Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Naxos August 6-10 2023

Well, I hope by now you have had a chance to read my blog post on "Some Hard and Fast Truths about Greece."  That post was very general, so I am now going to delve into some more specific areas.  I have lots to write about, and the fact of the matter is I may run out of time before heading to Scotland in a few weeks, so I want to start with the area likely least known to my readers, the island of Naxos.

Naxos, with an area of 170 square miles (about one third the size of Kauai), is the largest island in the group of islands called the Cyclades.  Naxos has a population of 19000, which shrinks to a mere 7000 in the off season winter months.  Most (8000) of the people live in the town of Naxos Chora, home to both the port and the airport. Others populate the outlying villages of Filoti, Chalki, Apiranthos, Koronos, etc.  Naxos is a 30 min plane ride from Athens or a 3.5 to 5.5 hour ferry ride from Piraeus.  Naxos is also accessible by ferry to all other Cycladic islands and Crete, with day trip accessibility to Mykonos, Santorini, and twin island Paros.

A small plane can get you from Athens to Naxos

A ferry is an option too

Prior to the beginning of researching this trip I had never heard of Naxos.  So what happened?

I had only heard of Mykonos and Santorini, really, but I knew this was not the vibe I was looking for.  (See my last blogpost).  I chose Naxos because it repeatedly came up as one of the most family friendly islands with great beaches and high marks for outdoor activities.  It had both a port and an airport and it was not too far from Athens.  You gotta pick somewhere; Naxos was it.

Getting there:  Once again, you can get to Naxos by propeller plane from Athens or by ferry.  The plane is more expensive (about 100E per person on Sky Express) but easier and far faster, and this is how we arrived.  As far as I can ascertain, planes into Naxos land about 6 times per day and only come from Athens.  The Naxos airport has one gate.  The ferry port has two berths.  At either place on arrival, there are plenty of drivers holding signs waiting to meet guests.  Our driver came from our hotel, the Naxos Colosseo Apartments.  The public bus is available, at some distance from the airport.  Given the amount of luggage we had, I am glad we did not go this route and I do not recommend it.

Getting around: We only rented a car for two days.  We came in on Sunday at noon and we were not going to have a car until Tuesday morning.  This might be a good opportunity to talk about the lay of the land.  The main town is Naxos Chora, where the harbor is.  There are not really any worthwhile beaches in town.  Beach cities, such as Agios Prokopios (where we stayed), Agia Anna, Plaka, and Mikra Vigla, are at least a 10-12 minute drive south.  Naxos has multiple inland villages up narrow and winding roads.  We needed to be back in Naxos Chora that night for a dinner reservation and again early in the morning for a catamaran cruise.  We also needed a taxi to get to dinner after the cruise at the best restaurant on the island.  Naxos has a bus route from Agios Prokopios to Naxos Town which takes about 17 minutes and costs about 2 euros and comes every 15 minutes from 730 in the morning until 2 in the morning.  Our driver told us however that the buses fill, so just because you are in line does not mean you are going to be able to get on the bus.  We were also informed that a taxi to town was about 35 euros and that we were going to need two.   Though we planned to visit the less connected areas on the days we had a car, it was pretty clear we were going to need a car the whole time we were there.  Thank God, our driver got us connected lickety split with someone who had a vehicle that could fit us (small as it was) and in just an hour, we had our own set of wheels and we were ready to roll!  Ok, so on Naxos, you really need a car.

Where to stay:  Well, we stayed in a place called the Naxos Colosseo Apartments which was a beachfront property in Agios Prokopios and the first property that pops up in Naxos on, the sight I used to book all our accommodations in Greece.  Well, this is kind of a long story but I booked a one bedroom apartment for 5 with a hot tub (which I knew was in the room).  Later I was offered a discount by a representative if a paid 30% up front, which I accepted.  Anyway, this was all fine.  The only problem is that it left me unable to write a review through  The property is badly misrepresented.  Our room did not look anything like anything in the pictures.  Our room was like a bunker with one window and all three kids sleeping in the living room. The beachfront picture is ridiculous.  It doesn't look anything like this. I asked for another room, they didn't have one, so we made do. Now, knowing what to expect-I might even stay here again.  There is a wonderful breakfast every day, it's rolling distance to the beach, it's right smack in the middle of Agios Prokopios, and the airport/port transfer was a lifesaver.  Anyway, poke around, but I wouldn't rule it out.  You can stay in Chora but some of those guest houses are hard to find and tough to manage with your luggage.  Just a thought.  I recommend a stay in the beach towns.  

