Forget Mykonos, Try Syros, Your Friendly Neighborhood Greek Island

ermoupolis syros greeceI arrived on the Greek island of Syros on the night ferry from Samos at 2:30 a.m., bleary-eyed and in need of coffee or a bed, maybe both. My sons, then 2 and 4, were still half-asleep, wondering why the hell we’d hustled them out of their tidy bunks in the middle of the night. We stepped over backpackers, most of them heading to Mykonos, Naxos or Santorini, who were still asleep in the corridors of the boat, and alighted in Ermoupolis, the cultural and administrative capital of the Cyclades island group.
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I had heard that Ermoupolis was a thriving place, busy year round, but not touristy. But at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday night in early June the place was dead, with just a few cars there to greet the ferry – mostly locals picking up friends and relatives. I had reserved a room at a place called Lila’s Guesthouse and though she had promised to pick us up at no charge, I somehow doubted she’d be there. I booked a swanky looking one-bedroom loft with two balconies in a historic building that had once housed the French consulate for 60 euros. If I was Lila, I would have told me to take a taxi. But there she was with a little sign waiting to take us to our room.The drive up the steep hill above the port was a perfect introduction to our ancient neighborhood. The hotel is less than a mile up the hill from the port, and I could get there easily via a series of staircases, but if you told me to drive there, following Lila’s path in an out of a labyrinth of anorexic alleyways, I don’t think I could do it for a million dollars.

Lila’s turned out to be a revelation and so did Syros. Tourists flock to Mykonos, which is undeniably picturesque but can be a zoo – crowded, expensive and touristy to a fault. But hop on the ferry in Mykonos, fork over 8 euros and in an hour, you’re in Ermoupolis, a fascinating little city that is home to many of Greece’s wealthiest shipping magnates.

It’s a small island that attracts far fewer tourists, but it has pretty much everything you might want on a Greek island: seductive beaches, nightlife, history, old churches, a thriving port, and great food at reasonable prices. There are no large, beachfront resorts but it’s a great place to experience Greek culture and hospitality.

Tourism is manageable enough on Syros that you feel like the locals you meet actually have an interest in meeting you, in sharp contrast to busier islands, like Santorini, Naxos or Mykonos, where you can sometimes feel like the whole point of every interaction is all about buying and selling. We spent just four days on the island but on each day I met people whom I’ll never forget.

Dimitrios, Lila’s husband, was a businessman in Athens before they decided to move to Syros in order to live a quieter life. He was a jack-of-all-trades but what I found most interesting about the way he ran the hotel was how he made the place a magnet for neighborhood kids, who would pop by to talk about the latest soccer match or have a drink. It made me feel as though we were part of the neighborhood rather than just a bunch of transients in a tourist ghetto.

Dimitrios noticed that one of my shirts had a huge hole in it and he said he’d send it to be sewed. The next day it was as good as new for 5 euros. And when I asked him to recommend a laundromat, he said, “Why? I’ll do your laundry for you.” When I protested that we had a huge bag of dirty laundry, he waved me off, and within a few hours, all of our clothing was washed and folded into neat piles in our room. The charge? “No charge,” he insisted.

One afternoon, we were out taking a walk and my sons were fed up with the strong sun and all the hills, so we stood around trying in vain to find a taxi. I saw a woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she could call a cab for us. She got up off her chair, walked into her apartment, emerged moments later on the street where we were standing and then crossed to the other side.

I saw her walk a half block up the street and wondered what was going on until I saw her pull a phone card out of her purse and pop it into a pay phone. After she made the call, she came over to explain that she had no phone in her apartment because she was unemployed and didn’t have much money. She stayed to chat with us while we waited 10-15 minutes for our cab and we learned that she had gone to beauty school to become a hairdresser but had long ago given up trying to find work. I tried to give her a couple euros for the phone call but she wouldn’t take it.

