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Greek island-hopping with kids | Naxos – the family-friendly, laid-back jewel in the Cyclades Islands crown

By Lyndsey Thomas – 22nd July 2020

After four hours of sailing we disembarked the ferry at noon on the island of Naxos.

We were herded out of the huge vessel’s rear end into the intense midday heat – my husband and I dragged our cases and our kids off the ferry by foot and we all made our way along the rickety jetty with a few dozen others – some holidaymakers like us; others, residents of the island.

The thick fumes from the dirty vessel soon subsided and we were met with sublime scenes of blue and white fishing boats bobbing around in turquoise waters.

In the distance was Naxos’s white-washed capital, Naxos City (also known as Chora), which clung to the hill overlooking the harbour lined with dozens of seafood restaurants. To the left of us, the Portara, or the Great Door, the entrance to what was the ancient Appollo Temple, stood majestically on a hill on the islet of Palatia looking out over the sparkling Aegean Sea.

Naxos with kids

Mama Mia – here we go again…

We were in The Greek Islands – a part of Greece associated with Mama Mia and Shirley Valentine, the Greece we were so desperate to see.

Naxos was our first port of call on our Greek island-hopping adventure. Santorini and Crete were to follow after five days on this relatively unknown to us Brits island in the Cyclades.

I really wanted to include Mykonos in our itinerary, but it was way too pricey. We stretched to a couple of nights in Oia, the capital of Santorini, which was everything I hoped it would be… and painfully expensive. And teeming with tourists.

We also spent a week on the popular British holiday island of Crete, but it was the unfamiliar island of Naxos that stole our roving hearts.

Ironic really, because Naxos was somewhere cheap and supposedly ‘sleepy and quiet’ – a four-hour ferry ride from Crete – on which we would fill a few days in between a couple of extortionate nights in Santorini, which was meant to be the highlight, and a week in a God-awful, soulless all-inclusive resort in Crete. We wouldn’t usually but we had a wedding to attend.

Since visiting, I haven’t stopped banging on about our time on Naxos.

I had come to the conclusion long ago that European holiday spots like this were a thing of the past.

Maybe because islands like Naxos don’t feature in big UK holiday brochures, or maybe because my European fly-and-flop family holiday experiences have been limited to large, characterless, cookie-cutter resorts full of Brits scoffing fry-ups, necking pints of lager in plastic glasses before 10am, fighting for sun beds and jumping headfirst on to inflatable crocodiles.

We do actually own an inflatable crocodile. Purchased in the shop of an all-inclusive hotel.

All of my prejudices and bigotry around European beach holidays were blown out of the proverbial turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea when the four of us walked off that ferry on to the island of Naxos. It couldn’t have been any more idyllic.

My lengthy Greek island-hopping family holiday research project brought us to the small beachside town of Agios Prokopios on Naxos, just a 15-minute cab ride (4km) from the harbour where we disembarked the ferry.

A little seaside town that claims to have the best beach in Europe… don’t they all?

The cab drivers on Naxos were quite obviously all too familiar with the ferry landing times – there were plenty of them ready to scoop up our cases and drive us to our home for the next five nights.

A handful of euros and 15 minutes later and we pulled up on a dusty side street lined with low-rise white-washed buildings featuring pops of intense colour from the hot pink bougainvillea that clung to pretty iron balconies. And lush green vines that weaved in and out of the wooden trellis separating small hotels with beautiful royal blue shutters at the windows, from residential homes with grand, oversized wooden doors.

On the corner, where this dusty side street connected with a slightly busier road that led down through the centre of the village to the beachfront, was a Greek restaurant called Giannoulis Traditional Greek Tavern.  A bright blue open-fronted wooden framed building opened up on to a tiled restaurant floor featuring a mishmash of crammed-together tables covered in lace tablecloths, colourful wooden chairs and all sorts of fishing memorabilia, shells and other objects suspended from the walls and ceiling. The type of place you only needed to glance at to know they would be serving up a delicious Greek feast washed down with free shots of Ouzo to a packed-out crowd of customers by 8pm.

We weren’t wrong.  And they were queuing round the block by 9pm.

Moments later we pulled up outside Ampelos Inn – our digs for the next few nights. A small, family-run three-star that I came across when I googled ‘the best hotels on Naxos’. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple, quite the contrary. It took hours to find that little inn lost within the deep dark hole of the world-wide-web and competing with dozens of other little inns and hotels on the island.

There are no big resort-style hotels on Naxos. No towering apartments with hundreds of beach-towel-clad balconies clinging to their facades. Instead, you’ll find cube-shaped white-washed low-rise inns covered in more beautiful hot pink Bougainvillea.

Don’t expect huge free-form swimming pools either, for the most-part the swimming pools are pretty standard and small. But then who needs a multi-level Olympic-size pool with water features and swim-up bars when one of the best and most beautiful beaches in Greece is a 10 minute walk away?

With calm, crystal-clear turquoise waters and coarse white sand, Agios Prokopios beach is an organised beach run by a small number of restaurants and bars that line it, meaning the small fee for sun beds and parasols (approx £7/day for two beds with cushions and a parasol) includes waiter service from the local establishments.

