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PATMOS : Patmos is surrounded by the dazzling silver of the Aegean Sea, its coastline studded with hundreds of beautiful bays. Pilgrims come from all over the world to visit the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, which overlooks the town of Chora and contains documents giving a clear picture of life in the area throughout the centuries. Other adventurers head for the island's many beautiful deserted beaches.

May 11, 1986|GEOFFREY DEAN-SMITH | Dean-Smith is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

SKALA, Greece — Lying in the southeasterly area of the Aegean Sea are the Dodecanese group of islands. One of them, Patmos, is set like a rare and priceless jewel into the clearest waters in all of Greece. Only about 13 square miles, it is one of the smallest of the Aegean Islands.

Its coastline is studded with hundreds of beautifully formed bays that sparkle in the pure gold light from a warm and friendly sun.

It is probably the light in Patmos, as much as anything else, that brings the realization that one is experiencing a place of such phenomenal beauty that it caused one American businessman to announce, "It's like looking at life through a thousand different rainbows."

The Aegean Sea dances a dazzling silver beneath the morning sun, with rustic fishing boats painted in bright colors crisscrossing the bays, leaving tiny wakes across the still surface of the emerald and turquoise waters.

Flowers of every color swarm over white stucco walls, filling the air with the fragrance of jasmine, honeysuckle, lavender, gardenia, oleander, hibiscus and bougainvillea.

A necklace of outer islands shimmers invitingly on the horizon, luring the imagination into further realms of exploration. Samos to the north, in the late evening, rises from the sea in a purple mist, its peaks bathed in a scarlet light from the dying sun.

Patmos meanders slowly between two main areas: Chora, a medieval town at the top of a hill, and Skala, the main port. Farmers still transport their produce on donkeys, sitting sideways between bags of fruit and vegetables, urging their beasts along.

Pilgrims from all over the world make the long, winding trek up the ancient pathway to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, which overlooks the town of Chora and the rest of the island.

The archives of the monastery contain a documented account of life throughout the area from the founding of the monastery in AD 1088. Its 13,000 documents provide a clear picture of political life, social behavior and economic history through the centuries. Fifteen priests and monks inhabit the monastery, all scholars of kind and gentle disposition.

Then there are the beaches. Literally hundreds of them. One can either take a boat, or for the adventurous, long treks through the rocky Patmian terrain bring the promise of a deserted strip of Paradise around every bend.

And what better reward, after having feasted your eyes on the spectacular views around you and having played like dolphins in a sea that is as therapeutic as it is gentle, than to return to your hotel, clean up and head out to one of the tavernas for dinner?

Vangelis in the main square of Chora is the most authentic and the most fun of all the restaurants on Patmos. It is run by Vangelis, his wife Maria and their two sons, Theologo and Manolis. The atmosphere is full-blooded Greek and the hospitality is famous. People of all nationalities and diverse backgrounds gather inside and outside, and during the busy summer season the garden at the back is opened to tourists.

Maria encourages her guests to wander freely through the kitchen and choose the most appetizing dishes. The menu includes fresh calamary, fried and served with a huge Greek salad of feta cheese, blood-red tomatoes, onions and black olives, all laced with an oil and vinegar dressing.

Tzat z iki is served as an appetizer, a mixture of yogurt, garlic, onion, cucumber and olive oil. And of course dolmades , stuffed grape leaves, served with French fries and hunks of bread. Lamb stew, meatballs, chicken, stuffed tomatoes and sizzling moussaka are also specialties.

Vangelis is a smiling man of great warmth and humor, and dinner at his restaurant is an experience not to be missed. Ask him for a plate of titsi titsi , watch his face light up and be prepared to receive whatever he deems appropriate for the evening.

Bottles of retsina, red and white Domestica and glasses of ouzo are poured with abandon. And when Manolis appears with his bouzouki, Greek men and women and tourists alike rise to the melodic and haunting sounds of this wonderful instrument and dance away their inhibitions in a twirling display of Greek tradition.

All the food in Patmos is local and at Vangelis one can eat a complete meal, including Greek coffee, baklava dessert and wine for less than $6.

More costly is Patmian House in hilltop Chora run by Victor Gouras, who used to be the maitre d' at Maxwell's Plum in New York. The prices there are two to three times more than at most other restaurants on Patmos, and although the atmosphere is somewhat charming, they have tried to produce an aura of sophistication that doesn't seem to work in a place like Patmos.

In Skala, Panteles is a good bet, one street back from the waterfront. It has delicious stewed goat cooked with tomato sauce, olive oil and mixed vegetables. Or pastitsio, a bubbling dish of macaroni cooked with cheese and a delicious bechamel sauce.

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