Sprinkled across the Aegean Sea southeast of Athens, the Cyclades form a spiral of 220 islands that are actually peaks of submerged mountains – rugged terrain that has captured the imagination of Texan photographer Marco Argüello for years. According to Greek mythology, the Cycladic islands were once the Oceanid (nymph) daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, until they provoked the wrath of Poseidon, who transformed the sisters into dry rocks. “Admittedly, they’re not very green, but that’s what I like about them,” Argüello says. “They have a sun–bleached landscape that contrasts with the blue of the sea.” He and his wife, who was born in Greece, moved to Athens five years ago. From there, they routinely hop a ferry, lured by a magical mix of remoteness, tradition and radiant colours, to the less–visited Cycladic isles. Syros, Koufonisia, Serifos, Naxos and Sikinos may lack the brand recognition of Instagram–famous Santorini and Mykonos but they offer a sense of seclusion no longer found in their heavily trafficked neighbours. Here the pace of life is slow, and philoxenia, or hospitality, is a hallmark.
Forget Mykonos and Santorini – these lesser–known islands offer sun–kissed landscapes, deep–blue Aegean waters and whitewashed villages that you can have all to yourself.
A day in twin towns Ano Syros and Ermoupoli is worth it for their eclectic architectural mix, forged through Byzantine, French, Venetian and Ottoman influences – not to mention repeated pirate attacks that forced islanders to settle on higher ground. The island’s bygone prestige can be viewed in the stately 19th–century neo–classical buildings that dominate Ermoupoli.
You can walk from one side of Koufonisia to the other in under 45 minutes. The island’s main lures are its pristine beaches, hidden coves, such as To Mati Tou Diavolou (the Eye of the Devil) and “the clearest water in the Aegean, with a wonderful turquoise tint,” Argüello says.
Blessed with dozens of beaches and a beautiful hilltop town, Hora, Serifos’ short two–and–a–half–hour ferry ride from Athens makes it popular for weekend getaways. You can either lounge around at Livadi Beach or, if you’re feeling adventurous, explore the mountainous island via one of 10 hiking trails and dig into its iron ore mining history, which dates back to ancient times.
Secret, makeshift swimming areas can be found all over the Cyclades and Naxos is big enough for you to enjoy one all to yourself. “I love the pool ladders, because you can jump in as if it were a plunge pool without walking out afterward onto the sand,” says Argüello. “My ritual is a five–minute dip in cold water, before drying off and going back to reading my book.”
During antiquity, Sikinos was called Oinoe, derived from the word oinos, Greek for “wine.” It is now home to Manalis, a hillside winery producing four cuvées, including a fruity white blend of assyrtiko, aidani and monemvasia grapes, best paired with sunset views over the Aegean from the winery terrace. Yet, Sikinos (population 300), remains rustic and under the radar. “You will find simple Greek food, beaches, a few churches and plenty of goats,” Argüello says. “That’s it.”