Tucked away in a remote corner of the Aegean is Anafi – a Greek island unknown to many.
You will have heard infinitely more about Anafi’s popular neighbour in the west: Santorini needs no introduction. The island has seen its popularity boom in recent years, receiving two million visitors every year and welcoming flights from dozens of countries. Countless cruise ships dock tirelessly at Santorini from March until November, disgorging tens of thousands of tourists every day. Think traffic jams, piles of rubbish and hunting for the best spot to capture that famous Oia sunset whilst rubbing shoulders with hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow travellers.
The picture changes dramatically as one travels a mere 20km east. Isolated from major shipping routes and lacking an airport or major harbour, the tranquil island of Anafi receives a fraction of Santorini’s crowds. The main village of Chora does not feel busy even at the peak of the summer and, away from popular beaches, there are plenty of corners on Anafi where you will not meet another soul for hours. It would almost seem like time on the island stopped a long time ago, allowing Anafi to maintain a kind of a blissful aura of days gone by – a true Greek island experience.
ANAFIOTIKA, A PIECE OF ANAFI IN CENTRAL ATHENS
I first heard of Anafi on my first visit to Greece over a decade ago. Wandering unwittingly around the Acropolis, I came across a tiny cluster of houses which looked strikingly different to the rest of Plaka. Whitewashed walls, blue doors, narrow passages and countless flower pots reminded me of postcards I had been seeing all over Athens. I had not yet visited anywhere else in Greece, but instantly knew that the miniature neighbourhood had been modelled after a typical village in the Cyclades archipelago.
A few months would pass before I learned that the pretty neighbourhood was Anafiotika, so named after the island of Anafi. Known as skilled builders, Anafiots started arriving in Athens in the early 19th century to work on the refurbishment of the palace of the then King of Greece, Otto. They settled in the area we now know as Anafiotika and visibly missed their birth island, filling their surroundings with artefacts we associate with the Greek islands to this day.
Years went by. In 2008, I was made redundant from my investment banking job in London and spent several months travelling around Greece, learning the language and discovering countless parts of the country unknown to mass tourism. By the time I returned to London in 2009, Greece had become a major part of my life. I enrolled in Greek language classes and continued returning to Greece every year, often more than once. I could soon boast of having visited dozens of Greek islands, decidedly more than an average Greek person sees in their lifetime.
It would seem like I had seen every corner of Greece, but it was not true. Lingering in the corner of my mind were the perfectly white-washed walls and bushes of blossoming bougainvillea in Anafiotika, some of my first memories from Greece. Ever since that fateful first trip, I knew that I would one day travel to Anafi proper.
And, in 2018, that day finally came.
FIRST MOMENTS ON ANAFI
Arriving on Anafi makes for a special experience. Most slow ferries from Piraeus moor in the early morning, welcoming the few visitors who make it this far with spectacular views of the sun rising over the island. Approaching Anafi from the west, the only hint of the island’s port is the relatively small jetty protruding into the sparkling Aegean. The tiny settlement of Agios Nikolaos emerges suddenly from around the corner in the final moments before arrival, but there isn’t much to see here: barely a couple of dozen houses squeeze their way into the rock along a short road, which sharply swerves left at the end.
A short bus ride away, traversing several dizzying hairpin bends, lies the heart of Anafi. The island’s striking main town, inevitably called Chora, decorates the top of a cliff, offering sweeping views of the port far below. It is undoubtedly one of the more beautiful “Choras” in the Greek islands, possibly only surpassed by those in Serifos and Astypalea. Shortly after sunrise, the village is blissfully quiet: only the couple of cafes open for breakfast buzz as they fill up gradually with new arrivals waiting for their guesthouses to awaken and admit them.
I fill my lungs with that perfect herbal dry scent of a Greek island. I have finally arrived in Anafi.
A HIKER’S DREAM
Anafi has long been known as a perfect island for hiking. Numerous walking trails, some in a better degree of preservation than others, criss-cross the island – a reminder of the days when the island hardly had any roads besides the one connecting Chora with the port. As recently as in the mid-1990s, the only way to get to remote corners of Anafi was by donkey or boat – at its peak, the island had over 200 donkeys for transportation and every remote homestead had a dedicated stable where they could rest.
With the rise of tourism, a road was built along Anafi’s southern coast, from Chora to the Monastery of Zoodohu Pigi. And it was an unfortunate series of devastating fires in the past decade that sparked the construction of a network of gravel roads, blasted through the rock of the hills, finally penetrating the formerly inapproachable parts of Anafi. The map I bought to guide me around the island, produced only 5 years before, lacked numerous such new roads and was painfully out of date.
