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Lipsi > the island mass tourism forgot September 27, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean.

I’m sitting on a boat dock looking at Greece circa 1950. Jackie Kennedy hasn’t started dating Greek yacht owners. Not one beach in Greece has been introduced to a lounge chair. Few outside the Aegean Sea have ever heard of ouzo. From my seat, it doesn’t even seem Zeus has been dead that long.

Outside a tiny one-room cafe called an ouzeri, I’ve joined old men sipping the potent licorice-flavored whisky in the brilliant sun. Four men in fisherman’s hats behind us play backgammon. We watch a half-dozen fishermen drag in their lines off pastel-painted boats on an Aegean Sea that’s almost as blue as the cloudless sky.

The sun-washed docks are void of wall-to-wall restaurants. The dock’s lone souvenir shop is closed for the week. The three-star hotel next door is charging only 18 euros a night. I hear birds chirping, smell the wonderful salty smell of feta cheese from the tables around me and listen to the sea lap against the boats.

This is Lipsi, the Greek island mass tourism forgot. So far.

If you’re looking for Lipsi on a map, find a good one. It’s not on many. Lipsi is a tiny speck of rolling farmland and isolated beaches 40 miles from Turkey. It is part of the Dodecanese island chain.

Lipsi is barely big enough to hold a park. It’s only 12 square miles, has 650 people and twice as many goats. In addition to the one bus and two taxis, a main mode of transport remains the donkey. The one bank is a cash machine. One doctor and one nurse are on the island. There are 45 churches.

It does, however, have a dozen beaches on perfectly formed, individual bays. There are 150 hotel rooms that get booked only in July and August. Nine very good restaurants offer cheap, traditional Greek cuisine. If you hear a little less b-a-a-ing one morning, you know the goat in red sauce that night is fresh. Don’t bother with dinner reservations. Lipsi gets only about 10,000 tourists a year. Mykonos, Greece’s most popular island, gets about 300,000.

On the Greek island circuit, Lipsi is way out in right field. Unlike Santorini, Mykonos and other islands smothered by tourism, there are no straight shots to Lipsi. To reach it, I flew from Athens and caught an Olympic Airlines shuttle to Samos. A 5 euro taxi ride brought me to the harbor. Ninety minutes later a sleek hydroplane whisked me to Patmos in an hour. Without changing boats, I was in Lipsi in 20 minutes.

A bevy of locals greeted me at the dock, all holding signs with pictures of available rooms. I quickly agreed to a price of 18 euros with bath and a 30ish, curly-haired man named Stephanos took me in his pickup down the harbor and up through the tiny village. We drove up a path just wide enough for his truck past burros and donkeys. Two women chatted outside a bakery carrying baskets of bread. Greek folk music emanated from an open window where a woman in traditional black sat in the shade. This place is an outtake from “Zorba the Greek.”

My spacious double room at Studios Anna was spotless and had a refrigerator, hot plate, writing table and a big closet. A balcony overlooked farmlands scattered with the snow-white buildings and turquoise roofs of the Greek Church. Stray kittens played in the garden below me. I stood on the balcony, lined with pink bougainvilleas, and took in the fresh salt air and enchanting sounds of rural Greece.

It is deathly quiet, all day and all night. Walking through every street of the charming village took all of 10 minutes. A walk to the farthest beach took only 30. The village is up a cobblestone path above the central church serving as Lipsi’s lone landmark. The path leads to quaint outdoor restaurants encircling a tiny town square.

Narrow paths snake out from the square past small, dark bakeries, fresh vegetable stands and cozy tavernas where a fresh Greek salad, souvlaki, fries and after-dinner Metaxa may cost 10 euros. In a restaurant called “The Vault” the menu shows a picture of Lipsi from 1912 during Italian occupation. Lipsi didn’t look much different than it does now.

In the 1940s, Lipsi had 3,000 people. But the after-effects of the 1949 bloody Greek Civil War sent nearly a million Greeks abroad. However, most came back to retire. The result is a gloriously friendly island that has kept its community feel.

In Lipsi, people regularly stopped me to provide rides to the beach. The owner of one village square restaurant let me help myself to drinks in the cooler while watching a soccer game with his family and friends. My local bakery added freebie sesame bread sticks with my daily breakfast order of tiropita, Greece’s delicious cheese pie.

“I find it just cozy,” said Evert Kerkerk, a Dutch yacht builder who has sailed the Greek islands for 10 years and returns to Lipsi for seven months every year. “You become part of the island. You meet each other sometimes three or four times a day. Hello here. Hello there. If you are a tourist here, you are not alone.”

There’s one place in Lipsi you can feel very alone: the beach. Beaches on Lipsi, like ouzo, are an acquired taste. The downside of an island that is undeveloped is beaches that are, well, undeveloped. Don’t expect cushy lounge chairs under umbrellas.

A 20-minute walk from the village and a five-minute trot down a goat path brought me to Hohklakoura, one of Lipsi’s best-known beaches. On an early July day, the scenery was breathtaking: a perfect half-moon bay formed by long rock jetties sticking into the sea. The royal-blue water was clear as glass and almost as smooth. It was 80 degrees without a cloud in the sky and a nice, cool breeze came off the Aegean. Not a soul was on the beach.

I tried to find a plot of sand to lay my straw mat and found none. The beach was rocks. All rocks. Big rocks. Small rocks. Pebbles. Rocks were everywhere. I put down my mat and carefully lay down. When the rocks are even, they form a surprisingly comfortable surface. Then again, an Indian fakir feels the same sensation on a bed of nails.

Actually, Lipsi does have sandy beaches. You just have to know where. The most comfortable beach on the island may be the town beach. Lendou, just around the jetty from the harbor, features hard-packed sand on its own tree-lined bay. Hotel Aphrodite, one of two three-star hotels on Lipsi, looks over it from across the narrow road. Other sandy beaches can be found by a short walk.

Lipsi is lucky it has those. Because it has no islands directly north of it, Lipsi is susceptible to the Aegean winds that wash rocks from the sea onto the beach. The plus side is the wind ensures the island is never uncomfortably hot.

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