Stunning scenery, fabulous food, the most welcoming people... and not a single replica football shirt! So don't tell anybody about the Greek island of Symi - we'll keep it to ourselves, OK?
Not heard of Symi? Good.
Just between ourselves, it's a tiny, mountainous island in the Med, an hour's ferry trip from Rhodes, which is where the nearest airport is located. At only 22 square miles in size, it manages to pack in some stunning scenery, has far more good places to eat than you can visit in a single holiday and is, without a doubt, one of the friendliest places you can ever expect to visit.
And frankly, we could end this review right there. You already have enough information: fly to Rhodes, get the Symi ferry (there are plenty), find a table with a view of the harbour or the mountains (there are zillions), call for a drink and some food. Repeat. Feel the troubles of the world begin to fade...
But on the off chance that you require more than sun, sea, food and a gentle breeze, read on.
Where to stay
Accommodation is plentiful and varied. There are no huge hotels, no concrete eyesores on Symi. The Greek Ministry of Culture has made sure of this. Determined not to allow the monstrosities that exist in other Mediterranean destinations, Symi boasts a sumptuous neoclassical look that would have brought nods of approval from the ancient Greeks who first populated the island millennia ago.
Typical are the harbourside Nireus Hotel (which, with 37 rooms, is among the biggest on the island), the small but perfect Hotel Fiona ( http://www.fionahotel.com) and the highly regarded Taxiarchis with its wonderful views over the Pedi valley. The recently completed Iapetos Village, ( http://www.iapetos-village.gr/ ) which offers self-catering or bed and breakfast, is in a good central location, at harbour level and virtually on top of some of the best watering and feeding spots on the island. At the budget end, the small, clean rooms of the Anastasia Apartments, one of the plentiful self-catering establishments, have a shared, shaded terrace with a view over Pedi Bay and are close to a number of bars, small supermarkets and restaurants.
These and others can be found in the majority of travel agency brochures and you will struggle to find a poor opinion of any of them. Packages, flying from a number of UK airports, are probably best booked through Greek specialists Olympic Holidays (www.olympicholidays.com) or the Symi-based Kalodoukas Holidays www.kalodoukas.gr, although any decent independent should be able to get you there.
For travellers wishing to make their own arrangements (and there are many of these who return year after year), there is a wide choice of privately owned villas and apartments. Best point of contact is via the exemplary Symi Visitor website (www.symivisitor.com), where Wendy and Adriana will be more than happy to find something to suit your needs. The Symi Visitor website also affords the chance to ask questions on the lively noticeboard and chat page, which is inhabited by an eccentric and welcoming group of old Symi hands who will offer up-to-date information about current prices, weather and events, as well as their own experiences of the island. Another site, SymiGreece, has other links to accommodation and there is more still to be found on the Municipality of Symi site (http://symi.gr/en/main.php?id=istoria).
Exploring the island
Symi is mountainous. Do take this into account. The main town is divided into two areas, Yialos and Chorio, which are linked by the notorious Kali Strata, the `Beautiful Street` that rises some 200 metres via 380-odd steps. Yialos, the lower part of the town, is perhaps more commercial. There are a huge number of places to eat and drink, with prices ranging from a couple of Euros for the delicious gyros, a folded pita bread containing spiced meat with chips and perhaps some tzadziki (cucumber and yoghurt salad) and tomato, to such top-end establishments as Mylopetra (http://www.mylopetra.com/), Taverna Neraida, and the popular Mythos. For shopping enthusiasts, there is a plethora of tiny boutiques selling a range of clothing, ceramics and jewellery, much of it locally made. The new Symi Gallery (www.symigallery.com) is one of a number offering local and internationally acclaimed art.
Chorio, the upper town, is more traditionally Greek, and affords utterly stunning views over the harbour and the surrounding mountains. Here are more of the kafenions, the traditional bars that serve drinks and snacks, and more restaurants, including Giorgios Taverna, something of an island institution (both restaurant and owner!). Zoe’s taverna has a rooftop terrace with a splendid view (get there early) and Syllogos (http://www.syllogos.ws/home.php) offers freshly caught lobster on some days. The Olive Tree (www.facebook.com/pages/Symi-Greece/The-Olive-Tree-Symi/97246889527) is a cheerful cafe run by a couple of English expats and supplies breakfast and a frankly sinful selection of home-made cakes as well as a varied menu. This is one of a growing number of establishments offering free wi-fi access. Here they even provide (free!) computers for you to check email and to tell friends at home that they really should be getting on the next plane to Symi...
Getting around Symi is straightforward. There are cheap taxis and a rather eccentric bus service for those who don’t wish to tackle the Kali Strata on foot, and all around Symi are a selection of good beaches of varying isolation, some of which can only be reached by boat. Boat trips and water taxis run regularly from the main harbour. Swimming is wonderful, with safe, clean, clear water, no currents and abundant marine life.
For walkers, the island offers a good choice of spectacular tracks, most of which can be tackled without needing more than decent shoes, a water bottle and a determination not to be defeated by the heat – which rises above 40°C in the summer. Most routes are marked with red and blue dots painted onto cairns along the paths. Plenty of advice and guides for walkers are available (ask on the Symi Visitor chat page), and the excellent new map from SKAI (http://shop.skai.gr/default.asp?pID=78&ct=317&la=2) also includes a good synopsis of the myriad attractions of Symi.
There are clubs and discos, where coruscatingly loud music is played to hoards of drunken revellers until the sun is well above the horizon.
But, thank Zeus, not a single one of them is located on Symi.
PS:Many thanks to SymiArt symiart.com for the video (see below)
This link: http://symivisitor.forumco.com/topic~TOPIC_ID~1655.asp ...will take you to an account of my visit to Symi in 2009, posted on the SYMI VISITOR website. With more photos!
Web cam: http://www.symivisitor.com/webcam.shtml
And for a pleasantly lyrical day-to-day account of life on Symi, try author and gallery owner James Collins' blog: http://symidream.com/wp/
And this video is by James - many thanks!
...and if like Symi, you'll love the beautiful island of LESVOS: