. And the FOMO that usually grips you when you are planning a trip to Greece quiets down the moment you settle on the island of Naxos.
Ancient temples. Check.
Good beaches. Check
Iconic whitewashed towns. Check
Iconic whitewashed towns that is a labyrinth of cobble stone walkways. Also, check.
Fewer tourists. Check.
Windmill-looking things. Check.
Good food. Check.
As it goes when it comes to traveling to semi-obscure places, you basically go out of the frying pan and into the fire when it comes to choosing a destination and actually planning for it.
Somewhere between Pinterest and the British Airway's avios login, the logistics started to get overwhelming. I found myself plunking away at Google and Airbnb in the wee hours of the night to see how we were actually going to flesh out this visit. Turns out there isn't a lot of practical information out there. I mean there are plenty of travel influencers who will show you their floppy hats in the Chora, but none that will actually tell me how to get there. Sorry guys, "OMG so beautiful" is not helpful.
It wasn't until I read THIS blog post about visiting Naxos by the lovely folks over at Wanderlust Marriage, that terror gave way to excitement. Alex was more than gracious about answering my silly questions and more or less assured me that this trip wasn't going to be a total disaster. I was comforted and felt slightly more confident in our venture.
But, like most things when it comes to travel, you just have to get in there and do it. Roll up your sleeves and dive in and absorb all the hard earned information you can about a particular place.
Here is what we learned from a week on the island of Naxos.
When to go:
Due to the fact that we hate crowds, we almost never travel during the peak season. Late spring was perfect for us as the island was just starting to wake up for summer, but we had the place to ourselves. The weather was perfect and the only rainy day we had was the day we left.
How to get there:
There aren't any direct flights from SeaTac to Naxos. Shocking, I know. There aren't any direct flights from SeaTac to Athens either. Which then started us down a logistic rabbit hole of how to get from here to there. Ultimately, we decided to fly to London (there are direct flights, obvi), adjust to the jetlag and visit my parents for a few days and then pick up a flight from London to Athens.
We briefly entertained flying to Naxos, but considering the small, and rural, and European, and classically windy airport we thought better of that plan and opted for the reliable inter-island ferry.
Due to weird scheduling that I won't get into (let's just say because, travel) we went for a red-eye flight from London to Athens. From there we had Welcome Pick-Ups drive us from the Athens airport to Piraeus port. (We absolutely recommend Welcome Pick-Ups for any taxi transfer service. Professional and kind. Our driver actually drove us around Athens at 4am so we wouldn't be needlessly waiting at the ferry terminal for several hours.) Once we were at Piraeus we picked up a 7am ferry to Naxos.
SeaJets was the company we chose. They could get us to Naxos in 3 hours (vs other companies with a 7 hour voyage) and we were not disappointed. Their super fast ferries are well run and clean. The boats scoot in and out of the ferry terminals with record speed, so make sure you are ready and waiting before the ferry gets there... in other words, it waits for no one.
When it comes to luggage, everything (beyond personal bags) is stored below deck. The process is kind of weird and disorganized. You enter the ferry from the cargo hold where you just plop your bags against the ship's hull and head upstairs and hope nobody confuses your Samsonite with theirs. I guess it was at this moment we were glad we had our ragamuffin luggage. The ferry typically makes a few stops in Syros and Mykonos before heading to Naxos. Not gonna lie, we were relieved to see the rowdy tourists head for Mykonos and we vowed to never, ever visit there. Listen for the overhead announcement for Naxos. You'll go below deck to find your bags and disembark in the port.
Where to stay:
When it comes to family travel where you stay really makes or breaks the trip. As with most things it really comes down to what you value. Wide open spaces? Close proximity to downtown? Beachfront? Hotel?
Be honest with yourself about what you like. We booked a place through AirBnB that ended up being our best ever vacation rental in the history of our vacation rental usage.
Naxos Blue is a fabulous property management firm that has a wide range of homes to choose from. Flora and Maria are the best hosts a person could ask for. From start to finish we were taken care of. We stayed at their Anamensia apartments which were located in the downtown part of Naxos (the Chora) which overlooked the port. The rooms were gorgeous and the beds were comfy. The air conditioning ran beautifully, the toiletries smelled good, the towels were ample, and the dishes were pretty.
Our place was two bedrooms/two bathrooms and a kitchen/living room set up. We had a washer and a west facing deck that gave us the most spectacular sunsets over the harbor. The place was within walking distance of the Portara (the doorway of Apollo's temple), shops, a grocery store, and restaurants. We felt incredibly lucky to wake up and drink our coffee every morning on that balcony, watching the new boats come into port, and to head down those smooth marble steps to walk around the whitewashed Chora. But, most of all, Flora and Maria were so kind and hospitable. Any question we had was promptly answered. Any need we had was met without hesitation. We felt welcome. Which is, sadly, hard to come by these days. They were even so kind as to send back a wallet Oliver had left behind. Seriously, stay with Naxos Blue.
What to do:
The Portara aka The Temple of Apollo
As iconic to Naxos as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris- a temple that is not a ruin, but simply was unfinished and subsequently raided. The doorway is what remains. The beauty of a gigantic marble doorway overlooking the Aegean is arresting. Going any time of day will be amazing. Sunset will obviously have more people milling around the area. Evening/night was particularly beautiful. Whatever you do, be sure to turn around as the view of the island from that vantage point is something to write home about.