The following night, we went up to Ano Syros, a fascinating 1,000-year-old Catholic neighborhood located high above the port that is filled with vistas and atmospheric tavernas and shops. We met a woman selling hand-painted souvenirs she made herself that seemed absurdly undervalued for how beautiful they were, and as she began to wrap them up in lovely little bowed parcels, she started telling us about what a mess Greece was in. She told us she was still proud to be Greek but started crying recounting all the people she knew who were struggling to get by.

“I don’t know what’s happened to our country,” she said, drying tears from her face.

Our last night in Syros was magic. We visited a tiny, picturesque little village called San Michalis, up above Ano Syros, and had one of the most memorable meals of our lives at a place called To Plakostroto (see photo above). There are only two men still living in San Michalis – Francesco and Giovanni – and we met them both, along with a host of their friends, who had dropped by to play cards.

Francesco played a tune for us on his goatskin tsabouna, we tried some of his homemade wine and as we looked out at a panorama that included six neighboring islands, I couldn’t help but feel as though we’d captured something elusive, a spirit, a feeling, something – that thing we look for on the road that makes a place dear to us. We found Greece in a ruined hilltop village with just two residents but these kinds of undiscovered edens are dotted all over the Aegean. All you have to do is just step off the ferry in the middle of the night, when everyone else is still asleep.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

12 Offbeat Travel Ideas For 2013

valetta maltaMy annual New Year’s Eve tradition is to reflect on all the places I visited during the year and plot out where I want to go in the New Year. 2012 was a banner travel year for my family because we put all of our things in storage for five months and traveled extensively in Europe and North America. We gorged ourselves on donuts and thought we got scammed in Western New York’s Amish Country, learned how to flatfoot on Virginia’s Crooked Road, were heckled and intimidated at a soccer game in Italy, and drank homemade wine with the only two residents of the village of San Michalis, on the Greek island of Syros.

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For those of you who have made resolutions to hit the road in 2013, here are 12 travel experiences and destinations, most of them a little or very offbeat, that I highly recommend.


amish donuts12. Donut Crawl in Western New York’s Amish Country

Unlike Lancaster County and other more well known Amish areas around the country, Cattaraugus County’s Amish Trail is a place where you can experience Amish culture, and let’s be honest here – candy and donuts – without all the tourists and kitsch. I love the Amish donuts so much that I went in January and again in July. Because there aren’t many tourists in this region, you’ll find that many of the Amish who live here are just as curious about you as you are about them.

11. Soak Up Colonial Era History in Marblehead, Massachusetts

I’ve been visiting family members in Marblehead for nearly 20 years and I never get tired of this beautifully preserved, quintessential New England town. Marblehead gets a steady trickle of day-trippers from Boston – but don’t make that mistake – book a B & B in this town and dive into one of America’s most historic towns for a full weekend.

10. Save The Turtles, Eat the Fish Tacos and Ride The Waves in Safe, Scenic San Pancho, Mexico

If you want a low-key beach vacation in Mexico but aren’t into big resorts or large cities, look no further than San Pancho, which is only an hour from the Puerto Vallarta airport. It’s about as safe as Mayberry, and you can volunteer to help preserve marine turtles, eat the best fish tacos you’ve ever had and surf and frolic on a huge, spectacular beach.



sicilian man in gangi nicola seminara9. Visit Gangi, Italy’s Most Charming Hill Town You’ve Never Heard Of

Italy is filled with enchanting hill towns, but many of them are besieged with tourists. If you want to check out a lovely hill town in Sicily’s interior that hasn’t changed much in centuries, check out Gangi, where you’ll find everything you could want in an Italian hill town: a perfect central piazza, a medieval street plan you will get lost in, and perhaps the world’s best gelato at the Seminara Bar (no relation to me).

freiburg germany8. Eat the Real Black Forest Ham in Historic Freiburg, Germany

Freiburg is a gorgeous, highly underrated city in Germany’s Black Forest region that is a pedestrian and gourmand dream. Here in the U.S., companies can get away with calling any old ham “Black Forest ham” but in Freiburg, you can sample the real deal and you will taste the difference.