The roads may be there now, but Anafi remains a hikers’ dream. Indisputably the most popular trail runs from the Monastery of Zoodohu Pigi (the “lower” monastery) to the Monastery of Panagia Kalamiotissa (the “upper” monastery). Perched dramatically on the side of Mount Kalamos, a striking monolith in Anafi’s southeast, the monastery has inscriptions dating back to 1715. Rising 420 m tall, Mount Kalamos is believed to be the tallest standing monolith in the Mediterranean after the Rock of Gibraltar. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, botanist to the French court, visited Anafi in 1700 and famously described Mount Kalamos as one of the “scariest” rocks in the world – but scary it certainly isn’t. The view opening from the monastery sweeps across the entire island and is absolutely worth the 2.5km trek uphill.
Somewhat unexpectedly for an island renowned for excellent hiking, the path to Panagia Kalamiotissa is Anafi’s only properly marked trail. Most other trails I attempt are only signposted at entry and exit and overgrown to the extent of being extremely difficult to follow. With sadness, I have to abandon or curtail a couple of hikes along trails which seem to deviate wildly from the map or are simply no longer identifiable.
If you love hiking in utter solitude (grazing goats do not count), I highly recommend the hike from the Church of Agios Dimitrios (St. Dimitry) to the Church of Agios Antonios (St. Anthony) in the northeast of Anafi. Despite not having much more than an entry plaque and a couple of primitive hand-painted signs along the way, the trail is easy to follow. Starting with a steep descent into a valley, I pass an abandoned settlement and continue along the side of a hill before arriving, rather abruptly, to a full view of Agios Antonios.
Clinging dramatically to the side of a cliff, the church is famous for housing spectacular 13th century Byzantine-era paintings and is usually locked. I catch the sight of the person likely to have the key – Anafi’s main priest in full Orthodox dress, no less – fishing off a massive rock far below, but do not risk descending into what looks like an impassable abyss.
BEACHES ON ANAFI: A SURPRISING LET-DOWN
Anafi receives a fair share of accolades about its beaches. A paved road connects Chora with a string of well-known beaches along the island’s southern coast, contributing vastly to the growth of tourism on Anafi. By far the best-known beaches in the south are Roukonas and Kleisidi: besides Chora and the port, these beaches are the only places on Anafi blessed with a taverna, making them easy places to spend a whole day in. Both feature long stretches of yellow sand and merciful shade under tamarisk trees, and probably looked spectacular when Anafi stood relatively undiscovered decades ago, a forgotten drop of land lost in the far corner of the Aegean.
These days, it is easy to be left unimpressed. While camping, nudism and animals are explicitly prohibited on most beaches in Anafi, I am sad to see the rules routinely broken by a large part of the island’s visitors. The camping activity on Roukonas is overwhelming even in the relatively quiet early July, with dozens of tents occupying every available patch of shade. And that would hardly be a problem had the campers been able to manage their waste properly: there is a distinct smell of pee in some parts of the beach. The majority of people around me are nude, and I cannot help feeling out of place on Roukonas. I like swimming naked – it feels wonderfully liberating – but dislike being in such close company of fellow naked swimmers.
Thankfully, there is plenty of choice. I find several other beaches in the south of Anafi far superior: Agioi Anargyroi not far from the Monastery of Zoodohu Pigi enjoys a spectacular location in a small sandy bay, with a namesake chapel hanging over it, while the pretty Katsouni lacks space for tents and has none.
But even these beaches are not a match to the strikingly beautiful Livoskopos located in Anafi’s northwestern corner. Few travellers negotiate the convoluted web of steep gravel roads connecting Chora with a small settlement of Livoskopos at the beginning of the zigzagging cliff trail leading to the beach. Those that do are rewarded with pristine white sand descending into the purest water I will see anywhere on Anafi. The beach receives its trickle of intrepid visitors, but, especially outside August, you are very likely to have the beach to yourself.
Given Anafi’s relatively small size and population (around 300 people), it is perhaps not a surprise that, outside Chora, the choice of eateries is rather limited. As mentioned above, the beaches of Roukonas and Kleisidi are the only ones with at least one food option (Roukonas has one taverna, Kleisidi has two), whilst the beach of Agios Nikolaos has access to a couple of tavernas in the adjacent namesake port. My favourite outside Chora is the Akrogiali taverna run by Popy and Nektaria, a local mother and daughter. Few visitors to Anafi stay in its drowsy port; there is a steady trickle of day trippers from Chora to the port’s beach, but you are very likely to find Akrogiali peaceful and empty around lunchtime. In contrast, Ktima tou Roukona (located, as you have probably guessed, near the Roukonas beach) tends to be overrun with visitors around lunch, and, judging by the sheer number of campers, likely dinner, too.
