Expecting another record 32 million tourists this year, the No Vacancy signs are being hung up at hotels on popular Greek islands like Mykonos, Santorini, Corfu and Crete, but there’s still room on Tzia at Anna’s Studios, a subtly salmon-colored stucco row of apartments with Greek blue shutters that open to the sea, a minute’s walk away to the U-shaped Poisses beach, where on a busy day there might be 100 people.
Just keep an eye out for the flower-eating donkey who likes to appear from the reeds in front and walk into the yard, about 50 yards back from the beach and tucked behind some reeds which measure the breeze at night with their bend.
“It’s close to Athens and it’s still pure here, not like Mykonos or Santorini,” said Anna Podogyrou-Kozadinou, who, with her husband, who works for the electric utility on the island, took a gamble in 2008 on a 20-year loan to build the five apartments that bear her name.
They can be full with people who come to Tzia for weddings because it’s only a few yards away across a dirt road from Christoforos, a Greek tavern with food so good that small yachts dock in the sea and people take their lifeboats to the sand to get there.
Don’t be surprised if she stops by to offer you home-made lentils, some tomatoes or honey or wine her family grows.
On the other side, at the entrance off the road under a soaring stone cliff, is River de Pisses where a younger crowd likes to gather for some pop music and where the locally-grown onions alone in a Greek salad will keep you coming back and reaching for more.
“Ask for some more onions and pita bread,” a woman told her young son and when they arrived, they wrapped them up and ate them just like that and you could hear the crunch of the onion through the bread at the next table.
Tzia, also known as Kea, is not a green paradise like Corfu or Skiathos, famous for its unique bronze stones that adorn smaller homes and luxury residences at places like Koundouros Beach, next to a little cove with a giant shade tree down a slope under a tiny white church where people come to be wed.
Tzia is only an hour away from the port of Lavrio, which is about 15 minutes past the Athens International Airport and not the major port of Piraeus, one of the reasons it’s too often passed by.
Tzia draws mainly Greeks who know of its charms and a smattering of Europeans, including a couple from Chile who buy their groceries at George’s mini-market, a hodge-podge of food next to snorkels and fins and liquor including Dark Cave, a deep version of the fiery Greek drink tsipouro.
Owner George Stavaris, 47, who likes to sit outside under an umbrella with friends and customers said he’s stayed because, “I like the tranquility. I have time to sit and think and there’s no criminality. Even if my car is unlocked, there’s no problem.”
He talks to customers from around the world who have found Tzia. “I’ve gone to a lot of places,” he smiled, visiting other countries through them.
What you get here on vacation is what keeps residents living here all their lives: cool quiet and time to think, a slower pace than the frenzy of Mykonos where you can be gouged for a 1000-euro bottle of champagne and rubbery calamari cooked after being frozen and not the 7-euro Greek salad, too big for several people to eat and packed with biological produce that the owner of Margarita’s – Margarita Mouzaki, 60 – grows herself.
Her restaurant is on the road to Poisses but behind giant plants that grow up onto the Tzia stone wall and if you can finish the grilled meat or moussaka after that salad, you’re treated – this is real Greek hospitality – to an orange pie that would have you pack your bags in New York to jump on the next plane to get to it. Teleia. Perfect. Yperoha. Superb. Start drooling.
“The tourists here are of high quality, mostly French, Germans, and Belgians come here but there aren’t a lot of accommodations. They like the tranquility and cool waters,” she said. There aren’t big hotels but at least one is planned, making the locals quiver that a different kind of crowd could be coming if the island is discovered.
This is the Greek island of the 1930s-coming-into-2018, where investors are starting to discover the reasons enough people come to make tourism a factor but where not enough come to keep the people who do come from coming, a stone version of The Durrels in Corfu.
In the middle of the island is the capital of Ioulida, tucked high on a steep hill, white-washed buildings reached through a labyrinth of narrow cobble-stone streets perched on a mountain, the castle of Ioulis and the Venetian tower at Agia Marina, if you can get away from an array of remote beaches.
It’s called the Gate to the Cyclades as the first ferry boat stop on the way to more famous and popular islands in the chain. Shaped like a teardrop, Tzia has only 2500 year-round inhabitants spread across 131 square kilometers (81.4 square miles) and easily covered in a short time by car, but the roads are winding and can be treacherous with cliffs a few feet away from the tires.
For those who don’t want the beach there’s an archaeological museum, ancient Karthea, a few ruins of what was once a prosperous city state, and then there’s, the ancient stone carving the Lion of Kea
Off its coast are shipwrecks, including the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, struck off the coast by a naval mine during WWI in 1916 and unfound until 1975 when the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau discovered it.
Behind Anna’s Studios is the Kea Campground, run by Nikos Politis since 1987, a place where who don’t want hotel rooms can pitch a tent under trees full of serenading cicadas but also have showers, a bar and small convenience store.
“We have a lot of regular clients who come every year,” he said, about 80 percent of them Greeks but also many Italians, French and Germans but Kea, apart from some Greek-Americans, has been off the beaten path for American tourists for the most part.
“The masses don’t come here,” said Politis. “Good tourists come here, mostly families and it will retain its character,” he said, even if more hotels are built and people find their way to a place of peace and quiet, beaches with room – including an incomparable small cove near Koundouros with a giant shade tree where there may be half a dozen people.
“Tzia will never leave you,” he said. But you have to find it first.
The unspoiled, uncrowded Poisses Beach on Tzia beckons those longing for tranquility. (Photo by TNH/Andy Dabilis)