I think I may have just discovered my own sun-drenched secret island. Hardly anybody lives here and the few people that do are friendly, welcoming and make me feel like long lost family. I’m surrounded by nature and, despite the blissful peace and quiet, there are enough lively restaurants and tavernas to make sure that I never run out of good things to eat, or bad things to drink.
I’m talking about Lipsi, a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, about a two hour ferry ride from Kos (€25 each way for foot passengers) which is served by a wide choice of direct flights from most UK airports. Greece has 6,000 islands to woo the sun-seeking holidaymaker (although only 227 of them are inhabited) but what’s different about this one is that it’s like stepping back in time thirty or forty years to a more innocent place and time. That may sound like a nostalgic cliché but in this case it’s true: nobody here locks their front doors or bothers to close their car windows when they park and everybody says “good morning” to you…except at night, of course! The few cars and motorbikes that exist here are kept out of the town centre in the evenings and jet-skis are banned from the island’s waters altogether, meaning that swimmers and sunbathers can relax in peace and safety.
Up until 1946, the island was still occupied by the Italians and they continue to represent the majority of the tourist numbers from mid-June to early September. Around 40,000 visitors landed on Lipsi last year, but the island only has enough beds for 1,200 of them at any one time, divided between just three hotels and 20 apartment houses, meaning that the place is never inundated with tourists and the Italian influence is not overwhelming. For a totally Greek experience, however, it is still probably best to head here slightly before or after high season.
When I arrive here on a roasting hot day in late September, it is lunchtime and I am famished from the sea air, ready to indulge in my love of Greek food. I’ve been dreaming of taramasalata, Kalamata olives, Feta, fresh fish and seafood on the voyage over so I’m almost drooling with anticipation as I jump off the catamaran and see the neighbouring fishing boats docking to discharge their glistening catches into wooden carts, which are then dragged by hand or pulled away by donkey to waiting kitchens. What the people of this island don’t know about catching and cooking octopus and squid you could write on the back of a prawn. It’s the local specialty and every one of Lipsi’s ten restaurants and four ouzerias (tapas bars) has their own take on it: boiled, fried, grilled, flambéed or soaked in lemon and served with that other famous Hellenic staple, ouzo (a word of warning: be sure to order a 100% distilled variety, such as Zarbanis, to avoid a big fat Greek hangover).
Harbour-side, the restaurants Calypso, Yianni’s and ToPefko command the best spots facing the brightly painted boats whose reflections shimmer in the clear water. Just a few steps inland, nestled amongst the narrow white-washed lanes and alleyways, you can also find Manoli’s Tastes which offers alfresco dining on its sun terrace overlooking the town.
The heart of island life is located at Kairis Bakery, not far from the harbour, where owner Takis and his family bake bread, serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as all manner of fresh fruit juices, regional beers and wines. Far more than just a pastry shop and café, it’s open 24 hours a day and is the focal point for residents and visitors alike to meet morning, noon and night to socialise, gossip, celebrate or just relax and peruse the newspapers, books and magazines that are also sold here. Whilst enjoying a freshly-squeezed orange juice, strong espresso and just-baked baklava for breakfast there one morning, I witnessed a couple of local fishermen with weather-beaten faces, whose red cheeks betrayed their more than passing fondness for ouzo, burst into an impromptu round of Greek dancing which a couple of brave tourists were enthusiastically invited to join. Anywhere else, a spectacle like this could seem staged or contrived but in Lipsi the spontaneity and love of life without pretension or affectation appears genuine, refreshing to the jaded traveller who has often been entertained purely as the precursor to a shakedown for money.
There are over 30km of mapped walks set in the rugged, hilly countryside which is populated by twice as many goats as there are people on the island. The charismatic 43-year-old mayor of Lipsi, Fotis Mangos, has hiked and charted many of the routes himself. A local schoolteacher by profession, whose mother runs the Calypso restaurant which he himself waited tables at in his youth, Fotis appears to know each one of the 794 resident islanders personally, most of which stop him often in the street to ask about community matters. With an upbringing in the tourism business but a responsibility for the economic and cultural welfare of the island, he understands the delicate balancing act required to maintain the unique and authentic atmosphere which visitors come to Lipsi for but that could so easily be spoilt by overdevelopment, set against the need for restauranteurs, hoteliers and shopkeepers to make a living from just a few months of the year — in midwinter, the temperature plummets, the rains lash and some northern Europeans who have moved here actually return to their own countries, finding the weather more inclement there than in Lipsi.