7. Discover Old Time Music on Virginia’s Crooked Road

Southwest Virginia has a 253-mile music heritage trail that’s a glorious little slice of Americana where you’ll find terrific homespun music played by passionate locals who have Old Time Music in their blood. Don’t miss venues like the Fries Theater and the Floyd Country Store and bring your dancing shoes.




enzo ferrari museum modena italy6. Check Out Evita Peron’s Ride at Italy’s New Ferrari Museum

I’m not even a car buff, but I loved visiting the new Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, a picture-postcard small city in Emilia-Romagna, near Parma, that doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as it deserves. The museum pays tribute to the founder of Ferrari, who was born in the house next to the museum, and the automotive heritage of the Motor Valley, home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati and other companies that make vehicles suitable for rap stars, professional athletes and others who like to be noticed.




5. Eat at the World’s Best Greek Restaurant in San Michalis, Syros, Population:2

Syros is just a short ferry ride away from Mykonos but it gets only a tiny fraction of the tourists and I’m not sure why. It’s a gorgeous little island, with a thriving port, great beaches and To Plakostroto the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever been to, located in a striking, end-of-the-world village where you can see six neighboring islands.




4. Experience Bluegrass Nirvana at the Rosine Barn Jamboree in Kentucky

Every Friday night from March through early December, local musicians gather to jam at an old barn and general store in Rosine, Kentucky, the tiny little town where Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music was born. This might be the best free music jam in the whole country and best of all, the regulars are the sweetest people you will ever meet.




samos3. Patmos & Samos Not Santorini and Mykonos

I’m obsessed with the Greek Isles. If I could spend my holidays in just one place anywhere in the world, it might be here. But I get a little frustrated by the fact that most Americans visit only Santorini & Mykonos. Both places are undeniably beautiful, but there are dozens of less expensive, less crowded islands that are just as nice. Patmos and Samos, in the eastern Aegean, are absolutely gorgeous and aren’t as crowded or expensive. Samos is known for its wine & honey, while Patmos is home to one of the most interesting monasteries in Greece.




obama pasticciotto2. Eat an Obama Pasticciotto in Italy’s Heel

The fact that Salento, a peninsula in Italy’s heel, has a chocolaty, gooey desert named after President Obama is just one reason to visit this very special but relatively off-the-radar part of Italy. Lecce is a baroque dream, a lively place with a great passegiata, unforgettable food and wine, very friendly people and fine beaches in the vicinity.




1. Make Friends in Valletta, Malta

I had but one day in Valletta and I spent a big chunk of it trying to track down a retired Maltese civil servant who chided me for misrepresenting the country at a school model U.N. in 1986, but I saw enough of this city to want more. Valletta is a heartbreakingly picturesque port, with gently decaying sandstone buildings, warm people, dramatic Mediterranean vistas and artery-clogging pastizzis, which were my favorite treat of 2012.

Among The Thugs In Crete’s Package Holiday Hell

thugsThe young man standing in front of me, showing off for his friends, was so ugly and repulsive that I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He had a long, broken nose, thick, dark eyebrows, a cold, vacant stare and a long, skinny, sinister looking face that was covered in Maori tattoos. He might have simply been an unattractive young man if it weren’t for a prominent swastika tattooed across his chest.

I hated being in his vicinity. Even sharing the same beach with him made me feel tainted in some way but at the same time I couldn’t stop looking at him. He was surrounded by friends, a couple had the same working class British accent as him, but others sounded as though they were from Scandinavia. None appeared to be neo-Nazi skinheads, so how could they be on friendly terms with this thoroughly repellant individual?

The Nazi thug, who appeared to be about 30, also had a Scandinavian girlfriend, about 20 years old or so, and cute. Was dating this reprehensible human being a little rebellion or did she somehow find him attractive?One never expects to spend a summer holiday in the company of neo-Nazi thugs, but that’s exactly what happened one day two weeks ago, when I found myself on Platanias Beach, a horribly tacky, crowded resort in Crete that’s filled with working class package tourists from Northern Europe.

