You might spot a Hollywood star as you wander around Antiparos. Tom Hanks has bought a holiday home on this tiny southern Aegean island. Sarah Jessica Parker, Brad Pitt and Sean Connery have all visited recently too. I did keep my eyes peeled and who knows who might have been hiding under a cap and behind dark sunglasses.
Multimillionaires come to Antiparos but you won’t find the trappings you normally associate with wealth and stardom. There are no luxury limos, casinos or expensive boutiques. And that’s possibly why the stars love this small Greek island. You can visit a stunning underground cavern or view ancient ruins on an adjacent island. That will take a day. And then for the rest of your break you can just unwind as you wander between the beach and tavernas and bars. Ex pats told me time has stood still in Antiparos and, for most visitors, that’s the island’s appeal.
Antiparos isn’t big – it’s 12km long by 3km wide – but it is very hilly. One side of the island drops straight down to the sea. The south and east coasts have superb beaches with soft sands that are sheltered from the wind. And there’s not much development. The island has one small town of 1,000 people, which you can explore on foot. Outside the town there are just clusters of houses. Taxi drivers will point at one particular isolated house, sited away from the main road on top of a small hill. It is Tom Hanks’ unpretentious villa. Locals speak very highly of the actor.
The island’s size and the concentration of activity in the town means you don’t need a hire car. Once you leave the settlement there are no other big shops, just a few restaurants and tavernas. The lack of development means Antiparos has retained a natural, unspoilt appearance. It’s a pretty chilled place.
My journey to the island involved coordinating the timetables of two ferries – firstly to Paros then a short crossing to Antiparos – and a connecting bus, so it’s fair to say I was pretty stressed when I arrived. But as soon as I set foot on Antiparos it was as if the whole island was saying ‘now breathe.’ The boat crossing from Paros takes under ten minutes but the 1,500 metre-wide channel makes Antiparos seem worlds away from its bigger sister. Locals like it that way. Hotelier Iliada Stavrinidi explained. “We don’t want it to get too commercial. We want to keep it like it is.”
The ferry decants you onto Antiparos’ quay near a handful of small, relaxed bars and cafes, each one offering a wonderful view. You can sip a glass of wine while watching the rows of brightly painted fishing boats bobbing on the clear waters of the Aegean. It’s mesmerising and relaxing.
Opposite the ferry ramp is the town’s main street. It is filled with small boutiques and more cafés. The range of gifts and clothes reflect the island’s clientele. Shops sell tasteful souvenirs and art pieces. Antiparos attracts a discerning crowd of travellers from all over the world and they tend to return each year. The row of flags decorating one of the small supermarkets shows how international this community is.
Stay for a few days and you’ll start to recognise people. Holiday here for a few days longer and you’re likely to receive a friendly wave. Many visitors say that Antiparos feels more authentic than some of the more touristy Greek islands.
As I continued strolling along the main thoroughfare I quickly reached the focal point of island life, the Square. At the centre of this stone paved forum are the spreading branches of a plane tree, which offers shade to men playing backgammon in the afternoon heat. I suspect that this space is the island’s unofficial parliament, where decisions are made and opinions exchanged over a glass of retsina.
I walked on, past the dazzling, whitewashed walls of the small cottages, making tight turns around the network of alleys. Bougainvillea spills over walls adding a dash of vibrant pink colour.
Just a few hundred yards from the Square is a small archway, which I passed through, uncertain of whether I should be going that way. I found myself in the middle of the Castro. This fortress was built by the Venetians in 1440, after they seized control of the island. It’s not a Northern European-style castle. It’s a walled community of small houses and four churches set around a central courtyard, with a small tower on a mound as its centrepiece. It was designed to keep people and property safe from the frequent pirate raids that blighted Antiparos.
In the past some locals have literally gone underground to avoid attack. The island’s most incredible attraction is a short, 8km drive out of town and is worth seeing. It is the only vertical cave in Europe – a massive cavern hollowed out of the island’s rocky terrain. It’s a hike up to the entrance, 170 metres above sea level, but the view across the island and down to the sea is a bonus. The cave contains what are reported to be the oldest stalagmites and stalactites on the continent.
I visited the cave with Gary Gainsbury and his partner Albena Haralampieva, who are part of the team that operate the island’s dive business, Blue Island Divers. I was grateful to them for the personal tour, as they must have made the underground trek dozens of times. We collected our tickets at the small entrance booth. But before we went into the cave, we looked at two tiny connected churches.