NOT a Greek salad: this is a regular vegetable salad featuring “vlyta”, a kind of leaf vegetable popular in Greece.
It is important to remember that there is not a single food option in the entire northern Anafi. Settlements there are sparse; I see more churches and chapels than residential structures in my explorations. Unless you are planning to get invited into one of these limited local homes (which I do experience: see below), it is wise to bring all supplies you might need for the day. This especially applies to water: Anafi used to have many natural springs up until the devastating earthquake struck off the nearby island of Amorgos in 1956, after which all but one spring on Anafi dried out. This sole remaining source of drinking water lies not far from the settlement of Livoskopos, out of the way of most visitors and known primarily to locals.
Food options increase dramatically in Chora, which houses most of the island’s modest population. It is easy to be tempted by tavernas with terraces overlooking the Aegean, but I actually discover Anafi’s best seafood at Anemos, a family-run fish taverna tucked away near Chora’s main parking lot. The owner, Kostas, is one of Anafi’s two fishermen and runs Anemos with his wife Katerina and daughter Maroulia. You may not have dramatic sea views, but the fabulous food, cosy atmosphere, well-chosen wine (all house wine on barren Anafi comes from Santorini and Crete) and Maroulia’s unmatched service may mean that you will not set foot anywhere else. I spend most of my evenings at Anemos and leave only reluctantly, reminding myself to give other tavernas a chance – if only for the sake of research.
For a bit of variety, try Chora’s other fish taverna, Liotrivi – as you have probably guessed, it is run by the island’s other fisherman, Thasos. Locals like to stay in the establishment’s small indoor area, while tourists do not miss their chance to sit on the outdoor terrace; the fried kalamari becomes among the freshest I try anywhere on the island. There is also Steki, right in the centre of Chora, the oldest eatery on Anafi and a popular hangout for the locals; it serves all the usual Greek dishes and boasts a lively atmosphere. Unless you are seeking a caricature Greek experience – think Zorba-type music and dancing – it is best to skip Armenaki, which I consistently see packed with foreigners getting their Greek “fix”.
THOSE LARGER-THAN-LIFE ANAFIOTS
Anafiots are known in Greece for the strength of character and welcoming nature. Being invited to a local home on Anafi is a privilege. I am incredibly lucky to experience it first-hand when, on a non-assuming Tuesday, circumstances lead me to encounter a truly legendary local character. As I return from a failed hike near the Livoskopos Bay (sadly echoing some of my other hiking experiences on Anafi, the trail is non-existent), an elderly man resting in front of Livoskopos’ only property motions me in. Soon enough, I am being served freshly picked fruit from his garden and drinking his excellent home-made tsikoudia, a strong alcoholic drink also popular on the nearby Crete.
The man’s name is Manolis Pelekis, and there is probably not a single Anafiot who has never heard about him. I soon learn that Manolis’ popularity spans international borders: several foreigners he talks of warmly have made friends with him, consistently visited him over the years and even settled on Anafi in retirement. I page through an album full of photos depicting moments of Manolis’ life in the past decade, gifted by an elderly French couple Manolis is particularly close with: image after image of Manolis performing activities most would regard as hard labour – think threshing grain by hand, building house extensions or walking donkeys over hills – all of which Manolis unfailingly performs with a smile.
Manolis’ three grandchildren may live across the water in Santorini, but he is unlikely ever to stop being surrounded by friends – of any age and background. Four Greek visitors from Athens soon join us, and the real fun begins. Out comes the tsambouna, a bagpipe-type instrument made of goatskin which only Manolis can play on all of Anafi. Intriguingly, tsambouna sounds more like a fiddle from a distance: I suddenly remember that I have, in fact, already heard Manolis play his peculiar instrument from a nearby taverna in Chora on my first night on the island. Given how small Anafi is, this is hardly a surprise.
The list of Manolis’ talents goes on. Echoing the Anafiots’ centuries-old reputation, Manolis is a talented builder and has single-handedly built most of his Livoskopos property, including several room extensions and a rainwater collection system. He has also led the construction of other properties on the island, including the well-known Doctor’s House (marked exactly so on local maps) – an impressive 13-bedroom villa near the Katsouni beach in southern Anafi owned by a wealthy heart surgeon from mainland Greece.
I find it impossible not to fall in love with Manolis at first sight. An infinitely positive and gregarious character with obvious good-hearted appreciation for female beauty despite his respectable age, Manolis perfectly captures the spirit of Anafi, a Greek island I have spent a decade dreaming about visiting.
And what a visit it has been.
ANAFI: PRACTICAL INFORMATION
GETTING TO ANAFI
There is currently no airport on Anafi. The Greek military is known to have plans to build an airport on Anafi and has flattened a hilltop in the island’s western corner in preparation; it is not yet clear if the facility will be open for civilian use.