We met a very nice student named George on a bus who recommended we take our children to the beach at Platanias, but as we passed row after row of cheesy tourist traps and seedy looking motels driving towards the town from Chania, I couldn’t help but wonder if the beach itself would redeem the dismal main drag.

We weren’t clear on where to park as we entered Platanias town, so my wife stopped in a café to make an inquiry and a young Norwegian girl named Helena said she wanted a ride to the beach anyways, so she hopped in the front seat with me, as my wife retreated to the back with my sons, ages 2 and 4.

Helena said that she’d been coming to Platanias for years and loved the place, though she hadn’t been anywhere else in Crete, so she had no real basis of comparison. She worked each summer at a beach bar and I asked her how this was possible since Norway isn’t a member of the European Union.

“We’re not members?” she asked, surprised by my query.

“No,” I said. “I think there was a referendum a few years back and Norwegians decided not to join.”

“I don’t remember that,” she said. “I thought we were in the E.U.”

As soon as I saw the beach, I felt a crushing sense of disappointment. It was our last day in Greece, and over the preceding six weeks, we’d been privileged to see so many beautiful beaches, but this place was a mess. First, it was extremely crowded, so much so that one could barely see the sand. Second, there was a red flag up on the beach, indicating that the water quality was dangerously bad, and third, there were all kinds of tough looking punks, like the neo Nazi, getting hammered, even though it was only 11 A.M.

But the beach bar where Helena worked had a playground and before my wife and I could get back in the car and go elsewhere, our kids were already hooked, so we resolved to stay for a bit. She got a lounge chair and I settled in at a table at the beach bar to get a little work done.

I ordered a bottle of water but the waiter brought me a draft beer to go with it.

“First one’s on us,” he explained.

“But I don’t want a beer,” I said, defensively. “It’s not even Noon.”

“You don’t want a free beer?” he asked, clearly confused by my abstinence.

“Well, I don’t drink,” I lied, just to bring the conversation to a close.

“You don’t drink but you came for vacation in Platanias?” he asked, before breaking out in laughter.

Shortly thereafter, the Nazi settled in 10 yards in front of me, and two British women who might have been a member of a rugby team if they were 30 years younger, engaged in a spirited conversation within my earshot about the prices various beach bars charged for a pint. The search for a cheap pint seemed to be the most important component of their holiday.

Helena told me we should stick around for a “Zorba Dance Party” at the bar that would feature plate throwing and other nonsense, but as soon as we could pry our kids out of the playground, we got back in the car and headed east to Kalathas, a beautiful, unspoiled beach just east of Chania that we’d been to the previous day. After a great final afternoon at the beach there, we wondered why anyone in their right mind would go to Platanias.

“It’s because they have no clue,” said another George, who managed the hotel we stayed at in Chania and was less a fan of Platanias than the younger George we me on the bus.
“They come here on a package tour, the bus picks them up right at the airport and brings them straight to the hotel in Platanias. They have all their meals right there and they don’t even come here to Chania, even though it’s only a half hour away.”

The next day at the airport, I saw hundreds of pale-faced package tourists being herded like cattle onto buses and I felt terribly sorry for them. They were headed for Crete’s horrid north shore beach ghettos that have all the charm of an American strip mall. I wanted to stop them and shout, “No! Don’t let them take you to Platanias! The water is dirty, the beach is crowded and there’s even a Nazi!”

But there is no point in projecting your tastes upon others. Most of the people getting on those buses might actually like it there- the weather is hot, the beer is cold, and many who go there are in the mood to hook up while on holiday. And if all the crowds went to Kalathas then it wouldn’t be as nice as it is. So long live Platanias and all the other dreadful package tourist ghettos in Crete, sadly enough they help preserve the character of the rest of the island.

(Image via Neatjunk on Flickr, note that the author did not meet or photograph the individuals in the photo)

Hospitality: What We Can Learn From The Greeks

greeks giving directions greek hospitalityTwenty minutes into an uphill walk on a sizzling hot day on the Greek island of Syros, we gave up and decided to take a taxi. My wife and I were pushing a 2-year-old in a stroller, and cajoling our 4-year-old to brave the heat, much to his chagrin, but realized that our destination, the Catholic neighborhood of Ano Syros, perched high above the city, was too far away.