What's there to do?  Well, the beach is always a great option!  Naxos is home to some of most beautiful beaches in Greece.  We did not need to venture far from the gentle refreshing waters of Agios Prokopios, but also highly recommended are the beaches of Agia Anna, Plaka, Mikra Vigla, and Alyko (also referred to as Hawaii).  There seems to be plenty of public parking wherever you go so a car is ideal, but many of these beaches are connected on the bus line.  While many Greek beaches are pebbly, Naxos' beaches are sandy and at least Agios Prokopios have a sandy bottom.  On a windy day you can get some crud akin to sea grass in the water, but we really only saw this one day.  Remember from my last post that beaching is done a bit differently, be aware!

A gorgeous sunset on Agios Prokopios Beach

But it's pretty fun during the day too!!

If water is your thing, just about the best thing you can do is hop on a day long catamaran cruise and simply enjoy the opportunity to be on the sea and swim in the offshore crystal blue water.  There are many outfits that run such voyages, but we chose, and I highly recommend, the all day tour by Actionseaze (which I actually booked through Get Your Guide through this link)  Captain Nikolas and his first mate Bregil took us on a lovely journey north of Naxos Chora to three lovely swimming areas.  Beer and wine flowed freely throughout the day and we met darling people in our company of about 20 plus crew.  At lunch we all squished around the galley table and had the freshest moussaka and greek salad off real plates with real utensils, in a real family atmosphere.  This really ranked as just about or best day on our entire vacation.

Time to set sail!!

And there is no substitute for swimming 
in that blue water!!

Naxos has great hiking as well, and many know the best hike on the island is to the peak of Mount Zas (or Mount Zeus), the highest point in the Cyclades at 3290 feet.  There are at least two starting points, one of which will pass you by Zeus Cave, though this route, which starts in the village of Filoti, tacks on about 700 vertical feet and 1.2 miles. I say no thank you.  Far easier (did I just say that??) to start considerably higher up at the Agia Marina Chapel, where parking is available.  From this trailhead you will still climb 1300 feet over the 5km out and back.  There is little shade, but its not that hot up here, so it is more tolerable.  You will not have it to yourself.  Start early.  Bring hiking boots and water.  The last part is the toughest, but when you reach the peak you can see forever.

It's not easy!!

But reaching the top is quite satisfying!

Naxos has a Kitron Distillery in the city of Chalki, Vallindras Distillery, which is open from 10am to 10 pm.  This place was a big let down and certainly not worth making a trip for (we did not, we were coming down from Mt Zas when we visited).  The 5 minute tour and tasting are free.  There are three liquers to taste and an ouzo.  Anyway, despite the fact there were five of us, the girl poured me one half shot of each and then suggested we share the tasting!  The fifth person was literally licking the inside.  Thank you, we will take our business elsewhere....LIKE...

The Eggares Olive Press!  Located in where else but the small northern village of Eggares, the Eggares Olive Press dates back to the 1800's and is one of the country's oldest olive presses.  The delightful Spiros (who was literally like 21) took us on a very short tour.   His English was impeccable and we enjoyed the way he made jokes and poked fun at Americans.  After the short and informative tour-samples!  Lovely olives, olive oil, olive oil infused with lemon, basil, orange, chili, chocolate, olive pastes, and jams, all served over hunks of soft homemade bread.  Don't forget the honey and the cake made from the chocolate infused olive oil.  Anyway, we left here with several bags full of merchandise and left Spiros with a nice tip.  Vallindras Distillery really needs to learn from Eggares Olive Press!

Lots of happy samplers!

