The Most Charmingly ‘Greek’ of All the Cyclades

By Helene Cooper, The New York Times

On a movie set of a Cycladic island surrounded by the teal tint of the Aegean, just beyond Giorgitsi cave, my 5-year-old nephew, Cooper, finally got the hang of swimming.

But he almost missed the moment. Bursting out of the water, Cooper was talking so fast I could barely keep up. “I saw bluefish!” he said excitedly, his snorkel mask still covering half his face. “I saw bluefish and blackfish and sea urchins and loner fish!”

Loner fish? I’d never heard of those. But I could spot a jerky doggy paddle. “You swam!” I yelled.

For the last seven years, a group of us has gone to Folegandros, Greece, in July for a weeklong girls’ trip. The annual rite has become our chance to erase our daily stress and focus on simple pleasures, passing time that will surely take shape later in life as memories of halcyon days. Eating, drinking and watching a boy learn to swim.

We had found Folegandros while looking for a rental in Crete, and none of the places we could afford had sunsets worthy of flying all the way over there. I wanted to perch on a porch and watch the sun set over the sea after a day spent frolicking in the water.

Simple food at the beach, including fresh fish. Credit Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

So I searched online for “fabulous sunsets in Greece” and stumbled upon Folegandros. Surrounded by piercing sunlight and azure waters, the 12-square-mile rocky island is the antithesis of Santorini and Mykonos.

It has no airport, which means no charters could come in, keeping the number of tourists to a manageable level. No cruise ships either, which preserves the laid-back, unhurried feel of the island’s three villages: Chora, the elevated main town; Karavostasi, the port; and Ano Meria, a village perched on top of a hill with ancient ruins and stone-lined crop plots that make you feel as if you’d stepped back 100 years. The island has only 700 residents year-round, though that number swells to around 3,000 in the summer.

When we arrived in Folegandros that first time in 2008, we were beside ourselves with glee; we clapped and chortled as we passed bare hills dotted with one-room white churches and terraced farms grazed by donkeys and sheep on the way to our hotel, Anemomilos Apartments. It stilled us when the daily grind of work threatened to overwhelm. I’ve bookmarked the hotel’s live cam, and its staggeringly gorgeous sunset vistas have helped me get through the days.

My trip there this summer took place amid enormous change just beyond those views. Greece was on the brink of a fiscal collapse, and newspaper and television reports of long queues of people at the A.T.M.’s were alarming. At the same time, there has been a surge of Syrians and other migrants seeking to make their way into Europe from the Turkish coast of the Aegean, some of them landing on Greek islands just a few hundred miles from Folegandros.

This speck of paradise that had for so long seemed a remote escape from the news suddenly didn’t seem quite so removed anymore. The urge to flee, indeed, felt decadent. But, having covered Washington and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa over the last year for The New York Times, I needed to blot out the world. My focus would be life, specifically the 5-year-old learning to keep his head above water.

We were three hours late, which should have made us miss the one-hour hydrofoil from Santorini to Folegandros, but the hydrofoil was conveniently two hours late, thanks to the Meltemi wind that buffets the place from mid-July to mid-August. The hitch in the planned arrival was enough cause for me to frantically send a text to Cornelia Patelis, who with her husband, Dimitris, and daughter, Danae, run Anemomilos Apartments, and she reassured me. “Your boat is still at Amorgos Island, needs an hour to Santorini,” Cornelia texted back. “Go have a Campari at the port.” She knew me so well.

Folegandros in the summer is often a destination for couples, but it’s also full of families, children and friends on holiday. Unlike past trips, a bit of testosterone accompanied us this year.

“You brought a man with you!” Cornelia said when we finally arrived, exhausted, at 10 p.m. at her ridiculously perfect whitewashed cliffside hotel. She had already picked up Cooper and was whirling him around in an impromptu dance, as he squealed with delight. “You finally brought a man with you!”

While the Patelis family and the Anemomilos staff made a fuss over Cooper, the rest of us headed into our oceanfront suites with terraces outside and flower petals on the beds inside. I stepped onto my terrace. The sky was already starlit, the few lights over Chora were twinkling and the dim sounds of people eating and drinking in the town’s squares added its own background music.

During that night, the first night of our week on Folegandros, the entire island seemed to be out in the main squares of Chora. From our perch at Nicolas Taverna, stomachs full of fava, fried capers, feta with tomatoes so sweet they might as well have been candy, roast chicken and potatoes, and multiple carafes of fresh white wine, we chatted with the owner, Nicolas Michailidis, and his right-hand man, Vasilis Stoyanov, while Cooper played with local children a few yards away. We were keeping him on American time for the trip, which meshed perfectly with the rhythm of the island.

