Astypalaia looks like a traditional Greek island but is very different in so many ways. This place is used to welcoming tourists but tourism is not the centre of its universe. They’re not all about ‘English breakfast’ and ‘rooms to let’ signs here but if you like the cheese you had at dinner, the taverna owner will contact the hotel you’re staying in to make sure you get some before you leave (true story). Don’t expect the main town to be awake much before the sun comes down either; they like having you here but they do have work to do as well!
120 miles from Athens, on the outskirts of the Dodecanese archipelago, aesthetically it has far more in common with its Cycladic neighbours than its own island group. It shares the Cycladic rugged landscape, the archetypal whitewashed houses with blue fixtures, a generous peppering of restored windmills and vast expanses of crystal clear water from every viewpoint on its coast. One of the best things about the island are the daily flights from Athens. Half an hour later and you feel like you’re on a totally different planet.
Astypalaia (or Astypalià / Astropalia as the locals would say) is the island’s ancient name, and has been settled by all major forces that occupied Greece throughout history. Under Turkish and Italian rule after Greek independence, Astypalaia wasn’t repatriated to Greece until 1948. The hub of the island is the Chora, which is nestled around a 13th century Venetian castle upon a hill. This cute town contains a variety of traditional tavernas, cafes, bars and good quality family run accommodation. There are a handful of other small villages along the one permanently surfaced road that takes you to the airport, including Livadi, Analipsi / Maltezana and the old port, Pera Gialos, just below the Chora.
The castle is very much worth a visit. Built in the 13th century and inhabited until the 1950s (Amorgos earthquake), it includes the beautiful blue domed Evangelismos church. You get there by winding through the town’s alleyways, every corner a picture in itself. The view from the top is breathtaking, although the Chora is beautiful from every angle, especially at sunset.
There are a good number of boutique hotel options for an island of this size. We stayed in a family run hotel above the harbour with beautiful sea views and wonderful staff. Michalis, his wife Maria and his parents welcomed us as if we were family. Nothing was too much trouble. We got picked up at the airport, we had our luggage taken down to our room and got served a beautiful home cooked breakfast. Everything you know about the Greek concept of ‘filoxenia’, we found here and we can’t wait to come back. I didn’t even mention the beautifully decorated rooms and the views from the pool. 100% blissful stay.
The waters around Astypalaia are crystal clear but the beaches are not all sandy or easily accessible. Hiring a 4×4 is definitely worthwhile as prices here are very reasonable. During the summer months, a lot of the beach access routes are resurfaced but you will still need a sturdy vehicle to get around. If you do bite the bullet and hire a care, the endless options including Kaminakia, Vatses, Agios Konstantinos, Moura, Chrissi and so many others will make it worth your while. The summer months also see a number of little tavernas open on certain beaches so check with your hotel before you leave about what’s available food wise and which roads have been resurfaced. We were there at the beginning of the tourist season and the heavy rainfall, which preceded our arrival, didn’t allow us to get to every beach on the map. Definitely check the boat timetables as visiting the nearby uninhabited islands of Koutsomitis and Koudouna (amazing green blue waters) or Drako’s cave from the tiny village of Vathi will offer you unique experiences and if you’re really lucky some encounters with dolphins and seals.
Last but by no means least, the food. Oh the food. For any vegetarians out there, I do apologise in advance because the local goat variety is very cute but unfortunately for them very tasty too. A must try for meat lovers along with local lamb. There is obviously fresh fish and some incredible local cheeses, especially as part of Greek salads. Astypalaia also produces saffron that flavours many dishes as well as the ‘kitrinokouloura’, which you should invest in before you leave.
We loved the main square in the Chora, which is basically where the famous windmills are. You won’t be stuck for eating options and Pera Gialos is really cute in the evening but the square is where we kept going back to. Ageri taverna is probably one of our top tips anywhere on the Greek islands and we only had to drag ourselves next door for a drink. Meltemi café is a great place to watch the people of Astypalaia gather round for a gossip.
Throughout our stay we felt we were getting a slice of what Greek hospitality is meant to be about. Nothing fake or made all shiny and new to please visitors from abroad. A slower pace of life, some amazing sea views and great food. Each flight from Athens fits about 30 people, make sure you’re one of them!
This article was first published in Australian newspaper Neos Kosmos’s travel supplement on 15th August 2015. Reproduced with kind permission, all rights reserved.