Mykonos is the new Tinos,” my friend Alketas joked. “I’m on Agios Sostis beach, with four or five other people. I just passed by Kiki’s and there isn’t a single person in line. Vassilis said: ‘Come for lunch any time you like.’”
Half an hour’s ferry ride from Mykonos, Tinos has in recent years been “discovered” by unassuming aesthetes for its unblemished beaches, quietly sophisticated restaurants, and pure Cycladic architecture. Travel writers have taken to calling Tinos “the new Mykonos”, a reference to the time when Mykonos itself was an unblemished sanctuary rather than Greece’s notorious party island, with a reputation for Dionysian hedonism since the disco-powered 1970s. Deeply religious and traditional, Tinos was seen as the antidote to the conspicuous consumption and underdressed attention-seeking that had become synonymous with Mykonos.
Until this year, that is. Take Agios Sostis, a glorious arc of golden sand that is one of the few remaining beaches on Mykonos that can still be enjoyed au naturel (in both senses of the term). A couple of decades ago, most of Mykonos’ many stunning bays were as nude as the bathers. Now, it’s rare to find a beach that isn’t rammed with overpriced sunbeds and overly loud beach bars. Some even have cabanas equipped with a hot tub, a minibar full of champagne, a butler and “VIP driver” – if you have 5000 euros to splash.
In June, before Greece opened its borders to international travellers, Mykonos told a very different story. All the beaches were empty and bare of sunbeds. “It’s like travelling back in time to when we were young,” Alketas told me wistfully, when we spoke on the phone. A month later, would I find the island restored to its wild and free nature – more like the place I knew and loved back in the 1980s and 1990s? How would a destination that has built a global reputation as the place to see and be seen cope without the crowds? Since a government curfew introduced last week to reduce the risk of coronavirus, all bars, clubs and restaurants must close between midnight and 7am, making this the season to discover the other side of Greece’s “party island”.
Kiki’s seemed like a good place to start. A glorified shack overlooking a turquoise cove tucked away beside Agios Sostis beach, this cult taverna was originally owned by a beautiful Swedish woman (named Kiki, of course) and her Greek boyfriend, Vassilis. In the late 1980s, they set up an outdoor grill, a salad bar, and a few little tables under the tree for the beatniks and bohemians who made it to the end of the rattling dirt track. There was no electricity, so everyone drifted off at dusk for a long nap before the late night revelries began.
Now run by another Vassilis – burly, quick-witted, with a floppy grey fringe and Hawaiian shirt – Kiki’s has barely changed: there’s still gravel on the floor, the same simple menu of wonderful salads and perfectly grilled chops, chicken, shrimp or sea bass, and it still closes at 7pm. But the last time I was on Mykonos three summers ago, there was a two-hour wait for a table. I couldn’t be bothered to queue for a taste of authenticity. Better to hold on to the memories of a time before bloggers and influencers turned every precious secret into a selfie opportunity.
This time, I arrived at noon, well before Vassilis flings open Kiki’s crooked blue gate at 12.30 sharp. A dozen tourists were already huddled on the whitewashed ledges outside. John, a soft-spoken Englishman who has lived on Mykonos for decades, was in his usual spot in the shade, threading shells and beads into jewellery to sell to the subdued crowd, who took turns to wander down for a dip in the twinkling cove below. When Vassilis emerged to ceremonially usher us inside, there was plenty of socially distant space for everyone.
Although Mykonos was busier than any of the other Greek islands I’ve visited this summer, local hoteliers, travel agents and restaurant suppliers all told me that the island was operating at about 20 per cent of its usual capacity. Last summer, Mykonos welcomed about 80,000 visitors a week; in July, that figure was less than 20,000. “Right now, we have exactly the right amount of people for an island this size,” said Christos, the jaunty fixer at Soho Roc House, Soho House’s new Mykonos base, as we swerved along tapering roads framed by dry stone walls. ”You can feel the difference in the atmosphere – the air and sea are so clear. Even the vibe is different. People are on a high, just because they’re here. They don’t need to party so hard. And there’s none of the aggression that comes with being caught in rush-hour traffic or not being able to find a parking place or a table.”
Christos also looks after the artists at Scorpios, the island’s most zeitgeisty beach club, which Soho House also snapped up in 2019. Normally, you’d have to reserve a sunbed at Scorpios two weeks in advance, and the minimum spend at the best tables can be up to €10,000 (£8,933). This year, reservations are only required to keep capacity low and the price of a double sunbed has been slashed from €150 to €30. But the beaded trinkets, tasselled leather pouches and hooded kaftans at the on-site Caravana boutique still sell for thousands of euros. (This wizard-on-acid look never works when you get home, of course – like drinking ouzo in a semi in suburban London.)
