Irakleia – Schoinousa – Donousa – Koufonisia: these Lilliputian islands, along with uninhabited Keros Island, make up the magic group of the Minor Eastern Cyclades. Golden sand beaches washed by turquoise pellucid waters, lee coves, amazing geological formations, white cube-shaped little houses with flowerbeds in their yards, open-hearted people, fun and merry-making, special delicacies, fish that’s always fresh and above all a relaxed rhythm of life. In short: everyone’s dream of a summer vacation.
The northernmost island of the Minor Eastern Cyclades group lies between Naxos and Amorgos. Donousa or Stavros is the capital town and a tourist destination. Mersini, Charavgi (Mesaria) and Kalotaritissa villages are picturesque and definitely worth a visit. Tourists will enjoy hiking across the countryside that is sweet-smelling with herbs, as the island area is just about 13 sq. km.
Swimming: A lovely golden sand beach lies next to the harbour: start your beach exploration from there. In the south shores you will find amazing sandy beaches such as Kedros – with a German shipwreck lying at the bottom of the sea – Vathy Limenari, Livadi and Fykio, where underwater life and seabed are particularly impressive; in the north shores you will see three pebble beaches in Kalotaritissa, resembling a turquoise aquarelle amidst transparent waters.
Must see: Head NW for the impressive Cave of the Wall and its marvellous stalactites; Fokospilia is located in the east shores and the natural beauty within is exceptional as the light blue reflections on the seabed are truly impressive. There is access to the caves only by excursion boats. In Vathy Limenari cove, up on high ground you can visit the ruins of a settlement and a cemetery dating to the Geometric period. Make also a point of visiting the churches of the Holy Cross (patron of the island), of the Virgin Mary (Panagia) and of Saint John (1892); the location affords a wonderful sunset view.
Feasts: Enjoy yourself and dance till dawn on August 15 (Panagia’s feast), on September 14 (Exaltation of the Holy Cross feast), and on September 17 (Saint Sophia’s feast). You will then taste the famous patatato dish (kid with potatoes, cooked with tomatoes and herbs).
Located between Ios and Naxos, with a ring of islands around it, Irakleia is endowed with rolling hills, picturesque coves, a particularly interesting flora and old stone-paved pathways which make it the ideal place for relaxed summer holidays. Populations of monachus monachus, the Mediterranean monk seal, and caretta – caretta, the sea turtle, live by the island’s shores. Life follows a particular pattern here on its two villages – both pretty as a picture: Agios Georgios (where the island’s harbour is) with a lovely sea view and Panagia with white cube-shaped little houses.
Swimming: Try the following sandy beaches: Agios Georgios with the shady tamarisks, Vorini Spilia with an impressive underwater life and seabed, Livadi and Alimia where you will see a World War II plane wreckage. Other options include pebble beaches such as Tourkopigado, Ammoudi tou Mericha, Karvounolakkos and Merichas cove; or the rocky shores at Xylompatis and Trimpounas and the steep and rugged beaches at Vala, Strongylos, Kavos tou Thodorou and Kathreptis.
Must see: The fortress (rising above Livadi beach), which was built on the ruins of the ancient temple of Zeus; the towering Merichas boulders against the infinite blue sea; Agios Ioannis cave – the biggest one in Cyclades - where geological formations are remarkable; Agios Athanasios, an old village with a few traditional stone-built houses; Agios Georgios church (1834), Taxiarchis church with a superb iconostasis, Profitis Ilias church on Papas which is the highest peak on the island offering a panoramic view of the Major and Minor Cyclades and the impressive Panagia church, dedicated to the Entry of the Virgin Mary to the Temple.
Feasts: A great feast takes place on August 15 in Panagia with violin playing and scrumptious titbits on offer. On August 28, the eve of Agios Ioannis Prodromos feast day, an evening service is held inside Agios Ioannis Prodromos cave and hundreds of candles light up the place creating a spectacular sight. A feast takes place later on.
Located roughly in the centre of the Minor Eastern Cyclades group, you will find popular Schoinousa, S of Naxos and NE of Irakleia; those who visit it will enjoy enchanting sunset views, lee inlets, pretty little villages, golden sand beaches and a quiet way of life that is “disturbed” only by the famous feasts held on the island. It is unnecessary to drive a car here as the 9 sq. km area is quite easy to explore on foot, in one and a half hour at the most! There are three villages: Chora (Panagia) is truly a sight not to be missed, as the characteristic Cyclades small houses have gardens teeming with basil pots and bougainvilleas; sheltered Mersini used to be a pirate hideout, today it is one of the safest harbours for small boats in the entire Aegean; Mesaria is the smallest village with kitchen gardens and small vineyards everywhere you look.
Swimming: The island numbers over a dozen beaches, all of them sandy, welcoming visitors to a blue paradise. The best ones are Tsigkouri, Livadi, Alygaria, Fontana, Almyros, the long beach at Liolios, Sifneiko, Fykio and the white sand beach at Gero-Limionas.
Must see: The Folk Art Museum in Chora and Panagia i Akathi Church, keeping the icon of the Virgin Mary of the Akathist Hymn. It is also quite interesting to visit the three windmills, Maniatis Cave, Psaradon [Fishermen’s] Cave near the harbour and the small castle in Fountana area.
Feasts: Visitors are always greatly impressed by the cultural traditions that have stood the test of time in Schoinousa. The big feast of Panagia i Akathi on the last Friday of the Salutations to the Virgin Mary (Panagia), the Dormition of the Mother of God Feast on August 15, Saint Nicholas Feast on December 6 and the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary Feast on March 25. Festivities include offering delicious local dishes while the traditional musical instruments and dances will keep your spirits high until dawn!
Koufonisia is a small group of two islets, E of Naxos and W of Amorgos; these are Pano Koufonisi and Kato Koufonisi, and they are separated by a narrow 200 m. wide strait. They were named Koufonisia [meaning Hollow islands] because of the existing huge caves which gave the impression to pirates who viewed them from a distance that the islands were hollow! At a short distance you will see the deserted Keros island. It has been designated as an archaeological site under protection, as major Cycladic Art finds have been unearthed there many a time. Out of the two islands, Pano Koufonisi is the only populated one. Koufonisia are a favourite destination for those who seek to relax on their holidays and look for sheltered golden sand beaches, small natural pools of turquoise waters, feasts in the original ‘island way’ and seafood fresh from the sea.
Swimming: On Pano Koufonisi, the best beaches are at Loutro, Parianos, Foinikas, Fanos, Italida, and Pori where you can windsurf as well. On Kato Koufonisi, visit the solitary paradise sandy beaches at Panagia, Detis, and Nero. You can also tour the island by boat (either yours or an excursion boat) and admire the sea caves as well as the nearby islets Glaronisi, Prasoura, Voulgari, Tsouloufi, Lazaros and Megali Plaka; all of them have been designated as areas of great natural beauty.
Must see: The white windmill which stands at the harbour entrance as if welcoming visitors. Chora is further up: a typical Cyclades village with white-washed houses and picturesque alleys. In the centre you will see Agios Georgios church, the island’s patron saint. Rent a bicycle and tour the island following the shoreline. Visit the inland area and hike along the paths from Chora to Pano Meria.
Feasts: Locals simply love a good feast. On April 23 (Agios Georgios feast day), the ‘feast master’ takes the Saint’s icon around and is escorted by fishing boats which sail along the shoreline. The “fisherman’s feast” takes place on June 24 and delicious kakavia soup is offered to all. On August 15 the locals sail to Kato Koufonisi for the big feast in honour of Panagia (Virgin Mary).