The more we travel the more I agree with my friend Megan who says “the thing we will most take away from our experience is less WHERE to travel and more HOW to travel.” That is until it comes to Greece. This is where I get on my high horse and tell you WHERE to travel.
I did that with the Greek Island of Paros which has turned out to be my most read blog of all time and my only post that still gets daily visitors. Enough people have taken that trip now that Chrys from the Paliomylos Hotel in Naoussa recently sent us a gift by way of one of Brett’s London colleagues.
NOW WHERE, NAXOS?
While we would have gladly gone back to Paros for a third time, this summer we decided to mix up the magic by heading to the neighboring island of Naxos. We’d heard glowing reviews about Naxos from people who also knew and loved Paros and so it seemed the natural next destination among the Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea.
More than one local explained while beautiful neighboring Santorini and lively Mykonos have both been overrun by tourism - “the Disneyland of the Greek Islands” they said – Naxos and Paros are tourist friendly but have managed to retain more of their Greekness. Naxos in particular is the largest and most fertile of the islands with a good supply of water allowing it to be self-sufficient from an agricultural point of view (think beef and cheese not just fish!) As if to signal the historic appeal of the island, the looming ruins of the Temple of Apollo welcome you to Naxos Town (also called Chora.)
2 for 1: BEACH + CULTURE
There are lots of places you can go in the world to find a beach but the additional opportunity for culture makes a trip to a place like Naxos something extra special. In our nine days on the island, we witnessed small examples of the Greek love for family, their care for others and their glass half full approach to life.
There was the young woman at the local bakery in Agios Prokopius who lovingly described in great detail all the baked goods her Mother had made and offering us tastes of something new each morning. Her mother’s not-too-sweet baklava was hands down the best we’ve ever tasted, something we would have missed had it not been for her proud daughter.
There was the smiling bus driver who stopped for two very late people running to catch it when he clearly didn’t need to and in many other countries would not have, a small kindness met with large appreciation.
There was the informal and friendly exchange each morning where dark-skinned migrants would clean the trash off the beach in front of the restaurants and beach bars and then come in for a coffee and small amount of money.
There was the owner of Meltemi, a restaurant in Naxos Town since 1970, who we watched patiently, unmistakably teaching two young inexperienced waiters the higher calling of service as if they were his own sons.
WHEN TO GO:
June and September are the absolute best months to go. July and August are the busiest and most expensive months. Locals told us August can also be quite windy. Naxos is heavy with Scandinavians in June, Greeks from Athens in July, and a mix of Europeans and a smattering of Americans in August.
Initially our goal was to find a place within walking distance to Naxos Town. We had done that in Paros and really enjoyed the proximity. A travel writer I know had highly recommended the Niassaki Beach Hotel. (Travel Babbo spent three weeks with his family on Naxos and wrote about it here.) When I tried to book there they had told me they were changing their policy and not accepting any children under 12 years old. They have since reversed that policy but in the meantime I booked elsewhere. It looks like a great hotel if you hoping to be within walking distance to town.
Instead I booked at the Naxian Collection Luxury Villas and Suites. It’s a countryside setting two miles from Naxos Town and less than one mile from the nearest beach (Agios Prokopius.) We ended up loving the privacy, views and private pool which more than made up for having to get a car. It’s a truly fantastic place to stay for a family. The owner Maria who is also a high school teacher has created a modern, authentically Greek villa retreat and she loves Americans. Her husband and co-owner is the mayor of Naxos and their staff is wonderfully warm. Antonio, one of Maria’s high school graduates, was especially kind and also impressive as he was on his way to take a job with the Prime Minister of Greece in Athens for 2 years in the fall. No egg order is one too many for the women who serve the included and excellent breakfast every morning. Opened in 2010 and recently visited by Anthony Bourdain, the Naxian Collection has 8 villas each with their own pool and 8 suites. Everything is done well. If I had any complaint at all it would only be that the initial booking and communication was a little spotty (but I now know they have other jobs out of season) but once there the service is very attentive and they love kids.
While we were there they had just opened a sister hotel, Naxian on the Beach. It’s an adults only hotel with 10 suites just 10 meters from the quietest part of Plaka Beach. One of the perks of being a guest at the Naxian Collection Luxury Villas and Suites is that you are able to use the sun beds and services at their sister hotel which we took full advantage of.
If you click on their website or read their reviews, you’ll understand why you might be hard pressed to find a better place to stay on Naxos. Book well in advance as they have a large repeat customer base.
You’ll need and want a rental car if you stay at the Naxian Collection. When we arrived at Naxos Airport, we assumed we’d be picking up the rental car from there. That would not be correct. The Naxos Airport is smaller than the average house in Seattle. Instead there was a car waiting for us from the Naxian Collection who took us to the hotel and Brett into Naxos Town to pick up our rental car from Sixt. We noticed during the week that many of the rental car companies will actually come to the hotel and deliver the car to you in the event that you only wanted to rent a car for a few days. You get the rental cars without gas and are expected to return them that way. We made the mistake of filling up the gas tank of our rental car (one of the only 7 seat cars on the island) on the first day and using a quarter of a tank in 9 days. It’s a big island but when the beaches are as good as they are nearby there isn’t as much incentive to drive to the other side of the island.
Different than Paros where the beaches are spread out, many of the destination beaches in Naxos are clustered along the western coast and are connected – a great thing for those who enjoy long walks on the beach. This website describes all 18 beaches in great detail but these were the ones we liked:
Plaka Beach. Because of the access to our hotel’s sun beds we spent most of our time on Plaka Beach. It’s significantly less crowded that neighboring Agia Anna and Agios Prokopios and partial organized with sun beds and umbrellas. Much of the beach has sand dune behind it which make it feel more remote than it is. You should be aware that the last, most southern section of the beach has a lot of full-on nudity. Grandpas and all.
