Mykonos beyond the bling

Return to the Cyclades to find the Greek heart of this famously glamorous island


It was 1990, Bombalurina’s Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini was top of the pops, and I had one just like it packed in my rucksack. I was backpacking around the Cyclades in Greece, essentially a cluster of craggy rocks (many still uninhabited) that poke their thyme-scented heads up from the Aegean Sea just 100 miles from Athens.

My Sony Walkman earphones were glued in my ears, my curly perm was wilting in the heat and I’d just applied my zero-factor coconut sun lotion as I stepped off the ferry. Mykonos wasn’t as busy or expensive back then, but it had enjoyed a vibrant party scene ever since stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Jackie Onassis had holidayed on the island in the 60s.

Today it’s considered one of the hippest destinations in the world and its hedonistic party scene is infamous. However, reclamation of the island’s traditional Greek identity was perhaps overdue; recently there’s been a wonderful resurgence of hotels, shops and restaurants that favour Greek authenticity over bling.

For a first taste of island peace and quiet, I stay a little out of town at Grace Mykonos, situated above the beach at Agios Stefanos. I’m handed a glass of ouzo on the rocks and advised to relax, which isn’t difficult amidst the tranquility of this bolthole’s Cycladic architecture, all dazzling white and minimalist.

The work of Greek artists is showcased in the hotel’s own Gallery Skoufa, while the views from the pool are pretty as another picture, looking down to the beach with its kaleidoscope of sun parasols and retro canary yellow wooden lifeguard station. My room is lovely too — a calm white oasis, simply decorated with bespoke photography of the island.

Pick your moment to stroll and Mykonos Town is as alluring as ever with its maze of snow-white alleys and sugar cube houses trimmed with blue, cleverly designed to defy strong seasonal winds and confuse marauding pirates and tourists alike (use its four 16th century iconic windmills of Kato Mili as navigational landmarks).

Shops that once sold baklava may now sell Gucci handbags and come evening well-heeled Athenians are willing to risk their Louboutins on the cobbles, but early morning it remains a charismatic place, where squid is hung out to dry on wooden planks in the harbour. Leather-faced fishermen, back with their haul, drink ouzo and play dominoes on the decks of their boats, stray kittens hop in and out of lobster pots, and natural sponges are piled high in baskets to sell on the quay.

I like to wander before the usual daily deposit of cruise ship day-trippers arrives at midday to pour through these alleyways as thick as Greek yoghurt.

I’m on the hunt for local produce such as honey soap from Savvas Mykonos, and handmade leather sandals from Liontis, established in 1956. Late morning, Restaurant Alegro is the perfect spot to order a freddo espresso and to watch to the boats slip in and out of the harbour.

A short stroll from here is one of the most photographed churches in all of Greece — the church of Panagia Paraportiani, which translates as ‘our lady of the side-gate’. Five churches in one, this white-washed beauty, which began life in the 15th century, was built upon and added to over the following two centuries.

Most visitors don’t stray beyond Mykonos town or the popular party beaches of Paradise, Super-Paradise and Psarou. The interior of the island is barren and dry — thank goodness for the bursts of purple bougainvillea that liven up the towns — but the beaches are some of the most beautiful in Greece.

To reach the sands on the south of the island, the most scenic commute is by caique, a traditional fishing boat, from Ornos beach.

But to really get away from it all, you have to travel by dirt road to the beaches of the north and north-eastern coast, to Agios Sostis, with its wide horseshoe of sand, and Fokos, with its one lovely white-washed taverna festooned with vines.

Few make the one-mile boat journey across to uninhabited Delos, south west of Mykonos town, even though it’s one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, dating from around 1000BCE and believed to be the birthplace of Apollo and his twin Artemis.

Early one morning, I hop in a boat taxi from Mykonos town to visit this open-air museum, when its ruined houses and amphitheatre, mosaics and marble statues are warmed to life in the glow of a rising sun. Come spring the ruins are prettily overgrown with wildflowers.

The concept behind Scorpios beach club on the southern tip, is of a modern-day agora or meeting place, with a natural aesthetic; for a while it was only a whisper from an insider that got you in. It’s a lovely place to kick back and when I arrive at 11am, there’s a yoga class taking place on the beach. Sun salutations with the sand between my toes feel like a good precursor for a day of lounging on a driftwood day bed and swimming.

Word is that, for summer of 2021, Greek-owned Sant Anna on Paraga Beach will be giving Scorpios a run for its money, with the largest seawater swimming pool in Europe, holding 220,000 gallons. Plus, it also runs excursions to secluded coves for castaway experiences.

For the Mykonos I remember from 30 years ago, I head to the 16th century hillside village of Ano Mera at the core of the island. It’s an enchanting unspoiled spot whose labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes leads past medieval houses clad with sweet-smelling jasmine, and rustic bakeries, out of which the aroma of fresh country bread known as horiatiko psomi flows, to the restored Panagia Tourliani Monastery with its three-bell tower.

Then, calling in at nearby Vioma, an organic vineyard and farm run by the Asimomytis family, I try a glass of their citrusy Paraportiano white wine, one of the three they produce, to a soundtrack of classical music — played in the vineyards to encourage good a good harvest.

Back in 1990, my idea of hedonism was not a fish supper but Niko’s Taverna has always been a favourite of mine. I tuck into dolmas made fresh by Grandma daily, the grape leaves bursting with rice, pine nuts and mint, before choosing the catch of the day from the wealth of fresh local fish laid out on ice, just hours from the sea.

After dinner, Little Venice, named for the lofty houses with brightly painted wooden balconies that jut out over the Aegean, is the most atmospheric place to be. Under a full moon, I sit at bar Caprice, near enough to the water’s edge to feel the occasional spray of the sea on my legs.

I may not be dancing until dawn, but I’ll stay here awhile, and watch the revelers pass by, happy in the knowledge that both fun and tradition on the island will endure.


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