The magic of Mykonos

Author: VICTORIA KYRIAKOPOULOS
Photography: ADAM CROWLEY

Late September in Mykonos and the tourist season is winding down. The summer crowds have dispersed and, apart from the regular invasion of cruise ship day-trippers, the island is returning to a more relaxed, blissful rhythm. The sky is characteristically blue, but it's unseasonably cool. Waves crash against the wooden balconies hanging precariously over the sea in Little Venice and Mykonos's notorious winds send sundresses skyward and wreak havoc with the hairstyles of the assembled cast of Wog Boy 2: Kings of Mykonos.

Next to the island's iconic windmills, curious bystanders watch the cameras roll on the busy waterfront promenade, sporadically cheering and clapping after the director shouts, "Cut!" Australian tourists eagerly pose for shots with the film's stars Nick Giannopoulos, Vince Colosimo and Alex Dimitriades, while local paparazzi shadow Greek siren Zeta Makripoulia.

During the five-week shoot, the island's picture-perfect, whitewashed beauty effortlessly fills frame after frame with striking backdrops - from the romantic maze of narrow alleyways in Chora, the island's town centre, to remote hilltop chapels overlooking dramatic coves.

Mykonos is no stranger to the big screen. Shirley Valentine found her Greek island thrills watching the sunset at Ayios Ioannis beach, and scenes from Summer Lovers and The Bourne Identity were shot in Mykonos town. While Mamma Mia! created a tourism boom in the lesser-known island of Skopelos, Kings of Mykonos (due for release in June) will cast the spotlight firmly on Greece's most legendary island.

It may be touristy in the extreme, but Mykonos has successfully fashioned itself as the ultimate island destination, with an intoxicating mélange of traditional Greek island charm, sophisticated dining and shopping, chic hotels, great beaches and a well-earned party reputation. No other island attracts as many supermodels, rock stars, not-so-incognito celebrities and wannabes. In July and August, the VIP-carrying mega-yachts arrive in force and there isn't enough parking for private planes.

"It's become the St Tropez of Greece," says Giannopoulos, a visitor since 1992. "Psarou beach is the equivalent of the great southern French beaches. It has that same atmosphere, the same mix of rich locals and international tourists. In high season, it's the place to be seen."

Mykonos's celebrity status harks back to the swinging '60s, when a certain Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, rocked up on his yacht with opera diva Maria Callas and later Jackie Kennedy, while movie stars Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly were part of the international jet set to grace its shores. After Pierro's, the island's first gay bar, opened in 1973, Mykonos became an international mecca of gay-friendly bars, drag shows and gay beaches.

Mykonos slipped off the fashion radar for a time - it became too touristy, too mainstream, too gay, overpriced, overrated or just passé - yet there's never been a shortage of loyal devotees, curious first-timers and domestic tourists each summer. But in recent years, Mykonos has come back into vogue, bringing a proliferation of new and revamped hip hotels, designer boutiques, trendy art galleries and classy restaurants.

During a stroll through its labyrinthine alleys, designed to keep pirates and winds at bay, we ponder the enduring appeal of Mykonos. What is it that keeps people coming back? What lies beneath the glitzy veneer?

Mykonos has some of the Aegean's finest and liveliest beaches, but the energy and undeniable charm of Chora has been the island's drawcard.

Chora is a model of pristinely preserved Cycladic cubist architecture, stark white squares broken up by brightly painted balconies and doors, pots of geraniums, aromatic basil and cascades of bougainvillea. Many of the lively small bars of the '90s have given way to commercialism, replaced by jewellery stores, boutiques and even a Nike store, but the streets are nevertheless a delight to get lost in (as inevitably happens).

On the passing catwalk parade of the main drag, a drag queen in a turban is reading fortunes as we head to dinner at Nautilus, one of the new breed of stylish, contemporary Greek-Mediterranean restaurants.

