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The Greek Islands: Ios Travel Guide

Alex Panayotopo 2016-09-28 14:06

How odd it must seem to travellers that the first step to reaching the serene Greek island of Ios is passing through Piraeus Port. 


A mess of ageing signs and creaking gates, Athen's most important harbour seems like an afterthought - crammed into whatever space was left-over between the moorings for massive cruise ships and the aggressive creep of apartment blocks. Families packed into cars or on the back of bikes maneuver impatiently on the narrow embankment. Port Authority officials blow their whistles, desperately struggling to look relevant amidst the chaos. They'll direct you half a metre forward in a line that isn't moving like they're overseeing the launch of a space shuttle. 


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With a final blast from its horn, the ship finally sets off. Passengers mill about, exhausted from the stress of embarkation and settle into their seats. The noise dies down as books (well, let's be honest, iPads) are brought out. The roll of the ship, nearly imperceptible on the newer catamarans but very familiar for anyone taking the old ferries that have plied these island routes for decades, lulls you into a gradual sense of ease. 


You'd be forgiven for telling yourself you should have flown to Santorini or Mykonos and hopped on a boat from there. It's easier, faster and much less stressful! But you'd be missing out on something important. That last moment of stress and chaos in Piraeus is the perfect way to shock you out of your city-mindset and into a well-deserved holiday. 


An Island Without A Clock 


Ios might not be your first thought when it comes to the Cyclades. It doesn't have the party scene of Mykonos or the ancient ruins of Delos, it has no pristine white castles clinging to the tops of cliffs like the froth on a cresting wave like Santorini. At first glance, you might even say it's unremarkable. But that's precisely what makes it such a perfect getaway. 


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It's not the quiet beaches, the pristine waters, the traditional tavernas and restaurants, or even the bright sun and fresh sea breeze that makes it so good (though there's plenty of that!). It's the pace of life, as far away from Shanghai as you could possibly imagine. On Ios, time isn't something to be measured and hoarded, it's just a way to tell which meal you should be having or when it's time to turn over and tan on the other side. And, most important for your escape from the relentless speed of Shanghai, there are only really three decisions to make every day. 


The First Decision: When To Get Up 


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This is an easy decision to start your day with. Alarm clocks are for cities; on Ios, the day starts when you like. Be up early with the sunrise over the glistening Aegean and take a walk to the harbour bakery or the nearest café in Ios's only town, Chora, for chilled yoghurt with fresh fruit and Greek coffee ("don't call it Turkish!" the locals will insist). Or sleep until midday, like the young backpackers do, and have your breakfast on a beach, maybe just a sugary donut and a cold "frappe" coffee in a polystyrene cup. 


The Second Choice:  Which Beach to Go To 


Whenever you get up, the beach is where you'll end up. You are, after all, right on top of some of the finest beaches in the Cyclades. There are at least a dozen popular ones. The most famous is the long sandy stretch under Chora, known as Mylopotas. Back in the 1970s, there was nothing here except some hippies in tents, revelling in the same release from stress and time that still draws people today. Now, it's lined with restaurants and hotels, packed with deckchairs, beach volleyball nets, surf shacks and, of course, legions of bronze men and women. 


Don't worry, though, there are pockets of peace even here; on the rocks overlooking the cerulean depths is Harmony, a Thai-Mexican half-restaurant, half-lounge bar run by Australians and Norwegians. An odd mix, sure, but it's worth a visit for the hammocks, the huge icy glasses of sangria and beer, and the feeling that you're relaxing on the open terrace of your best friend's island villa. 


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On the other side of the island lies Manganari, a long, sheltered bay with fine sand and warm, shallow waters that is popular with families. While Mylopotas is packed with people and places to eat and drink, at Manganari you can walk and walk until you're alone, set down your towel and umbrella and claim your own little calm kingdom. If you've rented a car or a scooter in the port, it's worth the twenty minute drive. Buses run regularly, too, but if you've come to Ios to avoid planning anything at all, you might want to give this beach a pass; it wouldn't be the first time someone was left behind after a nap in the shade went a bit longer than expected! 


Much closer to Chora is a tiny cove called Valmas. The protected, pebbled beach feels like it's barely 20 metres long, but it's 20 metres of authentic Greek island bliss. Perched on its edge is a place that's come to be known as Giagia's - Grandma's. It's exactly the kind of place that makes Ios special. This is no 5-star restaurant or a trendy bar; it's a covered terrace with plastic chairs. The matriarch who runs the kitchen, a little old Greek great-grandmother named Katerina, prepares plates of kalamari, keftedes, fresh salad and local cheese, and then joins her guests on the terrace to relax. No pressures, no sense of time, there is just the sun, the sea, the breeze, and food. In other words, the kind of quiet serenity that makes up the Ios pace of life! 


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Whichever stretch of sand and sea you choose, they all have one thing in common; your hardest choice at the beach is whether to read another chapter, go for another swim, or have another ice-cold frappe. 


The Third Choice: Where to Spend the Evening


When the sun finally starts dipping low towards the horizon, the final decision of the day awaits you; where to go for dinner? There are many tavernas and restaurants along the roads on the island, or you could just grab a freshly-grilled gyros ("don't call it kebab!" the locals will insist) in the harbour or at Mylopotas, but most people head up into town. 


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Dinner is important on Ios. It should be a long, involved affair, with many dishes, many people, a lot of lively conversation, and ideally, a fair bit of wine! It's a lot like a typical huoguo or longxia meal, where the company is just as important as the food. There are dozens of restaurants crammed into the town, but there's one place that stands out from the rest. Katogi. 


This little modern take on the Greek taverna boasts a cozy environment, tucked into an alley between buildings. It has a new, exciting interpretation of Greek classics, like local goat cheese wrapped in a tortilla and glazed in honey and balsamic vinegar, or tender bites of pork in mustard sauce. But most importantly, it maintains the hallmark of a good Greek taverna; the table becomes a home for a few hours where people can sit, talk, eat, drink, laugh, and forget completely what time it is. If you're lucky, the restaurant owner Theodora will join you for a strong shot of sweet rakomello after the meal, before sending you on your way with a smile. 


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After that, the night is yours to do with as you please. The nightlife on Ios is dominated by small and familiar bars, clubs, and lounges. The winding streets and alleys of Chora are host to dozens of little places to have a quiet drink, but there are plenty of places to go if you're looking for something a bit louder. There's the brand-new Pathos Lounge Bar, with an infinity pool and breath-taking view of the sea, the Ios Club Sunset Cocktail Bar, or the go-to party houses for young travellers like Circus Bar or Astra. Go to the same one a few times, and you'll be best friends with the bartender in no time. 


Or, you can just stay at the restaurant until late! Whatever you choose though, you'll find that the owners and bartenders are welcoming, even by Greek standards - because on Ios, everyone's moving at the same pace. 



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