Most holidaymakers heading to the islands in Greece usually end up at one of two destinations: Mykonos or Santorini.
While both islands have their charms, they have undoubtedly become tourist traps, with overbooked hotels, overpriced restaurants, and beaches and sights packed with cruise-shippers and holiday-makers all summer long.
But Greece has 6000 islands, many of which are even more beautiful, a fraction of the price – and best of all, relatively untouched by international tourists.
At the recommendation of a local, I recently headed to Tinos, an island of 9000 people about a 30-minute ferry ride from Mykonos. While Tinos is also in the Cyclades, like Mykonos and Santorini, it feels oceans away.
Rather than packed nightclubs, resorts that tend to your every desire, and hip – some might say pretentious – restaurants and bars, Tinos is filled with breathtaking landscapes, historic Greek villages, a cuisine built on fresh, local ingredients, and beaches dotted with thatched huts and a single van selling cheap drinks and snacks.
For those looking for a taste of classic Cycladic life, Tinos may well be paradise.
I had planned on staying for only two days in Tinos; I ended up staying for five.
After a few days in Mykonos, I was ready for a more relaxed Greek adventure. I hopped a ferry to Tinos for €20. Just about everyone on the ferry was Greek, Italian, or French.
Immediately upon arriving in Tinos, I realised how different the island is from Santorini or Mykonos. While its town, Chora, also has cobblestone streets and white Cycladic architecture, it’s far quieter. During the day, it’s practically empty. At night, it gets a bit busier as Greek vacationers and some other European tourists visit the tavernas and souvenir shops on the main street.
From a distance, Chora is spectacular. I stayed about a 10-minute walk from the main square at a small hotel called Agali Bay. While the hotel was nothing special architecturally, it was only US$70 a night for a room with a view of the sea. The family who’ve run the hotel for 30 years were incredibly kind, helpful, and accommodating.
“Every Greek island is different,” one of the sister owners told me when I arrived. “People go to Mykonos or Santorini for luxury. People come to Tinos to see Greek culture.” The hotel had a view of Agios Nikolaos, a marina and beach area.
At the owner’s suggestion, we walked the 10 minutes down the Agios Nikolaos beach to a seaside taverna called San To Alati (“Like Salt”). The restaurant prides itself on local ingredients, like this fresh Tinos cheese. It was perfectly plated with lemon zest and homemade bread, and I was licking the plate. Afterward, we had cod fricassee and a whole grilled squid. In total, it cost US$43.
The next morning, I had breakfast at Agali Bay, included in the price of the room. While not extravagant, it included coffee made to order, fresh Greek yogurt, homemade pastries, and a selection of breads, cheeses, and cold cuts.
Over the next couple of days, I adapted to the slow rhythm of the island, whiling away the hours on a nearby beach or taking a dip in the bay.
The island is by no means deserted — there are plenty of tourists — but it feels as if you are stepping into the world of local Greeks, who are exceptionally welcoming to those interested in seeing their world.
Tinos is well-known to Greeks because of the Church of Panagia Megalochari, considered one of the holiest places in Greece and the site where a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary was found. The church, built in 1823, is magnificent. Greek pilgrims travel from all over to see it; some crawl on their knees from the port to the church out of reverence.
After seeing the church one night, I had dinner at Koutouki Tis Elenis, a taverna that looked as if it were conjured from my Greek daydreams: festooned with hydrangeas, colourful tables, dusty bottles of wine, musical instruments, and wreaths of peppers. For US$49, we had an appetiser of mussels, entrees of veal stewed in tomatoes and roast leg of lamb, and a bottle of retsina (a local wine specialty flavoured with pine resin). The lamb was especially drool-worthy.
But Tinos is too big explore on foot. The island is 75 square miles (194 square km) of mountains, beaches, and historic villages. One day, I rented a car so I could see as much as possible.
The first place I visited was Dio Horia, a tiny village built like an amphitheatre into the side of Mount Exobourgo. It’s often called “the balcony of Tinos” because of the way it overlooks the island.
To reach it, you have to drive up a series of winding one-lane roads carved into the mountainside. The village of Dio Horia is made up of medieval white stone houses. There are several narrow alleys, arches, and arcades to get lost in.
In the village, I had lunch at a restaurant called Dio Horia. It has a gorgeous balcony and patio that overlooks the island.
We ordered a platter of the local foodstuffs, including sun-dried tomatoes, a hunk of homemade bread, two kinds of sausage, two kinds of Tinos cheese (one like a semi-hard Italian cheese, the other a semisoft goat cheese), marinated artichokes, smoked pork, and Tirokafteri (a spicy cheese spread). It was the best meal I’ve had in months.
