Sunbed-free beaches, deep indigo seas and the definition of philoxenia

The best-dressed women know that style cares little for trends and is all about timelessness. It’s about whittling down one’s look to the bare necessities.

Think Sophia Loren in her slim-waisted dresses and sporting natural bangs. Does she not look nothing less than incredible in every one of her films? Granted she’s blessed with sprezzatura, that elusive effortlessness that Italians seem to be born with, and which the rest of us simply look on with envy.

 

Well, this is how to best describe the small, unassuming Cycladic isle of Serifos, in the western Cyclades. Like a woman who is confident enough to step out in a svelte outfit accessorised with just a bangle, naturally flowing hair, a dash of blush, carefully-mascared eyelashes and a bold shade of lipstick.

So, it should come as no surprise that this 75-square kilometre arid, rocky isle, just a two-hour fast catamaran hop from Athens, is increasingly drawing dapper Italians in droves, who have always sought out the lesser-travelled corners of Greece.

A view of Serifos’ capital, Hora

What is immediately striking about Serifos is the fact it has remained largely undeveloped despite its proximity to Piraeus port, which makes it an ideal weekend getaway for affluent Athenians – particularly the yachting set, but also Europeans who can catch a flight to Athens and skip over to the island for a long weekend or longer.

Thankfully, Serifos remains the quintessential Greek island that the backpackers of the ‘70s fondly remember for its natural beauty – undulating wild thyme-scented hills, cool cobalt Aegean waters, typically Cycladic cubed structures clinging to the flanks of a village capital where life is never rushed, and warm, welcoming locals for whom philoxenia is the only way they know.

A yacht anchored off Kato Abeli beach

A yacht anchored off Kato Abeli beach

Upon closer inspection however, one discovers that Serifos has drawn both second-home owners and permanent residents from abroad, such as Italian designer Paola Navone who escapes the hectic every-day of Milan to spend time in her devastatingly chic yet down-to-earth, secluded sea-facing villa built with rough-hewn local stone and designed by Athens-based architect George Zafiriou and set designer Manolis Pantelidakis.

Joining their ranks is a growing number of French, particularly retired couples who, having worked a lifetime in urban chaos, seek the glorious solitude of a simple life by the sea.

A view of the peaks from Hora

I had long nurtured a sense of curiosity about Serifos, having listened to friends raving about the island, among them a Greek-Canadian friend who counts it as one of her very favourite destinations after holidaying at the island’s beachfront camping ground, considered to be one of the best-located campsites in all of Greece.

Together with her young family, the same friend spends a month each summer at her brother-in-law’s two sprawling Ibiza estates, where they has every comfort you can imagine at their fingertips – from a cinema to a go-kart track. Nevertheless, her young kids will always remember Serifos for the carefree, barefoot living they indulged in there.

Two journalist friends who visited for the first time this summer raved to me about it, saying “it has a certain something”, “a real, magnetic energy”. “You must go!” they both urged.

So, when we decided on Serifos for our long-anticipated first taste of summer this year, the Holy Spirit long weekend which falls on the first weekend of June, I was thrilled to discover a small, beautiful, recently-opened B&B that appeared to have its very own beach. Poring over photos of the sea views from the sole, stone-built one-bedroom guest house, I was enraptured.

The port town of Livadi

The port town of Livadi

Boarding a late afternoon Serifos-bound camataran, it was bustling with excited fellow Greeks looking forward to partaking in this annual ritual, our warm-weather baptism which unofficially marks the start of Greece’s long summer.

We sailed into Serifos’ sheltered port at long, narrow Livadi Bay and found petite Carolina, our gracious Italian host and proprietor of The Yellow Side, waiting for us with a wide smile, scooping us up in her oversized four-wheel drive. Joining us on the ride was her cool canine companion Nina, a Jack Russell-mini Pinscher cross always by Carolina’s side, who didn’t take too much notice of us.

Arriving at The Yellow Side

Our own private beach, well almost

The typically Cycladic old town, Hora

 

There’s no way we could have enough of this view

The main house at The Yellow Side

 

Nina arrives to ensure we’re settled in

Looking at a map of Serifos, I had the impression that our temporary abode was in a relatively isolated location, far from the hub-bub of daily village life in the port town of Livadi, which is lined with tavernas, bustling cafes, bars and stores selling sarongs, sun dresses and flip-flops.

The Yellow Side is, in fact, just a six-minute ride from the port, that includes a steep, rocky dirt road ascent, yet the location is so tranquil, it feels as if it’s miles away from anywhere.

Nina the Tsachpina (the Cheeky One)

‘Welcome. But don’t get too comfortable.’

Morning stretches

Arriving at our destination, we walked down a winding stone path through carefully-tended gardens bursting with all manner of blooms and herbs including oregano, lavender and basil, to our little “home” and, taking in the view of the beach below from the terrace, Livadi and the old town, it was love at first sight.

