Missed the Boat to Mykonos? Time for Tinos and Syros
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The truth about Mykonos? Well, it’s complicated: On the one hand, the island is the very definition of glam Greek island getaway, while on the other you could well find yourself paying £745 for a beachside lunch. And even if you find cheaper (and you can), you will rarely find yourself alone: Mykonos is not a terribly large island, but it is so popular that the frenzied summer pace often sends locals and solitude-seeking travelers packing.
Where do they go? Well, it’s worth recalling that Mykonos is just one of the some 220 islands in the Cycladic archipelago. While not every island in the Cyclades is actually inhabited, the larger ones are, and many smaller ones are, too. In recent years, the islands of Tinos, just 34 kilometres north of Mykonos, and Syros, 44 kilometres west, have emerged as appealing, world-class alternatives to the famous party island. So whether you miss your ferry to Mykonos or want a cool Aegean alternative from the get-go, read on.
At nearly 195 square kilometres, Tinos is nearly twice the size of neighboring Mykonos (only 15 minutes away by high-speed ferry). In contrast to the party island, its main town is no great charmer, save for one very iconic church, Panagia Evangelistria or Our Lady of Tinos. The church’s possession of a supposedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary makes it, and Tinos generally, a place of great Greek Orthodox veneration and Christian pilgrimage. This is particularly so every Dekapentavgoustos, 15 August, the date of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary when the faithful literally crawl from the harbor up the long road to the wedding-cake style church.
But Tinos has more to offer than religious heritage alone. Pagans can pay homage to Poseidon at his eponymous temple in the area around Kionia. The island’s rugged interior is dotted with more than a thousand ornate Venetian stone dovecotes and unspoilt villages like sleepy Kardiani and Mirsini and the livelier Pyrgos, in a region famed for its green marble and where even the local bus shelter is fashioned of marble. Around Volax, amidst vineyards and fields of artichokes, colossal boulders lend the countryside an ethereal quality unique in the Aegean. The gnarled peak of Exomvourgo is another unusual feature of the Tinian landscape.
Swim, Eat, Sleep
Ah yes, beaches. Tinos has about 41 of them in different shapes and sizes. Standouts include Agios Fokas, an organized beach replete with beach bar and sun loungers, while Livada boasts some interesting geological formations and Kolimbithra is the place to go for a hearty dose of golden sand and even the chance to do a little surfing.
Tinos also has distinctive gastronomic traditions, of which spicy grapefruit and malathus, sausage, pork batter, sun-dried tomatoes, handmade nuts and miniature artichokes are just a few. There are plenty of down-home Greek tavernas, but you can exercise more posh options at Marathia in Agios Fokas or the trendy Thalassaki, a seaside taverna at Isternia Bay where, yes, arrival by helicopter is an option. As for accommodations on the island, they are more down-to-earth than in Mykonos, but hotels like Living Theros Luxury Suites have nothing to envy other islands for breezy style and proximity to the sea.
Syros approximates Mykonos in size, but beyond that, the similarities fade away. Its chief port and city, Ermoupoli, is the capital of the Region of the South Aegean, reachable by ferry from Piraeus in about three hours and 25 minutes. Venetian influences and neoclassical mansions with intricate-carved balconies make Ermoupoli look like nothing like those you’ll find on islands elsewhere in the archipelago. The city was built in the 1820s, during the time of the Greek War of Independence, and until recently, its prosperity had more to do with trade than tourism.
But this is Greece, and the history of Syros goes back even further. There was an early Bronze Age settlement and lots of incursions from various corners of the Mediterranean. But, from 1204 to the day in 1522 when Barbarossa moved in, the Venetians ruled the roost. One of the two hills that rise above the port is the setting for medieval Ano Syros, crowned with the 13th century Catholic cathedral of St. George. Elsewhere, The Assumption of the Virgin church has an icon by El Greco.
Exploring the historic heart of Ermoupoli by foot is a pleasure, not only for the sheer number of cafes and quality shops along its central streets— some of which, like Protopapadaki Street, are paved with marble — but also on account of the architectural aesthetic that is especially elegant in the Vaporia section. It culminates at the very cool Asteria Beach Bar, where you can sip an iced coffee then go for a dip in the azure water. There is no sandy beach per se, but the swimming is still pretty amazing.
In terms of good eats, Ermoupoli is no slouch either. Avant Garden serves up creative Aegean cooking in an urbane garden setting, while the beautiful Mazi also wins plaudits for its “inspired Greek cuisine”. And Amvix, right by the port at 26 Akit Ethnikis Antistaseos, has excellent pasta dishes and the best wood-fired pizzas.
In terms of getting around without a car, Syros is more user-friendly than Tinos. That’s because Ermoupoli has plenty to keep you busy but the bus service is also simple and cheap. For example, you can grab a bus by the port for the approximately 20-minute, smooth ride to Galissas beach, which has a big family-friendly section on one side and a smaller nudist beach on the other. A good hotel bet here is the upbeat Hotel Remvi.
In Ermoupoli itself, the Hotel Diogenis has the advantage of being right next to the port, perfect for those last-minute dashes to the ferry. Hotel Ethrion is situated behind the port; ask for a room with a sea view balcony. Hotel Ploes is an artsier but pricier option. Its small outdoor café is a gem and from the private stone terrace in the back you can jump right into the water — a fine way to enjoy some refreshment in signature laidback Syros style.
Featured photo by the author.