"We want to promote regional Greek produce but we don't have strictly Greek cuisine like pastitsio or moussaka," says co-owner Vasili Theodorou, as we tuck into grilled octopus tentacle with caramelised onions, and eggplant stuffed with Cretan graviera (a hard sheep's milk cheese).

Now married with children, the Thessaloniki-born former barman arrived in the early '90s, lured by the prospect of good tips and wild times. "It really was a party island and it was paradise for me in terms of women," he recalls. "I was 21 and those were the best years of my life… every night with a different woman. It's still a place to meet people. The whole island is made for people to have a good time, but the crowd is older."

Mykonos's nightlife is not for the faint-hearted. The bars are pumping early, but the serious clubbing starts after 3am. At Cavo Paradiso, a 3000-capacity open-air clifftop club overlooking the sea, top international DJs keep the poolside crowd dancing well after sunrise.

Things are more subdued this evening at the ritzy Astra Bar, where Terrie Efthimiadis, our super-tanned hostess in towering heels, is working her last night of the season before heading home to Sydney. It's popular with the Greek glitterati and international VIPs, and strict crowd control and pricey drinks keep the riffraff out. The prime courtyard tables are reserved, but you can sit there with your $23 cocktail until the "booking" arrives (read: someone more famous or better looking).

"I came to enjoy the summer, the beaches, food, fashion, the music and partying, the DJs, the nightlife and everything else that comes with Mykonos," says the 29-year-old who has holidayed here for 10 years. "With the euro, you can't have as much fun as you used to."

For many Greek-Australians, visiting their homeland is about family reunions and ancestral villages, but Mykonos is where people have always gone to party.

"Mykonos is a rite of passage. It's the island where you let your hair down and go crazy… we all did that as young men and it stays with you a lifetime," recalls Giannopoulos, whose summer cohorts have included co-stars Dimitriades and Colosimo. "The people who keep coming back have forged a connection to the island through friendships with locals and people from all over the world that you meet here once a year. You meet as singles, people get married and come back with their wives and eventually with their families. It's like going back to your village, but it's now an expensive village."

Like the island itself, the restaurant scene is one of contrasts and contradictions, and too often overrated and overpriced. But Mykonos's epicurean credentials went up several notches when Nobu Matsuhisa set up in a chic outdoor setting at the slick Belvedere hotel in 2003 and when, later, Melbourne's George Calombaris was recruited for the hotel's main poolside restaurant.

After several evenings of sophisticated dining, we delight in the comedic charm of Kounelas Tavern, where harried waiters swear at each other and relay orders on walkie-talkies. Centred on courtyard tables under a fig tree, the restaurant has barely changed since the owners started grilling fish outside the entrance in the '60s.

On another evening, we seek out the unassuming but packed Ma'ereio, one of the few eateries offering specialties from Mykonos including louza (cured pork); rocket salad with xinomyzithra (a ricotta-like sheep's milk cheese); and comfort food such as egg and potato omelette.

But our most memorable dining experience is outside Chora at Kiki's Taverna, perched on a bluff above Ayios Sostis beach, where those in the know go for lunch - after a dip in the clear waters of a beach refreshingly devoid of umbrellas and ubiquitous chill-out music. Electricity was only recently installed at the taverna, and most days you have to queue for a table on the terrace. The specialty here is giant pork chops, char-grilled to perfection, and the salad bar offerings include superb grilled mushrooms and marinated gavros (white anchovies).

It's a world away from the scene at the infamous Super Paradise beach, which we reach via a winding drive across the island's rocky, almost lunar landscape. At 4.30pm, dance beats echo around the cliffs. In summer, hundreds of bronzed bodies pulsate around the DJ, but we find about 100 diehard, scantily clad revellers trying desperately to party, including one guy hanging off a tree pouring whiskey into the mouths of drinkers below. Feeling like we've crashed someone's dying party stone-cold sober, we make a quick exit back to town.

