x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Live the Greek escapist dream on Andros island

Jonathan Gornall is forced to relax and even considers taking up poetry at Onar, a remote getaway on the Greek island.

A villa at Onar. The owner prefers that the island remain a tourist backwater.
A villa at Onar. The owner prefers that the island remain a tourist backwater.

There is no escape from Onar. Don't get me wrong. Provided you can cope with the sudden, G Force-inducing deceleration from the speed of modern life to a pace that makes the Slow Cities movement look positively rocket-assisted, you won't want to escape. After all, here in this unusual getaway on the underdeveloped east coast of the Greek Aegean island of Andros, the largest and most northerly of the Cyclades, is the escapist pastoral dream writ large.

Or, to be more precise, the escapist pastoral dream of its creator, Mateo "Makis" Pantzopoulos, writ small, in the shape of eight beautifully understated architect-designed villas, hewn from the stone, wood and slate of the surrounding landscape and nestling in camouflaged anonymity in an undiscovered Edenesque valley, through which a beautiful brook babbles on its way to one of the most secluded beaches in Europe.

It's just that Onar, a name derived from the Greek word óneiro, for dream, is so far off the beaten path, let alone the road, that finding it - and finding your way out of it - is something of a navigational nightmare. And that, of course, is a large part of its charm.

Getting to the island itself is a breeze. Athens is less than five hours from Abu Dhabi and ferries leave the nearby port of Rafina three times a day for the two-hour voyage to Gavrio on the west coast of Andros.

From there, as the eagle flies - watch out for them on the thermals - Onar is just 16 kilometres away over the Mesa Mandrha range that cuts the island in two. But, with much of that on challenging unmade tracks through the mountains, even with one of Makis's team of locals at the wheel the journey takes more than an hour.

Of course, deciding to hire a 4x4 and spend a day or two exploring the surrounding countryside was a dumb thing to do, crassly missing the entire point of Onar - to escape from the outside world and its cars, aircraft, mobile phones and internet connections.

Yet, like most people who come seeking this idyllic sanctuary, nestling at the edge of a pristine beach on one of Greece's least discovered islands, I found myself facing the prospect of going cold turkey with apprehension. Here, it seems at first, there is absolutely nothing to do and the long, empty days ahead stretch out interminably.

At Onar, you can't summon room service, because there isn't any, and you can't surf the internet because, yes, there isn't any. There is also no swimming pool, communal or otherwise and, if you inquire after spa treatments, expect to be directed to the delightful rock pools at the rear of the property.

However, after a day or so of decompression I had, to paraphrase Gershwin, discovered plenty of nothing to do, and nothing was plenty for me. Indeed, by the time the Jeep arrived, delivered to the doorstep from Gavrio, I found myself tutting at the noise as it wound its way down the hillside.

The soundtrack to this place is sublime - an incessant hum of bees, birds and beautiful, iridescent-shelled flying beetles, going about their business among the orgy of wild and planted flowers that form the backdrop to Makis's laid-back world view - and to disturb it with the noise of machinery just feels wrong.

Disturb it I did, however, setting out over bone-shaking tracks to explore some of the other deserted, idyllic bays and beaches that nibble at the entire length of Andros's east coast.

I failed - miserably. I could see delightful bays and beaches but every track I followed down led nowhere. I learnt that trying to navigate by the countless chapels, churches and monasteries that occupy every nook and cranny in the hills is about as much good as trying to navigate by the myriad sheep and goats.

Onar, it seemed, didn't want to let me go. And why was I even bothering? I did, after all, have the perfect beach within a few minutes' walk. I returned, defeated and dusty.

Seen from the track winding down the hillside, Onar, constructed around several organic allotments that provide all the fresh vegetables used in the kitchen, looks more like a commune than a high-end resort.

And, in a way, it is. Meals can be taken on the terrace of your private villa but, unless you really are a Howard Hughes, the best way to experience this place is to gather with the other guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner under the shelter of the gigantic plane tree at the heart of the place.

