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On The Beaten Path In Mykonos : The Best Known Of The Fabled Greek Islands Can Be Maddeningly Touristy--but Also Wildly Attractive


MYKONOS, Greece — This is not the normal way of things. To arrange passage to the most famous of Greek Islands. To grab a hotel room. To fall into repose by the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. And then be moved to thoughts of Yogi Berra and Toots Shor.

But it can happen. It was a brilliant day last August, and to reach the beach I had shouldered my way down the celebrated whitewashed alleyways of Mykonos, past well-laden mules, past hunched widows wrapped in black, past skinny stray cats, past overloaded, speeding, buzzing motor scooters whose young drivers still bore scabbed elbows from the last skid.

Then came the beach, and the bronzed masses--straight, gay, European, American, solitary, coupled, topless, bottomless and concentrated in such density that the sun seemed to be striking more skin than sand. And that, believe it or not, is when I thought of Yogi.

Back in his days as a catcher for the Yankees, someone asked Yogi about Toots Shor's restaurant, then a popular nightspot.

"Nobody goes there anymore," Yogi is said to have replied. "It's too crowded."

They say that about Mykonos, too. The place fills up every summer, the population swelling from roughly 6,000 occupants to 20,000--by one tour guide's estimate--for understandable reasons: The sun is warm, the water is clear, the night life is diverse and formidable, the shopping is stylish and few sights can rival the view of waterfront tavernas by night, the blue domes of Orthodox churches under the harsh light of day, the tall windmills and all those boxy white buildings crawling up the rocky, dusty hillsides.

Since I arrived Aug. 30, as the hordes of summer were beginning to disperse, I didn't face Mykonos at its tourist-saturated worst. But it was still plenty busy, and during my brief stay, I dedicated myself to avoiding hassles with the masses. In this campaign, I had victories, and I had defeats.

Victory: A hike up the hill. I checked into my hotel, the pricey, comfortable Cavo Tagoo, half a mile outside the island's main town (known alternately as Mykonos Town or Chora), strolled into town, then turned away from the blue-green sea and started climbing the narrow alleys.

The crowds dwindled, the architecture enveloped me, and eventually I reached a hilltop with a handsome view of city and sea below. Even better, a windmill stood down the street, open to any visitor interested in scratching the resident cat under the chin or climbing the interior steps to peer down from a greater height. )

Defeat: Clearly, it's money that makes the island float. You can't walk from one part of town to another without being touristically pandered to. The costliest examples of this are the many jewelry stores. The most frequent examples are the postcard displays; the restaurants with barkers out front and suspiciously international menus (one offered stroganoff, curry, moussaka and paella on the same bill of fare), and the T-shirt shops. One shirt bore this message: "Sex 30%. Love 25%. Relax 45%. This is Mykonos 100%."

Victory: On my first full day, I swallowed a little pride and signed up for a city tour--three hours, about $15. Yes, it meant sitting on a bus with other tourists, but on an island of just 23 square miles, a three-hour survey gives you a clear idea of where to invest the rest of your time.

No one is likely to linger long in the island's interior. The inland expanses look like Ireland after a 1,000-year drought--bare rolling hills, dry scrub and properties marked off by ancient piles of stones.

The coast is more complicated. Southwest of town, at Yiannis Beach, we caught a distant view of the neighboring island of Delos and its temple ruins. Directly south, at Ornos Beach, dozens of children played at the edge of the calm waters. To the northeast, at Ftelia Beach, powerful winds raked windsurfers across the water. Yiannis, Ornos, Platis Yalos (south of town) and Aghios Stefanos (north of town) are known as family beaches. Paradise (southeast of town) is considered largely heterosexual and nudist; Elia (east of Paradise) is thought of as quietly gay and nudist; and Super Paradise (southeast of town, next to Paradise) is considered a loudly gay and nudist beach. In fact, Billy Kolber, editor of Out and About newsletter for gay travelers, calls Super Paradise "the most popular gay beach on the island, and one of the gayest beaches in the world," surpassing such other European island retreats as Sitges and Ibiza off the coast of Spain.

Simultaneously, however, Kolber and others agree that in the last few years, Mykonos has been drawing larger and larger shares of heterosexual travelers, many of whom arrive in couples. At the Cruise Line, a Miami-based agency that specializes in cruises, vice president Don Lansky counts 26 cruise ships that have included Mykonos on itineraries this fall.

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