Everyone who can afford it should visit Greece this summer. That was the conclusion I reached after reading a heartbreaking story about malnourished children in Greece on the front page of Thursday’s New York Times. According to Liz Alderman’s piece, malnutrition is a serious and growing problem in Greece, where the unemployment rate has reached 27 percent and even those who are employed have seen their wages slashed due to austerity measures. Alderman interviewed Greek school officials and others who have seen school kids stealing food, fainting or appearing listless due to hunger and foraging through trash bins for leftovers.
Greece is very near and dear to my heart so I had a difficult time making it through the story. Last year international tourist arrivals to Greece in the first nine months of the year (January-September) declined by 5 percent overall at a time when Greece needed tourists most. Even worse, arrivals from the United States plummeted by 19.2 percent. Images of protests in Athens no doubt scared away plenty of American tourists and some Germans stayed away in part because of a perceived backlash over austerity negotiations.
Avoiding Greece because of safety concerns is silly. Athens has crime just like any other large city but the Greek Islands are as safe and idyllic as any place in the world. Even if you are concerned about Athens, you can fly directly to islands like Kos, Rhodes, Samos, Kefalonia, Crete, Zakynthos, Corfu, Mykonos or Santorini on Aegean Airlines, or on budget carriers like Ryanair or EasyJet.
Greece is obviously not the only country in the world where there are children who aren’t getting enough to eat and it’s far from the world’s poorest country. Child poverty is a huge problem all over the world, including right here in the United States. In February, I visited Nicaragua and the poverty that exists there is sickening. But there may not be another place on earth where people’s standard of living has declined as precipitously as it has in Greece over the last couple years. There are desperately poor people all over the developing world but many of today’s poor in Greece are people who had stable jobs and incomes just a few years ago.
The reality is that most Americans aren’t going to plan a trip based on a desire to help alleviate poverty far from home. But Greece is actually an easy sell, regardless of the moral case for visiting the country. Great weather, tasty food, reasonable prices, historical sites, welcoming people and picture perfect beaches on dozens of islands where you’ll think you died and went to heaven. Greeks are proud of their country, regardless of its dire economic situation, and if you express in interest in knowing more about their country and its culture, 1,000 doors will be opened for you.
I’ve been to Greece many times, including a six-week stint in the Greek Isles last year, and I’m always amazed at how few Americans venture anywhere in Greece outside of Athens, Santorini and Mykonos. On Kos, Patmos, Samos and Crete last year, we found plenty of bargains and I’ve been daydreaming about these places ever since I left Greece last June. I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries and I have deep family ties to Italy but Greece is the place I dream about on gloomy days in Chicago. It’s the one place that somehow stays with me after I leave.
In the shoulder season, it’s easy to find comfortable accommodation on most of the Greek Islands for as little as 50 euros per night. A good meal can be had for 7-10 euros, a half liter of house wine can be as little as 2 euros and if you need to get some work done, there are scores of beachfront restaurants and bars that have Wi-Fi all over the busier Greek Islands. Flights to Greece from the U.S. are pricey but you can save money by finding a cheap flight to London and then booking a discount flight on to the Greek Islands from there.
%Gallery-162057% But will it help?
How can you make sure that your trip to Greece will actually have a positive impact? Here are a few tips.
Spend Wisely. Stay at smaller, family owned hotels and bed and breakfasts, or rent apartments or rooms from local people. Spread your money around by patronizing local restaurants rather than eating at the hotel and buy handicrafts and art directly from the people who make them.
Use a Credit Card or At Least Ask for an Official Receipt. Tax evasion has long been a huge issue in Greece and it’s easier for businesses to hide money when they are paid in cash.
Hire Guides. A local guide can greatly enrich your trip and it helps funnel cash directly into the local economy. Even if you don’t like to tour archaeological or historic sites, consider hiring a guide to take you sailing or on a hike.
My 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rick Steves doesn’t want you to go to Orlando. For more than thirty years, Steves has been trying to sell Americans on leaving the country in his work as a tour guide, author and host of the PBS Series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” These days, Steves thinks that it’s more important than ever for Americans to travel overseas, both to broaden their own horizons and to serve as citizen diplomats who can help overcome stereotypes about America.
Steves, 57, still spends nearly four months each year researching his guidebooks on the ground in Europe, and says he’s not likely to retire anytime soon. His highly successful brand grew out of a love of travel that he inherited from his parents but evolved from his own wanderings after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in European History and Business.