Stepping inside the cosy little house, we pored over each and every tiny detail: the colourful hand-embroidered traditional throw adorning the queen-size bed onto which the morning sunlight streams each day, the naked pinewood furniture, edgy conical lamp shades, cool polished concrete floors, the hand-shaped shower wall and the vintage map of Athens (from which we had just escaped!) hanging on the wall above the lounge settee decorated with flowery cushions that doubles as a bed. No kitchen but, really, who feels like cooking on holiday? We don’t.

I took a seat on the terrace as the sun started to set and, literally within 60 seconds, Nina had whizzed down and leaped onto my lap like she had known me for years and, perhaps, as if to say “this is my place, so don’t get too comfortable, ok?”.

Breakfast by Carolina, at The Yellow SideThe next morning we headed up to Carolina’s expansive terrace, fronting the house she had an architect friend design for her to her specifications, and which she built (no mean feat for a non-Greek on a small island) and for which she is eternally grateful to a local named Giorgos, whom she said helped her negotiate the necessary paperwork and burdensome bureaucracy.

Awaiting us was an enormous breakfast spread bursting with such warmth and generosity, that we were almost embarrassed to sit down and dig into the fluffy omelettes, impossibly sweet cherry tomatoes, an assortment of olives including the salty throuba variety, soft feta cheese, capers, chunks of village-style bread, home-made cake and fruit preserves. Sourcing everything locally, Carolina puts the 100-Mile Diet to shame. Of course, it all began with a perfectly-executed espresso, for which we were extremely grateful.

But it was the view across the Aegean, to the beach below and Livadi opposite, where we watched as ferry boats and cataramans pulled in and out of port, that literally knocked the air out of lungs. We spent a good couple of hours relishing breakfast, allowing our eyes to drink in the silent spectacle and chatting with Carolina. Isn’t this how breakfast should always be done?

Carolina took us on a tour of her home, a section of which is reserved for hosting up to four guests in two rooms, where she has artfully arranged items, like an old suitcase carrying cherished memories.

Walking through and perusing the collectibles she has brought back from travels abroad that adorn her inviting lounge, including a cheerful Buddha, along with books that line the walls, we felt completely at home.

We had happened upon a great labour of love and true dedication, a source of quiet pride and found it fascinating to hear the story of how Carolina, who had lived for a number of years in the US, chose to move from hectic Milan to peaceful Serifos.

“I visited several islands – including Sifnos and Paros – before I came to Serifos. I knew that I wanted a location with a quiet beach below. When I found this particular property, I knew this was the right place for me,” she explained.

And why The Yellow Side? “Well, most houses in the Cyclades have blue doors and shutters. I painted mine yellow, as it’s a happy colour for me, and a bit different,” she says.

Carolina is one of several astute Italians who have invested in property on Serifos to create their own little piece of Cycladic paradise, and at a very reasonable cost compared to the cost of prime real estate in their native country.

“Life here is simple. I like to work in my garden, have my friends from Italy visit and cook for them, go exploring with Nina. There’s always something new to discover,” she says.

Indeed, Nina is in seventh heaven and spends hours with her nose buried deep in a bush waiting for a lizard hidden within to make its move. She is quick to inform her fellow dog friends who pay a visit to the beach below that this is her land. We dubbed her Nina the Tsachpina, which translates loosely as cheeky Nina.

The next morning we set off in a 4X4 rental to sniff out Serifos’ best beaches, intent on spending our long weekend mostly relaxing with our feet in the sand and sea.

Heading along the eastern coast, we stopped for a while at Psili Ammos beach, named for its super fine light-coloured sand, where beachgoers can end their day at a taverna there that came highly recommended.

Platis Gialos beach

At the northern tip is Platis Gialos beach, which was deserted bar from a few small, colourful wooden boats at anchor bobbing in the sea. The east appears to be the greener side of the island, particularly in late-May when flowers are still in bloom and peppering the landscape with the colours of Spring.

Much of the western coast of Cyclades is off-limits to cars – and that’s likely how Serifians would prefer to keep it – though there is a road that takes you Sikamia beach, which we will tick off on our next visit as it appears pretty impressive.

Remnants of the mining operation at Mega Livadi

We headed south, driving inland until we reached the tiny settlement of Mega Livadi, to which many head for a hearty seafood lunch at one of three fish tavernas. There, we found the remnants of a former iron ore mine, a rusty, lonely crane arched out into the sea and abandoned mine carts, but also the crumbling shell of the mining company’s administrative building, which dates to 1890 and must have been a magnificent structure in its day.

Mega Livadi

Mega Livadi, with the old mining company building in the background

We continued along the southern coast, stopping in at Koutala Bay, a spectacular sweep of a bay with tempting waters that alternate from light green in the shallows through to a divine indigo as the sea deepens.

