Florence Fortnam explores the archipelago by boat, mountain bike and kayak
"Remember, the slower you go, the more likely it is you'll fall off," said Themis as our bikes approached the rocky pathway up to the trio of abandoned windmills at the top of Vivlos, a village about 10km southeast of Naxos Town. "Lean right over the handlebars but don't put too much pressure on them," Themis shouted after me as I negotiated the tricky ascent. Ten minutes and three attempts later, I had made it to the top and sat on a crumbling doorstep of one of the windmills to catch my breath, knees and elbows graze-free, feeling ever so slightly pleased with myself.
I’d call myself a fairly proficient cyclist and am never happier than when peddling around on my road bike but I have to admit that mountain biking is something that had slipped, perhaps intentionally, under my radar. Until today, that is. I had joined Themis Vlissidis from Flisvos Sports Club on St George's Beach in Naxos for a two-wheeled trek into the heart of the island to see what the interior had to offer from the saddle. We’d barely left the sports centre and I was already appreciating the reassuringly fat tyres spinning below me as we made our way down sandy tracks, uneven roads and across rocky terrain, stopping every so often so I could pick up a few tips from Themis (stay relaxed, stay light) or admire a view.
We weaved through little villages – all whitewashed and blue – and down alleyways barely wider than our handlebars. We bounced down bumpy country roads, spotting distant domed churches and grazing livestock, before an exhilarating descent back to the water's edge two hours later. Think of outdoor activities in Greece and images of snorkelling in turquoise seas, tranquil boat trips and bombing around in banana boats probably pop into your head. What probably doesn't come to mind is getting sweaty and caked in dirt on a mountain biking adventure. But I hadn't enjoyed a new sport so much in ages, and the dip in the sea at the end had never felt so good – or so deserved.
One of the charms of Naxos and the Small Cyclades is that good old-fashioned island hopping is the only way to get around the archipelago. The lack of airports has meant the islands have escaped the package-tour-and-boutique-hotel syndrome that has affected other Greek islands – good news if your idea of a perfect Greek holiday involves wallowing in the warm waters of your own secluded bays. With this in mind, I jumped on a boat in Donousa – one of the four inhabited islands which make up the Small Cyclades – for a trip around the coast. Life in Donousa runs at its own gentle pace. There are no schedules or timetables here: the boat goes when it’s full (a good excuse for us to grab a coffee at the harbour beforehand), but it wasn’t long before we were speeding off around the headland to the next bay.
“Look, ospreys!” Loukas, our guide, gestured to the majestic birds spiralling around the clifftops above us as we glided towards the sea caves of Fokospilia. Once the hideaway for pirates and, more recently, a colony of seals (Fokospilia means 'cave of seals'), the sea caves are carpeted in coral which glows emerald green when the sunlight catches it. We spent the afternoon dipping in and out of bays, jumping overboard into the crystal clear sea, wading through warm waters to tavernas set back from the beach where we feasted on roasted sea bass stuffed with herbs, colourful salads and tangy cheeses.
In the summer months, the Aegean's northerly wind phenomenon – the meltemia – whistles through the islands. If you're a lover of watersports, this means a strong steady wind from May to September. Naxos is fast becoming one of the go-to places to wind- and kitesurfing. It’s 91km of pristine sandy beaches which gently shelve into shallow waters are ideal conditions to learn the sports – or hone existing skills. Windsurfers will have a hard time resisting the urge to take to the water along popular Plaka beach, renowned for its flat, aquamarine waters.
But if you want to delve even deeper into the hidden caves and coves of the islands, the best way to do it is by kayak, and the calm, tranquil waters of Schinoussa are perfect sea kayaking territory. The friendly bunch at WayOut Adventure offer sea kayaking trips around some of the island’s most beautiful spots and can tailor their trips to suit all ages and abilities. As we paddled out to sea, nothing, I decided, beats gliding silently through the water on a kayak. Gently rocking from side to side, the trickle of water as the paddle leaves the sea and the squarks from seabirds overhead were the only noises to disturb the peace.
Words by Florence Fortnam
Disclosure: Florence's trip to Naxos and the Small Cyclades was organised by the Greek National Tourism Organisation Board (GNTO UK & Ireland) as part of Greentraveller's Guide to Naxos and the Small Cyclades. Florence has full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Naxos and the Small Cyclades this year. All opinions are the author’s own.