Jade Conroy, February 25, 2019
Last September, on a tiny Aegean island shaped like a peanut husk, that I tasted summer distilled into dessert form. The dish? A swirl of tart Greek yogurt, crowned with a dollop of fragrant rosehip and honey. I ate it while beads of salty seawater dripped from my hair to the ground. The setting? The terrace of Irene’s, a friendly village café in the middle of Folegandros. Trucks and cars, jeeps and mopeds whizzed past so closely we could feel the vibrations at our table.
The majority of these vehicles were in search of one thing: the beach. It had been me zooming past just a few hours earlier, with my boyfriend, desperate on our first day to find a secluded cove with nothing but a paper map for directions. There’s just one main road through the centre of this tiny isle, which measures just 32 square kilometres, and it goes right past Irene’s. When it ends the road splinters off into smaller veins, many of which lead, at least part of the way, to the beaches.
The trick to it is this: look for a cluster of other cars and mopeds as your signal, park up and then go the rest of the way on foot. That’s how we happened upon tiny Ambeli beach that same morning. A nondescript dirt track studded with trees suddenly bent and gave way to grey-green rocks - perfect sunbathing platforms - lining a turquoise bay. The water was so clear you could make out the patterns of peoples’ swimwear.
For a week we enjoyed the same routine. Mornings were dedicated solely to deciding which beach to try and find that day. We usually did it over a breakfast of spinach tart and scrambled eggs with oregano, which grows in abundance on the arid island, and is used as liberally as salt, on the terrace of the stylish Anemi Hotel, our base for the week.
On one particularly memorable morning, we drove to Agkali, a small village with a smattering of cafés, restaurants and hotels set on a shimmering bay dotted with gently bobbing boats. It’s the starting point for the short and dusty hike to Agios Nikolaos, one of the only beaches on the island with anything on it: a clifftop restaurant, Papalagi (popular in the evenings, when diners arrive by boat), and a restaurant set back on the beach, with just a few gingham-topped wooden tables in the sand.
When the heat of the day got too much we retired here for fish, selected from a tray of fresh catch brought around by the waiter, and served with a Greek salad with local sourouto cheese. It’s the kind of food to be eaten with freshly wrinkled hands - the perfect snapshot of a Mediterranean summer. Many of the other beaches don’t have so much as a kiosk on them, so make sure to stock up on supplies before you set off - helpfully, many of the cafés in the Chora offer ‘beach sandwiches’ to take away.
Of course, it doesn’t always go to plan: a gruelling and sweaty hike on a different day delivered us not to a pretty cove, but to a tiny patch of rocks heaped with fallen trees. As soon as we got back to the car we set off back to the hotel – with the saltwater pool in mind – but en route came across some octopus hanging on washing lines outside of Mimi’s restaurant, their outlines looking like molar teeth in the midday sun. We pulled up and stayed for the afternoon.
This is the reason why we had chosen Folegandros as our summer holiday in the first place, not to mention as our introduction to the Cyclades. Its beauty, unlike the party posse pull of Mykonos or the highfalutin charms of Santorini, can only be enjoyed if you scratch the surface a little – and occasionally meet a dead end (or beach).
Late afternoons and evenings were spent wandering the Chora, a maze of tree-shaded squares and cobbled streets that makes up the main town. We saw snapshots of the Folegandros of yesteryear: old men playing chequers in one of the four main squares, and the town priest, in full garb, stopping for a chat with locals enjoying an afternoon glass of the local liqueur, rakomelo.
It’s a good idea to dedicate an afternoon to exploring the Castro quarter, the oldest part of town, which was built by the Venetians in the 16th century. Cubic white houses are stacked atop one another and punctuated with blue paintwork and magenta bougainvillea.
At sunset, everything turns golden, with shadows casting patterns on walls and providing shelter for snoozing cats. It’s worth having a local to show you around, as we did with a guide from the recommended Local Path company. How else will you find a secret staircase to an open rooftop, where you can see the island from on high? Take a wrong staircase and you could end up being shooed away by a resident.
The Church of Panagia, located on a vertiginous hill above the Chora – and the subject of most of the island’s postcards – is a must-visit, either at sunset or sunrise (the latter, unsurprisingly, is much quieter). The zig-zag path, which from down below looks like a neat squiggle of icing, is a steep walk up, but well worth it once you see the flamingo pinks, lilacs and tangerine smudges that light up the sky. If you’re lucky, you might even see a bridal procession ascend the lane, heels, hats and all. There are 65 churches in total on Folegandros, some of them little more than a tiny room, but this is the show stealer (many others can be seen on Local Path tours).
Before you start the walk to Panagia, fuel up at the Anemomilos Boutique Hotel with a glass of Akakies, a Greek sparkling rose. Its terrace, at the top of a sheer cliff face right on the edge of the Chora, is a dramatic and romantic perch. Alternatively, perhaps for another night, Rakentia’ s split-terrace bar is a decent spot to watch the entire spectacle of sundown, and puts your viewpoint north-west, meaning on a clear day you can see the outline of Milos in the distance.