Below: Beach Olympics on Plaka Beach with our good friends from Norway. 5 events: long jump, plank, hit the target, beach tennis, and egg toss.
Migra Vigla Beach. Our second favorite beach was Migra Vigla. It’s visible from Plaka Beach but it takes 35 minutes to drive around to get there. With much fewer services and a little rockier sand, a portion of the beach is for wind surfers and the other portion around the rocks is great for swimming and snorkeling. There are more Greeks on this beach. There is a small town with a grocery store which we used to have a picnic lunch on the rocks.
Agios Prokopios Beach. This was the beach closest to our hotel. The sand, swimming and services are great and it’s beautiful but also crowded. Unlike Plaka Beach there is not rock shelf as you get into the water which makes it very family friendly. No nudity.
Even though the interior of Naxos is mountainous, the continuation of Agios Prokopios Beach to Agia Anna Beach to Plaka Beach make for great, flat running along mostly paved and dirt roads. There is also a fabulous, easy walk from Agios Prokopios Beach heading north around the point along a rocky trail. You’ll have to walk past some stinky salt flats to get there but don’t miss this. You’ll even get to see a ship wrecked from 20 years ago that is still on the rocks.
Naxos is proud of their food and local ingredients. We had some really good meals and only a couple of misses. Here is our top eating out picks:
Antamoma, Naxos Town. Modern Greek restaurant with view of water but not on harbor. Opened two years ago it’s an informal atmosphere with patio setting and a definite modern vibe. Closest to a “special meal” we had. The chef is from Naxos but went to Athens for cooking school for one year, returned to Naxos and now cooks with his Mom. The menu is smaller and dishes a little more interesting than traditional Naxian food like homemade pasta with smoked pork and risotto with vegetables and Naxian cheese. Great starters and house wine. It was the only place we went to twice.
Meltemi, Naxos Town. Solid traditional Greek restaurant in center of town without views. Best dishes we had were the kleftiko (veal, pork and lamb cooked in paper with eggplant, tomatoes and peppers) and excellent cheese pies with herbs.
Mythodea, Naxos Town. Family run tradition Greek restaurant slightly off main part of harbor with spectacular views. We ordered off “Mama’s Specials” which included lamb in yogurt sauce and lamb in grease paper with peppers. Best Greek Salad for our trip.
1739, Naxos Town. Rooftop bar opened in July 2015 and recommended by Travel Babbo. You climb up from main town and get a nice view of harbor. Worth the trip up to watch the sunset. The other bar we didn’t try but the swank vibe and setting looked really nice was 520 Bar.
Palatia, Agia Anna Beach. Recommended to us by a father/son who worked in a grocery store. Lovely, rustic setting right on the beach where they specialize in locally caught fish. The night we were there service was more relaxed (slow) than normal but the grilled dorado, grilled sardines, salad with octopus and calamari with tomatoes were all excellent. At the end of the meal the waiter brought out free cake and shots. Right next door is the Banana Beach Bar which looked to be a very popular spot.
Patatosporos, Agia Anna Beach. Another beachside fish restaurant on the other side of the Banana Bar. Better service and pacing than Palatia and most importantly, the simply grilled dorado and sea bass was even more delicious. Ditto that for the zucchini balls and fried saganaki cheese. Kids got the ocean basket, fried king prawns, calamari and fish fillets with fries. Stick with the fresh fish options. Though the early reviews on Trip Advisor were mixed the more recent reviews have been better.
Kahula Bar, Agios Prokopius Beach. A great spot on the beach for a coffee in the morning or a drink in the evening. It's the last place along the restaurants and bars on Prokopius beach. We much preferred this bar to the more talked about (and smokier) nearby Mojito Beach Bar.
Petrino, Plaka Beach. Focus on Naxian dishes with local products on the far end of Plaka Beach. Vine clad terrace that is more restaurant than beach bar. You pick from case with specials of the day like spicy meatballs wrapped in eggplant or fisherman’s rice plus three different slow roasted meat options. Good for lunch or dinner. They also opened a terrific homemade ice cream shop called Mitatos run by a husband and wife right next door to Petrino which is better than the one that everyone talks about in Naxos Town called Milkato Gelateria (which is also good.)
Souvlucky, Plaka Beach. Great pork + chicken gyros made to order with the I-still-don’t-understand topping of French fries. Family business. Clean, well located along Plaka Beach. Can sit in with your bathing suit or better to take away and hope the sand stays out. €14 for 6 gyros make it a very budget friendly lunch. According to two local teen boys we asked, best souvlaki is in Naxos Town at either The Spitiko or Kozi.
Picasso, Plaka Beach. I know it sounds sacrilegious to suggest Mexican food but the setting and margaritas make the busy Picasso a worthwhile lunch stop to mix things up. The clearly beloved Picasso recently had their 20 year anniversary. Ample seating, kids area for playing, shade for margarita sipping. Right next door to Souvlucky.
It takes a long time to get to Naxos. For this trip, we decided to skip the ferry and fly one of the small planes from Athens to Naxos. It was totally worth it. It was an easy, not turbulent, absolutely gorgeous flight. And it saves so much time as it’s hard to get around overnighting in Athens if you are going the ferry route. The connecting flights from Athens to the islands book up fast so don’t leave this until the last minute.
NAXOS OR PAROS:
I know this will sound like a cop out but my advice between Naxos and Paros is this: Do both. If you are already making the effort to get to the Greek Islands, you should split your time between the islands. It’s only an hour ferry ride between the two islands but you’ll want to overnight in both places and not just go for the day. Naxos has more to do and better beaches but Naoussa in Paros is a bit more charming than Naxos Town and the restaurants are better overall (especially for fish lovers).