As you drive through the mountains of Tinos, you’ll keep seeing dovecotes. Built in the 1700s, they look like miniature castles. They were actually used to house pigeons, which were raised for meat and fertiliser. More than 1000 dot the landscape.
As you ascend the mountain roads, it feels as if you are literally driving into the clouds. It’s a strange feeling when the top of the island levels out and there are suddenly farm fields rather than craggy slopes.
While not the biggest mountain on the island, Mount Exobourgo is one of the strangest-looking — that’s it in the distance. Tinos is the kind of island where you might encounter a horse, a cow, or a goat just wandering along the paths or come across ancient-looking walls.
Remains of civilizations dating back to the Copper Age (5000 BCE) have been found near Mount Exobourgo. You can visit the historic ruins at Exobourgo, but I didn’t have time. I had too many sights to see.
In 1842, Alexis de Valon, a French traveller, wrote of Tinos: “The whole island is cultivated with great determination, almost in defiance of nature; in the absence of soil, the inhabitants even plough the rocks.” When you are driving across the peak of Tinos, it feels that way.
Next, I headed to Volax, a village of 51 people (51!) built among a unique geological formation of giant round rocks. The nearly perfectly round boulders cover the landscape around the town. It feels like another planet.
The town looks like a Cycladic postcard. Quiet and quaint, it features numerous shops where townspeople sell handicrafts like pottery, painted rocks, tablecloths, and baskets, as well as local honey.
Nestled in the mountains, Volax is an interesting place to spend an hour wandering through the narrow streets and simply taking in the strange landscape. The rocks are supposedly the result of a volcanic eruption from thousands of years ago.
One of the most rewarding parts of walking around Volax is finding all the doors and walls chalked or carved with poems. I wish I could read Greek so I could understand.
As I drove from Volax to the northern side of the island, I got a glimpse of the coast. The layering of hills and peaks sliding into the Mediterranean Sea was a sight to marvel at.
Every few miles it seemed, the entire landscape would change — not a small feat for an island as tiny as Tinos. Much of the mountains and hillsides seemed to be cut into terraces for farming. As I drove, the wind carried the earthy smell of thyme.
While Tinos has plenty of beaches, they are nothing like the glitzy beach bars found in Mykonos. Most looked like this one in Kolimbithra. Here, the meltemi winds that batter the island created a kind of wave pool. It looked like a ton of fun to surf.
The beaches in Tinos have a wild quality about them. This isn’t the place to sip a mai tai — this is where you open a local bottle of wine, stick it in the sand, and take a nap on your blanket.
Off the beach are numerous fields and vineyards. Tinos has its own local beer and wine, the most famous of which are from the Nissos brewery and the T-Oinos winery.
Driving in Tinos, you feel lost in time. I could have sworn that the day I spent driving around the island lasted a week. But maybe that’s because I was terrified as I whipped up and down the mountains from village to village on the seemingly endless one-lane roads.
The lost-in-time quality is enhanced by sites like Isternia, a village made nearly entirely of marble sculpture. Tinos is known for being the birthplace of many of Greece’s most famous sculptors.
One of my last stops was Panormos, on the northeast tip of the island. You reach it by passing through Pyrgos, one of the island’s largest towns. Panormos feels like the edge of the world. There are a few fishing boats in the dock, while the port is dotted with windswept tavernas where one can picture fishers eating after a long day’s work.
After Panormos, it was time to head back toward Chora — preferably before dark, as the sunset is most visible on the southern side of the island. But I was taking it easy on these roads, lest I fall off a cliff into the stunning greenery.
I could fill a book with all the stunning views I saw in Tinos. Each was fighting in an internal competition to be the most beautiful sight I had seen yet. Look one way, and you see tiny islands peeking out of the azure water … look another way, and you’ll see fields of moss-coloured shrubs stretching into the distance.
When the sun starts to fall into the horizon line, shading the entire island in gold, it becomes apparent that this unheralded landscape is one of the most beautiful (and largely unseen) in the world.
The news about Tinos is out. Earlier this year, the island was named “Greece’s Leading Guest Experience Destination” at the World Travel Awards (the Oscars for tourism). And the island says it has seen a 40 per cent increase in tourism this year.
The essence of Tinos feels like a place and not a destination. One would hope that if the island were to suddenly receive a wave of tourists, the residents could bring them in without losing the culture that makes it so unique.