For a secluded Greek beach vacation, head to sunny Paxos, the smallest island in the Ionian Sea.
An odyssey around the Greek Islands during a pandemic was never going to be a breeze, but the lush Ionian archipelago seemed like the ideal antidote to months of cabin fever in a cluttered Athens apartment. I reckoned that if Odysseus could pull it off in a man-powered galley, fending off sirens, six-headed monsters, and a one-eyed giant, I could handle the slings and arrows of unpredictable travel requirements and capricious ferry schedules.
So I set a course for Paxos, a green speck just off the southern tip of Corfu, and intended to journey slowly south, alighting on the smallest, sleepiest Ionian islands, until I reached Odysseus’s homeland of Ithaca. I didn’t have a dozen ships and 600 men, but I did have a straw hat and a weather app.
Things did not get off to an auspicious start. The 90-minute crossing from Corfu to Paxos on a stuffy hydrofoil was not quite the pleasure trip that the ferry company, Joy Cruises, had promised. Coming out of the terminal with my travel companion, the Swedish photographer Loulou d’Aki, I perked up when I saw our rental car: a convertible Suzuki Jimny that looked game for adventure. But no sooner had we roared out of the pint-size port of Gaios than an ominous cloud of steam hissed from the hood, and the car wheezed to a halt.
Faye Lychnou came to our rescue. Practical, forthright, and filled to the brim with entertaining anecdotes, Lychnou is a cofounder of Friends of Paxos, a cultural organization that hosts festivals and waymarks centuries-old walking trails. In high season, she also moonlights as the local concierge for the Thinking Traveller, a rental agency that specializes in fabulously discreet villas in lesser-known parts of Greece, Italy, Corsica, and Mallorca.
Lychnou bundled us into her car, dispensing bon mots as we drove past olive groves punctuated with the stacked bell towers of sepia-tinted churches. “See those handsome guys smoking in the shade?” she asked. “That’s the fire brigade.” She gestured toward a constellation of houses twinkling in the soft September light. “This is Manesatika. Like most villages, it’s named after the person who built the first house around here—Manesis—centuries ago.”
The road tapered from single-lane tarmac to dirt track until eventually Lychnou pulled into a muddy driveway. We had arrived at Aperghis, a trio of stone houses with a small pool surrounded by olive trees. A weathered table and bamboo love seat were angled in a corner of the terrace for sea- and stargazing. Although newly built by British architect Dominic Skinner, who has quietly cornered much of the luxury property market on Paxos and Corfu, the houses fade into the landscape. There are tree-trunk stools, rattan chairs, and stepping-stones for tiptoeing barefoot from hammock to outdoor shower to yellow-and-white-striped lounger. Bedrooms are cool and calm, with gray tongue-and-groove ceilings, painted white floorboards, and French windows that face west, so the whole room is dipped in gold at dusk.
What struck me most, after months of listening to rolling news, fighting street cats, and the white noise of distant traffic and cooped-up angst, was the silence. Pure, deep silence—until you really start to listen and discover that the landscape is humming with wildlife: throbbing bees, elusive songbirds, rustling hedgehogs, and the usual Greek chorus of cicadas. There are snakes, too, Lychnou warned as we set off to explore our surroundings on foot.
For centuries, pale local stone has been used to build homes, wells, windmills, cisterns, barns, bell towers, watchtowers, and the terraces that protect the precious olive trees covering the island. There are an estimated 300,000 olive trees on Paxos—roughly 120 for every resident—and each one is numbered and initialed, a tradition that dates back to the Venetian occupation (which lasted four centuries, until Napoleon muscled in on the Ionian archipelago in 1797). The Venetians paid the locals for every olive tree they planted, and the resulting groves yielded countless blessings: cooking oil, lamp oil, soap, firewood, a dowry for a daughter.
Many Paxiots don’t bother pruning or prodding their olive trees. In November, they simply unfurl the nets rolled neatly into the crooked trunks and tangled roots of these great beasts and wait for the fruit to fall. Olives are periodically gathered up and pressed: a slow process that lasts until early spring, when the first tourists typically trickle back. This approach to harvesting pretty much sums up the island way of life—slow down, relax, let nature take its course.