Where do we eat??  You have to eat on Naxos and we ate at some great tavernas!!  Axiostissa is about a 20 minute drive along winding roads south to the town of Kastraki.  There is no bus service at night to or from the restaurant.  I read in one guide book that when on Naxos, the writer made sure she made a reservation at Axiotissa every night!  Every night!  Another writer said that Axiotissa had the best food on the island.  Well, I had to see what all the hype was about.  Reservations are a must on every night of the week (we went on a Monday).  I made mine via Facebook messenger.  This was the kind of place where you wish that you wrote down everything you ate.  The food was unique for a taverna and there was plenty of choice.  The service was great and the atmosphere relaxing, almost like eating at someone's farm house.  Dinner was capped off by complimentary Rakomelo and fruit.  The cost was about 90$.  We ate in nearly 30 establishments, and Axiotissa was in our top 3 or 4 for sure.  


Incredible food!!

Running in stiff competition, however, and also on the island of Naxos is the charming
Apostolis. (Somehow this seems to be the name of a great many things on the Greek islands)  Apostolis is completely different from Axiotissa.  Apostolis is right in the middle of Naxos Chora.  You cannot take a car to the front of the restaurant, so once you have parked, you just need to be lucky enough to find it.  Apostolis has great atmosphere, with whitewashed walls and colorful lanterns under the night sky.  The area is busy!  It almost seems that there is a constant parade of people by and even through the restaurant.  Hey, this is one place that if you don't have a reservation, (mine again was made via FB Messenger) you can forget it.  The hostess told me that they were full that night and the next and half full the day after!  Anyway, at Apostolis we were first served a complimentary split pea soup.  Food here was also delicious, including a Naxian salad served in a bread bowl.  The service was friendly.  Curiously, one of the waiters here turned up serving in another restaurant on the day shift.  These kids work their tails off and they are great at what they do.  

What a cute place!

And did we mention the food is amazing??!

Anyway, I highly recommend these two restaurants.  We also enjoyed very much Nikos Restaurant in Agios Prokopios, about 5 min walk from our hotel, where we ate twice.  The restaurant is literally on the beach.  We did not have a reservation the first night but they squeezed us in.  We enjoyed it so much I walked over and made a reservation for the next night. Our table the second night was front row to the beach.   The staff was so tickled by our return that they brought us extra free desserts and a free extra half liter of wine.  Good luck resisting the adorable cats here, some of which are bold enough to jump right onto the empty table and gobble the shrimps left behind by the last diners!

A nice table at Nikos Restaurant

The Domus Festival 

There are many festivals on Naxos such as the Domus Festival which takes place at the Kastro in Naxos Chora during the months of July and August.  There are also a lot of ancient sites on Naxos such as the Temple of Apollo in Naxos Chora, the Temple of Demeter, the Kouroi of Flerio, and the Ancient Naxos Aqueduct.  Hey, we had been to Athens already.  If this is your thing, go ahead. At this point, we were saying "Greece rocks," when it came to more hot dry archeological ruins.  We hit the beach.  Windsurfing is huge on windy Naxos.  A bay full of surfers is the first thing you'll see as your plane is about to touch down.

Naxos is known for honey and cheese. Mmmmmm.

You should go.  Please, skip Santorini and go to Naxos.  You will not regret it.

I hope you enjoyed this post!  I hope I have time for another chapter before taking off for my next vacation in a little less than a week.

Okay so we did go to the Temple of Apollo..

from which the views of Naxos Town are stunning.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Some Hard and Fast Truths about Greece July/Aug 2023

My family is returning from a three week vacation in Greece.  I spent nearly a year and countless hours preparing for this trip during which we traveled from the ancient ruins of the mainland to the beauty of the islands.  I was terrified to finally embark on our journey.  I had traveled to Greece only once before.  I was 16 and remember very little.  I had concerns and preconceived notions about travelling to a country where we did not speak the language.  Well, when you spend three weeks in a foreign country, you really start to learn some things about how life is lived.  These are my "facts about Greece" I learned over the last 21 days.  I hope that they will be helpful for anyone planning their own Greek vacation.

1.  ENGLISH IS THE DEFAULT LANGUAGE.  Everyone speaks English and MOST, especially the 35 and under crowd, speak it really well.  No matter what your country of origin, you will likely be addressed in English first.  At no time did we have any trouble communicating, not at restaurants, not with our lodging hosts, not with anyone, seriously.  Signage is in English is everywhere, often ONLY English signage.  Though I tried to order in Greek and use it when I could, it was really unnecessary.  When we were on a Catamaran cruise on Naxos, I asked a family from Amsterdam how in the world does everyone speak English so well (her kids were 19 and 15).  She said that all the television is in English and that is how they learn.  SOOOO you really don't need to worry about speaking Greek.  That being said, however, brings me to #2.