The Temple of Demeter
A ruined temple (but not too bad) devoted to the goddess of grain/crops. It is a bit of a drive inland to get there, but well worth your time. The hours of the site can be a little goofy, so plan accordingly.
Hawaii Beach (Near-ish to Aliko)
This was our favorite beach. Follow the directions in your GPS to Aliko beach. When you get to a fork in the road saying Aliko is right, turn left. It is near an abandoned hotel construction site (rumor has it the builders found ancient ruins and had to stop), park on the street. From there head towards the water and take whichever trail down the bluff that you feel the most comfortable with. I'm tempted to not even share this place to keep it our little secret... so hurry, run there before I change my mind.
A high mountain town paved with marble. It is beautiful. Secluded, but not so much that tourists would feel unwelcome. There are plenty of shops and nice restaurants in the area as well. We enjoyed walking around and taking in the sights.
Book a sailing tour We used Actionseaze Yachting for our excursion. The very company that ferried Anthony Bourdain around Naxos on that particular Parts Unknown episode. Beyond the celebrity name recognition, this is really one of those "you get what you pay for" situations. I vetted a few other sailing companies and got a strong vibe that this was an impersonal tourist trap. Not so with Actionseaze. From the moment I reached out to Captain Nico via email to the moment we disembarked after our day tour we were struck by their professionalism and hospitality. We spent the day aboard a 4 cabin catamaran, sailing around coves, secluded beaches, islands, and sea caves. The food was delicious and the 1st mate was completely unphased by how much food my children consumed. The sights we saw that day will truly stay with us for the rest of our lives. Words don't really do it justice, and neither do photos. Just go for it. Just go. And bring some waterproofing for your cameras, too.
Wander around the Chora
This was a no-brainer for us as we stayed in the main part of the town. We daily wandered those cobblestone white washed streets. The shops are cute, the restaurants are decent, and you get that iconic Cycladic experience of mazes of blue and white buildings.
Where to eat:
Our first night in Naxos we walked along restaurant alley which lines the road between the Chora and the port. There is restaurant upon restaurant in a tidy row. Like the residents in the Fawlty Towers we made our evening trek down the road to find a place for dinner. Here is our take on where we dined.
Zorba's: D+ I'm embarrassed to say we came here twice. The first time was decent because there was hummus and free ouzo. The second time, well... well played Zorba. We got hustled. Overpriced and sleazy.
Boulamatsis: B (Not located directly in Resto Row, but set further back one block into the Chora) Not hustle-y and family run. Food is good quality and price is reasonable. Not given an "A" because it served minute rice with the souvlaki.
Pikantiko: A+ You'll find locals dining here as well as the tourists. Prices are incredibly reasonable. The food is delicious. The main guy running the place, Mario, is super hospitable. We stopped restaurant hopping after we discovered this place. You can find it by its green sign and pepper for the "i" in the logo.
Places that were recommended but we never got around to: Cozi, Apostolis, & Nasaki
Where to shop:
For groceries we went to the little grocery store in the Chora because it was within walking distance. It was over-priced and the selection was limited. But, we decided to just suck it up in the name of convenience.
Palia Agora: A+ Located in the Chora is a specialty cooking shop. (You can't miss it with the strands of garlic hanging around the storefront.) This is your place for spices, salts, cool spice grinders, local liquor, and handmade soap. The owner is a fellow mom of two boys who moved here from Athens. We bonded over motherhood and how expensive the local grocery store was. Her prices are amazingly reasonable and the selection was unique and special.
Fantasia: B- This is a general knick-knack shop with some custom t-shirts and jewelry. The owner was very kind, but his prices were a little inflated. 20 euros per shirt. He told me his designs were original, and to be fair I hadn't seen anything like them and guilt-purchased 3.
A few steps down from Pailia Agora is this fabulous little place that sells hand-made marble goods. We splurged on a brass and marble chess set that was styled after the ancient Cycladic figures as well as the temple of Apollo for the rooks. Marco was a charming shopkeeper and took pride in his work.
Ta Axotica-: B+
This shop carries the classic Greek light cotton shirts and pull-overs. Designs are a tiny bit limited and the prices are on the high side, but the shop keeper was kind and was very helpful in finding the right size shirts for my kids.
Other things to note:
Bring plenty of cash. Most vendors accept credit cards, but more than once we had the connection interrupted and the whole transaction took way longer than it should. The mini panic attacks of "What am I going to do if the transaction doesn't work!?!?" could have been assuaged if we had just brought a little more cash with us. It's best to have a back up just in case systems go down.
You can't flush toilet paper in Greece. All toilet paper must go into a nearby trash can. If you are bringing kids with you, get ready for a 3 am freak-out in which your child accidentally drops the toilet paper and wakes the dead with their panicked shrieks.
Or just bring a few travel bidets and hide the TP and avoid the whole thing all together.
Don't worry about not being able to speak or read Greek. Most people speak English and are more than willing to work with you. This was one of the things that struck me the most about Greece- the way people wanted to get to know you. Perhaps this stems from too many vacations in France that I am insecure about navigating life in a foreign country. Never once have I felt so at home with people who have so little in common with me. You build connections and find yourself feeling as if you have made a friend even though all you did was buy milk. This is Greece, though.
It seems so corny to say the word magical to describe Naxos. The word that is typically reserved for a day with cotton candy in the shape of mouse ears, but still it seems like it is the only appropriate way to describe this place. The blue, the turquoise, the soft golden sunlight, kind locals, good food, and somehow you start to feel like a mermaid's song is the reason why you want to stay forever. In many ways it is the simplest explanation.