Besides, there’s less incentive to work the land when selling it can be much more lucrative. Though the global price of olive oil has slumped, property values on Paxos and nearby Antipaxos have gone through the roof. This relatively remote island, measuring a mere eight miles from end to end, is now one of the most expensive slivers of real estate in Greece. (Gone are the days when you could buy a plot for around $100, as the actor Peter Bull did in 1964. “Buy cauliflower, string, Scotch tape, and a bit of land on Paxos,” he scribbled on his shopping list.)
But there are no ritzy boutiques or champagne bars, no fancy resorts, and scarcely any hotels. That is precisely the appeal for the European aristocrats and upper-crust Brits who are stealthily building palatial pads camouflaged by the hills, hovering on the edges of plunging cliffs, or poised on pristine coves with private moorings and speedboats for exploring the turquoise coastline.
Loulou and I soon realized that a car may be useful on Paxos, but a boat is indispensable. Super-yachts, sailboats, and inflatables crowd the marinas and fleck the horizon. You don’t need a skipper’s license to rent a little motorboat in any of the three harbor towns: Gaios, Lakka, and Loggos. The eastern coastline, which faces the brooding mountains of mainland Greece, is pocked with pebbled beaches like Levrechio (where we just missed Bono at the superb seaside taverna Bouloukos), Marmari (where we snoozed under sighing olive trees), Monodendri (too many rosé-swilling Brits), and Kipiadi (where spherical white stones shuffle hypnotically against the shore). The translucence and buoyancy of the sea is so incredible you want to shout for joy as you dive in. Swimming or snorkeling through every gradient of blue is like diving into a different dimension—flying, rather than floating.
The western coast of Paxos is all ragged cliffs and echoing sea caves, thousands of years compressed into swirling strata of sandwiched rock. These landscapes make you feel very small—especially as you gingerly spread your sarong beneath the great white flank of cliff that looms above Erimitis Beach. At sunset, the chalky rock face above glows pink and orange. Most people go for a late-afternoon swim, then clamber up the scraggly footpath for sundowners at the touristy but photogenic Erimitis bar and restaurant. Instead, Loulou and I went for a dip at first light and had the whole dazzling bay to ourselves, apart from two sturdy older women in headscarves, chatting as they picked grapes on terraced vineyards suspended between sea and sky.
In his 1978 book, The Greek Islands, Lawrence Durrell dispatched Paxos and its vine-covered offshoot Antipaxos—”two islands of little note”—in a single cursory paragraph: “The little, flat-roofed villages have water trouble; they live on cisterns and try to hoard winter rain. But the summers are fierce. There are good little harbors for small-boat owners.”
Loggos, the smallest of the three harbors, was my favorite. An irresistible Greek cliché mirrored in the glassy sea, the flagstone-clad waterfront was lined with pleasure boats, tavernas, and flip-flop shops. At the far end, we found three neat little bars in a row, with quayside tables for people-watching or sea-sprayed terraces for boat-watching. Giddy on cocktails, we strolled over to Vassilis, a taverna that once fed workers from the now-derelict soap factory and today caters to high-rolling regulars like the billionaire owner of Chelsea F.C., Roman Abramovich. You can almost dip your toes in the sea from your marble-topped table, as long as the local bus doesn’t come hurtling along the narrow strip between you and the water.
While we dined on spicy gazpacho, a whole bream harpooned that morning, and a lemony knot of wilted greens, we were entertained by three men in a boat—pink-shirted, rosy-cheeked tourists in a dinghy, to be precise, who almost capsized several times as they drunkenly struggled to untie the mooring rope. Across the bay, their girlfriends hollered encouragement. Soon after the wobbly dinghy finally drifted into the inky night, a fluorescent blue beam scanned the restaurant tables like a searchlight. A cabin cruiser with three churning engines loomed into view, and after much maneuvering a group of Bulgarians stepped ashore. We watched the deckhand struggle to pull away, oblivious to the fact that he had forgotten to untie the mooring rope. “Money can’t buy you everything,” said the guy at the next table, smiling wryly.
