How do you choose which Greek island to visit? There are thousands, and of course the most famous cannot be the best. For unspoilt beauty, you need a tip-off, and for one that has a little more life, you follow those in the know: the Athenians, and those smart hotel groups who seek out rarefied and spectacular destinations to woo their clientele.
That the small and supremely chilled boutique hotel Coco-Mat has chosen Serifos in the western Cyclades is an indicator that this island has something special going on. The eponymous Greek interiors brand behind it makes indulgent but sustainable bedding and furnishings in Xanthi, north-east Greece, from wool, wood and seaweed, and its foray into hotels has a characteristically upmarket but rustic ethos.
The hoteliers may insist it was the sound of the waves through the open windows of the old miners’ cottages here that persuaded them this was the spot, but not without influence is the influx of arty Athenians who have been short-breaking on Serifos, buying simple village homes and rural villas to create stylish holiday hideaways and bringing this craggy barren outpost a bit of edge.
Where the cognoscenti trickle, the businesses that cater to them – the coffee shops, the cocktail lounges, shops selling expensive kaftans rather than retsina – will spring up. You can find a smattering here, but what makes Serifos irresistible, even to those who hate that kind of thing, is that it is incredibly low-key, confined really to the main town, Chora, whereas the rest of the island is as wild and raw as any tiny speck on the map you could hope to unearth.
The best-known Cyclades – Mykonos and Santorini, 50 and 75 miles away – are drowning in chichi nightlife, luxury hotels and fine dining, and the tourist numbers to match. But charming, sleepy Serifos, with its unusually dramatic peaked landscape, outshines both, while its lack of an airport deters the crowds.
A 15-minute drive west around the southern coast from the ferry port of Livadi (into which high-speed and more comfortable slow ferries arrive from Piraeus), brought us to Koutala Bay, where the stylishly renovated miners’ cottages, built in 1908, face the wide, white stretch of near-deserted Vagia beach. Our end cottage was on two levels, with exposed beams and bamboo ceilings, lots of natural materials and the odd industrial touch, everything whitewashed or pale blue. We unfurled in the cool, then dragged ourselves from the plump terrace day bed to more dotted along the sand, shaded by camo nets.
In the early evening at the hotel’s restaurant, waiters perched casually on the edges of a table waiting for guests to charm. We watched the purple glow on the sea as we ate an artful dinner of chargrilled octopus with rosemary; hummus and marinated baby onions followed; then tomato papardelle, calamari with fish roe salad.
Livadi is the Greece of 80s brochure tourism, a cheerful, taverna-lined suntrap for lollies and beach balls, grocery stores and yachties (of the Sunsail, not oligarch variety). For atmosphere Chora town, which tumbles from a southern hilltop like a lava flow of whitewash, is the place. Hand-painted arrows led us to the attractive square, paved in marble and packed with turquoise tables and chairs. At Pano Piazza we had orange cake and watermelon juice, while my two-year-old daughter chased stray cats. However hip these villages become, there will always be the stray cats.
At the end of our week we moved inland and way uphill to Aria Villas, a few smart stone dwellings with jaw-dropping views. We had by then seen the whole island, so just sat out on the terrace with the telescope and surveyed it all from above – Livadi, Chora, the island of Sifnos and others beyond in the Aegean – and watched the ferries go back and forth, and the moon rise.
Way to go
Accommodation was provided by Coco-Mat (doubles from €187 B&B) and Aria Villas (sleeps four, from £293 for two nights in June, including breakfast). For ferry times from Athenes Piraeus to Serifos, see greeceferries.com