After graduation, he returned to the university’s Experimental College to teach a class on budget travel in Europe, and in 1979, he self published the first edition of his now famous “Europe Through the Back Door” series. By the early ’80s, he was leading small minibus tours in Europe. Combining his two passions, he opened a piano teaching studio that gradually morphed into his travel business in Edmonds, Washington, his hometown.
Today, his company employs 80 people and thousands of his devotees swear by his guidebooks and tours. Steves is also an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, (he’s a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Washington State if victorious in the upcoming election) and thinks that Americans need to take more time off, even though he admits that he works all the time. We talked to him about Iran, unrest in the Middle East, his passion for Europe, and the importance of travel as a political act.
As we speak, there are protests all around the Muslim World over a film that denigrates Islam. Just as Americans don’t understand them, they can’t understand that this film doesn’t represent us, right?
It’s so clear. That’s why I’m on a mission. If I’m going to be able to contribute anything, it’s enabling and inspiring Americans to travel so that makes it tougher for other governments to demonize us, and it makes it harder for our government to demonize them. When you travel, it works both ways.
After someone has met an American in person, it might be a little easier for him or her to put a ridiculous video they saw on YouTube in context?
They’ll have a better understanding of who we are and they’ll be less likely to think our whole country is blaspheming their prophet. Christians have a little more of a sense of humor with these things but I believe we have to respect people’s sensitivities and cut them a little slack. It’s much, much deeper than them being angry about a video though. They don’t want their culture to be hijacked by aggressive Western values.
A woman in Iran came up to me and said, ‘We’re united, we’re strong and we just don’t want our little girls to be raised like Brittney Spears.”
This woman is scared to death that we’ll take over their country – to protect Israel or get access to their oil or whatever – and then we’d impose on them our values. If we all traveled, they’d have more understanding of us and we’d have more understanding of them.
Was there any backlash for visiting Iran, a country that many Americans still regard as an enemy?
I thought I would get more but of all the edgy projects I’ve done it’s been one of the most positively received. We worked hard to do it without an agenda. There’s a small element in our country that says, ‘when you humanize them, you make our enemy more likeable, therefore you are evil.’ But I can’t consider the objections of people like that.
Do you think that you’ve have contributed to informing Americans that Iranians don’t hate America?
I feel it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve done. I’m just one person though and we’re just one small production company. I feel like we were ahead of the curve – our timing was right. The State Department gave me the Citizen Diplomat of the Year Award after that and I got a Lutheran Activist of the Year Award too. The show aired in every market in the U.S. many times, so for me that was very exciting.
If I produced a show on Iran and only people who are progressive and want to understand Iranians and appreciate their culture watched it, I wouldn’t have accomplished much. I wanted to produce a show that people who were predisposed to be angry with Iran and not want to better understand the people who put Ahmadinejad in power would watch so they would understand that it’s a more complicated reality than what they’d learned watching the Hostage Crisis on Nightline with Ted Koppel.
Three years later, though, there’s still a lot of sabre rattling and talk of bombing Iran. But once you’ve traveled to a country and made friends with people there, it’s a lot harder to talk about dropping bombs on them isn’t it?
Of course it is. A lot of Americans are angry at Libya for killing our Ambassador. Well, Libya didn’t kill our Ambassador – a bunch of loose cannons did. A traveler has a more sophisticated understanding of these things. It saddens me to see angry and destructive rhetoric coming out of Iran, and there are times when I consider that and think, ‘well, why did I help those people?’ But I know that Iranian people are in a difficult situation and they’re generally good people and there are complicated forces at work there that might make less sophisticated Americans think of them as our enemy.
I just thought that if more people would travel there, that would be really constructive. Unfortunately, not many Americans will travel there, but I can give them the vicarious travel experience.
Can you recommend Iran to Americans?
It’s like traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They want tourism – it brings in money. They think it helps people understand them better, but they don’t want people running around unescorted, so in order to get a visa you have to have a guide and your hotels arranged.
Given that, it’s wide open for tourism and it’s not that dicey. A lot of Europeans really enjoy going there; it’s a wonderful destination, as far as the culture, the food and the people go.
What’s the best payoff about visiting Iran?
If you’ve been to Iran, then every time you see it on TV, you know what’s not in the frame of the camera. It’s very easy from the news broadcaster’s point of view to zoom in on the intense stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and if they’re shaking their fists at us on TV, it seems like the whole country is shaking their fists at us.
