The island has a mythological landscape, uncrowded tavern-lined port towns, and the bluest water in the Cyclades. So how come you’re only hearing about it now?
If I had a prenup, it would mandate that every year I bring my husband, Emilio, to Greece. Born in Nicaragua and raised in the U.S., Emilio married me in 2010 on the lush, Italianate island of Corfu, where my cousins live. Since then, I’ve taken him to the greatest hits of whitewashed Mykonos, clifftop Santorini, and Hydra—Greece’s Nantucket, with its yachts and gray sea-captains’ mansions. We’ve gone to weddings where we danced in fortress villages on Chios and climbed with the bride to a seaside chapel in the Peloponnese, and on pilgrimages to the rivers and monasteries of northern Greece, where my father was born. With two Greekaraguan kids in need of their heritage booster shot, our annual trip has only gotten harder to plan. If Emilio, who’s always looking for his next adrenaline rush, dreams of a spot that’s new and adventurous, I’m seeking somewhere old and comfortable—I want to hear Greek spoken, eat ripe tomatoes, and slip back into conversations I’ve been having since my early childhood near Athens.
Which pretty much draws the Venn diagram of what’s behind Greece’s tourism surge in the last decade. Every year, friends who are looking for a “really authentic experience” ask me about the latest, greatest Greek island to go to, away from the honeymooners and club kids. The hippie-chic fashion crowd is drawn to Patmos for its out-of-the-way location and spiritual vibe; creative types love Hydra, whether they’re on a pilgrimage to see Leonard Cohen’s former home or are art fans checking out the Deste Foundation exhibit at Project Space Slaughterhouse. A couple of years ago, everyone on Instagram seemed to be piling onto wafer-thin Antiparos, with its sandy Aegean coves and barefoot lifestyle, but no real claim to fame besides the fact that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have a home there. I’d like to believe I’m above all the trendiness, but I also pride myself on my on-the-ground knowledge. I want to have been there, swum that before everyone else suddenly learns to pronounce the newest island’s name.
One day last spring, I sat down to interview Venezuelan-born, Athens-based Tatiana Blatnik, princess of Greece and Denmark, about her cookbook, A Taste of Greece, and asked for her must-see. “Milos—it’s the first island I visited on my honeymoon, in 2010,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, and the energy is overwhelming—just go.” Milos, the southwesternmost of the Cyclades, isn’t an island the regulars at Holy Trinity, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral here in Manhattan, trade tips about during Sunday coffee. I knew a few Greeks who raved about Milos’s blue caves and sparkling seas, but they’d all sailed there on their own boats. Oh, but the airport’s landing strip was expanded in 2013, I learned after digging around, and when I reached out to my old friend Christos Stergiou, who runs the luxury travel company True Greece, he told me that he was bringing Milos into his stable of destinations in 2017, due to a spike in client demand. At that point I contacted Ileana von Hirsch of Five Star Greece, which rents out Voronoi’s Corrals (also known as Milos M1), a clifftop house that I saw canonized in design mags and blogs from Dezeen to ArchDaily. But it was booked during my dates, and von Hirsch warned me that on Milos “there’s still only one or two nice-ish hotels.”
All of which only made me want to go more, before international chains chomp up the coastline. But I soon found even the not-so-nice-ish hotels were booked. In true Greek form, I frantically worked all my connections until someone told me about a place set to open two weeks before our arrival. It didn’t have a website, but it had rooms for the first three days of our stay.
When we arrived, I thought that if the scale of the 61-square-mile island matched that of the hotel—intimate, elegant, and still undiscovered—we had come to Milos at just the right moment. Brother-sister team Dimitris and Eleni Vamvakaris built the Milos Breeze with ocean views from all 23 rooms, private gardens planted with local herbs, and an infinity pool filtered by magnesium salts, a nod to the island’s main industry—mining.
