Back in the 1980s, there were plenty of Greek islands where you could go completely off-grid. And you didn’t have to travel 12 hours on a ferry boat from Athens to reach them. I’ve lived in Greece on and off since I was six. I remember, on the Friday afternoons of my youth, I’d jump on the back of my friend Oliver’s motorbike and off we’d go to the scrappy port of Lavrion for the one-hour ferry to Kea, the closest of the Cyclades Islands to Attica. Oliver’s mother had rented a tiny farmhouse on the sage-scented slopes of a valley. Built of solid rock, the low-slung house was only accessible by a prickly footpath. The walls were as thick as the trunks of the ancient oak trees that shaded the terrace. There was no electricity; we cooked in a wood-fired oven outside, played cards by paraffin lamp and fell into a dreamless sleep in the womb of the cool stone walls, which sloped inwards until they almost met above our bed. In the golden morning light, we’d wander down to Pisses, a sandy beach, lolling under the pine trees until it was time for lunch at the only taverna for miles around.
I returned to Kea this summer for the first time since then. I was prepared for a shock. I didn’t get one; or rather, not the one I expected. Although it had bypassed the mass tourism of, say, Mykonos, I’d heard that it had become the weekend retreat of the Athenian elite – publishers, politicians and a few discreet shipowners who have built second homes there. I’d heard rumours that film director Costa Gavras had a hideaway overlooking Otzias bay and that the Princess of Morocco had snapped up an enormous villa near Koundouros, an enclave of abandoned windmills on Kea’s southern coast that have been transformed into spectacular seaside homes. So, I wondered, had the pure, simple way of life I had experienced 30 years ago disappeared? Or was this island still stuck in the happy time-trap of its own making? Early signs were promising. As we trundled off the ferry at Korissia, the island’s unassuming harbour appeared stubbornly and reassuringly ungentrified.
As we headed south, the road swooped up past the elongated island capital, Ioulida, over hill after purple thyme-covered hill. Smart second homes had sprung up here and there, but, otherwise, as we descend the lush plain of Pisses, a patchwork of orchards and vineyards, the landscape had barely changed. It was only when we rounded the headland at Koundouros that the more preened, glam side of Kea appeared: sun beds lined the beach and splashy yachts were moored beside minimalist villas. The hold-out relics of old Kea – whitewashed windmills where barley was once ground – are still there too, only surrounded by shimmering infinity pools where butlers serve ice-cold cocktails. Property prices here, I’m told, are four times higher than the rest of the island.
Koundouros is not a village. It’s a community created by wealthy Athenians who discovered this place some 40 years ago,” says Costa Karoulis, the soft-spoken owner of Porto Koundouros, a classy waterfront complex that includes an Ibiza-meets-Bali beach bar and an all-white restaurant. Dressed in flip-flops and board shorts, Karoulis looks more like a surfer than the heir to Kea’s most prime piece of real estate. “I used to work for a shipping company, moving containers around the world. Around 15 years ago, I decided that I hated big city life, so I threw away all my suits and created this place,” he says. “I was very fortunate that my father bought this plot of land a long time ago. When he built our summer house here, there was no road, no power, no water.” There were no hotels either, until a canny developer named Tassos Vlachos built Kea Beach (now closed) in the late 1960s. It was an instant hit with a very rich circle of Athenians, who cruised over on their yachts. Vlachos bought up plot after plot of land around Koundouros and divided them up “like little squares of baklava”, as one local put it to me, which he then sold to his guests. His son, Christos, an architect, designed all their houses. The best properties are available to rent through Five Star Greece, a kind of Airbnb for the country’s most exclusive private homes. The rock-star house where we stayed has floor-to-ceiling windows and an angular pool overlooking pretty Kambi beach. At dusk, the distant lights of Attica twinkle on the horizon; on a clear day, you can just make out the silhouette of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion.
If it weren’t for these high-end hideaways, the island would be pretty stuck: there are very few decent hotels on Kea. But that is set to change, and soon: Greece’s first One&Only resort opens in 2021, on the sheltered bay of Vroskopos. Like many of Kea’s stunning beaches, Vroskopos is currently only accessible on foot or by boat. We hike the gentle coastal trail from Pisses until the white pebble sweep of Vroskopos appears, deserted apart from two cormorants fishing in the blue-green bay. It’s bittersweet to imagine that soon there will be 75 rooms and suites, a beach club, spa and three restaurants in this virgin valley.