But taxis don’t randomly patrol the streets of Ermoupoli and I doubted there was a public bus that could get us there anytime soon. I saw a matronly woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she knew where we could get a taxi. She seemed not to understand me, and disappeared momentarily, before emerging a few moments later on the street.

“Tell me,” she said, using a phrase you hear all the time in Greece.

“I think we need a taxi up to Ano Syros,” I said.

She said she’d call one for us and then went back into her apartment. I thought we’d never see her again but a minute or two later, she came back out onto the street, crossed to the other side and popped a phone card into a pay phone. We had no mobile phone and assumed that she had either a landline or a mobile in her home and hadn’t even entertained the possibility that she could afford neither.”Car number nine will be here for you in 10 minutes,” she told us after crossing back to the shady side of the street to meet us.

Her name was Uranus, and she refused to accept any money for the phone call. She told us that she had studied to be a hairdresser but was never able to find a job.

“The crisis,” she explained. “There is no work here.”

ano syros greeceShe had no job and no phone but like most Greeks, she hadn’t lost the tradition of hospitality. After spending a few hours exploring Ano Syros (right), we were again at a loss to find a taxi with no mobile phone. But on a whim, I asked a man who was getting into his car if he was heading our way, and sure enough, he was happy to drive us back to our hotel, or anywhere else we wanted to go for that matter.

Over the course of a six-week trip through Kos, Patmos, Samos, Syros, Santorini and Crete, we’ve experienced remarkable hospitality in Greece, despite the economic crisis or perhaps because of it. Like any where else, we’ve had a couple of run-ins here or there with unscrupulous or unfriendly people, but for every negative encounter, there have been dozens of positive ones.

On the island of Kos, we found ourselves stranded in the humdrum town of Kefalos, thanks to an extremely limited bus schedule, and I walked into a pharmacy and asked a woman named Sevy, a Greek-American who had moved back to Kos, how to get to a nearby beach. There was no way, she said, but she insisted on having one of her colleagues drive us there in her car. It was a good 20-minute ride and they refused to take any money.

Hotel managers almost everywhere have redefined the concept of customer service. In Santorini, the owners of Rena’s Suites gave our children a whole host of toys and some waffles with ice cream upon arrival, and a bottle of wine on departure.

Lila at Lila’s Guesthouse in Syros insisted on washing all our clothes, free of charge, and picking us up at the port, also free, despite our 2:30 a.m. arrival time. And Yianni at the Afroditi Hotel in Rethymno, Crete, picked us up, dropped us off, gave us a bottle of wine, a plate of fruit and some little gifts upon departure even though we stayed with him just one night at the ridiculously low rate of 40€.

Hotel staffs have a vested interest in keeping travelers happy but we met kind people everywhere we went. In Crete, a group of locals welcomed me like a long lost friend during the EURO 2012 tournament. On the island of Syros, I accidentally barged into someone’s kitchen in a remote village and was invited in for a meal and entertained with some live music. Monks in Patmos made me coffee, served me cookies and invited me to worship with them. And on Election Day in Naxos, the mayor of a small village offered to personally show me around and insisted on buying me drinks.

Aside from the Middle East, where hospitality is almost like a religion, and neighboring Macedonia, where guests are also treated like gold, I can’t recall such a warm welcome anywhere in the world. Greece has a lot of problems, and there are many things that Greeks can learn from Americans (for example, having some gas in the tank of a rental car when you pick it up would be nice!). But I think that anyone who works in the hospitality industry should be required to come to Greece to see how it’s done right.

4 Hotel Bargains In the Greek Isles at $75 Per Night Or Less

sirena hotel samosWith the Euro sliding and many tourists avoiding Greece on the faulty assumption that the country isn’t safe, this is a great time to visit the Greek isles. If you can travel outside before outside July and August, you’ll find some amazing bargains.