The food is nothing special - wholesome stuff, excellent Greek salads, of course, homegrown vegetables and locally caught fish and so on, presented not as a menu choice but produced by the two cooks as a fait accompli. But it is good and very welcome after long hours spent doing very little, as is the conversation around the table with the range of invariably interesting and often high-powered fellow guests who come and go.

In the corner of the open, candlelit dining area, Mustafa, a large frog - a regular evening visitor, tolerated even by Vera, Onar's hunter-killer cat - sits listening and occasionally croaking in apparent agreement. Somewhere out in the darkness Marjorie the donkey and her friend, a pony called Pony Peponi, are settling in for the night in an old shed they have made their own.

The meals come to punctuate the day in much the same way as they must do in prison, but here nobody is planning a breakout; Onar is the escape we have all been looking for, even if it takes some of us a few days to ease into it: eventually, the BlackBerrys and iPhones stop appearing on the table at mealtimes.

Onar, as Makis likes to say, "forces you to relax". A man for whom the term "raconteur" might have been invented, Makis is himself often on hand, delivering a steady stream of fascinating, funny and, occasionally, tall tales. Born on Andros, he quit Athens and shipping to build Onar on land where he used to play as a boy. Like most Greeks who live on the island - home to a significant proportion of the nation's ship-owning families, who prefer that their slice of Cycladic heaven remains a tourist backwater - Makis firmly believes that less is more.

"God was in a good mood when he made this place," he says. "The more I touch, the less value this place has."

The locals certainly seem to agree; many of Onar's guests are Athenians who want to get away from the city for a few days. Others are foreigners from the more thoughtful end of the travel spectrum, seeking peace and isolation - today, perhaps the true definition of "luxury" - and finding it usually via the "Hip hideaways" website, iEscape.co.uk.

I "busy" myself strolling along the stream, swimming in its clear pools, sitting and watching the tadpoles and stripe-necked terrapins in the pond on the edge of the sand, following the water's course to the sea where minnows dart in the shallows and larger saltwater fish bask wistfully among the rocks in the outflow of fresh water.

I know; fish probably don't do wistful. But, by the time you've followed this magical stream down through the Brigadoonish valley to the sea, pausing en route for an hour or so to read your book, or merely to watch the water trickling hypnotically over the time-shaped rocks, you too will almost certainly be considering taking up poetry.

And Brigadoon is not a far-fetched comparison, as the drive from west to east over the hills, swathed in bracken and carpets of purple heather, makes clear. "I have many guests from Scotland," says Makis, "and they say it is like the Highlands." Only, plus sunshine and minus midges.

On the pristine sandy beach itself, other than at weekends you are likely to find no one but the occasional fellow guest, and an informal etiquette that will keep them a satisfactory distance away from you. Virtually private, the small and sheltered east-facing bay - its glass-clear waters perfect for a hearty, sunlit swim before breakfast - is overlooked only by a picturesque chapel perching on the rocks on one side, and by the lighthouse on the other.

Back in the dunes there is a beach bar, but Fanis, the owner, opens only when he feels like it, which amounts to weekends in June and September and all week throughout July and August. At weekends, the "crowds" arrive - a dozen or so locals, perhaps, a few braving the track by car and the others arriving from the sleepy capital town of Hora, a few bays over, on fishing boats so picturesque that resenting their presence would be churlish.

At the end of my stay, I was supposed to move on and spend a couple of days in Mykonos. In the event, a nationwide transport strike forced me to stay put at Onar. You've got to love those Greek protesters.

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Athens cost from Dh2,295, including taxes.

The ferry

Ferries for Andros leave Rafina, an hour's drive from Athens, daily at 7.30am, 7.50am and 5.30pm. Tickets for the two-hour voyage, which can be bought at the harbour, cost about €16 (Dh83) one-way.

The stay

A one-bedroom villa at Onar (www.onar-andros.gr) costs €140 (Dh730) per night, including breakfast. Lunch or dinner costs €15 (Dh78). Basic groceries can be ordered with a day's notice. Book through www.iEscape.co.uk, or call 00 30 210 6251052 or 00 30 6932 563707; or e-mail info@onar-andros.gr.

jgornall@thenational.ae