The mines are arguably the reason Milos has been overlooked for so long, written off as an industrial island. These natural resources have been profitable since the ancient Greeks dug for obsidian, the black mineral used for tools before steel, and today Milos has silver, bauxite, and kaolin mines, and the world’s second-largest mine for bentonite, which is used in cement. But the minerals are also why the white sandstone of Sarakiniko Beach looks like a lunar landscape, Gerontas Beach is lined in black volcanic sand, and the reddish shores of Paleochori are heated by sulfur springs. We spent a morning at Sarakiniko, named for the Saracen pirates who would hide their boats under the white cliffs that resemble massive folds of whipped cream. As our kids splashed in the water under the seemingly snowcapped rocks, I said to Emilio, “They should film Game of Thrones here,” thinking how much they could save on CGI graphics.
A single mile-long hiking path crosses several eras and civilizations, stretching from the medieval mountainside town of Trypiti to the early-Christian catacombs dug into the mountainside, past the ancient Roman amphitheater and down to the village of Klima, where the waves lap right up to the syrmata. This only-in-Milos architecture was created by fishermen who wanted to sleep above the shop, so to speak, and built apartments over their brightly painted boat garages (which are now being snapped up by foreigners). Above Trypiti is Plaka, a village with winding streets meant to stymie pirates; an archaeological museum celebrating the island as the birthplace of the Venus de Milo; and a ruined castle and aptly named café-bar Outopia, whose sunset views rival Santorini’s. Then there are Milos’s beaches, 70 give or take: nude beaches (Psaravolada) and sandy beaches with freestanding sea caves just wide enough to squeeze into (Firiplaka); beaches you can only get to by shimmying down a rope ladder (Tsigrado); and, best of all, those reached by sea.
Emilio would have happily spent the whole trip in the water, but I was lured by all there was to do out of it. We were too late for the cultural festival held in the amphitheater in July, but I did visit the contemporary gallery housed in the bomb shelter the occupying Germans had forced the islanders to dig in the town of Adamantas during World War II. The theme of the exhibit was Refuge; one cavern had ghostly shirts hanging from the ceiling, another held a screen flickering with people describing their places of sanctuary. “I think it’s amazing what this place has become,” said an older woman holding a little girl’s hand. “At the opening I burst into tears, because my first romances were here—our parents didn’t let us date, so we met boys in the empty bomb shelter.” She laughed, and so did I, so loud the sound echoed off the stone walls.
The one question I kept asking everyone was: If Milos has the most and arguably best beaches of all the islands in the Cyclades, plus ruins, plus good food, plus, plus, plus, how come nobody noticed until now? “Milos wasn’t in fashion when people had money,” civil engineer Sofia Vamvouni told me, referring to the decade before Greece’s economic crash in 2008. “So we escaped the fate of other Cycladic islands where hotels and homes were left unfinished. Now that things are being built again, the aesthetic has changed; it’s for unique, thoughtful development, not mass tourism. People felt Milos was unlucky to be undiscovered, but I think we were actually fortunate.”
Nausika Georgiadou, the owner of Skinopi Lodge, where we stayed the rest of the week, is invested in this brand of slow tourism. As an 18-year-old “running around the islands” in the 1980s, she discovered, “I liked Milos because it has the best sea.” She bought a ruined villa in Trypiti, even though it had a fig tree growing through the middle of it, and later turned it into a B&B. Then she began buying up property above the village of Skinopi, where she just completed three glass-sided villas overlooking the same bay where the Athenians landed during the Peloponnesian Wars. (As described in Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue, Milos refused the Athenian ultimatum to join the Delian League; in retaliation, the Athenians killed all the men, sold the women and children into slavery, and resettled the island.) “The idea was to buy it all up so that no one can come and build something nasty in between,” Georgiadou said.