You’ve written in the past about trying to understand the grievances of terrorists and other evildoers. Some regard that as treason, right?
If your big motivation is national security and your approach is ‘shoot first, ask questions later, it’s my way or the highway,’ and unilateralism and exceptionalism and all that stuff, (not understanding the enemy) is the worst thing you could do for national security.
I really think it’s a pragmatic thing to try to understand what motivates people. That’s not justifying or excusing what they did, that’s just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a billion Muslims in the world and a billion Christians. One thousand angry Muslims have breeched our consulates. OK, let’s figure that out, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose hope and all go crazy.
What other countries that we don’t have diplomatic relations with would you like to visit? Perhaps North Korea?
No, I don’t want to go to North Korea. My personal challenge would be to go to Palestine. I floated the idea of trying to do a show where we give Americans a better understanding of the roots of the Palestinian situation, but I think it would be even more of a challenge than doing the Iran show.
I think many Americans actually don’t want to learn more about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian problem because it might threaten their deep-seeded feelings and beliefs about it. I think it would be very complicated to do a show that gives people a better empathy for the struggles of the Palestinian people without pissing off a lot of people at the same time.
I wrote an article proposing that the best thing we could do for Israel’s national security is to give Palestine more dignity and fairness and people were really, really upset with that. I’m sympathetic to the situation Israel is in, but if we could help Palestine, we’d be giving Israel more security. It seems so obvious. But people just don’t want to go there. It would be a fun challenge to try making a ‘let’s humanize Palestine’ TV documentary though and I think I probably will in the next few years.
Your name is synonymous with Europe, but it seems as though you also want to turn people on to other destinations around the globe?
My favorite country is India but I’ve decided that my beat is Europe. I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration for Americans. If I can just help inspire and equip Americans to go to Portugal rather than Orlando again, to Morocco rather than Vegas again, to go to Turkey and suck on a hookah, and come home with a broader perspective, that’s a huge accomplishment. And that’s my mission.
Europe is a gateway to the rest of the world for Americans?
Right, then it’s, ‘let’s go to Thailand or Sri Lanka.’ Europe is the (first) big challenge. It’s amazing how many Americans are afraid to go to France because they don’t like us, or Portugal because it’s dirty, or Spain, because there are gypsies. Then you get there and realize, ‘hey, I had a great time and it didn’t cost that much and the world’s a big place, let’s go to Colombia.’
Our country is becoming less and less European and these days being called “Eurocentric” is a real insult. Is there anything wrong with being a Europhile?
I am proudly a Europhile and think anyone who is “anti-European” is driven by ethnocentrism and fear and naivety. You certainly don’t need to embrace European ideas or lifestyle, but to be anti-European is like being anti-culture or anti-broccoli.
I’ve heard you say that you like Bulgaria. What are some other under-the-radar spots you recommend in Europe?
I love Eastern Turkey, or anywhere in Turkey. Americans go to Istanbul, but they only see 5 percent of the city. Just take a bus to a far fringe of the city and spend a half-day wandering around.
I was just in Hamburg, Germany, and there are no Americans there. It’s really fun to go to cities that aren’t exotic but that Americans aren’t that interested in.
We were in the Greek isles this summer and there are lots of Americans in Santorini but essentially none in Syros, Samos, Patmos, Kos, and a host of other terrific Greek islands. How do we all end up in the same places, is it our guidebooks?
To me, Greece is the most touristed but least explored country. In Greece, some islands are touristy and they have lots of Europeans and multi-language menus and fun, fruity drinks and discos and others are pretty rustic and have just enough commerce to get you a Greek salad and some calamari, and the few tourists around at night are hanging out playing backgammon with the locals.
That really is a very rewarding slice of an otherwise touristy country. It’s not that tough – almost anywhere as a traveler – to make a left turn instead of going right as the guidebooks tell you and have a real experience.
So how do you encourage your readers to take your advice but also do their own thing?
In the introductory chapter to my guidebook “Europe Through the Back Door,” where I share my 40 favorite discoveries, I make the point that these are examples – don’t just march to these places, but let these places inspire you to find your own.
Having said that, Americans like to be spoon-fed, so that’s why a lot of people take the book and go exactly where I recommend, and that’s not all bad. But I always weave into my writing encouragement for people to go on their own cultural scavenger hunt. I’m not going to tell you to turn left at the fountain.
Travelers are gravitating away from guidebooks and toward user generated travel advice from Trip Advisor and a host of other sites. Has this dynamic changed the travel industry?
