Torn between comfort and taking the road less traveled? Why compromise? Samos is an island of contrasts where you can avoid the package holiday herd and discover the real Greece without skimping on luxury.
It would be wrong to call Samos the Aegean’s best-kept secret. Judging from all the flags on the yachts, the Germans have already discovered the island, and there is even the occasional taverna offering svíčková alongside mousakka and tzatziki. However, while mass tourism has arrived, development is subject to heavy restrictions, and so Samos has been spared the soulless rows of cookie-cutter hotels that dominate other Greek tourist hotspots. While the island’s main resorts like Votsalakia have the usual beach bars and a few nightclubs, the raucous party animal crowd head elsewhere in the Dodecanese.
That’s not to say Samos has nothing to offer beyond sand, sea and sun – although it has all three in abundance. Thrill-seekers can don a wetsuit and try windsurfing or sea-kayaking before spending the afternoon working on their tan. If you’re keener to explore the ocean from below the surface, then there’s scuba diving and snorkeling. If that all seems too strenuous, then hire a yacht and take in some of the surrounding islands or pay a visit to nearby Turkey. Should you tire of the coastline, then discover the island’s interior, either on foot or by moped or jeep, replete with remote villages tucked away in rugged mountains. Stay at one of the island’s boutique hotels and you can reward yourself for your exertions with a spa treatment and a stint in the Jacuzzi. If you’re the kind of person who can only unwind by being active, then head for Kokkari. The former fishing village on the north of the island is picturesque but has a pebbly beach and is frequently blasted by blustery winds: hardly an alluring combination for sun worshippers. However, Kokkari has turned this apparent minus into a plus by transforming itself into a windsurfing hotspot. Daily classes for all levels from beginner to advanced free-stylers are offered at the Samos Windsurf and Bike Centre in several different languages. They also have a wide range of equipment for rent if you’re confident enough to go it alone.
It’s hard to imagine Pythagoras on a pair of water skis. However, if the ancient Greek mathematician were to return to his birthplace, this would be just one of the high octane water sports he could sample while taking a break from geometry. Pythagorion (See the connection?) is the best base to try water sports; Wind and Water, located right next to the Doryssa, one of the island’s five-star hotels, hires out motorboats, Jet Skis and sea-kayaks. Samos Dive Center, also based in Pythagorion, offers certified training for those interested in heading underwater from the bubblemaker course for children to the PADI divemaster course for adults. If you’d rather opt for a cruise, then Samos Sail offers both bareboat and charted yachts.
Even if your budget doesn’t stretch to hiring a yacht, it’s still easy to island-hop thanks to excellent ferry connections. Nearby Patmos is a popular day-trip destination with both Greeks and foreign tourists. The main attraction? John the Baptist – not the man himself, but the UNESCO protected monastery built in his honor. Greece has its fair share of monasteries, but this one, which resembles a fortress more than a place of worship, will impress even the heathen visitor. The interior is equally striking – colorful murals which decorate the walls depict scenes from the Book of Revelations, inspired by the visions of the apocalypse St. John had while on the island. Most take a taxi to the top of the hill, but the climb isn’t demanding and will help to get you in a suitably contemplative mood. Leave enough time to lose yourself in the winding medieval streets of Chora that surround the imposing monastery, designed to disorient marauding pirates. If you’re
planning to stay for longer than a day, the island’s beaches are also stunning and for the most part, deserted. You’ll need to rent a car or bike to reach them but they’re well worth the effort.
Although almost every visitor to Greece ends up taking home a bottle of ouzo, most wish they hadn’t. Just like the Czech national spirits, Becherovka and slivovice, the anise-flavored aperitif is something of an acquired taste. Fortunately, Samos has something to offer the aspiring sommelier too. Samian wine, praised by the poet Lord Byron, has long enjoyed a worldwide reputation, especially its Muscat wine. The best place to sample the local vino is at the Samos Wine Museum. While the exhibits are interesting enough, the main draw is not the huge wooden casks or the sepia photos of farm workers from yesteryear but the tasting session at the end of the tour.
To see some of those vineyards up close and fully appreciate the island’s varied landscape, dust off your hiking boots. We stayed in Votsalakia, a resort town on the southwest of the island that might not pull in the A-listers but has enough down-to-earth tavernas and a decent enough stretch of beach to satisfy most. Just after dawn, we headed along dirt tracks uphill toward Marathokampos, a town tucked into the slope of Mt. Kerkis. The journey there on foot meant we encountered a very different Greece: An elderly gentleman riding a donkey sidesaddle and a herd of goats were almost as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Marathokampos wasn’t considered worthy of much of a mention in our guidebook but having the chance to explore its mazes of white-washed passages and tiny step lanes with only the occasional stray cat for company was one of the highlights of our trip. For the hardcore hiker, there are more demanding trails on Mt. Ampelos where the adventurous can visit the breathtaking villages of Manolates and Vourliotes.
These may be tough times for the Greek economy but the upside is that there are plenty of last-minute deals for the discerning traveler to take advantage of. Despite the protests in Athens, its very much business as usual on the islands, so provided you secure a direct flight, you’re unlikely to run into difficulties. Beware Greeks bearing bonds, but don’t let the debt crisis deter you from making Samos your autumn holiday destination.
Lisette Allen can be reached at