Then it is time for dinner. Tavernas with outdoor seating feature across all the squares, lit up by festoon lighting. It would be difficult to decipher which tables belong to which restaurants if it were not for their colour-coded system and monogrammed paper tablecloths, many bearing a map of Folegandros. Waiters often clip an extra tablecloth down in a ceremonious fashion, so they don’t blow away in the meltemi winds, which influence everything on the island from the routes of the ferries to the names of cafés (and can also make the temperature bearable in the height of summer).
Most, such as Restaurant Chic and Restaurant Piatsa, serve classic island cuisine, including the likes of fava beans (so popular at Chic they sometimes sell out), half-moons of cheese-filled pastry, and matsata, a type of pasta, usually served with goat or rooster. For more refined cuisine, try Eva’s Garden, set underneath a huge jasmine tree down a quieter lane. The smell is intoxicating, enhanced by the waft of freshly made sourdough. You’ll often see people you recognise from days at the beach, or the person that served you your morning coffee at the same places – there is no distinction between local and tourist here.
Modernity has happened very slowly in the Chora. There’s a little frozen yoghurt place, some clothing boutiques and an unassuming wine bar, signposted by hand from the road with simple green paint. One restaurant, the trendy Blue Cuisine, could have been borrowed from Mykonos, but otherwise, it feels pleasantly old-fashioned.
It’s a huge contrast to Santorini, where most visitors to Folegandros start. From the former to the latter it’s an one-hour ferry ride south. In high season (June to August) the service runs twice daily. The other option is a four-hour journey from Piraeus, on the mainland. So Santorini can’t – and shouldn’t be – completely bypassed.
Diluted down to its purest form, Folegandros and Santorini aren’t that different: volcanic landscapes, sugar-cube architecture and sunsets that defy belief. But while Folegandros still remains largely untouched (it has around 765 inhabitants, and received 47,000 visitors last year), Santorini is a honeypot: more than 5.5 million overnight stays were recorded in 2017, with overcrowding a problem, especially in summer.
Most visitors to Santorini have the Oia, the caldera-edge village made up of stepped whitewashed terraces sprinkled with plunge pools, yellow umbrella-filled terraces, pastel-coloured walls and blue church domes, at the top of their hit list. So with just one night and less than 24 hours on the island before we had to catch our boat to Folegandros, we decided to join the throng. We picked Canaves Oia Epitome, the newest property from the small, native, boutique chain, located less than a mile from the centre of the Oia (there’s a free shuttle bus), facing away from the caldera, south to Ammoudi Bay.
Oia is admittedly one of the most mesmerising and unforgettable places I’ve ever seen, but the whole world knows it. People walk in single file down tiny cobbled lanes, and queues often form at popular photo spots. Selfie sticks are a frequent hazard, as are the people that climb the walls of the Byzantine castle ruins to get a ‘unique’ shot for Instagram. Couples having a romantic cocktail spend more time gazing at the views through the screens of their phones than into each others’ eyes. So my advice is to see Santorini and then head for Folegandros. The nearby Cycladic islands of Milos and Sifnos, on the same ferry route, could also make a neat island-hopping holiday .
Our last day on Folegandros was spent on a boat tour, taking in the last of the beaches we hadn’t yet discovered. We snorkelled in the deep waters of Georgitsi cave through a tornado of parrot fish; swam at Katergo beach; jumped of huge white boulders at the Blue Lagoon; and sunbathed on the glittery marbled pebbles of Livdaki.
Before we left, we had one last chance to visit Irene’s for a final portion of the rosehip yogurt (preceded by stuffed aubergine so soft you could cut them with a spoon). A passing gentleman, waiting for a table after a long hike, got talking to us. It was his 13th time on the island – and he was here for the rosehip dessert.
Getting there and around
Jade Conroy travelled as a guest of Aegean Airways who fly from London to Athens direct three times daily year-round and on to more than 30 more Greek destinations, including Santorini. Otherwise, easyJet and British Airways fly direct from the UK to Santorini.
Evo Rent A Car will meet you straight at Folegandros' port with your car for ease. Go for an off-road model for access to some of the best beaches. The main office is in the Chora.
SEA U offers private boat tours around Folegandros' beaches, and provide snorkelling. They also offer diving trips. Their main office is at Kampia, Folegandros, 840 11.
Anemi Hotel, Folegandros
Anemi Hotel's traditional architecture – low lying and set across many houses – belies its modern design credentials. Inside the rooms, expect the likes of B+B Italia coffee tables, Artemide globe lamps and blue Vitra chairs. The saltwater pool is the place to be in the heat of the afternoons. Breakfast is an excellent spread of traditional Greek favourites. Doubles from £172 (check the website for early bird offers).
Canaves Oia Epitome, Santorini
Canaves Oia Epitome, located less than a mile from the centre of Oia, faces away from the caldera and instead south to Ammoudi Bay. This means that it's a quieter option for those who want some peace away from the busy village (but there's a free shuttle bus to get there). Accommodation is mainly across spacious villas, many with their own private pools. Spend at least one sunset at the hotel, when the pool and terrace area – all volcanic rock, neutral tones and raffia furniture – seemingly turns to pure gold. Don't miss high-class dinner from notable chef Tasos Stefatos at the restaurant. Double rooms from £380.
Read the full review: Canaves Oia Epitome
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