The first building we entered was the newer St John of the Cave church. The original structure is visible at the back of it and I’d say that the original chapel is no bigger than a bedroom, yet it remains in use as a church today.
Directly behind the church there’s a rocky overhang. You walk underneath this natural shelter to reach the top of a staircase that takes you down into the cavern. The view of the huge space that awaits you as you step out of the sunshine and into the darkened, humid space is unforgettable. It looks like it has been carved out of the earth, like an evil villain’s lair from the movies. I’m not so good with heights and my heart skipped a beat when I saw how the stairs went down and down, descending into the huge subterranean space.
The cave is 90 metres deep, 50 metres wide and 40 metres high. It’s very atmospheric. I resisted the urge to shout ‘hello’ to see what the sound was like. A group of Russian tourists who were following behind us were making the most of the booming echo of the acoustics.
There are over 400 steps down and, more importantly, you have to climb just as many to get back up! I suspect the viewing platforms in each of the three chambers are also partly designed to help unfit visitors save face. “It’s 400 steps down, 800 steps up,” joked Gary from behind. I suspected that the return to daylight would feel like that.
There’s a recently constructed cement staircase and a firm metal handrail to guide you up and down the cave. Condensation forms on the cold metal rail and that makes it quite slippery and hard to keep a grasp of. I can’t imagine how treacherous this trek was when visitors relied on the previous steps, which I am told where rickety.
When the French Ambassador De Nointel and his team rediscovered the cave in 1673, access would have been a test of bravery. He was travelling Europe in a quest for archaeological finds to plunder and return to France. De Nointel heard locals discuss the cave when he was on neighbouring Paros.
His party came to Antiparos, found the cave entrance and climbed down into the deep, dark space on a succession of ropes. Their only illumination came from candles. There are dated inscriptions on the rock inside the cavern where people have carved their names over the years. It is incredible to see marks made in 1888 that look as if they were scratched into the wall yesterday. If you hunt for them, you’ll find older dates too.
The cave consists of three chambers. The Chamber of the Stone Waterfalls is so-called because the stalagmites and stalactites resemble white water rushing over falls. Next, you’ll enter the space where the French delegation held Mass during their Christmas Eve exploration. It’s called The Chamber of the Cathedral. The final stop, The Royal Chamber, is dedicated to a Greek King who’s signature remains carved on the cave wall along with many other noteworthy visitors, like Lord Byron.
Sadly many of the stalagmites and stalactites, which had formed over thousands of years, have been removed as ‘souvenirs.’ The island’s small museum does contain an etching by an artist who accompanied the explorers and you can see what a magical sight, with pinnacles of rising stalagmites and hanging stalactites, awaited those explorers venturing into the darkness centuries ago.
The museum collection includes fascinating photos from more recent Antiparos history. Island women were once known for their obsession with their appearance. Maya, who was on duty when I visited, showed me the display of pictures of women wearing impressive formal gowns and coats, which must have been uncomfortable in the summer heat. “It was said that the women on Antiparos were so elegant it looked like they came from Paris,” Maya told me. There’s something revealing about the posed pictures of the locals in their finery, too. “Women who have their hands on the left side were unmarried and if the hand was in the opposite position, they were available,” Maya explained. I jokingly asked Maya if they had them repainted once they were wed.
If you’re a keen snorkeler or diver, Antiparos’ limestone landscape offers more caves to explore. Gary can take you out on trip to see the caves at Epitafios, either from the dry deck of a charter boat, which was my choice, or from within the water. “There are two or three caves that you can enter,” he told me. “You go down a few metres and there’s a tunnel that connects to another and to another, all in little formation. The caves open out quite big underneath. There’s a lot of light coming in and you can see all the formations and the soft corals,” he explained.
Gary told me that there’s interesting wildlife in the island’s waters, too. “There’s a colony of monk seals. They are protected so there’s no fishing in the area. We haven’t seen them in the caves, though.”
Gary had been diving all over the world and chose Antiparos as his base because of the clarity of the island’s water. “UK visibility is three or four metres on a good day, if you’re lucky,” he said. “Here it’s usually thirty metres and maybe even more. If the wind has been blowing, the minimum is fifteen metres and you can still see everything,” he enthused. “I’ve been to the Caribbean – Dominica – and it’s good but the visibility is nowhere near as far.” There are also a couple of shipwrecks around the island that provide interest for divers including the remains of an 1884 cargo vessel.