It's all English here!

Movie in English, subtitles in Greek!

2.  IT IS VERY HELPFUL TO HAVE SOME ELEMENTARY KNOWLEDGE OF THE LANGUAGE:  Before I left I had been doing daily Greek Duolingo for 6 month.  This gave me a rudimentary knowledge of easy words---foods, please, thank you very much, excuse me, good morning, numbers, where is the toilet--but almost more importantly, the alphabet.  This came in handy in the local grocery stores, when reading street signs in more remote areas, when reviewing our restaurant receipt and when deciphering script in churches.  The locals do appreciate efforts to use whatever words you can.

This very rare Greek sign says "Zeus' Peak"

The writing tells you this is St Nicholas Planas,
not the St Nick known as Santa Claus

3.  THE GREEKS EAT DINNER LATE AND PARTY EVEN LATER.  This is no joke.  I was aware of this and made all of our dinner reservations at 8 pm or later.  We found that if you go earlier than that, you just wind up looking dumb-or old-or American.  On at least three occasions, we went to dinner after 10pm and there was no trouble getting good food at that hour.  Just a word on reservations...I made them for about half of the dinners we had, especially at the more highly recommended restaurants, but I would say they were not always necessary.  Most hosts will do whatever they can to get you in, frequently moving and setting new tables to accomodate unexpected guests.  We were never turned away, even at highly recommended Tamam in Chania, Crete, and Skolarchio in Athens.  The restaurant experience is a bit different in Greece.  Usually, you will be brought bread and cold bottled water without having asked for it and this will appear as a charge on your bill.  On the flip side, freebies, such as dessert and after dinner drinks are common.  We returned to one restaurant a second night in a row on Naxos and they brought us an extra liter of house wine and several extra desserts.  We never ordered dessert because it was so often provided.  Many dishes are served in a way that it is easy to divide them and share.  Nightly we ordered an appetizer, frequently a delicious fried cheese known as 'Saganaki', a Greek salad (Horiatiki), and three entrees, all of which we shared.  More would have been too much. Another bonus--tipping is not expected anywhere and is only an expression of really appreciating your service.  It is not even an option most of the time you charge a meal to your card.  We tipped about 8-10% usually and sometimes a bit more.  It was a joy to give even a few euros to our wine hostesses or tour guides as they were so gracious in the receiving, not like in the US where now kids want 22% after serving you a cup of coffee!  But I digress.  One more thing about eating in Greece.  When you are ready to leave, you need to ask for your bill.  They will not bring it until you ask for it.

Seated at Scholarchio without a reservation

Also seated at Tamam without a reservation
Free baklava and raki!

Did I mention the partying?? Omigoodness!  We had a bar under our apartment in Chania that carried on until 5am.  When we went to hike Samaria Gorge our meeting time was 6am.  We stumbled sleepily through the streets that we shared with the kids that were returning home from the bars...

4.  NO MATTER HOW NERVOUS IT MAKES YOU, AND HOW MUCH OF A HASSLE IT IS, OUTSIDE OF ATHENS, YOU NEED A CAR.  Driving in Greece is no picnic.  The roads can be narrow, and everyone seems to want to to push the limits of how many "objects" (cars, parked cars, mopeds, motorcycles, pedestrians, etc.) will fit across any given street.  The fact of the matter is, if you do not have a car, you are dependent on public transportation. This works fine in Athens, but it took exactly one hour on the island of Naxos before we decided we needed a car for the entirety of our stay, once our airport transfer driver reported to us the price of taxis and the overcrowding of buses that come around only twice an hour.  Our car afforded us the luxury of driving to wineries out of town, to out of town beaches and to out of town ancient sites such as Mycenae and Epidavros.  The only other time we did not have a car was in Kastraki in the Meteora, and we were literally stuck within walking distance of the hotel.  

How is this going to end?

Anyway, the driving is not THAT bad.  The roads are well signed and are in pretty good shape.  Free parking is readily available. We made sure that our accommodations came with a parking space.  One note...finding a large car that fits five adults and five people's luggage is expensive and cars few and far between.  Our last car was so tight we had to strap one suitcase to the roof.  Book early.

