Naxos

Naxos: Why go

The largest of the Cyclades islands also has some of its loveliest beaches and its most dramatic scenery: rocky mountains, lush terraced valleys and, perched in between, some of the Cyclades' least spoiled white-washed villages. It's big enough to absorb the (paltry) summer crowds, and varied enough to spend a week or more without running out of surprises. It's also one of the most central islands in the group, with quick ferries to Paros, Mykonos, Ios, Santorini and others, not to mention daily flights to Athens (but not internationally). All of which make it an excellent choice for those who've done Mykonos and Santorini, or want to combine them with something more authentic, and more authentically priced.

Naxos Town (Hora) is deservedly popular, a photogenic seafront town capped by a well-preserved Venetian castro. It's a great place to stay at any time of year, combining Cycladic beauty with authentic Greek bustle. In the old town it is easy to get lost among delightful, labyrinthine alleys winding between white-washed houses, clothes boutiques and seasonal bars. Our favourite place to stay is the Castro Residence just inside the citadel walls.

To the south, the sandy beaches of Ayios Prokopios, Ayia Anna and Kastraki have soft dunes, shallow warm waters, great winds for kite- and windsurfing, and a scattering of small hotels (our favourite is Kavos), but no major resorts yet. There's something of the grown-up hippy about them - think blue taverna chairs scattered under a tamarisk tree on the beach, which (if you stay long enough and the vibe is right) might segue into low-key moonlit dancing and swimming.

At the centre of the island lies a plateau of ancient olive groves, with the white-washed villages of Chalki (Halki), Moni and Filoti tucked higgledy-piggledy among them. Follow flower-lined paths and you'll stumble upon Byzantine chapels (some with notable frescoes, if you can find the keyholder), as well as 3000-year-old grave circles, kouros statues and a crumbling hilltop castle built by the island's 13th-century Venetian ruler. Tiny Ano Potamia is a real oasis, with a lovely taverna for lunch. In Moni you can watch ladies weaving, and buy their lace doilies and woollen rucksacks if you like that sort of thing.

The dramatic mountains of Fanari and Zas dominate the interior, both offering fabulous hiking. On the far slopes of Fanari is the delightful village of Apirathos, tumbling pueblo-like down the hillside. It boasts 4 tiny, sporadically open museums of folklore, archaeology, natural history and geology - the latter exhibiting crystals from the island's rich seams (emery was mined here until recently).

Continue north to the mountain hideaways of Skado and Koronos, ringed by verdant terraces and sometimes shrouded in mist, and it feels like another land. There are few people under 50, and even fewer who speak English.

Follow the serpentine road down to the isolated fishing village of Apollonas for a swim, a fish lunch and a gawp at the island's largest kouros statue, before returning to Naxos Town via the long but scenic northwest coast road. You'll probably want a hire car to explore the island - it's 2 winding hour's drive from tip to tip - though the bus service is good if you're patient.

With thanks to Zdenek Kratochvil for his photos

21:52 | GMT + 2 Hours

Our top tips for Naxos

Kids

The beaches

You don't need to go far south from Naxos Town to find beach bliss. In fact the first stop, Ayios Prokopios (pictured), has some of the clearest waters, though the sand is coarse-grained, so not ideal for castle-building. Next comes Ayia Anna, a sleepy strip of small hotels and fish restaurants, before the seemingly endless white sands of Plaka. Here you can find a spot to yourselves and play Robinson Crusoe for the day; take plenty of water and a parasol, as the only shade is from low tamarisk bushes, and be prepared for some wind. All are within easy reach of Kavos.

Eat

Our 3 favourite restaurants

1. Axiotissa
Well worth the 30-minute drive from Naxos town for its superb fresh fish, largely organic salads, daily changing specials, rich Naxian cheeses, and enthusiastic family-run service. Go for lunch and you can combine it with a swim at nearby Kastraki beach. Closed seasonally; tel. 22850 75107.

2. Lucullus
We first came here in 1991 and still love it today. Unusual recipes include tomatoes stuffed with feta and homemade sausage, and veal goulash with aubergine puree (hounkiar beyenti). Expect friendly English-speaking service and, with luck, walnut cake with kitro liqueur on the house to send you home happy. In Naxos old town; ask locally as it's hard to find, and book ahead (tel. 22850 22569).

3. Oasis
A suitably lush garden-taverna hidden away in the heart of the pretty mountain village of Ano Potamia: perfect for a restorative drink or a simple lunch while exploring the Tragea plateau (Halki - Apano Kastro - Melanes kouros). Closed seasonally; tel. 22850 32292.

Drink

And 3 buzzy bars

1. Island Bar, Agia Anna
Lanterns on the beach, punchy cocktails and all-night dancing have proved a winning formula since this place opened in 1987 - and it's still one of our favourites. The clientele, and the music, is a mix of everything from Norway to Naxos. Keep some euros for the taxi home, though.

2. Notos Art Club, Naxos Town
Hidden in the old town's alleys, their roof terrace is a great spot for a coffee by day, or a kitro cocktail by night, to the sounds of lazy jazz or upbeat Afro-Latin-House.

3. Da Costa, Naxos Town
Bustling and booming with Athenian DJs and live Greek music, this is a place to dance the night away amid a tangle of happy bodies.

See

Kouros statues

There's something magical about stumbling upon a 5-metre long, 2500-year-old statue in the middle of the field where it was quarried. Which hero would it have depicted, and for which temple across ancient Greece's huge empire? No-one knows, as they were aborted early on because of cracks in the marble, but it's fun speculating. Two are near Melanes: head towards Kinidaros, turn right where signed and walk the last 100m through citrus groves. A further 20 mins' walk brings you to the second ('Faranga', pictured). And a third - larger but cruder - lies just above Apollonas, at the island's northern tip.

See

The monastery of St John Fotodoti

We love this remote monastery, perched on a small spur in the lee of Mt. Zeus and shaded by a huge oak tree. The building was fortified in the Middle Ages to look more like a Crusader castle, but the Orthodox church (usually open) is all incense and icons. Views tumble down rocky hillsides to the east coast. To find it, head from Filoti towards Apirathos, turn right towards Danakos and at the ridge-top chapel of Ayia Marina, fork (or walk) left for 2km.

Shop

Irresistible jewellery and pottery

Surrounded by gnarled olive trees, the sleepy village of Halki is becoming the hub of Naxos' art and craft scene. Tucked away in its maze of alleys is Fish and Olive, where German-Greeks Katharina and Alex and sell their own gorgeous creations: beautifully glazed pottery (for which she has won awards), silver jewellery with a timeless fish motif (he's a keen diver), olive oil candles, salad servers and more. The kind of place you could spend many hours (and many euros). Before leaving, pop into Vallindra distillery opposite to sample kitro liqueur and ouzo, and see how it's made.

Do

Climbing Mt. Zeus

The ascent of Naxos (and the Cyclades') highest mountain, named 'Zas' after the local name for Zeus, is exhilarating but well within reach if you're reasonably fit. From the 1001-metre peak you can see over a dozen islands, while griffon vultures wheel beneath you. Starting from the chapel of Ayia Marina between Filoti and Danakos, it takes around 3 hours up and a bit less down; the Anavasi map and a good eye for cairns should suffice. You can also approach via the Cave of Zeus - initially along a well-marked path, then becoming steep and unsigned.