I’ve long been perplexed as to why Americans not of Greek descent, by overwhelming numbers, when visiting Greece limit their journey almost exclusively to two islands: Mykonos and Santorini. They’re perfectly fine destinations, for sure, but there are so many other wonderful islands to visit. It would be the equivalent of, say, British tourists who vacation in the United States visiting only Boston and Las Vegas. Again, two perfectly good destinations, but why only those two?
Credit the marketers who have sold Americans on the Mykonos/Santorini duopoly.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who has visited both islands (I’ve set foot on Mykonos on a day trip, and haven’t been to Santorini at all): he told me that Mykonos is really more about the hype, but Santorini is uniquely beautiful and worth visiting at least once.
I believe it, from the extensive photos I’ve seen. But if Santorini’s beauty is extraordinary, so is its price tag. Alternatively, I propose the island of Nisyros, which offers its own version of otherwordly beauty at a fraction of the cost. In fact, when it comes to eating, drinking, lodging, and transportation, Nisyros is so affordable that there’s nothing Elon Musk can do there that the average tourist cannot (except maybe buy the entire island).
People who’ve had Lasik eye surgery often describe that they now see with a clarity they ever imagined possible. Similarly, when you step off the boat on to Nisyros, you’ll notice how unusually bright everything is. Not only because all the streets and houses are painted white, but because the light of day is so vibrant that you’d think Nisyros has its own sun. To those with sensitive eyes, nothing that a pair of sunglasses can’t fix.
Speaking of celestial bodies, there’s a time of year when the Nisyrian moon is so large and feels so close at hand – as if it’s resting on the roof of the centuries-old church Panagia Spiliani, built inside of a cave – that you’d swear you could reach out and touch it. And if you take a picture of it, your friends might you must have photoshopped such an abnormally large moon. Unfortunately, the dates on which that occurs vary from year to year, but an astronomy enthusiast should be able to figure it out.
The sounds are also captivating. You’ll hear the crickets and the waves of the cool (by Southern Greek island standards), salty sea crashing against the rocks ashore.
To give you a better idea of just how tiny Nisyros is, there’s no airport. That’s because there’s no flat space big enough on which to land a plane. There’s also not a single traffic light on the island, and some of the residential streets are so narrow that they’re best navigated on foot or moped.
There are only four villages on the island: the capital Madraki; the seaside Pali; and the picturesque mountainous villages of Emporios, and the one in which both of my parents were born, Nikia.
Except for those of Nisyrian descent, not many Americans visit this hidden gem. But European tourists – Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians in particular – have discovered it and appreciate its tranquil beauty.
In fact, for as long as I can remember, the only time Nisyros ever got really busy during the year was for the feast of Panagias, on August 15. From about the 12th of the month onward, you’d be hard-pressed to find a room or a rental car – so, if that’s your goal, book your reservations well in advance. After the festivities have ended, most of the hordes who make the pilgrimage every year – from Greece and the States alike – pile out by the boatfuls as the sounds of chirping birds and neighing donkeys once again dominate the aural experience.
There are numerous ways to get to Nisyros, but the easiest is via Kos, a neighboring island that’s more touristy and commercial. From Kos, a short ferry boat will get you to Nisyros in under an hour. You can also get there from other islands, particularly from Rhodes, by large ship or catamaran, which takes about three or four hours.
The only large, bona fide hotel on the island is the Porfyris, which my uncle built in the mid-1980s and which his daughter and her family run today. But that’s not the only place to stay. Smaller accommodations with rooms to let, as well as entire homes available on property rental sites (such as Airbnb) are perfectly fine and wonderfully affordable.
For those who truly appreciate natural beauty, there’s the historic volcano that’s been dormant for well over a century. In fact, famous Greek musicians have held concerts inside the crater, and when that is the case, Nisyros becomes a bit more packed than usual during the Panagias off-season.
IT’S NOT ALL WINE AND ROSES
I owe it to prospective travelers to paint a complete portrait of Nisyros, and so I’m not going to sound like a touristy brochure and claim there are no thorns on the roses. Your Internet signal may be spotty. Your mattress may be lumpy, or rock-hard. Some rental homes and rooms might not have air conditioning. The water pressure might not always be to your liking when taking a shower.
The roads are bumpy, and at times steep and scary, especially when driving up and down the mountain (but the good news is, there’s no such thing as traffic there). The beaches are pristinely clean, but often raw and rocky, without lounge chairs or umbrellas.
This is not a Club Med vacation. Americans spoiled by comfort and convenience might have a shock to their system by roughing it a bit, but speaking from personal experience, that wears off quickly, because the pluses far outweigh the minuses.
An apt example of this is from an experience I had during my last trip to Greece: one of the inconveniences to us spoiled Americans is that the plastic used to make the bottles of water sold in stores is so flimsy, there’s a chance you can actually rip it apart when trying to unscrew the cap. Yes, that happened to me! I got water all over myself and exclaimed aloud: “why do I even come here?!”
A couple of minutes later, I bit into a piece of fresh fruit and appreciated that nothing I’ve ever tasted in the United States explodes with such flavors. “This is why I come here!” I added.
Santorini certainly looks and sounds beautiful and most likely, one day I’ll get there myself. And for those who can afford it, or simply don’t want to hear from their American friends “you mean you went to Greece and didn’t visit Santorini???” it’s certainly worth going. But if you don’t want to overpay for all the hype, Nisyros is a far more affordable alternative that many contend is every bit as breathtaking.