We were thrilled with this ginormous car!!

But not quite as happy with this one!

5.  THE GREEKS DON'T SMOKE AS MUCH AS THEY USED TO, BUT SMOKING IS STILL ALIVE AND WELL  The last time I came to Greece in 1984, the country literally stewed under a constant veil of cigarette smoke--airports, hotel lobbies, restaurants, taxis--everywhere.  Good gracious it was bad.  Now you can really only smoke outdoors, and many take advantage of this opportunity. Cigarette smoking has largely been replaced by vaping, especially among the young crowd.  I was shocked by how many interrupted their meals to suck on those vape pens!  One of the worst instances of smoke is at the beach clubs, where if you are unlucky enough to park yourself next to a pair of smokers, you are inhaling their second hand pollution all day long.

6.  GREEK PLUMBING  Well , this could almost be its own blogpost.  Yep this a real thing and a tough one for Americans to get used to.  Pretty much across the board, no matter if you are in the airport, on the ferry, in a restaurant, or in your own rented AirBnB, it is forbidden, and I mean forbidden, to put any paper of any kind (yes, this does include TP) into the toilet.  Every bathroom is equipped with a pedal operated trash can for the deposit of your potty paper after cleaning up your business.  While I mentioned that not only do old habits die hard, the bigger reality is that if you are in a rental without maid service for days on end, that can is gonna stink, and fast!  We did our best, but generally if we were staying in our own place, we tossed the paper into the toilet.  In public, we used the can-but NEVER EVER did #2 paper go anywhere but down the pipes.  Anyway, public restrooms in Greece are better than they used to be.  They were generally free, clean enough, and readily available.  A few of the previously ubiquitous "squatters" still remain, but most public restrooms have been updated with more civilized facilities.

7. GREECE IS SAFE  It really is. This was really where my preconceived notions got the best of me.  I really had visions of pickpockets everywhere and little gypsy children distracting you with bracelets while their cousin sliced open your back pack and made off with the spilled contents. Yeh, well, it really wasn't like that at all.  On the metro and the bus and in crowded places in Athens, such as the Monastiraki Market, it is advisable to watch your personal belongings by keeping a hand on your purse or your backpack. I also would not advise a late night visit to the area north of Omonoia Square or near the Central Athens Rail station.   Otherwise, there's just no problem.  In Athens, we felt perfectly safe walking at night to our lodgings. On the islands we were advised not to leave belongings on the beach and all go for a swim, so we did not.  There are a few homeless (though far more in California).  Men in general are also far less aggressive than I remember them being.  Shop and taverna owners are also far less aggressive-they don't follow you or resort to tricks to get you into their store. Quite refreshing actually.

One thing that is unsafe in Greece is the uneven slick surfaces!!!  These stones have been worn down by years and years of wear and are slippery as can be!  This is pretty universal.  I saw people totally bite it in broad daylight. Mars Hill was like climbing a glacier. Bring sturdy shoes!  NO JOKE!  Many staircases in the ancient sites do not have safety railings.  If you misstep on the side of a staircase, you might be taking a nice 10-12 foot tumble.  This added to the fact that you really can walk wherever you want, can be potentially the most unsafe aspect of Greece.

Actually another potential hazard is that they'll pretty much let you do whatever you want.  If your car fits, park it.  You want to dangle your legs over the fortress wall?  Go ahead.  Want to ride a motorcycle in your bikini, walk on the highway with a flashlight, run in front of a bus?  Have at it.  They really don't care.  It's your life.  In Greece they are definitely not focused on being sued by tourists.

If your car fits, park it!!

8.   GREEKS BEACH DIFFERENTLY:  You know how in Hawaii you have to get down to your pool chair at like five in the morning to lay your towel down to reserve the chair for the day?  Well, while you can bring your own umbrellas to the beach and spread out wherever you like, it is far more common to spend your day in a lounge chair under a fixed thatched umbrella.  The sunchairs and umbrellas are owned by the local businesses usually behind the beaches, usually delivering food and drinks to hungry and thirsty sun worshippers. They are first come first served and they do fill, but more likely by 11am, AND they come with a price.  A pair of sunbeds in the first row may run you about 50 euros, but they are generally fluffier and with better sun coverage.  We wound up buying four sun chairs about 5 times and we usually paid about 20 E for two chairs further back. Once we paid like 12 and it came with 2 beers!  Nice! The choice is pretty obvious, the sun is extremely intense and you need some shade, otherwise, it can be quite miserable. It is nice to have a seat with a back and have ice cold beers delivered without having to leave your seat.  The vibe in the beach clubs is fun.  There's usually music playing and generally people are just having a good time.