But old, authentic, time-trapped Kea still exists. Up on the hills above the east coast, there are hardly any proper roads – a jeep is essential – but an ancient network of stone-paved paths lead to solitary chapels and isolated coves. Here, farmers till their fields with donkeys, sheep huddle around ice-cold springs, and the bees humming in the wild thyme produce delicate honey. The north-eastern part of the island is covered in oak trees, a mainstay of Kea’s economy for centuries: the locals sell the acorn caps to tanneries as a natural dye and feed the acorns to their livestock. They’re now available for human consumption, too: enterprising Californian Marcie Mayer has revived the island’s acorn industry. As well as providing a sustainable source of income for local farmers, she produces acorn-based “oakmeal” cookies at Red Tractor Farm, her delightful guesthouse close to the port.
Up in the hinterland, the locals have left a light footprint on the landscape. Their traditional farmsteads, known as kathikies, are built entirely of stone, without any mortar, cement or wood. Slabs of grey stone form ceilings, fireplaces and benches that double as beds. Narrow windows maintain a steady temperature and protect the inhabitants from the prevailing north winds. Hunkered in the hills, these tiny dwellings are an eco-system unto themselves, surrounded by stegadia (barns for a few pigs, chickens and perhaps a cow), a threshing floor, a cistern for collecting rainwater and a small vineyard.
We tried a glass of the pink mavroudi wine, which is native to the island, at Evangelia and Nikolas Patitis’s farm near Kato Meria. Religious icons and family photographs were propped against walls covered with a thick crust of whitewash. A fragrant arrangement of chamomile, St John’s wort, bay leaves, mint and verbena is laid out to dry on a lacy bedspread. After lunch, Evangelia reached up to a plank suspended from the porch to give us one of the round white cheeses drying there.
Still, even if you’re not invited to lunch with a local, you can experience this way of life at Kathikies, a pair of perfectly primitive farmhouses at the end of a dirt track. They’re exactly like the little house where I stayed 30 years ago with one difference: electricity.
“We didn’t add anything to the original structure, we just wanted to bring life back to the buildings,” says the owner, George Chatzigiannakis, who enlisted architect Ioannis Exarchou to restore the ruins. After the not-so-quiet cosmopolitanism of Koundouros, there’s an intensity to the isolation. Without Wi-Fi, connectivity takes on a new meaning. You start to tune into different birdsong, glimpse dragonflies camouflaged in the foliage, notice how the currents on the distant sliver of sea signal which way the wind is blowing. “You feel like you’re in a nest – a place that’s protected but surrounded by the magic of nature,” says Chatzigiannakis. “It’s like going back 5,000 years to the heart of Greek culture, to a time when people used to travel by trireme [galley ships with three ranks of oars].”
Like many of Kea’s quietly stunning beaches, Vroskopos is only accessible on foot or by boat
That’s certainly how it feels standing on the acropolis of Karthaia, an ancient city-state poised on a ridge above the twin bays of Poles. It’s easy to imagine how this fortified town, once home to 1,500 people, with its amphitheatre and two temples crowded with colossal statues, would have appeared to voyagers arriving from the sea. Even today, this spectacular site is only accessible by an hour-long hike or from the water. There is no mooring, so, even if you arrive by boat, you have to swim ashore, gliding above the submerged ruins of the ancient harbour. The most thrilling way to make the trip is on a rib boat skippered by Zinovia Erga and Yannis Tzavelakos of Kea Divers who also lead underwater adventures around the island, one of the best spots in Greece for wreck diving. (The most famous shipwreck is the Britannic, the equally ill-fated sister of the Titanic, which sunk after hitting a German mine in 1916.) But you don’t have to don a wetsuit to snorkel in blindingly blue bays; Tzavelakos will take you there on a round-the-island boat trip.
We disembarked at Vourkari just in time for an epic sunset at Vinilio bar, the first port of call for the shiny yachts moored in this sheltered marina. Then we wandered along the waterfront strip, trying to decide which of the charming restaurants to choose. We struck gold at the family-run Vourkarion, where an Athens crowd was tucking into huge grilled fish, pale, tangy taramasalata and sea-bass ceviche. Even the diet is different down by the sea: it’s all lobster spaghetti and seafood carpaccio instead of the goat and lamb that run wild in the mountains until their time comes to be grilled in the outback tavernas. But that’s the beauty of Kea, an island of two distinct sensibilities, where, despite the trade-offs between old and new, things remain much the same. Secluded, sophisticated and, even after three decades, with its soul still quietly intact.
Rachel Howard was a guest of Kathikies, which offers two 100-year-old farmhouse rentals in Kea, and Five Star Greece, which offers private villas across Greece. For information on travelling to Kea, see Discover Greece.