Wearing a white Indian-print caftan over an aubergine-colored bikini and with a perpetual tan, Georgiadou picked us up one morning in her speedboat to prove her claim that “Milos has to be seen by water.” We set out past Cape Vani, where free climbers scale cliffs that look like Scylla and Charybdis, then stopped to swim in Kalogria—so called for the ghost of a nun that fishermen claim to see there—a green cove within a craggy coastline. If we had turned around then and there, the boat trip would have been worth it. But we sailed on, right into the deep blue cave of Sikia and then past Kleftiko, a grouping of white stone cliffs in cobalt water. It’s named for the robber-pirates who used to hide in the caves, waiting to capsize ships, but the only boats now are excursion vessels bringing day-trippers to the area, which is vast enough that we had every cave to ourselves. Georgiadou pointed out that three boats were Turkish-style gulets that normally sail the Dodecanese but had turned up at Milos since tourism in the northern islands was down owing to the refugee crisis.
Sailing on, we passed the islet of Poliegos, deserted but for a lighthouse, a lone shepherd who makes his own cheese, and monk seals. We docked at the satellite island of Kimolos for lunch at To Kyma, a simple yet sometimes star-studded family-run tavern on the beach. Over grilled octopus and eggs with zucchini and capers, Georgiadou let drop that the spot is a favorite with the likes of Keira Knightley, Brad Pitt, and the emir of Qatar, who anchor their yachts in Poliegos’s natural harbor.
Sailing back, Georgiadou turned grave, noting that while Poliegos is an ecologically protected site, it is threatened, like other parts of Milos’s coastline, by rollbacks in legislation that could allow stretches to be sold to private interests. Then there’s the open question of the coexistence of tourism and the mining industry (Santorini closed the mines in its caldera in the 1970s, when visitors started arriving). Will Milos risk ruining the very landscape that is now luring high-end visitors? As the island’s mayor told me, “We don’t want the type of tourists who come to do drugs, break bottles, drop their pants.”
On our last morning, I walked the hillside around Skinopi Lodge as Georgiadou detailed her plans with the landscape architect Elli Pangalou, who did the grounds at the stunning Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, which opened in Athens last year. “These will be dry gardens,” she said. “It will appear the way it always has, the Cycladic lavender, olive trees.” I suspect what will help keep Milos looking like itself as tourism grows is its dependence on the elements. Not just the minerals that give the island its idiosyncratic coastline, but the fact that people still plan their day based on the direction of the wind, letting it decide whether they’ll sail, where to swim. And then, of course, there’s the sea.
The Island Strategist
In high season, there are regular flights from Athens on Olympic Air, but these are small planes that have to be booked in advance. Most people still arrive by boat from Athens (four-and-a-half hours on the Speedrunner) or on a Seajet/SuperJet boat from Santorini.
The Best Time to Go
The days are long in June and early July and everything’s open (seasonal businesses operate from April to October). Avoid the crowds of late July and August, though it’s worth trying to catch the spectacular fire festival on the last day of August, as things quiet down in September.
Where to Sleep
Most small hotels (and the best restaurants) are in Pollonia, including the new Milos Breeze, which has an infinity pool overlooking the town, and the popular Salt Suites. Design-conscious villas are popping up too, including three (and soon three more) at Skinopi Lodge, between the port of Adamantas (a.k.a. Adamas) and Trypiti, and Five Star Greece’s luxe compound, Voronoi’s Corrals, at the end of a winding road on a remote cliff above the southern coast.
Pollonia’s beach is lined with restaurants, including Armyra—in what was once the owner’s grandfather’s house—which specializes in seafood mezedes like fried baby shrimp and whatever is freshly caught. A favorite for late lunch or sunset dinner is Medousa, a taverna opposite the church and above the syrmata in the village of Mandrakia, known for its grilled sardines, octopus (you’ll spot it drying in the sun), and salads. After evening drinks at Outopia, in Plaka, cross the cobblestones to Archontoula, a classic, no-frills taverna with traditional dishes from stuffed squid to rabbit stew. Locals (and the emir of Qatar) love O Xamos, on the shore outside of Adamantas, for its old-school menu, including chickpea casserole and piglet in parchment. You’ll probably keep going back to Ergina, in Trypiti, where the owner serves his grandma’s traditional recipes. The short sail to the satellite island of Kimolos is worth it for a meal by the water at To Kyma.
Photo by Matt Hranek