More about the beach.  We brought our own sunscreen because we heard 50 SPF was not available-not true.  Another biggee is that nudity/toplessness is just not a thing anymore.  We saw hundreds and hundreds of beach goers on 6 different beaches and saw about three pair of naked boobs.  I was relieved that this was the case.  When we went to Mykonos in 1984, there were more bare breasts than covered ones. 

The beach club at Falasarna Beach, Crete

And joining the party at Agios Prokopios

Agios Prokopios

9.  IT IS PRUDENT TO HAVE SOME CASH  Before we left I took a stab at how many euros we would need on each day and my husband ordered euros from Bank of America free of charge and had it mailed to our house.  This meant Craig carried about $1300. This avoided the hassle of trying to find ATMs and all the transaction fees that would have been incurred.  Though a credit card is accepted just about everywhere, and the connections to the servers are lightning fast, there are definitely times when cash is preferred.  Most credit card transactions do not give the option to add a tip, so most of our gratuities were left in cash.  Cash was also great for paying for donations to churches, entrances to monasteries, ferry fees, tolls, public transportation, and dropping a few coins to the little boy playing the accordion in the restaurant.  We had more than we needed, but we just used it at the end of the trip.

10.  IF YOU ARE GOING TO GREECE FOR THE FIRST TIME, PLEASE DON'T JUST GO TO THE ISLANDS, AND PLEASE DON'T JUST GO TO SANTORINI.  You would never guess how many people asked me 1) if we were going on a cruise and 2) if we were to Santorini (as if Santorini was the only Greek island).  My answers were no and no.

There is so much to see in Athens and throughout the mainland, and this may best be where the culture and beauty of Greece is best discovered.  Go to Nafplio (highly recommended by our friend Rick Steves), Delphi, Olympia, Thessaloniki, and Meteora.  On our trip we stayed in Athens, Nafplio, the Meteora, Naxos (island), and Crete (also technically an island but a lot to see).  I thought our trip of three weeks was the bare minimum.  I hope to maybe write about planning your trip so I won't get into too much here.

I can understand why someone might need to see Greece on a cruise.  A cruise takes the entire planning aspect out of the works.  It also provides security and safety for those that might need more assistance.  For the able bodied though, why a cruise, why??  Port, boat, bus into town, dumped off in town for sightseeing or a shore excursion and back to the boat for dinner.  Same this next day on another island. You really miss Greece and see a lot of Holland America.

Why not Santorini?  I know I'm goin to catch grief here. Rick Steves loves Santorini and lists it as not to be missed, but Rick can go in the off season!  Santorini is the most expensive commercialized island in the entire country.  The port teems with cruise ships and yachts.  Santorini is crowded with rich Europeans.  One of our wine hosts told us that going to Santorini is like not going to Greece at all.  Santorini might be worthwhile during the off season, but during July and August stay away!  Yeah it's beautiful.  It's not the only island that is beautiful.  I am not alone..just Google 'why not Santorini.'

This blog is getting pretty long winded so I will try to be a little less wordy on a few remaining facts:

WATER GENERALLY IS DRINKABLE, AVAILABLE AND NEEDED. Ice is harder to come by.  I debated bringing my Hydroflask and wound up bringing it and I am really glad I did.  The only place we were advised to not drink the water from the tap was Naxos.  In the Samaria Gorge in Crete, you can drink the water right from the stream.

ONCE YOU GET HERE IT IS CHEAP.  Our accommodations were about half of what they would have cost in the US, and there were none of those pesky taxes that make your $100 per night room suddenly $200.  A beer is like 3 euros, a gyro 5 euros, breakfast for five 10 euros, a hearty snack for my son 2 euros, dinner for 5 with drinks for all, under 100$ across the board.  Gas is expensive, so are cocktails.

This is long! I must stop now.  Going forward I will tell you all about the sights and give you my thoughts and advice!

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