Green hills, blue water and white pebble beaches make Samos a magnet for walkers and beach bums alike
Until I visited Samos, my experience of the Greek islands had been limited to the arid, rocky little isles of the Cyclades, almost treeless except for carefully nurtured olive groves. So this big, green island (almost 40 miles from end to end), with its rolling hills cloaked in planes and cypresses, lush vineyards that produce some of the best Greek wines, and mountain streams that flow even in the height of a Greek summer, came as a revelation.
Instead of the little white cottages and blue-domed churches that are typical of the Cyclades, Samos has villages of tall houses roofed with red pantiles and embellished with wooden shutters and wrought-iron balconies. Some people say it looks like a little piece of Tuscany transplanted into the northeast Aegean.
If you insist on golden sandy beaches, Samos isn’t for you – though brilliantly clear water and white pebbles compensate less choosy beach bums. But where Samos really scores is for walkers. There are dozens of easy rambles, starting from sea level and wandering through shady woodland, where scarlet-winged gypsy moths sometimes explode in great clouds from the undergrowth, and frogs and terrapins plop into little pools as you pass. Old mule paths zig-zag through the hills, connecting villages, vineyards and olive groves. And for serious mountain walkers, there is the challenge of Mt Kerkis, the hulking, 1433m (4,701 ft) bald mountain that looms over the west end of the island.
By sea, you’ll come into Vathy, the island’s capital, an amiable little commercial port that has little truck with tourism – though it’s a pleasant enough place to wait for a boat. Arriving late or leaving early, stay at the Samos Hotel, right next to the ferry pier, a plain but comfortable hotel with a rooftop pool (60-75 euros).
Arriving by air, you make a steep, slightly hair-raising descent to avoid entering Turkish airspace (the Turkish coast is only six miles away). Pythagorion, almost at the end of the runway, is a fishing port that has burgeoned into the island’s biggest resort. It has a large new and underused yacht marina and still supports a flotilla of fishing boats, which supply the taverns around its lagoon-like harbour. Birthplace of the mathematician Pythagoras, this was one of the great cities of the ancient world, though little remains except for the kilometre-long Eupalinos tunnel, a triumph of ancient engineering that brought water to the city. The miniature castle of Lykurgos Logothetis, a short distance inland from the harbour, is much more recent – it was built in 1824.
From Pythagorion, you take off by hydrofoil for islands south of Samos, or make a day trip to Turkey and the spectacular ruins of ancient Ephesus. Boats leave for Kusadasi, in Turkey, daily at around 08.30 in summer.
If you don’t want to go that far, Samos has its own ruins at Irion, a couple of miles west of Pythagorion, where a single white 23m marble column marks the site of the Temple of Hera. Various visitors – Reynaud de Cassis in 1738, Antoine Frisons in 1790 and Ida Alex of Ohio in 1926 – have naughtily carved their names into the stone. It’s surrounded by a clutch of new small hotels and holiday apartments along a beach lined with tamarisk trees.
On the north coast, Kokkari is the resort that adorns the pages of holiday brochures. Now surrounded by a spread of small and medium-sized hotels, it’s still a very attractive spot, with a village square and a waterfront lined with taverna tables. A couple of kilometres west lies the beach that has become Samos’s postcard icon – Tsamadou, nicknamed Xanadu. Lined with sun umbrellas, it’s overlooked by steep, pine-covered slopes and above it perches the island’s top hotel, the 23-room Armonia Bay. The view from its balconies is unbeatable, and surprisingly affordable for a four-star, with a week in May starting at around 210 euros (per person, based on two sharing) and a week in June for 290 euros. In high season, you’ll pay around 120 euros a night for a double room.
Seeking somewhere with a little more character and a little less sophistication, I headed back across the hills to the south coast, to discover Ormos Marathokambos, a harbour village on a long bay, with huge pebbly beaches either side and boatyards where traditional fishing caiques are still built by hand. The top place to stay here is the Kerkis Bay Hotel, a low-rise, traditionally designed building with 65 rooms, right beside the harbour, behind a screen of palm trees.
Votsalakia, still further west, has a row of small hotels, shops, apartments and tourist tavernas scattered along a miles-long stretch of shingle and pebbles that merges with Psili Ammos, still further west. Just to confuse you, Samos has two beaches of this name, which means ‘silver bay’ – the other is a few miles east of Pythagorion. Both deserve the name – they’re the best sandy beaches on the island.
From Votsalakia, you’re well placed for an assault on Mt Kerkis, intimidating though it looks from sea level. Technical climbing skills aren’t required, but you do need to be very fit, and to wear proper walking boots – this isn’t a stroll that can be done in trainers. You need to start at sun-up to make it to the top and back in a day (there are no refuges) but you can shave a couple of hours' walking by driving (or cadging a lift) to the car park 30 minutes from Moni Evangelistria, a 10th-century monastery church inhabited by a trio of elderly nuns who may invite you to stop for a coffee.
At the summit, your reward is a god’s-eye view of Samos, its neighbour Ikaria, the tiny Fourni islands between them, and the Turkish coast off to the east. And by the time you get back to the beach towards sunset, plunging into the sea will seem like a very attractive idea.