Spotlight - Serifos, Greece

Nicholas Chrisostomou is addicted to the wildness and breathtaking beauty of the western Cycladic island of SERIFOS in Greece

Numbering quite literally thousands, Greece’s picturesque islands and islets are scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas and form an inherent part of the nation’s culture and traditions. Every well-to-do Athenian heads to “the islands” during the summer months. Many celebrated Athenian restaurants also decamp to an island outpost for the summer season, returning to the Greek capital in September.

Since breath-taking scenery, pristine golden bays, stunning beaches, endless olive groves and charming whitewashed hillside villages are a feature of many of the 227 inhabited Greek islands, how does one choose which to visit? We all know that the most famous of anything is rarely the best and so if one is looking for genuinely unspoilt beauty, a tip-off from someone in-the-know is almost certainly what’s needed. This is exactly how I discovered the western Cycladic island of Serifos and I have been making annual pilgrimages since.

My personal go-to destination to pause my hectic life to breath, chill, eat well, sleep properly and generally do as I please, just writing about Serifos gives me goose bumps. It’s one of the few places I go where I honestly couldn’t care less whether I have a phone signal. Perfect to get off the grid for a short while yet be in touch with civilisation, whilst Serifos can be enjoyed with friends or families it is also wonderful to explore alone. There are very few rules on Serifos and I’m pretty sure that none of the island’s 1,500 permanent inhabitants much care what visitors get up to, as long as their way of life is not upset.

Serifos is located in the Aegean Sea, around two hours from Piraeus via high-speed catamaran during the summer months. Aegean flies direct to Athens daily from a multitude of European cities (aegeanair.com) and many Gulf carriers fly to the Greek capital, making Serifos reasonably accessible with a bit of planning. Piraeus is a 30-minute taxi ride from Athens airport. Getting to the Maldives is much more of a drama and I’d honestly choose Serifos every time.

The first time I stepped off the ferry from Athens, the town of Livadi seemed to resemble most other Cycladic ports, with fishing boats, cookie-cutter tavernas, a couple of mini-markets and a few yachts refuelling. It didn’t seem special at all. But once I sped away from the port on the coastal road which circumnavigates every twist and turn of the island, the scenery which unfolded before my eyes was quite literally overwhelming. Merely turning a corner gave way to another picture postcard bay or sweeping sea vista, and the island appeared to exude a calmness and reassurance that rapidly connected with my senses. It was akin to revisiting a Greece that seemed to have stood still since the 70s, when I was a kid and island life was unspoilt by mass tourism. Areas of arid terrain and wild countryside, punctuated by intense deep blue swathes of the Aegean, made me ache to get down to the beaches. I’m not particularly a beach person but Serifos’ I just can’t resist.

The first thing to do in Serifos is unpack, eat a decent meal (preferably close to your lodgings) and get a good sleep. On your first night, turn in early and sleep as long as you need. For, if you’re anything like me, you will be itching to spend your first full day exploring the island.

There are just two quality hotels on Serifos: COCO-MAT Eco Residences and Rizes. Overlooking beautiful Vagia beach, COCO-MAT consists of a dozen two-storey residence-styled hotel suites, that skilfully merge traditional elements of local architecture with the industrial feel of the one-time grey-stone miners’ quarters, to create contemporary spaces in harmony with their surroundings. COCO-MAT is a unique and beautiful resort, but rates start at EUR 350 per night which is a little steep for somewhere you will essentially just kip! (serifos.coco-mat-hotels.com/en)

Family owned and efficiently run by Olga-Sophia, Rizes is situated on top of a hill overlooking Livadi and the coast on one side and Chora in front. Whitewashed, well-designed, comfortable and breezy, Rizes’ rooms make the ideal base for a Serifos adventure, both in terms of the hotel’s location and accommodation offerings. Plus, Rizes has a gorgeous swimming pool boasting panoramic views and its onsite restaurant serves delicious fare at reasonable prices. And if you fancy staying-in one night, some Rizes room service is not going to break the bank! However, because Rizes’ doesn’t charge the earth, its 14 rooms and two suites usually sell out through the summer months, so you’ll need to book early. (www.hotelrizes.gr/en)

You’d be wise to call ahead of your arrival on Serifos to arrange a quad bike from Blue Bird. (www.rentacar-bluebird.gr) Be sure to book a bike with a decent sized engine to cope with the island’s hills and winding roads. Once you’re mobile, make an immediate pit-stop at the small pie shop 50 metres from Blue Bird on your way to the port. Depending on the time of year, the shop’s lady owner serves the best spanakopita or cheese pie you will have ever tasted. Many mornings I by-passed a hotel breakfast and headed straight to her shop. Whilst Greeks are known for their warmth and hospitality, on Serifos you soon feel like part of an actual family. Locals are genuinely kind and generous. It’s a wonder the pie shop lady makes any money!

