Rhodes and Kos are the Dodecanese’s big names, but this new island-hopping trip focuses on the archipelago’s smaller gems, where visitors may have the gorgeous beaches to themselves
There is a blueness of sea that seems feasible only via Photoshop or an Instagram filter, but which is made real around the south-east Aegean’s Dodecanese islands. The star players of the archipelago are Rhodes, Lesbos and Kos, but there are 12 large islands in the group, plus tens of smaller ones. The refugee crisis has affected bookings to the region, according to operators, despite the fact that most islands, in particular the lesser known, are unaffected.
I’d come for a week to see for myself, visiting Kalymnos, Telendos, Leros and Lipsi. It’s easy enough to island-hop independently, of course, but with my backpacking days long behind me, I’d decided to let someone else book ferries, transfers and hotels – a tour operator which had just introduced the islands to its portfolio and provides a local rep on each island to greet visitors and give them tips.
From Kos, Kalymnos is just a 40-minute hop by ferry. It’s a mecca for rock climbers who come to hang off outcrops silhouetted against the sunset, a vision Apple has since used to sell its products (see climbkalymnos.com for where to go).
After stopping for homemade spinach pie at cafe Ethereal in Massouri, my guide Kalliopi and I visited the Agios Savvas. The island is famous for its traditional painters and craftsmen, and there are several pretty churches, but Savvas is special: every inch of the monastery’s interior is covered with gold and icons. It was difficult to pick the better view; the inside or the stunning vista across the Aegean sea from where it sits atop Porthia port.
Then, to the official archeological museum for glorious marble Hellenistic statues and a family-run folk museum in a traditional home, where I learned about sponge diving, something else Kalymnos is famous for. I loved the tidbit about divers smoking a cigarette after a dive to ascertain whether they had the bends. There are also plenty of secluded beaches to explore: Vlychada was my favourite, and Myrties, where I stayed in the Myrties Boutique Apartments, was pretty too.
Ten minutes away by boat from Kalymnos lies the volcanic island of Telendos, which until 1,500 years ago and a series of earthquakes was joined to Kalymnos. With a population in the 50s – its primary school has just two pupils – there isn’t much to do except luxuriate in the peace and quiet and think about the novel that you would definitely get around to writing if you lived here. Even Richard Madeley has written novels. I know because one was left behind in Telendos’ one proper hotel, the Porto Potha where I stayed for the night, a lovely, simple family-run place, five minutes from the sea (there’s a seawater pool too, if even that’s too much effort).
The next day, I was off again, to Lipsi, just over an hour away by boat, population 750. “Now 749”, my guide Niko corrected himself, telling me that his father died a month ago. Niko knows everyone on the island. The army and police force each consist of four people. An English couple I met told me that they fell in love with Lipsi on their first visit and just keep coming back. The islanders treat them as family now. In the evening I wandered around the picturesque square before settling at Cafe du Moulin, overlooked by a blue-domed church, to eat local olives and moussaka. The terrace at Yiannis taverna is also a good choice. Aphroditi Hotel, just on the edge of Lipsi village and close to the harbour, made a perfect base.
Lipsi, which is a green island, has some of the most picturesque beaches I’ve visited, both sandy and pebbled. In the south is the secluded Hohlakoura cove. It is totally hidden, with a natural arch rock formation and clear water for snorkelling. As with most of the beaches here, it is devoid of sunbeds and other humans. Nearby is the church of Panagia tou Harou, the island’s protector.
My next destination was
Leros, less than an hour and a half away, home to what is known as a migrant “hotspot”, many of whom are being housed in an old psychiatric hospital, across the Lakki bay. That building itself has a fascinating history, but it was while trekking in the shadow of acacia trees outside town that I met Khalid and Saleem from Syria. They’d been on Leros for seven months. It’s a reminder that the Aegean islands are paradise for holidaymakers, but for the refugees they’re a limbo before the mainland.
I became a bit obsessed with Leros and its juxtapositions. Architecture and history buffs will revel in Lakki, the harbour town built entirely in Mussolini’s razionalismo style – think fascist quasi art-deco – from the days of the Italian occupation. A preserved bunker serves as a war museum.
The second port of Agia Marina, close to where I was staying in the sweet Leros Nefeli hotel, was very different. It’s combination of pretty white and pastel houses and narrow streets was like something from a pointillist painting – and pastries at Paradosiako were sumptuous. The island is larger than the others and it’s worth hiring a car to explore. Pantelini beach is a must-visit spot, as is climbing the 300 metres to the Byzantine fort, which sits atop Apityki. Leros is a multi-faceted island; perfect for relaxing and perfect for delving into more modern history.
Many people have visited the Dodecanese since antiquity, among them Romans and Ottomans. I’m glad I’ve added my footprint, but I’d recommend an extra week to enjoy each island at length and hop among them in leisurely, grown-up style.
Way to go
The trip was provided by Sunvil (020-8758 4758, sunvil.co.uk). A seven-night Island-hopping trip in the Dodecanese starts at £750pp or 10 nights from £1,000 on a B&B basis (two sharing), including flights from Gatwick to Kos and all transfers and ferries in April, May and October. Prices over the summer are higher