For climbers and divers, Kalymnos is the most exciting island in Greece - but if you just want to lie on the beach, that's cool too
Hanging by your fingers and toes from a sheer rock wall above the beaches of Kalymnos, you may well ask yourself: ‘What am I doing here?’ You can, if you want, come to Kalymnos just to swim, bask and generally go horizontal for a fortnight. Do I not like that? If that’s what you want, Kos’s smaller, northern neighbour has enough beaches to keep you happy.
Getting here is just that little bit more time-consuming – you need to fly to Kos and catch a ferry, or fly to Athens then take a connecting flight to Kalymnos’s small airport – so the island is never overrun by package holiday-makers, and there are no huge hotels, though there are plenty of smaller guesthouses and apartment complexes, some with shared pools.
For that old-style Greek island vibe, head north to Emborios, a miniature fishing hamlet, where the fish still outnumber the tourists by several orders of magnitude. It stands on a natural harbour that, from the pebbly beach, looks more like a landlocked lagoon, and the water is gin-clear.
Mirthies and Masouri, on the west coast, have virtually merged into one low-key resort, where most of the accommodation is in purpose-built small guesthouses and self-catering studios, on a pebbly beach that’s sheltered by the hilly island of Telendos, across the bay. There’s even a modicum of very relaxed nightlife, mainly in the open-air music bars at Kantouni beach – but you don’t come to Kalymnos for that.
Small boats scoot back and forwards between Masouri and Telendos all day in summer, carrying platoons of beach-lovers to its bigger and less crowded beach. To feel really smug, and enjoy the feeling of having got away from it all, stay on this tiny satellite island – if you can. But book well in advance. George Trikilis has bright and breezy rooms and studios (€40-50) at On the Rocks, and they’re much in demand, because they’re the only beds on Telendos. On the Rocks is also Telendos’s only taverna, though you may find a couple of beach shacks serving drinks on Hohlakas beach in high summer.
But in recent years Kalymnos has become a magnet for a more active kind of holiday. Its steep cliffs offer the best climbing in the Greek islands, and its offshore waters offer divers visibility of 30 metres or more. No-one knows quite why the Kalymniots became divers. But a century ago, the island was the capital of a sponge-diving empire with branches in Tunisia, Tripoli, Cuba, Nassau, and Tarpon Springs, Florida – which is why, in summer, you’ll find the cafes along the quayside at Pothia, Kalymnos’s harbour village, full of third- and fourth-generation Florida-Kalymniots visiting their ancestral island and their stay-at-home relatives. Some of them remember aged veterans of the sponge-diving fleet spending their retirement years in these same cafes.
The Vouvalis Museum, in the family mansion of the island’s wealthiest sponge-trading dynasty, is elaborately furnished in high Edwardian style, with gilt-framed mirrors, Royal Doulton porcelain, oil portraits of family members and plush furniture – all imported at great expanse from France and England when Kalymnos was still under Turkish rule. There was obviously plenty of money in bathroom supplies in those days.
Kalymnos’s clear waters offer a great choice of walls, reefs, caves and an array of wrecks, most dating from World War II, when the islands were contested by British and German forces. Base yourself at the Hotel Elies, in Panormos, for both diving and climbing - Kalymnos Diving Centre, based here, offers diving for experts and novices, as well as PADI certification courses. Chief instructor Tiia Porri is a climber too, and will point you in the direction of the best routes on the island.
There are now some 200 bolt-protected pitches on 20 crags, but aficionados say only five per cent of the island’s potential routes have been opened up. Some cliffs are still completely untouched, so there’s plenty of opportunity for pioneers on expanses of excellent quality limestone, with only a few sharp sections.
For both diving and climbing, I’d recommend an October visit, when the weather is reliably warm and dry but not scorching, and the sea is warm after months of summer sun, and usually calm. But whether you choose to go up or down, or just lie flat – or combine all three – Kalymnos is the business.