If Greece is a state of mind, as the country’s new tourism campaign asserts, then Mykonos is an attitude: brash, narcissistic, fun-loving and flamboyant. As Fish, the suave brand ambassador at Scorpios, says: “Mykonos is all about beefing things up, pumping up the volume.” Women wear full make-up, hot pants and high heels to the beach, accessorised with a Chanel clutch or Hermès shopper. Menus are peppered with Beluga caviar, wagyu beef, lobster and truffles. The most popular restaurants are uber-luxe franchises familiar to the one percenters, including Coya, Zuma, Nusr-Et and Beefbar. But you’ll have a hard time finding a decent Greek salad. Kiki’s is a notable exception, as are the tavernas in Ano Mera village, which are popular with locals and seasonal workers. One is called Oti Apomeine, which translates as: “Whatever is left” – the last traces of Greekness in a destination that has become a global brand in itself.
“In just 100 square kilometres [38 square miles], we have everything you could possibly need or want,” Christos assured me. “High-quality hotels and restaurants, beach parties, glamour, designer boutiques, but also quiet beaches, wild nature and beautiful architecture.” The calmer, elemental side to the island feels a lot more accessible without the customary crowds. There are no big-spending Arabs or Americans this summer and, so far, no cruise ships – a major blow to the designer boutiques and souvenir shops in Mykonos town, but a relief for everyone else.
“We’re not used to speaking Greek,” the waiter laughs, swapping the English menus for a Greek family at one of the half-empty cafés along the harbourfront. Mykonos has become so expensive that only Greece’s wealthiest elite can afford it. It’s hard to believe the island ran a barter economy until the late-1950s, with farmers trading sausages and cheese for sugar, spaghetti and cigarettes with the townspeople. Humble farmhouses embedded between granite boulders, snuggles of sheep camouflaged in the parched hillsides, and peaceful chapels with crimson roofs still pepper the landscape, if you look closely enough. Agios Sostis isn’t the only blissfully empty beach; but old Mykonos hands wouldn’t dream of sharing their favourite castaway bays with anyone but their closest family and friends. They know what happens when a place becomes too popular.
If you don’t want to navigate dirt roads or scrabble down thorny paths to escape the crowds, there’s always The Wild hotel, overlooking Agia Anna and Kalafatis beach. The zen vibe is a relief from the relentless bling, buzz, bump and grind. Older couples read by the infinity pool and families with impeccably behaved kids doze under straw umbrellas on the hotel’s private beach. “People who come to The Wild don’t come to party,” says Kostas, the cheerful waiter, who bounds up and down the zigzagging path leading to the sandy beach bearing smoothies, salads, and wine coolers. On the horizon, the meltemi wind whips the sea into frothy peaks, but here all is perfectly still. At twilight, a group of teens scramble over the rocky headland and dive bomb into the bright green sea, sending ripples of laughter and whoops of joy across the water. You could hide out here even when Mykonos is rammed and feel completely undisturbed.
Where to see and be seen
Mykonos may be in the midst of its quietest season for decades, but these chic establishments still offer a lively scene – with no wait, better service, and more reasonable prices this year.
Now in its fifth season, Scorpios has changed the party landscape on the island from all-night raves to twilight gatherings. The rambling site is beautifully integrated into a boulder-studded peninsula, with sepia-toned sunbeds sprinkled on a sandy cove, a bazaar in a Berber tent, and a firepit for “sunset rituals” featuring DJs, live musicians, and maybe even a shaman. (Paraga beach; scorpiosmykonos.com)
Soho Roc House
A five-minute stroll from Scorpios, Soho House’s first Greek outpost is a clubhouse with 45 rooms, combining Cycladic curves and weather-beaten bohemian interiors. Light-filled bedrooms are designed to appeal to upmarket hippies and on-trend urbanites; but it’s on the tiered terraces around the lively poolside restaurant that all the flirting, flexing and networking happens. (Paraga beach; sohohouse.com)
This elegant, modern space near Mando Square is pure chic. Inside, it’s one part bar, one part boutique, where you can try on edgy, expensive outfits with a perfectly balanced cocktail. The all-white roof terrace is a calm spot to taste refined dishes: salmon and grouper ceviche, black risotto with calamari, lemon marmalade and fish roe, zingy home-made sorbets. (3 Florou Zouganelli Street, Mykonos town; bollicinemykonos.com)
