Off the map in Kastellorizo

by Robin.Gauldie

Greece’s most remote island, Kastellorizo attracts celebrities, yachties and a summer party crowd

 
Kastellorizo is as far off the map of Greece as it’s possible to get - so far off, in fact, that it has to be set in a little insert at the top corner of the main chart. But make the journey here to discover somewhere rather special.
 
Kastellorizo is no more difficult to get to than many other Greek islands. It’s around 80 miles southeast of Rhodes, within sight of the Turkish coast and there are several ferries and flights every week. The ferry trip takes a bit over four hours; the flight, in an Olympic Airlines puddle-jumper, about 40 minutes. But because Kastellorizo is so remote, not many people make the effort to find it.
 
First glance
Arriving, you pass an unpromising clutter of barren islands inhabited only by seabirds and a few goats before rounding a headland into a fine natural harbour - a fjord-like inlet of deep blue water and a quayside lined with tiers of vividly-painted old houses with tall windows and wrought iron balconies. These old homes are decorated in sweet-shop shades of sky-blue, rose-pink, arsenic-green and primrose-yellow. Even the coastguard HQ - where a crew of impressively buffed and tanned sailors flex their pecs for the admiration of lady visitors - is painted in a distressed orange ochre and purple that wouldn’t disgrace the interiors pages of the trendiest glossy magazines.
 
Next to it, overlooking the harbour, a tall minaret and a pink-domed mosque are reminders of the island’s not so distant Turkish past. On the low hilltop above it, the tumbledown tower of a small Venetian castle gives the island its name, originally Castello Rosso, or ‘red castle’. In Greek, it’s ‘Megisti’, meaning ‘biggest’ - which seems silly, but it is surrounded by an archipelago of even tinier rocky specks, and it is indeed the biggest isle in this mini-archipelago.
 
Local history
One of these teensy neighbours is Rho, whose sole inhabitant - nicknamed ‘the Lady of Rho’ - gained fame all over Greece for her daily ritual of raising the blue-and-white national flag to affirm the island’s Greekness. She is fondly remembered all over Greece.
 
Kastellorizo has a chequered history. Seized from Venice by the Turks, it was grabbed back by Italy in 1912, occupied by the French during World War I, badly knocked about by the British during World War II, and didn’t become part of Greece until 1947. Many islanders emigrated to Australia, from which droves of second- and third-generation ‘Kassies’ return every summer to holiday on their ancestral island.
 
Between the wars, Kastellorizo was a stopover for the huge flying boats of Imperial Airways, Air France and Alitalia, and well-heeled passengers stayed overnight in a hotel built specially for them.
 
Places to stay
The flying boats have had their day, but there are now plenty of rather cool places to stay on Kastellorizo, all of which are around the harbour. Top of the list has to be the gorgeous Mediterraneo at the east end of the harbour, a boutique hotel designed (and run with Swiss efficiency) by architect Marie Rivalant, and decorated in bright summery colours. The rooms (costing €60-150) are cool and airy, and though there is no pool there are couches and cushions where you can lounge by the waterside, and a bathing ladder to dazzling turquoise water just two steps from your door. 
 
Stylistically, the next-door Hotel Megisti doesn’t compare - it’s a boxy, 1960s two-storey affair - but the rooms are comfortable and well-equipped, the view is just as pretty and there’s a sun-deck with loungers, bar and sea access. With rooms starting as low as €35, it’s the value-for-money choice.
 
A little closer to the centre of the village, the Hotel Kastellorizo has self-catering suites from €95-150 and Mandraki Paradise has three self-catering maisonettes with all mod cons, contained in three newly-built houses in island style. If you go the self-catering route, you can  shop for fresh fish, fruit and veg in the tiny open-air market hall midway along the harbour, a miniature Italian building where swallows build their nests under the eaves.
 
Dinner and dips
Cafes and tavernas surround the harbour - enough of them to allow you to eat at a different spot every night for a fortnight. Outside most tavernas, fresh-caught lobster, prawns, squid, bream and sea bass glisten on beds of crushed ice. You won’t find fresher seafood anywhere - on my last visit, an unwary cuttlefish swam too close to the quayside and was quickly harpooned by an enterprising taverna owner, to reappear a few minutes later as lunch. Apparently, this wasn't unusual - a fearsome-looking fish spear was kept handy for just such opportunities. If you go for the lobster, expect to pay €60 or more, but you can eat very well for €15 each, including wine.
 
Kastellorizo lacks beaches, but to compensate there are bathing ladders strategically located at points around the harbour, giving access to crystal-clear water, and you can rent a sunbed and umbrella on the Megisti’s sundeck for €2 a day.
 
Day tripping
For exploring, there are boat trips to the ‘blue grotto’, where you plunge into a bat-haunted sea cavern by way of an entrance that’s so low you must lie flat in your dinghy to avoid hitting your head. Inland, reached by a steep zig-zag stair and path, is a tableland of red earth, abandoned olive groves and twisted junipers, with a scattering of abandoned farmhouses and a ruined monastery. It’s excellent walking country, but don’t point your camera at any of the camouflaged concrete Greek Army bunkers you may encounter - they’re mostly disused, but still treated as if they are top secret military installations.
 
At night, the lights of Kalkan, a couple of miles away on the Turkish mainland, look temptingly close, and you can hop on a boat for a day trip to Turkey most days in summer. Kalkan, once a sleepy fishing village, is now a popular yacht harbour and holiday resort, with some good shopping bargains, including leatherwear, cotton and linen cloths, and designer knock-offs. Or do Ray-Ban really make fashion shades for just €12?
 
Summer party
Peaceful to a fault most of the year, Kastellorizo erupts into celebratory mode in July and August, when ‘Kassie’ expats flock in from Australia, a mostly Italian (and therefore exuberant) holiday crowd fills the bars and cafes, and a flotilla of posh yachts moors along the quayside. Celebs are among the summer crowd - recent sightings have included Tom Hanks and rock gods Eric Clapton and David Gilmour, whose most recent album was inspired by the island. In high summer, this is the island that never sleeps - at least, not after dark, though you won’t find a soul awake between around mid-afternoon and sunset. Lazy days and lively nights are what you come to Kastellorizo for, and this out-of-the-way island packs an awful lot into a tiny package.
 
 
 

Robin.Gauldie

When Robin Gauldie first visited Greece in 1973 it was love at first sight, and he spent the next four summers island-hopping, walking, swimming and picking up the occasional drachma by part-time grape-pricking. After graduating from Edinburgh University in 1976, he became a local newspaper journalist, then in 1979 joined the travel industry newspaper Travel Trade Gazette, a job which allowed him to travel all over the world at other people’s expense. He became a freelance journalist in 1989, and has written for numerous national newspapers, including the Sunday Telegraph, for which he writes the annual Insider’s Guide to Greece, and the Sunday Mirror. He also writes for National Geographic Traveller, Greece Magazine, and a number of inflight magazines including EasyJet and Ryanair. Robin now divides his time between his home in Edinburgh and a ramshackle village house near Carcassonne and spends several months each year travelling in Greece. He has written a number of guidebooks to Greece, including the new (just out) HotSpots Halkidiki and HotSpots Skiathos, Skopelos & Alonnisos guides, published by Thomas Cook; the Thomas Cook Traveler’s Guides to the Greek Islands and to Mainland Greece; Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Top 10 Crete; Charming Small Hotels & Restaurants Greece; and the Footloose Guide to Greece, as well as guides to Amsterdam, Egypt, Estonia, Goa, Ireland, Jamaica, Morocco, Peru, Scotland, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. With his partner Zoe Ross, he also runs the online image library www.sargasso-travelimages.com