Nothing but blue skies and a warm coastal breeze prevail, however, as I set off for one of the 17 beaches which line the coast, many of which are secluded and devoid of any other sunbathers who might possibly disrupt your perfect enjoyment as the crystal waters of the Aegean lap gently at your toes. One of the most picturesque spots on the shoreline is at Katsadia beach, where I stop for lunch in the almost ridiculously perfect setting of Dilaila’s restaurant. The food here, with some interesting twists on Greek and Italian classics, is first-class but it is the view which keeps me here the whole afternoon, luxuriating in languorous splendour. Replete with both nutritional and visual nourishment, I stay until the sun sets, melting into the water in reddish hues. As I gaze over the open-air tables, across the sandy beach and beyond to the private yachts anchored in the bay, their hippy-chic owners in expensively torn T-shirts and rope sandals linger here, like me, for hours over deep rich reds, made with the Fokiano grape from nearby Lipsi Winery. The mood is sultry, almost dreamlike. I’m not quite sure what Dilaila’s secret ingredient is, but I want some…in pill form.
The next day I return to the sea for a double dip in the ocean. Firstly, an all-day cruise on the M/S Rena, named after her owner, originally from Ohio, whose son captains the boat. Built of pine, the Rena is a beautiful 50-year-old vessel that was completely rebuilt last year and is used to take up to 80 passengers (at €25 a throw, including refreshments) on a 30-mile tour of the surrounding islets and islands including Marathi (population: 7 people, 2 cats and a Yorkshire Terrier) where we dock for an excellent lunch at The Pirate, run in almost comic fashion by a jaunty old Greek man who looks, dresses and acts exactly like — you guessed it — a pirate.
The evening brings an invitation from Theologos Mangos, the mayor’s brother, to come fishing for calamari on board his boat, which is named, in truly Greek tradition, The Alexandra. The squid, with their disconcertingly human-like eyes, come flying into the boat on the end of the lines thrown out by Theo and his crew and it’s not long before we’re smugly chugging back into port with a cargo of cephalopods ready to be prepared (the mollusc has a plastic-like backbone which must be removed before cooking) and served to us by Nikos and Louli at their dockside ouzeria whilst Fotis, our multi-talented mayor, plays guitar and serenades us into the night with a selection of his self-penned ballads.
For a such small territory, the choice of accommodation is surprisingly good but to stay anywhere other than in one of the studios and apartments of Helios Lipsi is to miss out on the quintessential essence of this island. Located a 5-minute walk from the harbour and the hubbub of Kairis Bakery, yet rural enough to enjoy being awakened each morning by the gentle ringing of bells worn by the island’s goats as they make their way down the adjacent slopes, the real beauty of this place is the owner and manager, Giorgis Chloros, whose love for what he does is clearly apparent. The apartments themselves (which cost from €70 per night and sleep up to six) are spacious, well-appointed and spotlessly clean, but what marks Helios Lipsi apart is the way that Giorgis looks after his guests. New arrivals are met by him in his Jeep at the ferry and brought with their luggage to the rooms where provisions (milk, cheese, bread, fruit, vegetables, tea, coffee, water, juice and even a couple of beers) are already waiting in the fridge…all at no extra charge. Business-wise, he’s probably missing a trick with his overly generous gestures but is possibly banking on the fact that rare touches such as these are what make Lipsi uniquely special and keep holiday-makers loyally returning each year to enjoy its genuine hospitality, rather than going to slicker, mass market resorts where guests are ‘processed’ on an industrial scale for profit extraction. As Tom and Jean, a couple from Farnham in Surrey who have been summering in Lipsi for 19 years straight, remark to me one evening across the tables of the Calypso restaurant: “What draws us back here each year is the peace and quiet…enough tavernas to be fun in the evening, but without ever being hectic”. It’s a rare combination and one of the key attractions of Lipsi as a late or early summer destination for those wanting to kick back in the sun and relax in a slow, simple and uncomplicated style. Just don’t tell too many other people; let’s keep it our own private secret island!
Ferries to Lipsi with Dodekanisos Seaways leave Kos at 9am and 11am but flights from London generally arrive late evening so best to book a stopover night at the Kos Aktis Art Hotel which is located on the beach in the centre of Kos town, yet only a 10-minute walk to the harbour from which the ferry departs.