Zuma has landed at Cavo Tagoo, one of the flashiest and most enduringly fashionable hotels on Mykonos. The izakaya-style dishes are as expensive and aspirational as the high-rolling clientele: whole-roast lobster, wagyu tataki with black truffle, salmon and tuna tartare in a miso bun with a dollop of beluga caviar. But it’s not all about the food – the setting is also a show-stopper, with tables floating above an infinity pool angled to enjoy sensational sunsets. Owner Arjun Waney also opened a branch of his high-end Peruvian restaurant, Coya, on Mykonos this summer. (Cavo Tagoo, Mykonos Town; zumarestaurant.com)
Mykonos is no longer the gay hotspot of its 1970s heyday, but there’s still plenty of action at Jackie O, a glam beach bar and restaurant overlooking the golden sands of Super Paradise beach. Priscilla, the resident drag queen, struts her stuff around the pool every evening. The elegantly plated food is fabulous, too. (Super Paradise beach; jackieomykonos.com)
The restaurant that sparked the craze for upmarket Asian food on Mykonos, this classy (and terrifyingly pricey) outpost of Nobu inside the stylish Belvedere Hotel has outlasted one-season wonders with its consistently superb sushi. Tables set around the pool and the outdoor sushi bar, under a canopy of bougainvillea and twinkling lanterns, are wildly romantic but also offer the opportunity for some spectacular people-watching. A perennial favourite with the fashion crowd. (Mykonos Town, near the School of Fine Arts; 0030 22890 25122; belvederehotel.com)
Where to slow down and unwind
Here’s where to go to tune into the bohemian spirit and traditional soul of Mykonos – without the usual crowds.
For a total antidote to the conspicuous consumption of Mykonos, take a day trip to the glorious ruins of what was briefly Greece’s most sacred, wealthy and powerful island. Dionysus, god of revelry, and Apollo, god of light, were worshipped at the temples and thousands were entertained at the amphitheatre. Stunning mosaics and frescoes decorate the hotels, villas and jewellery shops – not so unlike the emporia on modern-day Mykonos after all. Boats make the half-hour trip from the old harbour of Mykonos several times a day. (Round trip €20/£18; admission to archaeological site €12)
Hidden in a pretty back alley scattered with pink bougainvillea petals, Katrin is a throwback to the sophisticated 1970s when Mykonos was on the cusp of fame. Tables are covered in crisp white linen and the wonderfully unfashionable menu is a melange of classical French and traditional Greek cooking. Perennial favourites are the beef tartare, chateaubriand, moussaka and tarte tatin with calvados and ice cream. Delicate, romantic, and classy, it’s the antithesis of bling. (1 Nikiou street, Mykonos Town; 0030 22890 22169)
Tumbling down a hillside, on the relatively quiet south-east coast, this laid-back hotel has hip design, shimmering sea views, and an ace up its billowy, embroidered sleeve: a luminous private cove, miraculously sheltered from the relentless meltemi wind – a rare luxury anywhere, but especially on Mykonos. With a slender infinity pool and plenty of outdoor space, it’s also unusually good for families. (Agia Anna, Kalafatis; 0030 22890 72500; thewildhotel.com)
A very passable dirt track leads to wild and windy Fokos beach, where there are no sunbeds, beach bars or hotels – only a handful of villas and a wonderful taverna that’s been in the same family for more than 20 years. Chronis mans the grill in his cocked cap while Marissa oversees the brisk turnover. Order the juicy beef patties or pork chops, with a trio of delightfully simple salads. Prices are reasonable by Mykonos standards. (Fokos beach; fokosmykonos.com)
This open-air cinema has an extra special backdrop: a walled botanical garden lush with pines, palm trees and giant succulents (some of them hundreds of years old). Two films are screened every night; the early show is often an animated cartoon for kids. Just beside the screen, a cook turns delicious souvlaki skewers and boar sausages on a charcoal grill, which you can munch with a chilled beer while you watch. You might even run into Petros the pelican, the island’s mascot, roaming the gardens. (Mykonos town; cinemanto.gr)
This tiny joint in Mykonos town, run by twins Dimitris and Isidoros Monoyios, is cosy and unpretentious, with just a handful of stools at the bar and tables inside or out on the narrow alley. It’s mostly meaty, hearty fare: local sausage, beef stewed in sweet red wine, and mum Asimina’s must-try meatballs. No reservations, so expect a wait. (16 Kalogera Street, Mykonos town; 0030 22890 28825)
• British Airways and easyJet have direct flights to Mykonos from various UK airports. Aegean Airlines operates several flights a day from the UK, with a layover in Athens.
• High-speed ferries from Athens take around three hours; the slow ferry takes about five hours. For schedules and prices, check ferryhopper.com
• Those travelling from Britain to Greece will need to complete a Passenger Locator Form at least 24 hours in advance; visit gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/greece for information.
• For more expert advice, see here.