We plotted our week. The island — so I have heard — has fantastic hikes along rural footpaths that connect its hamlets and its sole main cliffside road to isolated beaches below. I wish I could say I went on one, but I am lazy and left that to my friends and sister, Marlene (Cooper’s mother), who returned sweaty and virtuous. I hadn’t even made it up to Panaghia, the pretty white church at the top of the hill overlooking Chora, where people go to watch the sunset.

Me, I watch my sunsets from the terrace bar at Anemomilos, where the hotel’s bartender, the handsome Bulgarian former professional football player Aleksandar Georgiev, makes my Campari with fresh orange juice just the way I like it: heavy on the Campari, light on the O.J. “I would not call this Campari-orange,” he told me, sounding exasperated, as he handed me my drink. “This is Campari with only an aroma of orange.”

The next day, we confronted our big daily decision: pool, beach or boat? As it was our first full day, we chose boat: the Diaplous boat tour of the island, a six-hour trip that stops at beaches accessible only by foot and boat, isolated crystalline coves and prehistoric caves. We have done the Diaplous boat tour so often we know all the crew, including Giannhs Papadopoulos, whom we have literally watched grow up from a cherubic pipsqueak 13-year-old to the man-about-town (island) that he is now.

The boat holds around 60 people who spread out with towels and sunglasses and sunblock; a bar upstairs with beer, wine and soft drinks opened as soon as we left the port. After 45 minutes flying over the waves, we got to the first stop, Ambeli Beach. We had barely put down anchor when a tall Italian dived in from the upper deck rail, whooping before he pierced the clear blue-green sea.

Within minutes, all but a handful of the people on the boat were in the water, swimming and snorkeling. I saw an octopus and took off toward it, but it slithered out of sight and I was too scared to get too far from the boat with my anemic swimming moves.

By the time the horn blew and people climbed back in, everyone was chattering with each other.

“Where’s Coop?” I asked my sister. “He’s with the captain and Giannhs,” she replied, grinning. “Steering.”

But not swimming quite yet. This was the real reason we’d wanted to bring Cooper. He had been in swimming classes for more than a year now, but he hadn’t grasped the concept of coming up for air yet and couldn’t actually swim.

This was a problem to which I could relate. I didn’t learn how to properly swim until Folegandros a few years before, when Spiros Sakelleriou, in his first year operating his business, SEA-U Dive Center, put us in wet suits and snorkel masks, took us out on his boat, and made us swim to Chrisospilia cave on the north side of the island. I was so terrified at first I had to drink two glasses of wine (not generally recommended) before I would get in the water. But Spiros was cute. And the sea was so nice and buoyant.

After decades spent gazing longingly at my friends as they swam off boats in Brazil, Miami, the Aeolian Islands, I was tired of being left out. So I put faith in the buoyant water and my dive suit and went in, paddling all the way into the cave, marveling at the stalactites, at the fish, at the sheer joy of just being in the Aegean, swimming off a boat.

I wanted the same for Cooper. He had been a shark of some kind for Halloween for the last three years. We knew that if anything could get him to put his face in the water, it was fish.

“Come on, Captain!” Spiros told Cooper a few days later, when we went out on Spiros’s boat. Cooper looked terrified but determined. He was zipped into a wet suit and snorkel mask, and he was clutching the railing of the boat as we lowered him into the water, handing him to Spiros. At first, he wouldn’t let go of Spiros, who just kept talking to him calmly, as the two of them paddled from the boat toward the cave.

My heart was pounding. This was deep water, a good 80 to 100 feet; the cave looked to be around 200 yards away.

They disappeared behind a rock, and I sat on the boat and waited. Everyone else swam to the cave, but I wanted to be on the boat if Coop freaked out and insisted on coming back.

Ten minutes passed. Where were they? It was around 4:30 in the afternoon, the sun still high and warm on my skin, the sea lapping against the boat.

Ten more minutes. Then another five. Finally, after 25 minutes, I saw the two black-clad figures paddling back toward the boat. They were together at first, and then, they separated! And stayed that way, until Coop got to the ladder and climbed up, chattering excitedly.

Unsurprisingly, his report included nothing about his actually swimming in the sea. It was all about the fish.

I still have to figure out who these “loner fish” are. But, for that week at least, I thought about it far more than I did the troubles of the world.

Source: The New York Times

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