Gary told me how he decided to make the permanent move to Antiparos from Britain on a cold, grey November day almost a decade ago. Seeing the sun reflecting off the blue waters of the Aegean, I could understand why he made the leap. Like many ex-pats, Gary loves living on Antiparos. I met up outside one of the island’s bars with a group of Brits who spend the summer in their second homes. They were a friendly crowd and clearly a close-knit bunch, but it is not one of those places where islanders and seasonal residents remain distant.The Brits, Swedes and Dutch that I met were friends with the year-round residents. “The Greek way of life is so much slower than what I was used to,” Gary told me. “You just adapt. I don’t think I have once said I wish I’ve never come here. It is idyllic. I get up in the morning and the sun is shining and I think, ‘I have to go and dive today.’ What a shame!”
You can find out about diving on Antiparos at BlueIsland-Divers.gr.
Antiparos offers sun worshippers a choice of beaches. Some are pebbly, some sandy and many of them are under five minutes walk from the town. With so few visitors you won’t have to be up early or fight your way through the crowds in order to secure a place on the sand! If you don’t want to wear clothes, you don’t have to. Part of the camping beach, near the island’s campsite, has operated a nudist section since 1973. Sunset beach is another local favourite. It is just 500 metres from the town square.
Tourism officer Artemis Triantafillos says when the sun goes down, the nightlife on Antiparos is relaxed, rather than rowdy. “It might not be like Faliraki or Mykonos. But when you go out in Antiparos, it feels like you are a local that’s how you are treated,” he told me.
“There are three clubs on the island, but they are generally relaxed. Most of the action starts around the main square after about midnight,” he continued. “La Luna is a discotheque that opens after 4am. It is an outdoor disco and I believe it is the only one in Greece at the moment which is open-air.”
Artemis told me that, within Greece, Antiparos is known as a ‘love’ island. “If you are single, go to Antiparos – if you know what I mean!” he told me. If you don’t have the stamina to dance or romance until dawn, you can still enjoy Antiparos’ pleasant climate with the island’s free al fresco cinema. I’m told that it only shows old films that require no copyright fees for screening. I think the social activity is more important than the film.
Demetrius’ restaurant is in its 31st year of trading. As I sat down to eat he told me that goats cheese and calamari are some of his local menu staples. And like all locals, he’s got a Tom Hanks tale. “He loves they way I cook my fish.” I also learned that Tom loves salmon and he’s a very generous tipper.
Later that evening I was invited to see some locals produce a spirit, which is similar to raki. It’s called tsikoudia or suma and the production process traditionally takes place in October and lasts around ten days. We waited until nightfall before we ventured off the main road onto dirt tracks and across fields, to find an agricultural outbuilding where the spirit was being distilled. The flickering yellow light cast by a bonfire illuminated the outside of the industrial unit.
A group of men, aged in their twenties and thirties, were standing around the fire. At first I thought that they were watching out for a police raid. Then when I walked inside and felt the furnace-like heat generated by the still and the spirit production process, I could understand why they wanted to stay outside in the cooler evening air. There’s nothing really secretive about this. In reality the process is highly regulated and the distillers buy a licence from the government that allows them to produce the spirit for a set number of days. That’s why teams work around the clock to make as much as possible.
The lads didn’t work in tourism and they spoke little English, so Iliada from my hotel kindly translated. “Some places make suma from figs,” she told me, “but in Antiparos we use grapes.”
The process was complicated and I can’t begin to recall all the steps. Broadly, grapes are crushed and the juice is removed. The pulp ferments and is distilled in a large copper boiler in a room where the intense heat of the furnace creates a boozy steam. Those vapours are captured. Once this solution meets the required alcohol level, it can be bottled and drunk. Some of the helpers were ‘product testing’ that evening and as the night drew on, the fire became a barbeque and later, the centrepiece of a makeshift dance floor!
“Every two hours they can produce forty to sixty litres of drink,” Iliada told me. She looked impressed at the facts she was learning as she translated the distiller’s responses. “In five days he will have done this 200 times, so that’s a lot of litres!” she laughed. I enjoyed my sample of this aniseed-tasting drink. It was smooth but very strong, so I declined further glasses as I knew I had to be up early and on a boat the next day.
George Marianos has operated boat trips in Antiparos for 18 years. He’s known locally as ‘Sargos,’ which is also the name of his boat. He comes from a long line of fishermen and arranges sea fishing trips. “We catch red snapper and red mullet often,” he told me as he manoeuvred his boat away from the quay. Today I was on board for one of his most popular trips – the short, ten-minute ride to the uninhabited island of Despotiko.