I’ve spent the last month in the Greek isles with my wife and two young children and these are three of the best deals I’ve encountered for apartment-style hotels suitable for families. Each of these places cost us between 50 and 60€, but if you don’t have kids and need less space, you might be able get by on less if you travel outside the high season. Here are four great deals in Samos, Syros, Santorini, and Patmos.Sirena Hotel/Village- Samos

The Sirena Hotel is a swanky place in the beachside town of Kambos on the gorgeous island of Samos in the eastern Aegean, right on Turkey’s doorstep. Sirena Village is a collection of holiday apartments right across the street from the hotel. We had a beautiful little two-bedroom apartment with kitchen that was very comfortable and full of character. The pool is delightful and my kids loved the turtles that live in the backyard.

Our neighbor was Giannis, the owner’s dad, who lives in one of the villas in the summer (see photo above). Giannis likes to stroll the grounds, watering trees and chomping but not smoking cigarettes. He and the rest of the family make you feel incredibly welcome. We stayed for a week and didn’t want to leave. We had an evening ferry on our last day there and when I asked about check out time, they said, “Don’t worry, stay as long as you like.” I could live at this place.

syros lilas guesthouseLila’s Guesthouse- Syros

Syros is an underrated little island – popular with Greeks – that has a bustling, non-touristy port city, great food and beaches. It’s also a ferry hub, so you can make day trips to more expensive islands like Mykonos with no problem.

My love affair with Lila’s Guesthouse started even before we arrived. I booked via email and Lila asked what ferry we were arriving on. I told her we were coming in from Samos at 2:30 a.m. but she still offered to come pick us up. And sure enough, she was there, bleary eyed, in the middle of the night waiting for us as we got off the boat.

Sometimes hotel websites can be very misleading, but what you see is what you get at Lila’s. The place used to be the French consulate and the rooms are beautifully renovated and tastefully decorated. We had a one-bedroom loft with incredibly high ceilings, two balconies, all kinds of windows and light and a small kitchen. As beautiful as the place was, the best part about this place is the hospitality.

Lila and her husband, Dimitrios, are amazing hosts. One morning, I asked Dimitrios to recommend a Laundromat.

“Why?” he asked. “We’ll do it for you.”

“How much will that cost?” I asked, showing him a huge bag of dirty laundry for a family of four.

“No, no, it’s free,” he said, and three hours later he brought up our laundry, all neatly laundered and folded. I’ve been traveling the world for twenty years and no one has ever, ever washed my clothing for me for free. God Bless the Lila Guesthouse!

renas rooms and suites santoriniRena’s Rooms & Suites- Santorini

Santorini is easily the most expensive Greek island, due to its spectacular setting, so finding a high quality place here at a low price is a bit trickier than on other islands. But Rena’s Rooms & Suites is a very pleasant surprise. The place has some negative reviews online, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the rooms were completely renovated in 2011 and it’s like a brand new hotel.

We have a very stylish two-room suite with a terrace and access to a lovely pool that serves big frosty mugs of Fransiskaner Dunkel Weiss for 3.5€. Best of all, the owners left a whole slew of toys for my children in the room, which were a huge hit.

patmosHotel Australis- Patmos

Patmos is another gorgeous island in the eastern Aegean that has it all: history, great food, beaches and stunning scenery. We stayed in a two-bedroom apartment at the Hotel Australis for a week, and at the shoulder season (cash only) bargain price of 50€ per night, it was a steal. The apartment was functional, not fancy, but we practically lived on our terrace, which had an amazing view of the port.

The family that runs this place is wonderful. They brought us a bottle of wine when we checked in, and fresh baked goods every day. If we needed a ride somewhere, Peter was always there to help us, and before we even checked out, we were Facebook friends. Right around the corner from this place, you’ll find the trailhead for a great hike up to Patmos’s ancient Acropolis.

NOTE: Room rates will vary based upon time of year, occupancy, number of persons in the room and other factors.

(Photos and videos by Dave Seminara)