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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Mykonos: peaceful pursuits on a five -star party island

We find that despite its reputation as a party spot for the rich and famous, Mykonos has plenty of sedate charms beyond all-night clubs when you visit outside peak months

Top international DJs fly in on private jets every day to host all-night club parties. Music starts blasting out across the sand at the bigger beaches from 3pm. Rental Jeeps and quad bikes clog the hilly roads, and you have absolutely no chance of hiring anything open-topped unless you have thought to book months ahead. And in the warren of whitewashed lanes of Mykonos Town, in boutiques such as Soho-Soho and the ridiculously photogenic Louis Vuitton on a little square shaded by an ancient olive tree, it’s easier to find skimpy, glittery club- and beach-wear or a Chanel lipstick than the usual Greek island offerings of olive oil or locally made soap. But that’s just in July and August.

More than anywhere else on the planet, including Ibiza, Mustique and St Barts, Mykonos has a reputation for being the world’s five-star party island. In high season, the reputation is deserved. That’s when parties at Nammos, at Psarou – the first of the famous beach clubs to open, in 2005 – at Scorpios at Paraga, Principote at Panormos, Cavo Paradiso, SantAnna and Nemo pulsate until 7am. When the island’s taxi drivers work around the clock, ferrying clubbers out at midnight and back to their hotels at dawn, and restaurants are often still serving breakfast at 5pm.

Outside those high-season months, however, it’s a different story. At the start and end of the holiday season, when the population has yet to swell from the 10,000 who live here year-round to the 180,000 who pack in during July and August, Mykonos reveals itself to be mostly a calm, quiet little island. If you want a peaceful week of sightseeing and sunshine, great hotels and good food, June or late September or October are delightful times to go.

At 10 kilometres by 15km, Mykonos is one of the smallest of the Aegean Islands. Scenically, it’s hardly the most beautiful, with stony fields, hillsides sparsely scattered with fig and olive trees, and a constant salty breeze ensuring little grows in its thin soil, although the local council’s policy that buildings are painted a dazzling white, and no more than two storeys high, gives the island an architecturally harmonious appeal.

Yet Mykonos possesses three great blessings. Firstly, whereas most Greek island’s beaches are pebbly, about 25 sandy beaches fringe its jagged coastline. Secondly, it has a hard-working, pragmatic population who happily endorse the municipality’s strict planning laws, which also ban advertising hoardings, permit neon signs only at petrol stations and pharmacies, and generally ensure the island looks Instagram-ready at all times and in all places. Thirdly, its tiny neighbouring island, Delos, is the site of some of the most important and romantic ancient ruins in Greece.

In July and August, the best hotels and restaurants, which rival anything St Tropez has to offer, reliably pull in celebrity guests – including Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Usain Bolt and Lewis Hamilton last summer. So the appeal of a spring or (better, because the water is warmer) late-summer stay is that rates are considerably lower than in high season.

It’s easy to get a waterfront table at Bill & Coo. You don’t have to queue to get a seat for the 20-minute ferry crossing to Delos. Plus, daytime temperatures hover around a delicious 25°C or so, much lower than in August.

Visiting in late September, I discover that some islanders still seem to be recovering from the excesses of summer. “Some hoteliers are half-dead by the end of August,” my guide Anastasios laughs as we sit on the terrace of my hotel on my second morning in Mykonos, planning a sightseeing schedule. “They make their money in summer, for sure, but they work around the clock for it. They have to hire extra staff to cope with all the demands for room service at 4am or 5am. As for the guests, three American girls here booked an island tour with me on their last day in August, because they wanted to say they’d seen more of the island than just the clubs. But as I drove them around, they could barely keep their eyes open. They said: ‘We need a holiday after this holiday’. I said: ‘Then you should really come back to Mykonos in September.”’

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The sky is cloudless and a light breeze ruffles the sea as we drive along the west coast, on the hilltop road above Mykonos Town, its terraces of whitewashed buildings gleaming along the hillside and around the newly expanded cruise-ship port, and head to the lighthouse, one of the island’s few sightseeing destinations. Inland, in the little village of Ano Mera, we have coffee at a cafe overlooking the tree-lined main square where a few cats wind their way around the tables, and look at the famous icons in the smoke-blackened interior of the little 16th-century Panagia Tourliani monastery.

By late afternoon, having driven via Elia, home to just three hillside hotels clustered around a beach, bumped along a track to the little hidden beaches at Fokos and Myrsini, and seen Paraga, the biggest and loveliest of the beaches, we are in Mykonos Town, having another coffee on the waterfront at Little Venice. Built by sea captains in the 18th century, with a row of the island’s famous windmills silhouetted on the hill above it and its pavement just above the slapping sea, it’s famous on the island as the spot to have a cool drink at sunset. Apart from the intriguing street of pirate alleyways, built to confuse marauders, and the countless boutiques, we have only the Archaeological Museum and the little Maritime Museum left to sightsee.

And Delos.

And it’s Delos that’s the highlight of a stay in Mykonos. In Ancient Greece, Delos was revered as the birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis. It’s mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. By 160 BC, its port was the busiest trade centre in the world, with 75,000 cargo ships unloading each year. Then, in 88 BC, the island was attacked, looted and razed to the ground. All that remains now are the ruins of city streets and squares and houses, the Temple of Isis, a statue to Dionysus erected in about 300 BC, and the Temple of Apollo.

The next morning, leaning against the railings as spray splashes up and the ferry nudges into the little harbour on the island, I gaze at the skyline of Doric columns and rows of Sphinx-like lion guards, and understand why one of the most popular if extravagant yacht charter trips – one Middle Eastern guests in particular like to take, I’m told – is an overnight trip to Delos at full moon. The captain drops anchor near enough for guests to dine in view of the ruins, then to witness sunrise over the island. Wandering along the old marble paths in the sunshine, as the guide describes everyday life in Delos’s heyday, though, was enchanting enough. A 100 per cent unmissable experience.

It’s actually thanks to Delos that tourism took off in Mykonos. Excavation of the site by French archaeologists in the 1890s saw early visitors taking fishing boats across, since staying on tiny, 5km-long Delos itself was (and remains) banned. The first cruise ship arrived in Mykonos from Athens in 1920, with tenders taking guests across to the little island.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the rich and famous came to see the ruins, but they stayed for the lovely beaches on Mykonos. It was then that the island’s authorities took the pivotal decision to ban sleeping on any beaches except Paradise, to deter backpackers and to encourage upmarket tourism.

Tourism really took off with the opening of the airport in the 1970s. It was around that time that a local miner foresaw how things would develop, bought a small hotel and managed to send all four of his sons to the Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland. Those sons now run the nine properties making up the best hotel group on the island, the Myconian Collection, which grew out of that initial little hotel.

It’s at the group’s Ambassador hotel, above the beach at Platis Gialos, that with sightseeing done I spend my last two days on the island, doing absolutely nothing strenuous. Breakfast on the terrace segues into a few hours by the pool before a late light lunch, then a stroll down to the beach, two minutes away. One afternoon, I have a massage in the little spa. Most of time, though, I lie by the pool reading and gazing out to sea, wondering what to order at dinner. Roast beetroot salad with cream cheese and hazelnuts, perhaps; then maybe the plump, white, meaty local stira fish; then the lemon and basil sorbet? The chairs in the restaurant are so exceptionally comfortably padded that they’re really hard to leave after dinner. But Mykonos shuts down on October 31. So you have to be gone by then, at least.