x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Take a thoroughly modern vacation in chic Mykonos

More cosmopolitan than quaint, this small Greek island is a 21st-century getaway.

People who like their Greek islands stuck in a time-warp, rocky outcrops inhabited by aged donkeys, and olive-skinned girls and fishermen with five-day stubble, will hate Mykonos. It is just not that sort of place.

The olive-skinned girls are plastered with make-up. The fishermen are clean-shaven and chattering on their BlackBerrys, probably to their stockbrokers.

Even the donkeys are not as decrepit and somnolent as they used to be. There is one in a field in the north of Mykonos who prances through the trees like a teenager, tail swishing. He does not look as if he has done a day's work in his life.

When I first visited the island as a student in the 1970s, its trump card was its cheap and cheerful charm. It was fashionable but downmarket. Backpackers from all over Europe piled into dirty buses that bounced along unmade roads to sun-baked beaches that were so white it hurt to look at them. There were a lot of burnt shoulders and lobster faces by the time the sun finally set.

In Mykonos town, the menu was the same in every restaurant - I ate enough souvlaki and stuffed tomatoes to last a lifetime - and entertainment was at a premium. An old geezer with a guitar singing My Way was the best you could hope for. Women in black dresses went from table to table, selling plastic roses.

Modern Mykonos is so vibrantly cosmopolitan in comparison that it takes a little getting used to. This is not a museum of antiquities, but a 21st-century holiday destination, confident and assured, a magnet for sun-lovers and pleasure-seekers.

At the height of summer, Mykonos airport is as busy as any in the region, with one plane-load of tourists after another streaming out of the arrivals hall.

A Russian couple and a Dutch couple are involved in a dead heat at the taxi rank and, for a few seconds, tempers fray. But they do not stay frayed for long. Mykonos is much too laid-back for fisticuffs. Common sense prevails, the two couples squeeze into the same taxi and, as they drive off, in a cloud of dust, they are chattering like old friends.

The first thing visitors to Mykonos look out for - familiar from a thousand postcards - are the famous windmills, lined up like sentinels on a bare ridge above the main town, Chora.

Some of them are centuries-old and date to the time when Mykonos was well known for producing wheat and bread.

They are a splendid sight, particularly at sunset, with their thatched roofs and spindly wooden staves, and if you want to connect with an older Greece, the one that predates mass tourism, they make the perfect starting point. But you need to go easy on the nostalgia.

In high season, Chora is the very quintessence of Aegean chic: one long fashion parade, with everyone doing their own thing and nobody coy about looking over-dressed. If you are not wearing designer sunglasses, you feel naked. There is a feral energy about the place. Even the policewomen, ridiculously young, look like catwalk models.

Posers and fashionistas aside, Chora is a pretty town, with an attractively curvaceous harbour and a labyrinth of narrow streets, lined with shops of every description: not just stylish boutiques and jewellers, but funky art galleries and upmarket food stores, with mouth-watering window displays. What an improvement on the old souvenir shops, with the sponges and naff T-shirts.

Along the waterfront, there is a popular area known as Little Venice: two-storey medieval houses, with colourful wooden balconies, within yards of the sea. The cafes on the front are crowded, and we have to wait 10 minutes for a table, but it is well worth it, if only for the setting. The water in the harbour is almost indecently blue and the gentlest of breezes takes the edge off the heat. There is a smell of cigarettes and anchovies and strong black coffee.

For lunch, we are spoiled for choice, but end up eating in the walled garden of the delightful Kounelas Fish Tavern, tucked away down a side street by the harbour. Is there anything better than fresh-caught fish, grilled to perfection and served by beaming waiters? The swordfish is out of this world and, not surprisingly, there are happy faces all round us and much smacking of lips.

After lunch, like penitential pilgrims, we visit the Byzantine church of Panaghia Paraportiani, a quirky architectural gem, comprising five chapels arranged higgledy piggledy under one roof. It is an eccentric construction, with brilliant white external walls, but it is surprisingly restful inside, with its calm, understated murals.

Just around the corner, and also worth a detour, is the little Folklore Museum, housed in a former sea captain's house. The furniture and paintings recreate a typical 19th-century interior and give you a flavour of Mykonos's maritime past, when sailors swarmed up riggings and cannons were needed to keep invaders at bay.

Chora is such a sophisticated, bustling town that most people will make a beeline for the shops, credit cards itching, or sit in a cafe, people-watching. But there are oases of culture amid the prevailing hedonism. The little church of Aghios Ioannis Vathous, to the north of the town, has some lovely 17th-century icons, while the Museum of Lena's House commemorates the daughter of a Mykonos wood merchant who never married, but had an eye for interior decor.

Chora at night is a high-octane party town, challenging to the ear-drums and the wallet alike, and if you like to be tucked up in bed at 10pm with a good book, you should look elsewhere. Luckily, there are plenty of other options.

Our own hotel, the San Marco, is a few kilometres to the north of Chora, on a hillside overlooking the comparatively quiet Houlakia Bay. The hotel is decorated in the traditional Cycladic style, with white-washed walls and blue windows, and the staff are friendliness personified. We are able to get to sleep without earplugs - not guaranteed in other parts of the island.

Using the San Marco as our base, we explore the rest of Mykonos, using a mixture of taxis and buses. Finding the best beach on the island is a hit-and-miss affair. We try the well-known Paradise Beach, find it too crowded, try the popular Plati Yialos, find it too noisy, then, following a tip-off from a fellow tourist, hit upon Agios Sostis, to the north of the island.

It is so far off the beaten track that, for an hour and a half, we have it completely to ourselves. Even when others start to join us, the peacefulness of the surroundings is beguiling, with waves tiptoeing up the beach and birds gliding across the bay. There is even a nice little taverna to retreat to when the midday sun becomes too fierce.

The only other town of any size is Ano Mera, a sprawling community in the interior, with an old monastery, a clutch of shops and a few agricultural smallholdings. But the island is big enough to encompass scenic variety - from bare, goat-grazed hillsides to rugged cliffs and narrow inlets.

For every tourist in a hurry, whizzing around the island on a moped, there is a local who seems to have all the time in the world: a farmer inspecting his olive trees, with a dog at his heels; a fat shopkeeper gossiping with an even fatter postman; a schoolboy meandering homewards, books tucked under his arm; an old woman sitting in a rocking-chair on a balcony, whispering sweet nothings to her canary.

Our three days on Mykonos fly by, in peerless late-spring weather, with the Aegean at its incomparable best. Probably the highlight is a boat trip to the neighbouring island of Delos, fabled since ancient times.

The gods Apollo and Artemis were supposed to have been born under a palm tree on Delos, and a succession of temples were built on the island, which is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. For centuries, Delos was a place of pilgrimage, attracting visitors in their thousands.

It is largely deserted today, but the windswept ruins are extraordinarily evocative, with the columns of the temples silhouetted against the sky and flowers running wild in the old market-place. Tranquillity reigns. In the shade of one of the old pediments, there is a cat so fast asleep it looks as if it has been there since the fifth century BC.

As our boat takes us back to Mykonos, skimming the blue waters, we just have time to ponder that perennial Greek riddle, as old as Homer. Where can we have an even better dinner than we had the night before?

 

If you go

The flight

Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Athens cost from Dh3,425, including taxes.

The hotel

A double room with breakfast at the San Marco Hotel at Houlakia Bay (www.sanmarco.gr; 0030 22890 27172), four kilometres north of Mykonos town, costs from US$190 (Dh698) per night, including taxes, based on two sharing.