Agios Prokopios Beach has a nudist section, so if you do take a stroll from one end to another, expect to encounter a few ‘bits’ to the far left of the beach.

The town itself consists of a few mini markets, taverns, cafes, car and motorbike rental shops – everything you need really.

A night on the tiles in Naxos City

And what absolutely stunning tiles they were!

We jumped in a taxi and headed into Naxos city one evening (4km) to venture up to the Portara – the entrance to what was the ancient Appollo Temple. This is an absolute must-do at sunset. The last of the day’s light bounces off the sandstone ruins and off the shimmering turquoise waters below it and it’s truly spectacular.

We asked the taxi driver to drop us off right in the heart of Naxos Town so we could meander around the narrow squeaky clean streets lined with beautiful boutiques, quaint little churches and plenty of places to wine and dine, before we made our way down on foot along the restaurant-lined harbour and over the causeway to The Portara for sunset.

There’s no shortage of restaurants and bars here. We were spoilt for choice and the decision between traditional harbour-side fish restaurant tucking into freshly caught octopus while gazing out over the harbour, or a table somewhere a little more cool and upbeat in town was a hard one.

Our harbour-side spot didn’t disappoint – but again, the decision on which restaurant to give our custom to proved a hard one. So many lovely-looking family-run places to choose from, and so many lovely Greeks charming the socks off us.

We headed back into town after dinner for a night-cap and a couple of scoops of ice cream. Underfoot, the pristine crazy-paved streets of Naxos Town look as if they might be polished nightly once they are emptied of visitors and locals, and when the sun goes down, the bars liven up and the labyrinth of narrow streets that lead into pretty open squares promise a fabulous atmosphere with people eating, drinking and having fun.

Spectacular sunsets on Plaka Beach

We witnessed some pretty incredible sunsets when we were in the Greek Islands – of course Santorini’s was sensational, but when you’re somewhat distracted because your five-year-old is about to be trampled on by the hundreds of people fighting to get to the best spot, it kills the mood a fair bit.

However on Naxos, that very same sunset can be savoured in a far more calmer environment. Immerse yourself in the moment while sipping a cold glass of white wine, sat in an open-air restaurant by the sea with sand between toes.

It really doesn’t get any more Shirley Valentine than this…

On our final night on Naxos we jumped in a cab and headed down to Plaka Beach to a local outdoor restaurant in the sand at sunset – recommended to us by friends.

If there is one regret from our time on Naxos, it would be leaving it until the final night on the island to visit Plaka Beach.

Just another 10 minutes along from Agios Prokopios in the opposite direction to Naxos Town is a stretch of beach around 4km long. Along a dirt road that leads to sand dunes, it’s lined with trendy beach bars and open-air restaurants. Plaka has a real backpacking vibe – a younger crowd enjoy cocktails and cold beers to the back-drop of chilled tunes.

Our taxi pulled up outside a tatty sign for Nikos & Maria Restaurant, pitched up next to a wooden-slat walkway surrounded by sand dunes.

We hopped out and made our way along the walkway and the dunes opened up on to Plaka Beach and we were met with possibly the most idyllic Greek setting one could image. A dozen or so blue wooden tables hosted guests all facing towards the horizon, where a guitarist strummed away to the back drop of possibly one of the most intense sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.

A couple of salt cedar trees with fairy lights wrapped around their branches interrupted the tables – we were lucky to grab the last remaining spot.

We dined on another amazing Greek salad and more fresh seafood. The kids played in the sand and we sipped on another 7 euro litre carafe of decent house white wine and watched the sun set over the glistening waters of the Med, thankful for the amazing memories we had made on this little piece of paradise in the Greek Islands.

The details

Getting there

We flew with Jet2 from Leeds-Bradford into Heraklion International Airport on Crete. We landed at 10pm and booked a three-star hotel room right opposite the port in Heraklion. The following morning we crossed the road into the port and walked on to the ferry.

We sailed with SetJets from Heraklion – we booked through https://www.directferries.co.uk/

Port on the 8.40am ferry to Naxos via Santorini. Journey time approx 4 hours. The cost was around £200 one way for 2 adults and 2 kids with reserved seats.

Where to stay

The three-star Ampelos Inn (10 rooms) in the small town of Agios Prokopios is a seven-minute walk from Agios Prokopios Beach.

A fabulous little find – we had a family room with two small balconies overlooking the small pool.

The rear door to the 1st floor apartment opened up onto the living room which featured a huge corner sofa that doubled up into two good-size single beds – perfect for the kids. A second balcony, TV and air-con unit, and a small table and chairs were included.

Off the living room was a small galley kitchen with a small fridge that lead into the bedroom and a small bathroom with shower.

The master bedroom featured air con, plenty of storage, the 2nd balcony, a really comfy double bed with duvet cover, white cotton sheets and comfy pillows.

The living room featured a huge corner sofa that doubled up into two good-size single beds – perfect for the kids. A second balcony, TV and air-con unit, and a small table and chairs were included.

Breakfast was included and was delivered to our room every morning to enjoy on our balcony.

Cost: €800 for five nights in June (2019)

 

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Lyndsey Thomas
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