Off-season, Clare Dight enjoys an inexpensive and tranquil family holiday on Paros, an unsung beauty among Greece's islands.
When relaxation is the goal, head for the Greek island of Paros
Paros in early October does not immediately look promising. The small island has already called time on this year's tourist season. A single bottle of suntan lotion sits on a display rack, once full, outside a grocery store in Naousa and the string of dance clubs just outside the harbour advertising pool parties and fun, fun, fun are padlocked. Quad bikes stand dusty, waiting for next year's brave souls to pay up and roar away. Unlike its better-known Cycladic neighbour, Mykonos, which is packed with tour groups and bronzed youth even at this time of year, the party on Paros is definitely over.
During high season, Paros reels in visitors with the promise of kitesurfing, scuba diving, sailing and windsurfing from its wind-buffeted beaches.
"15,000 people live here but, in the summer, there are 100,000," the taxi driver says as we drive from the port of Parikia. "There's music playing everywhere. It's crazy but people know tourism is good for us."
I'm only half listening as he reels off a list of complaints about Greece's financial problems and the misery that the euro has brought, attention held instead by the fertility of the landscape outside my window. I've visited Greece a number of times, both island hopping and to sites on the mainland, but Paros bears no resemblance to the rocky, bleak scenery, tufted with bleached grasses and scrub and dotted with curiously dry-looking olive groves with which I am more familiar. Paros is wonderfully green in contrast; its gentle mountain slopes decorated with evergreen oaks altogether more hospitable. The sun is shining brightly and it is hot outside but I don't feel parched. Perhaps this why the ferry we boarded from Piraeus near Athens some five hours away was so busy.
A more mixed group of people than those aboard the Blue Star Naxos is hard to imagine. The difference in fares: €61 (Dh325) return by sea compared with €151 (Dh805) on Olympic Air (www.olympicair.com) is too good a deal to resist. Not to mention the fact that hours spent passing a flotilla of islands, large and small, on gentle seas flecked with sunshine beats cloud-staring at 30,000 feet. Every seat on the sun-soaked open decks is taken with locals and holidaymakers: everyone from Australian student backpackers - the spitting image of ourselves some 15 years ago when we explored the Dodecanese islands but minus the Wi-Fi connection - to constantly smoking, moustachioed Greeks; a British couple in their sixties playing draughts in silence; an Indian family laughing uproariously over playing cards, and dressed-down couples with windswept children in designer hippie clothing. There are even a few families nursing small babies and large amounts of luggage, like us.
We disembark almost by accident after a very last-minute change of heart. En route to the larger island of Naxos only an hour away, my husband and I start talking to a Canadian who says she has been visiting Paros for the past 16 years. Impressed by this simple fact, we jump up and gather our belongings as the boat comes in to the unremarkable port of Parikia.
Glowing personal references aside, Paros does not jump off the pages of our guidebook. Two neat paragraphs in the Lonely Planet pick out just four places of note, using such deadly terms as colourful, charming and low-key. The author is comparatively effusive about the treasures of Naxos but this is precisely the problem - we're looking to do as little as possible for five brief days and if there is little to do, a certain twisted logic dictates that relaxation should be possible even with a six-and-a-half-month-old baby. When we finally arrive in Naousa, it's with low expectations and even fewer ambitions.
The harbour front is a short walk from the taxi stand. Here, glossy catamarans and small sleek yachts soon give way to traditional fishing boats, decks piled with yellow nets and the remains of a modest and crumbling stone-built Venetian castle that once presumably guarded the bay, topped off with a hoisted Greek flag. Trendy coffee bars still line the waterfront, ready to catch tired clubbers in comfortable sofas. Unfortunately, the cost of a large cappuccino at €3.50 (Dh19) compared with €1.50 (Dh8) in local cafes in Athens means we don't linger. Further along, unevenly worn paving marks the start of a row of restaurants serving freshly caught fish and salads for about €20 (Dh107) per head. Only one is open for lunch, with two or three bright, blue-painted tables and wicker chairs outside, and octopuses hung up to dry.
We enjoy a quick lunch of deep-fried courgette fritters, salad topped with chunks of deliciously salty feta cheese and oozing black olives while the baby sleeps. The restaurant owner's mother briefly comes out of the kitchen to coo over her blonde good looks - and does the same thing every time we eat here thereafter. A shamelessly tanned German couple at the next table tell us they have been visiting the island every autumn for the past 20 years, staying in the mountain village of Lefkas. Paros clearly inspires a devoted following.
By the time we turn left and right down narrow alleyways to find expensive clothing boutiques now selling big-name brands and local designs at a discount, not to mention glittering jewellery stores, duck into candle-lit Orthodox churches decorated with wonderful frescos and iconography and check into the two-star Hotel Stella negotiating a half-price, low-season deal of €30 (Dh160) per night, I, too, become a fan. Stella's facilities are basic but perfectly adequate - our family room has three single beds, small refrigerator, en suite bathroom with shower and a balcony overlooking a garden. Above all, it's clean, and the owner offers us the use of an electric kettle for sterilising the baby's bottles when we ask for help. We rent a battered Peugeot which scarcely looks roadworthy for the cut-price rate of €20 (Dh107) per day.
The next day sets the pattern for the rest of our too-brief stay. Baby wakes before sunrise at five and my husband takes her to the harbour to watch the fishermen prepare for the day's catch. The men are mostly Egyptian and greet him with a familiar "assalamu alaykum". We breakfast on Greek yoghurt, sprinkled with honey and pistachios, and milky coffee for a couple of quiet, blissful hours while baby finally sleeps, then prise open the doors of the hire car (you have to lean on one precise spot to open the passenger door) before driving to a different, almost deserted, beach every day. Narrow strips of golden sand seem to lie at the end of almost every road. Nothing is farther than a half- hour drive.
What guides us is the likelihood of shelter from the wind that beats the waves onto shore, and whether there is somewhere still open to buy lunch. My only complaint is that the sea is icy cold. Evening would bring a trip to the local kebab shop for €3 (Dh16) doner kebabs made juicy with oranges crowning the spit, and eaten almost furtively outside on the balcony while baby stretches out in bed.
One night we venture out to explore the bars and eateries that line the open side of the bay, with patio doors and tables leading out on the rocks and sand. Candles softly illuminate the interiors while the moon lights the scene beyond. To the amusement of everyone else, baby is asleep on a pillow across my lap as her parents enjoy a quiet sort of nightlife, very different from the clubs of Paros. Yes, this trip has been far from exciting, but these days, that's the kind that really appeals.
If you go
The flight In October, Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies to Athens from Dh2,300 return, including taxes.
The ferry The Blue Star Naxos from Pireaus to Paros costs €30.50 (Dh163) each way. In October, there is a daily service linking the capital with Paros, Naxos, Los and Santorini, departing Piraeus at 7.25am. For more information, visit www.bluestarferries.gr.
The stay A family room at the Hotel Stella (www.hotelstella.gr) costs from €35 (Dh187) per night, including taxes, and €30 (Dh160) per night for stays of four nights or longer.