Back in Chora, sunset cocktails are a tradition at Little Venice's Kastro Bar, where brothers Kostas and Nikos Karatzas have presided over the bar (once their ancestral home) since 1976. It takes its name from the nearby castle, built by ruling Venetians in the 13th century. These days, it's the "Athenian invasion", blamed for creating two parallel worlds, that's raising the ire of locals. "When the gays discovered it, Athenians didn't even know where Mykonos was," says Nikos. "The gay side made Mykonos uninhibited and famous - the gays and the hippies set the island apart. Now the uptight Athenians come and don't want the gays or hippies."

Greece's economic boom brought nouveau-riche Athenians who built lavish villas. Athenian restaurants and mainstream stores also set up shop, driving prices up and bringing a different sensibility. On any given weekend in July and August, the Athens glitterati and hoi polloi descend on Mykonos, along with the paparazzi and TV channels broadcasting from the island.

"There is a battle in Mykonos right now between the old guard and international side of Mykonos and the Athenians," confirms the Belvedere's co-owner Tassos Ioannides. "Mykonos needs to stay cosmopolitan. It's becoming too much a suburb of Athens."

We set off to see what the fuss is about at Psarou beach, the island's most exclusive patch of sand. We score a front-row table for lunch at Nammos, where you can down sushi and cocktails from your sun lounger ($46 a pair, towel included) or dine with a prime view of the beach.

The style and ambience are faultless, the meal is pleasant enough, but Nammos is clearly as much about atmosphere, attitude and extravagance. Our budget is tight; it's a slow day for celebrity-spotting and too early for dancing on the tables. But it's not every day you pay $18 for bread and $9 for a bottle of designer water you did not order or have a toilet attendant handing you a paper towel and pressing the pedal bin for you.

"Nammos is surreal," says Calombaris, now a regular visitor to Mykonos. "I love it because I just sit there and watch people. In the afternoon, after lunch, there's people dancing on the chairs and it's just another world." He laughs at paying $530 for a 3.5kg snapper but says that's all part of the island's culture of excess.

After the decadence of Psarou, we are in need of a culture fix and take the next day's ferry to nearby Delos, one of Greece's most significant archaeological sites. Delos is the birthplace of Apollo, god of light, and his twin sister, Artemis, and was once revered as a sacred sanctuary. We follow the crowds making the steep ascent to the summit of Mt Kythnos, from which you can appreciate the scale of the ancient city below and enjoy stunning 360-degree views of the islands that form a circle around Delos (thus the name Cyclades).

Exploring the sprawling marble ruins, one gets the sense that even the most hedonistic of the activites of modern Mykonos pale into insignificance compared to those of Delos in its heyday - if the castrated remains of giant phalluses perched on pedestals at the House of Dionysos, the wine god, are anything to go by.

Mykonos's notable historical attraction, on the other hand, is the unique Panayia Paraportiani Church, a rock-like patchwork of five small chapels. It is one of about 365 churches in Mykonos town alone.

"The tiny churches across the island are votive chapels built by returning seamen and their families. Most are dedicated to St Nikolas, the protector of the sea," explains Spiros Xidakis, the guardian of Ayios Georgios Church. "We open the churches so visitors can see the old Mykonos. It's not just about clubs and glamour. Old Mykonians continue to maintain the customs of their grandparents, the festivals and celebrations. It's not just a place to show off or just rich people who come here. There are simple Mykonian people who stay here during the winter and are involved in the church. But it's not always obvious with all the tourists."

Even in Chora, you see glimpses of traditional life; old-timers riding donkeys by the waterfront cafés and bread being made in old woodfired ovens, while the schoolyard shrill of children reminds you there is another side to life on Mykonos.

On weekends, families head to Nikolas Restaurant, a seaside taverna on Ayia Anna Beach renowned for great-value traditional home-style cooking. Our eyes light up as we are directed to choose from the kitchen's trays of delights: everything from snails, quail and rabbit stifado to moussaka and local onion pie. "We are the last family-run taverna on Mykonos," proudly states Nikolas Nazos, whose grandfather opened the tavern 46 years ago. "A lot of the produce comes from our farm and no one works here apart from our family, except for the girl who helps with the dishes. Most local families rent their businesses out these days. It's easier to make money that way." When we tell him about the $18 charge for bread, he shakes his head. "Some people here are crazy".

