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Footloose in Mykonos

Island Still Has Charm and Color

January 19, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Rabey and Beyer are husband and wife travel writers based in Santa Monica.

MYKONOS, Greece — Old Greek hands are fond of saying that this Cyclades island is no longer what it once was, now terribly crowded, touristy and commercial beyond redemption. All well and good, so long as you realize that they're talking about the June-through-August high season. Well, maybe a little of September.

Yet Mykonos still has the color and charm we found here three decades ago: cube houses of blinding white clinging to barren ochre hillsides above town; a little blue bay to write poems about; labyrinthine alleys an arm's length wide carving the village into a maze, each street lined with still more whitewashed houses, many with steps of orange, burgundy, royal blue and sea green.

There's also a quality of light on the island that's almost magically unreal, probably a factor in sunsets equally spellbinding.

Toss in a few ancient windmills with tattered blades of canvas, outdoor cafes, at least 350 small basilicas crammed with smoky icons, and we think it's still great.

About the only thing we find less than fetching after all these years is Peter the Pelican, the island mascot. He stands, skulking behind a fisherman's net, staring balefully at us with not one more ounce of friendliness than he showed on our previous visits.

Here to there: TWA and Pan Am will get you to Athens with stops, Alitalia, SAS and KLM with changes, American to New York for a change to Olympic Airways non-stop. Olympic has several flights daily for the 45-minute hop to the island. Ferries leave Piraeus every day for the six-hour trip, cost $7.50. Many prefer to do the isles by cruise ship, Sun Lines giving you an overnight here.

How long/how much? One day and evening will take in most of the island, another for a trip to nearby Delos, better a week to relax, sun and get to know the people. Lodging and food are about as low in price as you'll find anywhere in the civilized world, as it is on most Greek islands.

A few fast facts: The Greek drachma was recently worth .0064, about 156 dracs to the dollar. Great weather from early spring to late, late fall, but good sense calls for skirting the midsummer crowds. Even though you can bring a car by ferry, don't. Take cheap taxis and buses outside the village, or rent a spiffy little motor scooter for $7.50 per 24 hours, a bike for less.

Moderate-cost hotels: Our old friend the Xenia ($27 double B&B) still sits behind the windmills on a hill above town, a comfortable walk. Modern inside and out, bright and airy, all meals, small bar, magnificent views across Aegean from terrace.

Leto ($33.50 double B&B) is on a curve of the harbor toward where the ferry lands, another sparkling white and modern place with blue shutters, shrimp-colored bougainvillea climbing everywhere. Take your meals on a handsome outdoor terrace facing the water, set four-course affairs that are both delicious and a bargain.

About seven miles from town on Kalafati Beach you'll find the Aphroditi (about same prices as above), a collection of bungalows that are more like mini-condos, but still furnished simply. Pool, all meals, tennis and beach that is used mainly by hotel guests.

Many visitors take potluck on finding accommodations, particularly during high season when rooms are scarce, just walking about town looking for signs in windows offering rooms or apartments. Usual costs for these: $8.50 for a room sharing bath; $16 for a bedroom-kitchen-bath layout.

Regional food and drink: Greek meals always start with mezes , assorted appetizers that often take the form of a dip. Tzatziki , cucumber, yogurt, garlic and olive oil; taramosalata , red fish roe, pureed potatoes, olive oil and lemon juice; and scordalia , more mashed potatoes, oil and lots of garlic are ever popular. With these you can opt for retsina, white or red wine with a slight rosin flavor, or aretsina if you'd rather skip the turpentine taste. Hardy souls start the meal with ouzo , an anise-flavored clear drink that turns white with ice or water.

Small white Mykonos beans with onions, red peppers and oil are a local favorite, and you'll see few menus without moussaka , the eggplant, ground meat and cheese staple, usually served with a white custard sauce. But it's a shame to miss the wide variety of fresh island seafood, always available, always something new to try. Best local retsina to go with it is Varelisia Economou.

Moderate-cost dining: You'll pay a little more at the Mykonos, right on the harbor with tables outside, the norm for most places. The local white beans above are excellent here, about $1, and the veal with spaghetti, another dish you'll see everywhere, is $2.75. But remember, these are top prices for a Greek taverna, because of location probably.

Taverna Antonini is just behind harbor on a small busy square. We went there for the keftedes , marvelous Greek meatballs for $1.10. Oilcloth-covered tables, always busy, some of the best food on island.

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