If you’re a restaurant or a hotel it’s dramatic. They’re brutalized by the power of sites like Trip Advisor. As a guidebook writer, I’m not threatened by this stuff. There are more than enough people out there who want information designed by a real traveler that has no agenda.
Internet sites that gather and share other peoples’ experiences are a real power though; there are a lot of people that design their whole trip around Trip Advisor. I had never visited Trip Advisor until about three months ago. It’s an impressive pile of information but I’ve been sifting through reader feedback for twenty years, so, while some of it is excellent and really helpful, I know how worthless most of it can be.
What’s your travel schedule like?
For the last twenty years I’ve been in a simple, clear rut. I spend four months in Europe – April and May in the Mediterranean, and then I go home in June. Then I go back for July and August north of the Alps. For 25 years, I was a tour guide but for the last ten years or so, I haven’t been leading tours. I dedicate my time to researching guidebooks and producing TV shows. This year I went to Leipzig, Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Hamburg for the first time and revisited lots of other places I’ve been writing about for decades. I spend two-thirds of my time researching guidebooks and one-third producing TV shows.
For me, the challenge is, do I want to find new frontiers for tourism or do I want to make sure that the places where most of the travelers go are well covered? It’s a tough call, because I’d like to go to the Ukraine, I’d like to go to Eastern Europe or do more in Northern Europe.
I can write a great self-guided tour for Paris or Florence or Vienna, and piles of people will use that. Or I can work really hard to get great information on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s trail across Northern Spain, but almost no one will use it. So I’m in a quandary. I’m supposed to be Mr. Back Door, going to places that are less popular, but where I can contribute the most is in places like Rome, Munich or Salzburg.
Are you too American to want to live in Europe full time, but too European to be content in the U.S. all year?
I would only live in the U.S.A. I really feel at home here. I am much more American than European even though I enjoy my work/mission of sharing a European perspective with Americans.
I understand that your son, Andy, is following in your footsteps with his own travel company?
While we took him to Europe every year of his life, I didn’t think he was destined to get into tour guiding and travel teaching. Travel didn’t seem to turn him on. But after he graduated from Notre Dame, he started his own tour business designing wonderful €200 three-day weekends for young Americans studying abroad. Now, through his company, Weekend Student Adventures, Andy’s taking hundreds of students on great tours in Europe’s top six cities.
He’s 25, promotes his business by giving free talks to universities anywhere he can and his tours are filled mostly with adventurous young women. He loves his work – just like me when I was that age. So the answer is yes. He’s over there now as I speak and I am really proud of him.
Where do you travel strictly for pleasure?
I like my work so much I don’t really need a vacation. I love to travel. I can work for 50 12-hour days in a row in Europe, and come home feeling younger and more energized than when I left.
What do you find most gratifying about your job?
I’m like a lifelong student. I love to learn. I have a European history degree. I like to connect good people with good entrepreneurs, and mom and pop kind of places in Europe. To help little businesses in Europe that deserve to thrive. I like to challenge Americans to get out of their comfort zones.
I wrote a book, “Travel as a Political Act.” I have enjoyed a huge new dimension to my work since 9/11. I think the role of a travel writer is to be the medieval jester. To get out there and find out what’s going on outside the castle, and come home and tell people what it’s all about. If I can inspire and equip people to do that, that’ll help America fit more comfortably on this ever-smaller planet.
My first guidebook, “Europe Through the Back Door” is in its 32nd year now, and I’m doing essentially the same thing I did way back then. And I’m thankful I’m not burning out. With so many great workmates to collaborate with and so much new technology to amplify our teaching, it’s more fun than ever. As long as I’m physically able to do this, I can’t stop.
Twenty 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.”
She 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.
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.
My introduction to the island of Samos was a trunk infested with thousands of tiny, prowling insects, feasting on an open bag of fertilizer. We had just arrived in Pythagorion, a port city named after Pythagoras, the famous mathematician who was born there, and the owner of the hotel we were to stay in had come to pick us up. But just as I was about to hoist our bags into the trunk of her car, I noticed all the insects and thought better of it.
I ended up putting the suitcases in the back seat and walking to the hotel, an inauspicious start to our visit to say the least. After a glorious week in Patmos, Pythagorion seemed unimpressive, despite its attractive harbor area, so we dropped our original plan to base there for a week and rented a car to explore the island’s wild and beautiful south and west coasts.
