KOUFONISIA - When I told my new Greek friends that I planned to write an article about their favorite island, all four groaned in dismay. "Keep Koufonisia our secret," they pleaded. "If you write about it, more tourists will come and ruin everything!"
Many visitors to the Cyclades, a group of around 220 islands in the Aegean Sea, visit the well-trafficked Santorini or Mykonos. However, I was privileged to be traveling with a group of Athenians, seasoned island-hoppers, whose island of choice was the smaller, more intimate Koufonisia.
The attractiveness of the island lies in its unique balance: There are enough amenities catering to tourists (who are mostly Greek) to make it a comfortable destination, but not so many that the local character feels compromised. Accommodation is plentiful, pleasant and very affordable (We paid 30 euros per night for a cheerful double with a porch 10 meters from the sea, although prices are slightly higher during the high season of mid-July to late August). And the euphoric feeling visitors describe, from the moment they step off the ferry to a few weeks after returning to their respective homes, is priceless.
Whether sunning myself over multicolored pebbles , exploring a grotto from the foamy green water underneath, scrambling over rocky cliffs or dining on local fish and Greek salad with a generous helping of local feta made from sheep's milk, I mulled the following thought over in my head: What is it about this place that makes it so special?
The answer came to me over a locally caught white fish. The simplicity and vividness of the colors are magical. In typical Cyclades style, buildings are white with sharp angles and blue trim. The sea is light green in places and intense blue in others. Pink and orange flowers spread themselves ostentatiously over the white buildings. The effect is a visual extravaganza that is as calming as it is invigorating.
A stroll through Koufonisia's winding craggy rock roads, once you leave the tourist center, gives the impression of a land untouched by modernity. A lone mule grazes in a small enclosure, and a herd of goats in a larger pasture. From most places on the island, there is a breathtaking view of the cerulean sea.
The landscape is also decorated by cliffs, grottos and the profile of another island in the distance, its hills softly curved and dotted with dark-green vegetation - more than one finds in Israel, but still sparse enough to remind one that the climate is semi-arid.
The human landscape also has its particular charms. Approximately 360 people call the island home year-round. According to my very unofficial source, the owner of the popular restaurant Captain Nickolas, a third of the residents are children.
His figure is corroborated by the lively cries that emanate from a jasmine-and-bougainvillea-covered school. The grandparents are around too: withered old men leaning on canes next to doorways, their faces dark brown and deeply lined from years in the scorching sun, and the picturesque widows sitting on their porches, clad in black cloaks and head coverings, gazing serenely at the street.
The island has swimming spots to suit a variety of tastes. There is a lively one frequented by bronzed, topless bright young things whose other attraction is a beach bar serving frappes, the heady Greek coffee drink; the sound system blasts the requisite Bob Marley.
There are also several quieter beaches dotted with families or couples.
But although the island's beaches are lovely, the most spectacular place to sun oneself and swim or frolic in the water is a nearby island called Kapo (South) Koufinisia. A fisherman's boat leaves twice a day from the mainland, and returns to collect passengers before sunset.
The reward for the ride, which takes about 15 minutes, is no less than one's own private shore - Kapo Koufonisia is shaped so that each group of visitors can walk a few hundred meters to its own private beach, protected on each side by caves and other rock formations that beg exploration.
The only intruder we had was a Greek playboy and his lady friend (or so I imagined), who arrived in a private yacht and left shortly thereafter, perhaps in search of a more secluded Eden. The pebbles that make up the beach - teal greens, jades, blood reds and every color in between - are pretty enough to inspire some juggling in your suitcase to take a handful home.
The Koufonisia natives are helpful and friendly - and unjaded enough to ask me where I'm from with genuine interest, then pepper me with questions about New York and whether I know the Papadopoulos family of Astoria (a Greek-American neighborhood in Queens). Just don't disturb them around three in the afternoon, as the Koufonisians take siesta very seriously.
I learned this one afternoon when, intending to give my skin a break after three full days of lying on the beach, I entered a charming cafe on one of the village's winding paths and sat down with my book. The owner, a stout matron in black, unceremoniously informed me of that aspect of the island's tradition: "You. Out. Now!"
That solicitous patroness notwithstanding, the cafes, bars and restaurants are unpretentious, and the servers and patrons merry.
My companions and I spent one evening at one of the lively, simple taverns near our hotel, drinking cheap house red and white and gyrating to the sounds of a Greek band. The atmosphere inspired even the most two-left-footed visitor to join the crowd that had gathered to dance in the traditional style at the front of the room. At around three, we left the still-boisterous crowd and stumbled back to our accommodations alongside a road that curved next to the sea, singing as we watched the reflection of the full moon on the water.
If you are lucky enough to make it to the paradise of Koufonisia, please do be a careful and gracious tourist. And don't tell Angelika, Cristina, Maria or Helena that I sent you!