“There is a beautiful beach on the other side. People stay there for three or four hours,” Sargos shouted over his shoulder as he steered the boat towards a short wooden pier. But I was here to see how a team of experts were turning back time, instead of topping up the tan. In 1959, an archaeological dig revealed the remains of a temple dating from around 500BC. It was an exciting find and visitors are free to walk around and see what has been uncovered.
Yiannis Kouragios is the government expert directing operations. He travelled over on Sargos’ boat with his companion, a very cute dachshund. I suppose every day can be, ‘take your dog to work day’ if your office is a field! The excavation site is just five minutes walk from the boat jetty. I walked with Yiannis and spoke to him in bursts, between his phone calls, questions from his team members and a persistent French tourist, who wanted to know about the work.
An ancient settlement was laid out in front of us. I could make out the floorplan of the rooms but no wall was higher that four feet. At points a collection of new-looking pillars and columns rose from the rooms’ perimeter. “The temple is dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, twins from mythology. Eighteen buildings have been uncovered. It is one of the most important sites in the islands, because nobody knew about it,” Yiannis told me.
“We are very lucky,” he continued, as he strode around the site pointing out aspects of the excavations. “In 2001 we found 600 items buried beneath the slabs in the floor of this room. We found figurines and Corinthian pottery. We’ve also found bronze items like scarabs from Egypt, beads, amber and a small statue of Apollo.”
The archaeologists’ plan surprised me. They are hoping to reconstruct part of the uncovered temple so visitors will be able to see what it once looked like. “We studied very carefully every small detail and element. Then we looked at the history of Greek architecture and other examples. We put everything together like a puzzle to recreate a drawing of how it used to be.”
I spoke with some of the archaeologists and craftsmen. They explained that they are trying to use traditional methods and materials but that’s not always possible. The temple would have been constructed with marble from the island of Naxos, for instance. Quarrying for the stone is no longer allowed there.
It is an immense and ambitious task. Despotiko is an uninhabited island and that requires transportation of all materials and equipment from Antiparos everyday. There’s no timeline for the completion of the reconstruction work and funding for archaeology projects has been reduced under Greek government austerity measures.
Some visitors to Antiparos like to stay under the stars. “We have one of the most beautiful campsites in Greece and it was rated by The Guardian as one of the ten best in all the world,” Artemis told me. “It’s in a cedar forest with sand nearby.”
If you want great views and comfort, I’d recommend Iliada Stavrini’s hotel, Kouros Village. Iliada grew up on the island but she’s half Swedish and spends a lot of time with family in Scandinavia. You’ll appreciate how she combines Swedish attention-to-detail with a warm Greek welcome. “It’s our home so when people come we also want them to feel at home and welcomed,” Iliada told me as we chatted over coffee on her deck, overlooking the beach and the laid-back harbour.
I certainly felt well looked after in Kouros Village. “It’s good for families because you have the pool and the restaurant. You can easily spend the day here with your children and keep yourself occupied,” said Iliada.
If you’re not enticed by Kouros Village’s stunning swimming pool then you can enjoy watching other people work. From the waterside terrace you can see the start of the town’s shopping street and you have views of the ferry embarkation point, five-minutes stroll along the beach. “The view is changing all the time. You have the boats coming and going and the kite surfers. It’s relaxing,” Iliada told me. You’ll be expected to provide the entertainment for the friendly and inquisitive ducks that bob about on the waters gently lapping the beach next to the hotel.
The hotel is open from mid April until mid-October and it’s well worth visiting at the start or end of the season. “It is particularly nice in spring and then autumn,” Iliada explained. “Most people tend to come in the hotter months because they’re trying to get away from Northern Europe and they want the summer heat, but in October it’s stunningly warm at around 28°C. It’s perfect for sunbathing, swimming and walking around,” she told me. The only disadvantage of Kouros Village is that you can see your ferry arrive, so you know your time in this special place has ended!
There’s more information at Kouros-Village.gr.
If you want a relaxing break with good food on an island where the welcome is as warm as the sunshine, I’d recommend Antiparos. The extra steps you take to get to this island will be worth it.
There are a number of ways to reach Antiparos. You can fly to a nearby Greek island like Mykonos and take the large ferry to Paros, then a short crossing to Antiparos. You can walk to Kouros Village from the quay.
Or you could fly the 3.5 hours from the UK to Athens, then change planes and take the 40 min flight to Paros, followed by the Antiparos ferry.