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The Greek Isle That Time Forgot

It's no Mykonos, and that's its charm. Introducing Lipsi, population 650. Not for excitement seekers.

June 30, 2002|JOHN HENDERSON

LIPSI, Greece — I'm sitting on a boat dock looking at Greece, circa 1950. Jackie Kennedy hasn't started dating any Greek shipping tycoons. Few beyond the Aegean Sea have ever heard of ouzo. From where I sit, it doesn't even seem Zeus has been gone that long.

Outside a tiny one-room taverna called an ouzeria, I've joined old men sipping the potent licorice-flavored drink in the brilliant sun. We watch a half-dozen fishermen on pastel-painted boats dragging in lines from an Aegean that's almost as blue as the cloudless sky.

The sun-washed docks are devoid of wall-to-wall restaurants. The lone souvenir shop is closed for the week. Next door, one of the best hotels here is charging 18 euros (about $17) a night. I hear birds chirping, smell the wonderful salty aroma of feta cheese from the tables around me and listen to the sea lap against the boats. This is Lipsi, the Greek island mass tourism forgot. So far.

If you're looking for Lipsi on a map, find a good one. It's not on many. It's a tiny speck of rolling farmland and isolated beaches 40 miles off Turkey. It's part of the Dodecanese island chain, where overdeveloped Samos to the north and Patmos to the west have started to resemble Greek theme parks. Lipsi is barely big enough to hold a park. It's only 12 square miles, with 650 people and twice as many goats. Besides the one bus and two taxis on the island, a main mode of transport remains the donkey. The one bank is a cash machine. There are one doctor and one nurse. There are 45 churches.

Lipsi does, however, have a dozen beaches on seemingly perfect bays. Its 150 guest rooms are booked up only in July and August. Nine good restaurants offer inexpensive, traditional Greek cuisine. Don't bother with dinner reservations. Lipsi gets only about 10,000 tourists a year. Mykonos, Greece's most popular island, gets about 180,000.

And don't come here for history. There are no ruins. The lone museum, featuring holy water from around the world, is open only two hours a day.

Really, there is nothing to do here but lie on the beach, eat and watch the world go by--slowly.

One day, a car ferry the size of New Hampshire pulled in way down the dock, the only place in the harbor deep enough to hold anything more than a fishing boat. The ferry comes in twice weekly from Piraeus, the port of Athens, and disgorges tourists all over the outer islands.

"How many tourists did you see get off?" asked Lipsi resident Sarah Vavoulas. The giant door opened, and not even a lime rolled out.

Vavoulas, a native of Brighton, England, came to Lipsi 14 years ago, met future husband Haralabos Vavoulas and never left. Today they own the Rock, a beautiful, popular late-night ouzeria overlooking the harbor. During the day it's a great perch for watching an island in no hurry to go anywhere fast. "I lived in London before I came here," she said. "People live for tomorrow in big cities. They never live for the moment. Here no one plans ahead."

I had visited Greece three times and never heard of Lipsi. I discovered it on an Internet travelers' message board and became intrigued after research revealed little but a few key repetitive words: "traditional," "isolated beaches," "quiet." On the Greek island circuit, Lipsi is way out in right field.

Unlike Santorini, Mykonos and other islands smothered by tourism, there are no straight shots to Lipsi. There isn't anything close to an airport. To reach it, I flew to Athens and caught an Olympic Airlines shuttle to Samos. A $5 taxi took me to the harbor, where 90 minutes later a Flying Dolphin, one of the sleek hydrofoils that started darting around the Greek islands 10 years ago, took me to Patmos in an hour. Without changing boats, I was on Lipsi in 20 more minutes.

A bevy of locals greeted me at the dock, all holding signs with pictures of available rooms. I quickly agreed to a price of $17 with bath, and a 30-ish, curly-haired man named Stephanos took me in his pickup down the harbor and up through the tiny village. We drove past burros and donkeys on a path just wide enough for his truck. Two women carrying baskets of bread chatted outside a bakery. Greek folk music emanated from an open window where a woman in traditional black sat in the shade. This place is an outtake from "Zorba the Greek."

"This is Lipsi town," Stephanos said. "Exciting, isn't it?"

It was perfect.

My spacious double room at Studios Anna was spotless and furnished with a refrigerator, hot plate, writing table and big closet. A balcony overlooked farmlands scattered with the snow-white buildings and turquoise roofs of Greek Orthodox churches. Stray kittens played in the garden below. I stood on the balcony, lined with pink bougainvilleas, and took in the fresh salt air and enchanting sounds of rural Greece. "That's a dove cooing in your ear," said an American two balconies down.

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