At Fokos Taverna on remote Fokos beach, we stumble on a baptism feast, where musicians and guests are breaking into song and dance. "The glamour side is there and it's fun, but Mykonos is still very much a village, a working village with people growing their own vegetables and selling them at the port. People have families here," says our waitress, Panee Agathos, 32, originally from Melbourne. She moved to the island two years ago for love. "I still find beauty in Mykonos. It's special. You celebrity-watch, wear clothes you would never wear anywhere else and go to great bars and clubs and glamorous beaches. It's a real escape from everyday life. But you can have it all here."





THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
Qatar Airways offers the fastest travel time from Melbourne to Athens, operating two flights daily via Doha. Return fares from $2165 economy and $10,235 business, including surcharges and taxes. The airline plans to start flights from Sydney later this year. 1300 340 600.

Aegean Airlines, Olympic Air and Athens Airways offer several flights daily to Mykonos. In summer, high-speed ferries connect the ports of Piraeus and Rafina to the island; crossings take two or four hours, respectively.

STAY
Belvedere

Designed by New York's renowned Rockwell Group architects, Mykonos's ultra-chic boutique hotel raises the style bar for luxury accommodation. Classic standard pool or sea-view rooms from $336. School of Fine Arts District, Mykonos, +30 22890 25122.

Bill & Coo Suites and Lounge
An intimate boutique hotel with stylish and comfortable all-white designer suites and an inviting infinity pool with great sunset views. Classic sea-view rooms, including breakfast, from $358. Megali Ammos, Mykonos, +30 22890 26292.

Cavo Tagoo
Stunningly refurbished, this hip boutique resort on the edge of Chora gets top marks for its floating sundecks and its massive fish tank bar by the infinity pool. Classic rooms with private pool, including buffet breakfast, from $483. Chora, Mykonos, +30 22890 20100.

Mykonos Blu Grecotel Exclusive Resort
A luxury resort with dreamy Cycladic-style bungalows and decadent suites on the island's most exclusive beach. Bungalows with side sea-view from $317. Psarou, Mykonos, +30 22890 27900.

Mykonos Theoxenia
This landmark hotel next to the windmills has been revived with a funky retro-glam makeover evoking the colourful swinging '60s. Open from May. Superior sea-view rooms, including buffet breakfast, from $358. Kato Mili, Mykonos, +30 22890 22230.

EAT
Kiki's Taverna
Atmospheric tavern with an ideal location for lunch and a swim. The char-grilled pork chops are a specialty and there's a delectable selection of salads. Be prepared for a wait. No phone, no bookings. Ayios Sostis Beach, Mykonos.

Kounelas Fish Tavern
Reasonably priced fresh fish in an old-style tavern with a courtyard and outdoor grill. Chora, Mykonos, +30 22890 28220.

Ma'ereio
Charming local favourite with traditional Mykonian and Greek dishes in a casual setting off the main drag. Kalogera 16, Chora, Mykonos, +30 22890 28825.

Nammos
Mykonos's ultra-glam beachside club is popular for its floorshow as much as for its refined Mediterranean cuisine and free-flowing Moët. Psarou Beach, Mykonos, +30 22890 22440.

Nautilus
Contemporary Greek flavours and stylish ambience abound and the prime people-watching position is also a bonus. Chora, Mykonos, +30 22890 27100.

Nikolas Restaurant
A no-nonsense, family-run beachside taverna with great-value traditional Greek fare. Ayia Anna Beach, Mykonos, +30 22890 25264.

DRINK
Astra Bar

3 Wells, Chora, Mykonos, +30 22890 24767.

Kastro Bar
An old-time favourite for sunset cocktails near the Venetian castle. Little Venice, Mykonos, +30 22890 23072.



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