Some stretches of sand were completely empty; others were populated by a few dozen Athenians – mostly young couples and families – eager to unwind and put their troubles at the back of their mind, if only for a couple of days.

This is what paradise must look like

Vagia beach

At this time of year, the sea is crisp, to say the least, but there is no Holy Spirit holiday without taking that first brave dip of the summer.

We settled on Vagia which, with the opening of Coco-Mat Eco Residences Serifos – former miners’ houses converted into stylish suites, is considered the island’s en vogue beach. For those seeking to wind down and completely disconnect, this is the place to do so. There is literally nothing else around, so peace is guaranteed.

Chatty Greek twenty-somethings mostly populated the wide swathe of coarse, yellow sand where we braved a chilly Aegean.

En-vogue Vagia beach, the location of Coco-Mat Eco Residences Serifos

Ganema beach

Ganema beach

The following day, we headed back down south in search of a beach sheltered from the wind. Modest Ganema  was just that beach, fringed with tamarisk trees under which we lay to keep out of the sun. No sun beds, no umbrellas and no beach bar (I don’t think we spotted any on Serifos) – it was simply perfect.

Unspoilt Ganema draws nature-lovers who prefer to hear the sound of waves lapping onto shore and that characteristic sound of summer in Greece – the ubiquitous cicada.

Marathoriza restaurant

Marathoriza

In the evenings, we headed up to Hora, the old town, which is perched amid soaring peaks that are among the highest in the Cyclades, meaning that the air is significantly cooler up there and extra layers of clothing are needed.

Having heard good things about the restaurant Marathoriza, we nabbed two of the best seats in the house by the windows that offer spectacular Aegean views across the eastern coast to the islet Vous. It was so good, we ate there twice.

We sampled dishes typical of Serifos, such as marathopita, a filo pastry, sesame-sprinkled pie filled with fennel and cheese and drizzled with honey, obviously created with love by chef-owner Vivian. The home-made tarama, steamed amaranth and zucchini, subtly-flavoured local cheeses and mutton casserole were all superb.

If we had to choose one stand-out dish, it would be pork shank encrusted with aromatic herbs and baked to delicate perfection, served with hand-cut crisp, fried potatoes.

Marathoriza, which opened just two years ago, is one of the best Greek island restaurants we have experienced that serves traditional dishes typical of the destination without fanfare but with high quality, locally-sourced ingredients and a fresh take, as seen through the eyes of a new generation of young chefs revitalising Greece’s gastronomy scene.

Small, cosy and simply decorated with convivial service and reasonable prices, we recommend it wholeheartedly though book ahead if you’re visiting in the peak months of July and August.

Hora

An alleyway in upper Hora

Crumbling beauty

The main square in upper Hora

The town hall

Secret doorway

Of an evening, take a seat at one of the cafes, such as the classic Stou Stratou, on the central square, over which the neoclassical Ernst Ziller-inspired town hall presides, its yellow exterior peeling yet still handsome. In the summer, the square is buzzing with people of all ages sipping on aperitifs and scooping up ice-cream.

Hora, which has an upper and lower town, is worthy of a good half-day to take in the staggeringly beautiful views of a navy-hued Aegean and Livadi below from the dizzying heights of the remains of a castle built by the Venetians in the 1430s.

Serifos’ old town, Hora, is one of the most beautiful in the Cyclades

The view from the Venetian castle

No, it’s not Mykonos

Walk through the narrow, white-washed alleyways bursting with bougainvillea and sweet-smelling fig trees, and greet the sweet, silver-haired matriarchs sweeping leaves from their front yard as aromas waft through their kitchen window.

Contrasting with the traditional are art galleries-cum-boutiques where you can find contemporary Greek works of art and exquisite pieces of jewellery designed by talented young Greeks that echo the simplicity of which the ancients spoke.

Back at The Yellow Side, on our final day we departed with mixed emotions: grateful for the hospitality of both Carolina and Nina but sad that we had to pack our bags and leave.

We all got a little misty-eyed, hugged and patted Nina on the head, as if we were bidding goodbye to  long-time friends.

Livadi at night, as seen from The Yellow Side

Playing with light sabres

Seated on the vessel gliding across a waveless sea as night fell, we smiled, knowing that this small corner of island paradise remains just a short catamaran ride away.

Travel essentials:

  • Hellenic Seaways offers the quickest, most comfortable fast catamaran ride
  • Stay at The Yellow Side. Make sure you email Carolina well ahead of time, as it’s often booked out, particularly in July and August
  • Sublime Serifian cuisine at Marathoriza in Hora
  • Espresso freddo and people-watching at the Yacht Club in Livadi
  • Cocktails and chill tunes at Calma in Livadi
  • Music performances, exhibitions and more at the annual Serifos Festival, held in the heart of summer