Money—lots of money—can buy you a stay at what I’m quite sure is the most sensational estate on the island. Paxos PTR occupies an entire hilltop in Kastanida, high above the northwestern coast, but you’ll never find it unless the owner, Patrizia Peracchio, a petite but formidable Milanese architect, shows you the way in her battered 4 x 4. A concrete track through miles of forest turns into a stone driveway bordered by slender cypress trees. It’s like entering the set of a Luca Guadagnino movie, a heady immersion into a world of effortless chic.
Loulou and I were assigned the three-bedroom guesthouse, a playful mix of red modular sofas, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, bathrooms painted bright yellow and green. Tiny recessed windows ran along the walls of my attic bedroom, with carved wooden flaps to control the light and ventilation.
Peracchio’s pool is positioned so it has clear views from one side of the island to the other: a panorama of hazy hills and open seas, filtered through a thicket of pines that have improbably taken root on the cliffside. I could hear waves smashing against rocks on the shore below as I swam laps in the gloaming. Fat raindrops started falling, a mist rose from the sea, and lightning flashed over the distant shadow of Corfu. Loulou and I retreated to the sunflower-yellow kitchen of the main house, a vast, open-plan space with sliding glass doors, to share marinated anchovies, stuffed peppers, and life stories with Peracchio. With her silver pixie crop, simple white shirtdress, and Greek leather sandals, she looked positively gamine, though I worked out she was in her seventies.
“You look very young,” I remarked.
“Because I am here,” she replied.
The rain fell all that night, and 24 hours later an unseasonal storm was still raging. All boats were canceled. No sea-taxi skipper was mad enough to brave the weather. With a 48-hour ferry strike expected the next day, there was no way off the island for at least three days. Our Ionian odyssey was in ruins, but there are worse places to be stranded.
British explorer and historian Tim Severin identified Paxos as the Homeric island where Odysseus was bewitched by Circe, the sorceress who turned his sailors into swine and took Odysseus as her lover. Odysseus luxuriated in Circe’s lavish hospitality for a year, until he mustered the will to continue his journey. Surely that’s the best way to be seduced by Paxos—slow down, relax, let nature take its course.
Design Your Own Odyssey Around Paxos
Where to Stay
The Thinking Traveller has a handpicked collection of soulful villas on Paxos. Demand ha sbeen high since European travel reopened last summer, but weekly rates are surprisingly affordable and include transfers from Corfu—a swell as a never-too much-trouble concierge service. Aperghis, which sleeps eight, starts at $6,400 per week.
For pull-out-all-the-stops villas equipped with extravagant accessories (speedboats, chefs, yoga instructors), look to Five Star Greece. Patrizia Peracchio’s estate, PaxosPTR, sleeps up to 22 and costs $27,000 per week.
Where to Eat & Drink
Averto: This trendy spot has a lovely backyard enveloped by voluptuous greenery. Go for brunch (the coffee and eggs Benedict are excellent)or a twilit aperitif. Magazia; entrées $12–$21.
Bouloukos: Don’t let the booming Greek ballads put you off—this seaside taverna is a knockout. Order a Jenga tower of battered zucchini shavings dunked in blush-pink taramasalata, unctuous octopus with orzo, and the homemade pistachio gelato. Levrechio; Entrées$ 11–$19.
Bournaos: Stop for a Greek coffee at this old-fashioned kafenio across the roadf rom Averto. Magazia; 30-2662-030239.
Café Kalimera: A prime spot for watching all the comings and goings in the capital, this local hangout has a split personality: alfresco tables under a bower of bougainvillea for breakfast and a lively, dive-bar vibe after hours. Gaios; 30-26620-32318.
Carnayo Gold Lounge Café: Thin-crust pizzas, legit Greek salad, and spine tingling mojitos on a deck floating above a blue lagoon: this is what you came for. Mongonissi; 30-26620-32650; entrées $11–$23.
Le Rocher: Hidden down an alley beside a bakery, this tiny bar has a secret terrace on the water’s edge, just big enough fora handful of tables. Pitch-perfect at dusk as the horizon turns lavender and lilac. Loggos; 30-26620-31115.
Vassilis: Run by the same family since 1957, this quaint looking taverna has evolved into one of Paxos’s most sophisticated dining spots. Sea urchin bruschetta with taramasalata and samphire with black rock salt are served quayside by a polished crew. Loggos; entrées$13–$25.
Originally published on Travel & Leisure by Rachel Howard