The sea is the type of glowing turquoise you usually only see in filtered photographs, lapping at the sides of the Perla as we putter along the rocky coastline. There are secret beaches otherwise reachable only via precipitous ravines and clumps of wild green caper bushes reaching out here and there.
Nikos drops anchor off Grammata, a cove named for the stone carved inscriptions once left by sailors, either praying for fair winds or thanking the gods for safe return. It may be peaceful now, says Nikos, as he cracks open a bottle of ouzo and regrets that the wind is a little too strong to launch his floating bar. In a month or so the bays will be crowded with boats. Still, he promises, he can always find a quiet spot.
We're on Syros, a short boat ride from Mykonos, but a world away in terms of vibe
We sit in the gently rocking boat, regaled with tales that could be myths, although as the cloudy spirit goes down, they start to feel more like history. There’s the goddess who rescued a dolphin, or was it the other way round? After a while, nothing seems improbable – even developing a taste for ouzo, something I’d never thought likely at home. The sun comes out and we jump in and swim. It really is delicious.
We’re on Syros, a short boat ride from Mykonos, but a world away in terms of vibe. While Mykonos has leaned into its reputation as a party island, Syros is more chicly niche. It is also full of wonderful contrasts. A 20-minute fast ferry from Mykonos brings you into the capital, Hermoupolis (also known as Ermoupoli), where grand civic buildings, including a theatre house modelled on La Scala, are testament to the island having been a major hub in the 19th century. Hermoupolis is still the administrative hub of the Cyclades islands.
There's a deep-water harbour here, nudging up to the more yacht-y marina, adding a sense of reality to the otherwise otherworldly beauty of the place. A visit to an unexpectedly atmospheric former textile factory (hermoupolisheritage.com) is also an intriguing window into what once made this place tick. But if you are after picture-perfect narrow winding streets, lined with boutiques, cafes and restaurants, and lanes paved with marble, pretty churches and glimpses of the sea around every second corner, Hermoupolis has it in spades.
The town climbs to two hills, each topped with a church. One is the Orthodox hill, and the other Catholic. On feast days, I’m told, they still vie with one another to have the best firework display. Locals find a vantage point in town and soak up the sparkling competition.
Hermoupolis dates back to the 1820s when, during the Greek War of Independence, Syros declared itself neutral. Refugees flooded in, finding both home and opportunity. The harbour had obvious advantages, and soon the island became one of the major trading centres of the eastern Mediterranean. Aiming for a little social cachet to go with their accumulating wealth, the new magnates built grand houses, working with Venetian artisans to create beautiful neoclassical villas, one of which is now the Hotel Aristide.
With just nine suites, the Aristide is another spot where improbability becomes gorgeous possibility. Where else would an economist turned novelist, who grew up in Communist Romania, find herself co-owning an art-filled eco-hotel on a Greek island? Oana Aristide shares the hotel with her sister, Jasmin, who has been working as a doctor in the Swedish Arctic to cashflow the project. Confused? A little like the ouzo (only much, much nicer) once you're in it, it all starts to make sense.
The villa is gorgeous. There are high ceilings, a curving staircase, pretty plasterwork, Doric columns, and a tasteful mash-up of art deco inspired design and contemporary art, combined with flair and wit. So too are the cocktails. Konstantinos Kostopulos is an artist, with a penchant for mixing to your personal taste. He adds three precise drops of salty solution into my glass when I suggest my drink (the newly created "Gemma") is a little sweet. "These are for my tears, because it is not yet perfect," he says, Greekly.
We have dinner, a fabulous extravaganza of small courses on the roof terrace. In high summer it will be too hot up here, says Oana. Instead, guests will eat on the leafy garden terrace, where water cascades coolly down a high wall, and the scent of oleander hangs in the air. Chef Petros Braikidis is passionate about local food, and later we will visit the farm where he is encouraging everything, from figs to lemons, tomatoes to beetroot, to grow organically.
The Aristide prides itself on its eco credentials, and that first evening, after local wines have paired the nine course tasting menu, I (literally) can’t quite get my head around the toothpaste tablets, provided in my sumptuous bathroom. After several failed attempts, I give up and slum it with Sensodyne. I also have a few failures trying to work out the light switches. They are chic brass buttons, so unobtrusive as to be almost invisible. One activates a light under my bed, and when I inevitably wake up a few hours into the night, I experience the strange, but actually very pleasant sensation of floating on a golden glow.
"Greek salad" we're told is an invention, created to suit the tastes of unadventurous tourists. We take a cooking class with Elisa Mavropoulou and Kostas Stefanou and Elisa tells us that when the ingredients are this seasonal and fresh, you don't need to overcomplicate. She also shares the secrets of drying herbs: upside down, and never in sunlight. We make a traditional Fava (confusingly with yellow split peas, rather than fava beans), a wonderful puree infused with lemon and orange peel, thyme and sage.
Equally confusing, anything that is baked and sliced is termed a "pie", so pie can also be herby slices of cornmeal-thickened yogurt, or baked eggy courgettes with dill and mint, or something that comes in actual pastry. We make them all. More ouzo is produced and dry and tangy local wine from the nearby Ousyra winery, which I find delicious. Classes cost from €80 per person with dinner to €100 per person with dinner and wine (villamaria-syros.gr).
We set alarms early the next morning to walk down a series of steps to a swimming platform below the cliffs. The warm wavelets wash the last traces of ouzo-induced fog from my brain and I feel very virtuous sitting down to coffee and whatever passes for pie this morning (it’s lovely) back on the Aristide’s garden terrace. It’s important to get exercise in, as everyone on Syros seems to love to eat. Even our visit to the textile factory concluded with snacks.
We go for a long late barbeque lunch on the terrace of Costas Prekas' country house. Prekas owns an Aladdin's cave of a grocery in Hermoupolis, where he dedicates himself to rediscovering the traditional flavours of the Cyclades. When I wander along later to buy olive oil, a fresh delivery of wild capers and caper leaves has just arrived. But back on the terrace, Prekas scatters oregano and rose petals over the table cloth, and their mingled scents perfume the air as we eat. Lunch is from €85 per person, including transport (prekasyros.gr).
Oana is a marvellous host. Proud of her adopted island, she is a mine of information on where to go, including visits to historic houses, walking trails above the town and over to Kini to sit at the beachside restaurant Allou Yallou (delicious for fish) to catch the sunset. I spot her novel, Under the Blue, on the bookshelf in the foyer and she gifts me a copy. It, like her hotel, is multi-layered, marvellous and completely enthralling.
Gemma Tipton was a guest of the Hotel Aristide
Fly from Dublin to Athens with Aer Lingus and take a ferry from the port of Pireus to Syros (2 hours 20 minutes). There are also short internal flights from Athens to Syros. Alternatively, fly easyJet from Gatwick to Mykonos, with a 20-minute fast ferry to Syros. Find ferry times and prices at ferryscanner.com.
Once on Syros, there are local busses and taxis are plentiful and affordable. Our boat trip on the Perla costs from €35 per person (syrosadventures.gr). Rooms at the Hotel Aristide start at €240 per night including breakfast. The most glamorous suites have their own plunge pools and go up to €800 a night in high season (hotelaristide.com).