Puccini’s Nessun Dorma reaches a poignant climax as the sun sets in an orange blaze over Pathos Sunset Lounge’s infinity pool overlooking the dusky sands of Koumpara beach. “Nowadays young people flock to see sunset here at Pathos, but back in the day, there was never opera on Ios – the island was packed with revellers and travellers who were drunk most of the time,” says Dimitris Zachaios, the island’s deputy mayor, with a laugh.
Like many Greek atolls “discovered” by backpackers back in the 1980s, Ios is trying to shake off its party-hard reputation: the beach-strewn island I visited 20 years ago – only to flee in horror because of incessant drunken brawls and beaches littered with bottles and beer cans – is slowly being gentrified.
This sea change is evident when you arrive in Ios’s tiny windmill-topped Limani, where hip couples and young families browse indie boutiques selling Greek designer wear and handcrafted souvenirs, or sit out at the terrace of the port’s Thai restaurant watching sleek yachts buzz in and out on their grand tour of the Cyclades.
“It used to be just pizza, pasta or Greek food here, but now there is a real demand for more cosmopolitan food,” the restaurant’s owner Jo Church tells me. Pathos is part of the reason for the island’s upmarket reincarnation. One of a new breed of chic watering holes it belongs to LuxurIOS, a forward-thinking company owned by stockbroker-turned-artist Angelos Michelopoulos and wife, Vasso, who moved here more than a decade ago after spending 20 years sailing the world with their five kids – twins and triplets – in tow.
“There is just something about Ios,” Vasso tells me, running fingers through her shoulder-length hair studded with tiny pearls. “We came here in our boat and loved the cosmopolitan atmosphere and the beauty – so many beaches – and we decided to stay.”
I listen to Pavarotti on my iPhone the next day as we drive a narrow looping road through gold-baked landscapes snail-trailed with dry stone walls built over the centuries to prevent soil erosion. Unlike most Greek islands, Ios has very few villages outside the capital Chora where most of the 2,000-strong population live. Opera’s uplifting notes are the perfect foil for these astoundingly untrammelled landscapes.
We climb – past hillsides patchworked with pea green and khaki phrygana scrub – to the stone whorl of Skarkos, one of Greece’s best preserved ancient Cycladic sites, and then pass straggly olive trees, twisted rocks like dollops of orange cream and remote churches, their white domed roofs like melted candle wax in the brilliant midday sun.
Zigzagging to avoid storks-nest-sized potholes, driver Giorgios points to a sparkling pool of turquoise far beneath us. “Even in summer, beaches like Agia Theodori and Kalamos are nearly empty,” he tells me. “The island has something like 36 beaches and most of them can only be reached by dirt tracks, so only five are really developed.”
After a 40-minute drive we arrive at Calilo. Not content to fall in love with the island, Michelopoulos decided to buy a huge slice of it. “We own 30 per cent of the island, but we’ve vowed to develop only one per cent of it because we don’t want Ios to suffer from over-tourism like the neighbouring islands of Mykonos and Santorini,” the erstwhile wolf of Wall Street tells me later.
“This is our passion project – and the Mediterranean’s largest private conservation project. We want to protect the island for our own children and for future generations.”
Calilo – loosely an acronym for Michelopoulos’ mantra: Create A Life you can fall in Love with – is the couple’s bijou hotel. With only 30 suites, it sits on a rugged 1,000-acre chunk of land overlooking the sheltered waters of Papas beach.
We enter over a bridge flanked by pools that reflect flickering sunlight from heart-shaped holes pierced in the high ceiling. This kaleidoscopic corridor sets the scene for the hotel, which is a backdrop for the owner’s sculptures and artwork.
A prolific creator, Michelopoulos has seen to every single detail and the result is a Cyladic-art-inspired Gaudi-meets-Miro wonderland, with sculptures, intricate mosaic floors, walls porcupine-d with tiny marble cubes and Miro-like figures covering just about every surface.
Equally OTT, vast suites have plunge-pool-sized marble tubs or immense infinity pools with sand-strewn beach areas complete with hanging daybeds and deckchairs. “The boss creates and I manage,” Vasso jokes.
From Calilo we drive a bumpy road to Mylopotas to visit Free beach bar, another LuxurIOS project. This golden sand beach where backpackers once slept is now lined with stylish glass-screened cabanas. Sipping iced Perrier water Vasso tells me about LuxurIOS’ next project, a hip budget backpacker’s hotel near the port. “We want to use our travelling experience to introduce more style to the island, but we don’t want to create a ghetto for the rich,” she explains.
Back in Ios that evening, I explore capital Chora’s winding cobbled paths. Most of the party bars at the top of town are still closed because of Covid, but the terrace of chic cocktail bar Click near the bottom of town is packed.
“Those bars just sell cheap drinks to the kids, so they can’t afford to open when no-one’s around,” owner George Zannakis tells me. “When I opened my bar with a proper mixologist, Chora was just for wild parties. Locals said I was crazy because I was aiming for a more sophisticated clientele. Nowadays, however, most of the people visiting Ios are more classy – there are lots of hip young couples who want to chill out in nice venues. Ios has really gone upmarket.”
At the top of town near the church of the island’s protector, Panagia Gremiotissa, I linger to watch the sunset over Ormos, where legend says Homer is buried. It seems like a fitting spot to end my tour of this storied Cyclades atoll as it reinvents itself with style.
How to do it
Other places worth checking out: Pathos Sunset Lounge (pathoslounge.com); Erego Beach Club (erego.gr); Relux Ios design hotel (reluxios.com); Thai Me Up (Chora, Ios 840 01; 0030 2286 091668); Free beach bar (freebeachbar.gr); Click cocktail bar (clickcocktailbar.com)
Overseas holidays are currently subject to restrictions. Check Gov.uk before travelling.