Only two things move fast on the Greek island of Paros, a whitewashed, sun-drenched oasis in the heart of the Cyclades. One is the cab driver who hurtles at alarming speed along rough gravelled roads carved into the barren, rocky landscape, racing past wind turbines, resilient olive groves and bursts of bougainvillea to deposit me, breathless and exhilarated at my hotel in Naoussa, 30 minutes from the airport. The other is ‘meltemi’, the furious Aegean wind which buffets the island from May to August, snatching up skirts and giving everyone roller coaster hair. Once the wind dies down, a pleasant lethargy descends and you can dictate your own pace at which to explore the island.
Paros is home to around 13 thousand people during peak season, dropping to less than eight thousand once the tourists move on and the locals return to Athens or elsewhere to rest and regroup for the next wave. The Paliomylos Spa Hotel is my home for the next week. Run by ex-Sydneysider Chrys and her family, the hotel is a series of private, self-contained studios and suites built in the whitewashed Greek architecture style, sprawling high above the port. Stone-paved paths link the rooms and shuttered windows open onto a stunning view of the Aegean Sea and neighbouring islands. The sparkling pool, smiling staff and Chrys’ to-die-for breakfast pancakes are just a few of the highlights this beautiful complex has to offer. Treat yourself to a mani-pedi in the spa on the lower floor before hitting the dusty road into town in your holiday thongs.
The little port at Naoussa stirs early, full of fishermen returning from pre-dawn raids to dry their fresh catch of octopus and fish on boat decks, like hanging out the washing. It’s easy to spin out a whole morning gazing at the sea from one of many restaurants along the waterfront, with a strong coffee in front of you and no fixed plans for the day.
If the sea beckons, there are diving tours, leisure boats and ferries waiting to take you island hopping to any number of little beaches, dotted with umbrellas and lounge chairs and alive with the chatter of a dozen different languages. Eat sea bass carpaccio and perfectly fried calamari at the Nava restaurant at Santa Maria beach, with its billowing white curtains and driftwood light fittings striped in vertical shadows like an Escher painting.
Head to Kolymbithres beach where the open air taverna will take your spare change to feed the stray cats, one of which weaves through tables with the practised air of a con artist assessing an easy mark. A longer cab ride will take you to the dazzling white Palm Beach cove at Agia Irini, with rows of loungers connected by wooden boardwalks to a classy restaurant and bar. The resident DJ’s taste runs to old lounge music, with Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey enjoying another moment in the sun.
As the afternoon gives way to evening, the labyrinth of cobbled laneways which hug the port is suddenly heaving with people. Sunburnt tourists revived by an afternoon siesta descend on the many shops selling bright scarves, canvas shoes, swimwear and jewellery. Lanterns are lit on outdoor tables metres from the water’s edge, and a little platter of olives, carrot sticks and lightly charred bread appears unbidden, but certainly welcome to accompany a pre-dinner cocktail. The seafood earlier glimpsed on decks is now dished up and delicious alongside a Greek salad and washed down with excellent local rose. A waiter offers a digestif of mastiha, made from the resin of a tree. Its curious taste is like getting soap in your mouth after washing your face, but only for a second. Then the sensation is replaced by a refreshed palate and a satisfying inner warmth. Exactly the effect Paros will have on you.