Some of Europe’s oldest civilisations developed on the Greek islands, so many have unique archaeological sites, a distinctive architectural heritage and fascinating centuries-old traditions. Serifos is no exception. The island’s mines and the people who worked them are a significant part of its past.

Rich in iron ore and precious minerals, Serifos was once home to a mining industry that thrived for eighty years, giving prosperity to the island and growing the population. The exploitation of Serifos’ mineral resources by Emilios Gromman and his family began in 1885 and continued until 1962 when the mines closed as reserves depleted, production costs increased and metal prices were in decline around the world. The rusty remains of mining machinery, tools and carts dot some of the island’s hills like poetic reminders of Serifos’ industrial past. In places it feels like the workers literally downed their tools, stopped the wagons and walked away forever, adding a butch yet rather romantic touch to the scenery.

It takes about an hour to drive around Serifos on a quad bike – a bit less in a car. This is assuming that you manage to resist the temptation to stop the engine every time a spectacular scene comes into view. And spectacular vistas are plentiful on Serifos. As are deserted golden beaches you often have to yourself, fringed by clear aquamarine waters in which to swim.

One of Serifos’ most alluring qualities is its beautiful beaches. According to the locals, they number more than seventy. Scattered around the island, even after many visits and weeks on the island, I still haven’t visited all of them.

Serifos is all about discovering hidden beach gems. A few minutes’ drive from Livadi on the south side of the island, look out for a turn-off marked Kalo Ampeli. Take the dusty road as far as possible before parking just above the small blue and white church and finding the footpath. Ten minutes later you’ll find a cove of golden sand lapped by turquoise waters bathed in sun. There are no restaurants on Kalo Ampeli beach so take provisions.

Travelling around Serifos in a clockwise direction works in tandem with the sun’s moving position during the day. Further on from Kalo Ampeli, you’ll come across Koutalas Bay, which features a trio of gorgeous beaches including Ganema and Vagia. Vagia beach is divine – you won’t believe how clear its waters are.

According to Greek mythology, Serifos was once inhabited by cyclopes, who were the first to discover the island’s mineral wealth. On the road between Koutalas Bay and Mega Livadi, stop at Psaropirgos to see the “Cyclops’ Throne” – a large edifice fashioned from massive oblong slates.

Named after the church that stands on the cove’s rocks and just ten minutes’ walk from Rizes, golden-sanded Agios Sostis beach is perfect for an early morning swim. You’ll be dry by the time you’ve walked back to the hotel and hungry for some breakfast.

The most enjoyable days on Serifos are spent on the back of a quad, moving around the island at your own pace, stopping-off at deserted beaches, having a dip in the sea, drying-off on the sand, moving onto the next beach and taking a break for lunch at a beachfront taverna.

Manoli’s on Psili Ammos beach is a favourite of mine. A no-frills taverna found at the bottom of an unassuming driveway marked at the top by a weather-beaten sign, EUR 25 will buy you a classic Greek salad made with tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes and topped with a slab of feta; enough fresh grilled octopus to satisfy even the most ravenous appetite and half a carafe of very drinkable local white. And while lunch is being prepared, you can take a dip in the sea twenty metres in front of your table. A Greek island holiday doesn’t get much better than this.

No visit to Serifos is complete without visiting its beautiful, fortified Chora, essentially the island’s capital. Built in a typical Cycladic architectural style, it is one of the most impressive in the Cyclades. Whitewashed houses and churches cover the hill leading up to the castle at the very top, which was built by the Venetians in the 1400s. The densely packed small houses surrounding it acted as a defensive wall. On the way up, stop at picturesque paved square Pano Piatsa for a coffee at Στου Στράτου in the shadow of the island’s handsome neoclassical town hall.

Once at the top of Chora, the magnificent views from the chapel of Agios Constantinos, at the island’s highest point, are nothing short of incredible and evoke a variety of emotions in visitors. For me, watching night fall over Serifos from the top of its Chora is a fitting place to end a visit to this most special of Greek islands.

If you have tired of Santorini sunsets and mad Mykonos beach clubs and are at a stage in your life when an easy-going genuinely Greek Cycladic experience appeals, choose Serifos. There’s a reason why a handful of smart Athenians have been visiting the island for decades. Its wildness and breathtaking beauty are completely addictive and will surely surpass your expectations at every turn. Just do me a favour and try not to tell too many people about it!