Adam Ruck, The Daily Telegraph, August 07, 2013
Now that Athens has moved its airport away from the city and Piraeus, all the more reason to take the back door route to the islands. A morning flight, a short taxi ride to Lavrio and there will be time to look for Byron’s signature on the temple at Cape Sounion before catching the evening boat to Kea, with onward connections to the western Cyclades or Syros, hub of Aegean ferry schedules.
There is only one flaw in this fine plan for an island-hopping tour. Kea is such a seductive and peaceful place, you may not make it past first base.
As the ferry manoeuvres in the narrow entrance to Kea’s one-horse port, Korissia, you won’t see a crowd of room touts on the quay, or a flotilla of tourist boats busking their beach excursions with Zorba the Greek. This is not the style of an island which missed out on – or cleverly avoided – the Greek tourism boom and is largely ignored by island travellers because it has no connection with Piraeus. Kea draws on a civilised clientele of Athenian weekenders and second home owners in retreat from the city.
Instead of suggestive T-shirts, priapic satyrs and other items of mass-produced “Greek art” trash, Korissia’s shops sell useful things – colourful sarongs, masks and snorkels, furniture for the villa. Salads are not generically “Greek” but made specific by a wild herb or local cheese. Keans drink less ouzo than the more refined Tsipouro, distilled from local grape skins, and the word retsina is an insult to the island’s palate, and its vineyards. “You will have to go to the supermarket for that,” says the waiter, recoiling slightly.
Kea’s regulars come to eat well and relax, on the beach and in their low-slung villas, which are made of rust-coloured local stone and set into the steep hillsides so as not to stand out. There are not many hotels, and fewer ugly block buildings. Rather than build new roads to remote beaches, the Keans have restored ancient mule tracks and waymarked them for hikers. Theirs is a postmodern Greek island.
On foot is the best way to see it, starting from the capital, Ioulis, a beautiful example of the typical Cycladic hill village, with its splash of white houses and staircase streets steeply clustered beneath the hilltop defensive position or “kastro”.
The houses of Ioulis are more substantial than the usual Greek cube, with pitched roofs of clay tiles, because Kea has always been a prosperous and self-sufficient island. Its well-watered high valleys are green and thick with almond groves and oak trees as well as vineyards, vegetable gardens and livestock.
From the farming village of Kato Meria a path leads steeply down to the site of ancient Karthea – 90 minutes down, two sweaty hours back up. Fragments of column on a promontory between two empty beaches are all that remain standing of this powerful city state, a sacred site to rival Delos and Aegina. “A narrow ridge of land, but I would not swap it for Babylon,” wrote the lyric poet Pindar. Once the home of 1,500 people, it has been empty for a thousand years and remains that way.
Scrambling among the ruins of various Doric temples and the newly excavated tiers of Karthea’s theatre a few weeks ago, I saw two hikers and two local ladies who were scrubbing and whitewashing the chapel at the end of the beach in preparation for a festival.
After the archaeology, the sea calls. Bathing is a continuation of sightseeing at Karthea, and this is the only bay on the island where scuba is forbidden, lest divers carry off a triglyph or the head of Apollo. Snorkelling is permitted though, and in miraculously clear water there are plenty of fish to look at, among the building blocks of the old harbour.
A less strenuous walk, no more than a few minutes across the hillside from Ioulis, leads to Kea’s cheerful mascot, a recumbent lion. He seems to have a smile on his face, as well he might, in this peaceful spot where he has rested undisturbed for no one knows how long; 2500 years, at least.
DID YOU KNOW
The Titanic’s bigger sister ship the Britannic served as a hospital ship and sank in the Kea Channel on November 21, 1916
Flights to Athens with Aegean ( en.aegeanair.com ) or British Airways ( ba.com ). Two or three ferries a day between Lavrio and Kea (one hour, £10; openseas.gr ); no need to reserve. The simplest way to reach Lavrio from the airport is by taxi (40 mins, about £45 if booked in advance via your accommodation provider, more for an airport taxi). Car and motorbike hire at Korissia. Frequent buses between Korissia and Ioulis, less so to outlying villages (Otzias, Poisses). If your flight arrives too late for a ferry to Kea the same day, overnight at the Aegeon (0030 22920 39200; aegeon-hotel.com ) on the beach at Cape Sounion.
Where to stay
Brillante Zoi, Korissia £
A well-kept and comfortable b&b hotel of old-fashioned charm near the beach, a short walk from the waterfront parade of shops, bars and restaurants (00 33 22880 22685; from £70/night, for two sharing)
Porto Kea Suites, Korissia £
Stylish low-rise cluster of buildings near the beach, with a pool, manicured lawns, large air-conditioned rooms with balcony or terrace, room service, beach bar, dive centre (22880 22870; portokea-suites.com ; from £85/night for a suite, b&b for two sharing).
Kea Villas, Ioulis ££
High-quality development of neo-Cycladic one- two- and three-bedroom villas at the top of Ioulis, with communal pool and spectacular views. A great base for exploring the island, and the village, on foot (6972 24 33 30; keavillas.gr ; from £100/night for a one bedroom villa).
Where to eat
Aristo’s, Vourkari £
A waterside fish/seafood restaurant of long-standing repute at the yacht marina part of the vast natural harbour in Kea’s north west corner. For fish soup, give advance notice (22880 21475; £25+ depending on the fish)
Kalofagadon, Ioulis £
The name means good food, and the imposing Yannis is a fine advertisement for his own cooking. His shaded terrace opposite the imposing town hall, is pole position in Ioulisa, and everything is good (22880 22118; £20)
To Steki, Korissia £
Easily missed above the strip, next to the blue and peach coloured church above the ferry dock. Commands a fine view of the bay. Excellent cheese and vegetable salads, meat roast in paper, sticky sweets (22880 21025; £20)
The Inside Track
Kea does not have a long stretch of golden sandy coastline to compare with the best of Mykonos, Naxos and Crete, but there are scores of small coves all round the island, as remote as you like; accessible by bus, tarmac, rough road, hiking trail, or only by boat. Watersports and taverna at Koundouros; shade, sand, and good tavernas at Otzias and Poisses (which also has a good campsite), archaeology at Karthea.
Check the wind direction before you make a plan for the day, and work out where will be most sheltered. Otzias and Korissia are not ideal when the meltemi gets up.
Contact Kostis of the Red Tractor Farm near Korissia (00 30 22880 21346) for a beach excursion in Soultana, a beautiful home-made old-time wooden sailing boat.
For assisted hikes, go to the café on the square at Kato Meria and ask for Nikos, who has donkeys. If you speak Greek, ring him up (00 33 676469413). Walk on the way down to the sea, ride the donkey back up.