By Barbara @thegreekishlife
The Portara with the main town of Chora beyond.
All photos by Barbara at The Greekish Life.
Why should Naxos be your first Greek island, especially when there are so many beautiful Greek islands?
Screen-saver perfect Santorini. Giant Crete. Party-mad Mykonos. Historic Rhodes. There are so many to choose from!
The question reminds me of when folks would ask me what Hawaiian island they should go to first. I've been fortunate enough to travel to five of the six islands you can visit, and while quiet Kauai is my deep-down favorite, I always suggest Maui. Why? Because Maui is "Hawaii 101". It has a little bit of everything.
Naxos is, to me, "Greek Islands 101". Picturesque Cycladic architecture? Check. Miles of gorgeous sandy beaches? Check. Adorable villages? Antiquities? Hard-to-get-elsewhere local products? Close enough to other islands for a day sail? Check to all of that!
And all without the crushing hordes of a Santorini summer, or the Santorini prices. (I'm not picking on Santorini - it's an astonishing place, but I'd only go again outside of the insane summer season.)
Naxos has the same lovely Cycladic feel but is remarkably more affordable and far less crowded.
There are so many fantastic islands in Greece, of course, and people could come to fisticuffs defending their favorite, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one that ticks all the boxes that Naxos does.
Let's start with the main town, Chora.
Chora as seen from the Portara.
Once you arrive at the tiny Naxos airport, it's a short drive to Chora. The town rises up slightly on a hill, topped by the Kastro, the remains of a modest Venetian castle. There is an Old Town - a twisty maze of shops, restaurants and old pirate alleys that is a must-visit (Naxos, as well as much of the Aegean, had problems with Barbary Coast pirates back in the day.).
These meandering island alleys are the best places to get lost in!
Some unique artisanal products like ceramics, local foodstuffs like famous Naxos cheeses, as well as jewelry can be found in the tiny hidey-hole shops. Stop in at a place that sells Kitron, the local liqueur made from citron fruit, and taste a sample.
Stroll along the waterfront, which has tourist shops and some decent outdoor restaurants. Keep walking past the boats until you come to the causeway that leads to Naxos' unique trademark antiquity, the Portara.
The Portara is singular, to my knowledge. It's...a giant door. With no temple attached.
But what a door!
How many people through the ages have gazed at it and wondered - if the stars were aligned just right and there was enough magic in the soft Aegean air - if passing through it would conjure them into a land of gods and heroes? It has that effect.
A door to Nowhere. Or Somewhere Else.
It was originally built as part of what was planned as a massive temple to Apollo, begun around 520 BC, but the ruler who commissioned it was overthrown and the temple was never completed. It sits on a tiny island, called Palatia, connected to the town by a causeway. This, according to legend, is where the Minoan princess Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus after helping him vanquish the Minotaur.
The princess' story has a happy ending, though - she may have been betrayed by a man, but she upgraded to a god. Dionysus, the god of wine, found her and they lived happily - and presumably inebriatedly - ever after.
Driving south from Chora takes you to a length must-see beaches, starting with Agios Giorgios, which is in the town proper, and then past the airport again down to the stretch that starts with lively Agios Prokopios, then continues for miles past the stunning Agia Anna and down to Plaka and beyond. And they are golden sand beaches - not pebble beaches like you get in many places in Greece.
Agia Anna beach. Scenic, clean and comfortable, it's a great choice for a beach day.
The closer to town you are, the more the beaches are organized. There are organized and unorganized beaches throughout Greece.
Organized beaches have lounge chairs and umbrellas you can rent for the whole day. There are bathrooms nearby. Attentive young people will come from the cafes and bars across the road to bring you an icy beer, cocktail or snack.
This is an excellent arrangement.
Unorganized beaches have few or none of these amenities, and are a good option if you just want peace and quiet and to lay on a towel without a crowd around you.
Personally I will take a comfy sun bed in the shade and a smiling server bringing me a plate of fresh loukoumades drizzled with Nutella, but your mileage may vary.
I'm generally a loukoumades purist, but I still dream of these.
Naxos at first glance appears to be a mostly dry, rocky island, although there are green and fertile valleys in the interior. It's worth doing a little road trip into the middle of the island to seek out the mountain vistas and scenic traditional villages that dot the mountains.
One such place is Filoti. A scant 30-40 minute drive from Chora along some very twisty but otherwise good roads takes you to this photogenic little town.
Other villages we passed through were Apeiranthos, with it's appealing views of white Cycladic homes on terraced plots with the mountains behind them, and tiny Halkio, which I'm embarrassed to say we didn't even realize we had passed entirely through until we saw the 'leaving Halkio' sign on the road.
Next time, Halkio!
From the harbor at Chora you can take a boat to Naxos' stunning sister island of Paros - a very short ferry trip of maybe 30 minutes or so, depending on the vessel. You can also do as we did - take a day sail to Santorini - about three hours each way. There are sails to Amorgos, Koufonisia and even Mykonos. You can easily make Naxos your home base and explore several nearby islands as day trips, which is a great way to go if you prefer a quick "meze" style of island-hopping.
Greece has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to islands to visit. With a little research you can find any number of them that will likely be a good fit for what you're looking for. You can almost throw a dart at a map and if you're a cheerful and adaptable traveler, you'll probably make your own good time wherever it lands.
But if it's your first time and you want a place that has just about everything a Greek island should have, beautiful Naxos is for you.
The often-photographed hanging bicycle at a taverna in Chora.
You're almost contractually obligated to take a picture of it if you go.
A version of this article was originally published on The Greekish Life website.
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