The only way to arrive on Anafi is therefore by boat. Between mid-June and end of August, there are three ferries serving the island:
- F/B Prevelis of ANEK Lines, which takes 12 hours to travel from Piraeus overnight twice a week, stopping on Milos and Santorini en route and continuing to Crete and Rhodes;
- Blue Star Patmos of Blue Star Ferries, which travels a more direct route, stops on more islands (the list inevitably includes Santorini) and takes 10 hours to reach Anafi overnight twice a week before travelling back along the same route;
- Andros Jet of Sea Jets, the only fast boat in the list which interconnects islands in the Cyclades archipelago; it travels to Anafi from Syros (and back) twice a week, hitting seven other islands along the way.
Overall, during most of the summer, it is possible to reach Anafi from a whopping 14 islands: Santorini, Thirassia, Paros, Naxos, Folegandros, Sikinos, Milos, Ios, Syros, Kasos, Karpathos, Halki, Rhodes and Crete. Not bad for an island generally considered isolated!
It is also possible to fly to a nearby island with an airport and continue to Anafi by boat. Santorini is served by dozens of airlines, with nearly 60 flights arriving daily in the high season, and, only 1.5 hours away from Anafi by sea, is an obvious choice for time-conscious travellers.
However, I still recommend making the full journey from Piraeus aboard a slow ferry, which is a great way to feel the degree of isolation of the more remote Greek islands. It is an utmost Greek experience to watch the gangplank descend slowly, revealing a new island – new world – in front of you. I highly recommend Prevelis, which has plenty of deck space that newer ferries like Blue Star Patmos seem to have cut down on dramatically. Prevelis is also unique as it visits three Greek island groups: the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and Crete, effectively making Anafi a convenient gateway among the three. While Prevelis would be a circuitous way to travel all the way from Piraeus to Rhodes, it is perfect for hopping between islands on a shorter stretch of the route.
GETTING AROUND ANAFI
For a relatively small island, Anafi has a surprisingly reliable bus service. A Chora-based public bus (of which there is only one!) conveniently meets every ferry, dropping off departing passengers and picking up new arrivals at the port. Even when no ferries are in sight, the bus runs between Chora and the port several times a day, convenient for vehicle-less tourists using the port’s sandy beach. There are also bus services from Chora to Kleisidi and to Agioi Anargyroi, making several stops along the southern road. It would be easy to spend a week on Anafi without a car and still visit all its popular beaches.
But, for those in search of the relatively undiscovered, renting a car is by far a superior option. Due to the absence of paved roads, buses do not cover northern Anafi, which in my opinion is the prettiest part of the island. I would never have reached the Livoskopos beach, met the fabulous Manolis Pelekis or hiked to the breath-taking Church of Agios Antonios had I not rented a car. Having a vehicle also made it possible to diversify my itinerary to visit several places every day rather than have it driven by the bus schedule.
Given Anafi’s many gravel roads, I recommend opting for a small jeep: Manos at Rent a Car – Moto Manos near Chora’s parking lot has three and charges EUR 35 per day in the high season. If you are not planning to venture outside Anafi’s well-trodden southern beach trail, a regular car, scooter or quad will do perfectly well. Some gravel roads on the island are steep and very slippery due to their rocky surface, and I would not recommend attempting driving anything other than a jeep there.
WHERE TO STAY ON ANAFI
Believe it or not, there are a dozen options on Booking.com! I do, however, recommend going outside the platform for Anafi to broaden your options. Unless you are visiting in August, there is no need to book in advance: showing up in Chora and shopping around for the perfect spot is the best option. Chora houses nearly all of Anafi’s accommodation, food and entertainment options and is by far the most convenient base to explore Anafi from, the sole side note being that it sits on a cliff rather than by the beach, requiring daily travel.
After getting bitterly disappointed by the monastic cell I had mistakenly pre-booked on Booking.com, I eventually stayed at Aperanto Galazio, a set of simple rooms which offered uninterrupted views towards the Aegean and happened to be one of the best sunset-watching spots on the island. The rooms are run by an Anafiot called Petros and sit in the southern end of Chora.
There are several more upmarket options, including Golden Beach Resort west of Chora and Apollon Village near the Kleisidi beach; neither is luxurious and only the latter has relatively easy access to the sea. Camping on beaches is formally prohibited, but unfortunately is very common. Please respect your surroundings and handle your waste properly if you do choose to camp!
As a final note, there is precisely one ATM on Anafi: lazily, it is located in the port rather than Chora. Most establishments only accept cash or offer notable discounts for cash payments, so do stock up! Happy travels!