As soon as we had our own wheels, we fell in love with Samos. It’s a place worthy of any superlative you can conjure. I found the island’s largest towns to be mostly forgettable, but almost everything in between them was magic, especially on the west side.The name Samos means “high” in the ancient Ionian dialect of Greek, and historians assume the island was thus named after its mountainous interior. By mid-summer, the island’s terrain is mostly brown, but in early June, it was still delightfully green and punctuated with wild flowers and aromatic pine trees.
As we drove west on a dizzying, but scenic, road from Pythagorion towards Kambos, the base we chose in the southwest, we passed a slew of stands selling honey, one of Samos’s best exports. I didn’t indulge at first, but after seeing so many of the places, my curiosity got the best of me and I spent the remainder of my week drizzling honey on anything that moved.
Near our base in Kambos, a pleasant enough one horse town that serves as a convenient base for exploring the beautiful west end of the island, we fell in love with a psili ammos beach. I say “a” rather than “the” because psili ammos means “fine sand” in Greek and you find lots of beaches with this name all over the Greek isles, including two on Samos.
Both are great, but the Psili Ammos beach just outside Kambos may be the best beach for kids I’ve ever experienced. It’s a lovely beach with unbelievably shallow water, so even my 2- and 4-year-olds could comfortably wade very far out from the shore.
From Kambos, take a drive out to Kalithea and Drakei to see one of Europe’s last great, undeveloped coasts, filled with stunning cliff top panoramas of the blue Aegean and the surrounding islands. Around every curve, you’ll want to pull over and get our your camera. Western Samos has the feel of a wild, virgin paradise. There are no tacky souvenir shops or much of anything, save the odd taverna here and there but the natural beauty is astounding.
Just as interesting as the coastal drives are excursions into the mountainous interior. We drove up to the enchanting mountain villages of Vourliotes and Manolates for stunning views and a taste of village life and stumbled across a group of drunken seniors celebrating a religious festival on a Monday morning.
You could easily idle away a week on a beach in Samos but the most rewarding part of my ten days on this addictive island were hikes I made up to Panagia Markini, a 13th Century cave church near Kallithea, and the 10th Century Evangelistria convent, near Kambos. Both are fairly strenuous but the views are astounding and the icons behind the curtain in the cave church are haunting and beautiful.
If you look at a map of Samos, you’ll see little black dots with crosses, signifying churches and monasteries that were built all over the interior of the island, many of them in hard to find locations to ward off invaders. Working monasteries like Panagia Vrontiani and Megali Panagia have beautiful frescoes and are well worth a visit.
Samos also boasts good, sweet wine that can be bought straight off the back of a small vintners pickup truck for a song. I feasted on grilled souvlaki, calamari, octopus and other treats, always for about 7-9€, and I never had a bad meal. We experienced remarkable hospitality wherever we went and even our buggy car owner turned out to be a gem. We disliked the small rooms in her hotel but rather than pout or blame us, she helped us find a more suitable place to stay.
Our car rental experience seemed to sum up the island’s laid-back charm. We picked up our car in Pythagorion, in the island’s southeast, but later on decided that we wanted to drop it off in Karlovasi, where our ferry was to leave up in the island’s northwest.
A branch of National car rental, which also offered by far the lowest rate for an automatic transmission car at 30€ per day, told us not to worry about making the 1.5-hour drive back to Pythagorion to return the car, even though they have no location near Karlovasi.
“Just leave it at the ferry, and put the keys under the mat, we’ll go get it,” said Alex, the young man we dealt with who told us there was no extra charge to leave the car anywhere on the island.
“But is that safe?” I asked. “I mean, what if someone steals it?”
“This is Samos,” he said. “Things like that don’t happen here.”
If there’s no bill for a four door Hyundai on my next credit card statement, I’ll know he was right about Samos.
If you go: We arrived in Samos via a ferry from Patmos, which takes about three hours, but you can also fly directly to the islands on a variety of European discount and charter airlines, or take a ferry from Athens.
If you want a very lively place with some nightlife or don’t have the budget to rent a car, Pythagorion might be a good base, but I much preferred Kambos. We stayed at the Sirena Village where we had an early season steal – a two-bedroom villa with breakfast and access to a lovely pool for just 55€ per day.
If you like to hike, definitely make the treks up to Evangelistria and Panagia Makrini. And if you have time, you can also hike from Kokari up to Panagia Vrontiani.
Definitely check out the honey stands west of Pirgos. There are all kinds of good places to eat but I absolutely loved the souvlaki at the little Vraxos restaurant in Vourliotes.