Holding on to the island magic that is Mykonos
The famed Greek party island was effortlessly boho-chic decades before the phrase existed and hopefully it will stay that way
Photos by Carlo Raciti
Mykonos. It conjures up different images, emotions and memories for different people. If you’re a first-time visitor to Greece, it’s likely that this Cycladic wild child (a phrase I’ve copyrighted) is on your hit-list.
Mykonos, from a Greek’s perspective, differs a great deal from that of a visitor who comes and spends a week here, partying till the early morning hours or, perhaps, lounging on popular beaches and enjoying a level of service that has long set a stellar example for the rest of the country, whose fragile economy increasingly looks to tourism to get back on its feet.
Before tough competition with competitors such as Spain extended to more far-flung destinations, Mykonos was quietly showing the rest of Greece how the tourism business is done – and continues to do so.
Mykonos has drawn visitors since the ‘50s and even earlier, then saw a boom in visitors after Aristotle Onassis and Jackie O rolled up in a yacht in the ‘60s, followed by Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, who holidayed there in the ‘70s and upped the isle’s glam quotient.
And, yet, my point here is to prove that, while much might have changed on the island of the winds, as it’s known among Greeks, Mykonos – thankfully – stays the same, in many ways.
I possess fond memories of the island, which I have visited several times over 19 years of living in Athens, having decamped from Australia as a bright-eyed, young journalist who had long dreamt of being based in Europe, so that travel in every direction could prove feasible.
There’s something to be said for giving yourself over to the wild, uninhibited nature of Mykonos in summer, when you’re in your twenties and just wanting to let loose, dance to the mesmerising beats of big-name DJs until the sun blazes high into a cloudless sky, so high that you’ll curse yourself for forgetting your sunglasses.
I have some unforgettable recollections of partying with friends in the height of the house music boom in the mid 90s-early ‘00s at the only real place to party on Mykonos – the legendary Cavo Paradiso, an open-air stone-built club situated on a cliff beside popular Paradise Beach overlooking the Aegean. For years, it has been voted one of the world’s best outdoor party spots, and for good reason.
The highlight of summer on Mykonos back then was catching the highly-anticipated, permanently-tanned and extensively–tattooed NYC DJ legend David Morales when he took control of the wheels of steel for an August full-moon party (preferably), and traditionally on his birthday.
Over 15 years later, this tradition continues today, with Morales turning up to party and play till late to a devoted crowd – a whole new generation of fans.
His peers Louie Vega, Quentin Harris, Kenny Carpenter and Timmy Regisford also packed in the biggest crowds and continue to do so, along with their younger counterparts.
The first time I visited Mykonos was in 1996, the year I packed up and moved to Greece without making any plans.
I have to admit that I miss those carefree days, when obligations were fewer and it seemed like we had so much time on our hands. While we didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend, we did have a ridiculous amount of energy to expend, dancing non-stop to “happy music”, as my Swedish-Greek friend Lena so brilliantly describes house music. The infectious beats teamed with powerhouse black vocals were an unbeatable combination, and I still can’t accept that it has drifted out of popularity.
There was a deep purity to the way we all partied in Mykonos back then that was all about summer in Greece, the music, being with friends, unwittingly creating memories that would last a lifetime. And, even more so, all about summer in Mykonos, which remains inimitable in its own way.
There were so many adventures and so many laughs. Hitch-hiking our way back from Cavo Paradiso to our rented room seemed like the most natural thing in the world and was completely safe. Everyone was one big joyful parea (company of friends).
Watching grown Italian men smothered in sunscreen oil and wearing suspiciously small bright red Speedos gyrate on the podiums and double as crowd-rousers at the beach bar on Paradise beach had us doubled over in stitches. This still happens today, I’m happy to report.
There were some experiences I’d prefer to forget, but glad I haven’t. Like the time my youngest sister and I made the fatal mistake of turning up on the island for the August 15 Assumption of the Virgin Mary public holiday, Greece’s busiest vacation date of the year, and spent much of our first day stuck at the port outside the hotels’ association office, having the lovely girls there repeatedly calling all of the island’s hotels and rooms in search of beds for us. We kept darting into town in the blazing heat to ask around and, just as we thought we would be sleeping rough at the port that night, a hotel room magically appeared, to our great relief.
People keep coming back to Mykonos and there is a reason for this magnetic attraction. The island emanates a mysterious energy that is impossible to describe. It may have something to do with the fact that the tiny nearby isle of Delos was considered the most sacred of all islands in antiquity, as it was considered the birthplace of light, which the ancient Greeks so revered, as their modern-day successors do.
There was something so natural, so real about Mykonos back then, when there were no exclusive beach bars charging exorbitant prices for sun loungers upon which the beautiful people lie and snack on sushi seaside, having dropped (the mega-yacht’s) anchor out front. Nor were there macho champagne bottle-smashing showoffs bragging whose bubbles cost more or proving a nuisance to fellow guests at five-star resorts and acting like spoilt rock stars. And the term boho-chic didn’t exist, yet Mykonos was just that, and pulled it off effortlessly.
Sure, there were a few chi-chi restaurants, like stark-white Interni, where my friends and I could only afford the cocktails, though we did take up the odd dinner invite thanks to an in-the-know friend, yet there was an acute sense of liberté, égalité, fraternité on Mykonos that seems to have faded somewhat.
On the other hand, well into the early ‘00s, us Mykonian aficionados were a select bunch in that the island was for the cool kids. It was not a mass tourist destination. We had eclectic tastes when it came to music, but were happy to make do with affordable accommodation and good but well-priced food. Mykonos was an island that attracted beautiful people but not in the sense of wealthy; rather the stylish, healthy and fit beach-loving neo-hippie.
I’ll never forget one summer when my friends and I were hanging out at Super Paradise’s beach bar and I noticed a group of pasty, pudgy young guys with drink in hand looking around at all the curvy girls, rather in awe of the whole scene. All I could think was that the civil servants of Athens (who worked considerably fewer hours than we did) had suddenly discovered and descended en masse upon our beloved Mykonos, trespassing on sacred land and completely ruining the aesthetics of the island landscape.
It would never be the same again, and it wasn’t.
The truth is that Mykonos, once a land of fishermen and farmers but also the birthplace of Greek War of Independence heroine Mando Mavrogenous, has – somewhat unintentionally – crafted an enviable global brand name (Ibiza who?), and everyone wants a little piece of the dream.
So, that has meant a huge spike in the numbers of visitors. Hundreds of thousands of tourists pour in during the height of summer, including increasing numbers of cruise passengers who cram the streets of the maze-like island capital to browse the shops and boutiques.
And that’s the other thing. I just learned that Victoria’s Secret has opened in Mykonos town, in the place of one of the island’s classic meeting points – the tiny bar Agyra. I remember sitting there for hours with friends, in the atmospheric low light watching the world go by, as one does on Mykonos.
At Caprice in Little Venice, the usual suspects of Athens “checked in” for a drink immediately after alighting from the ferry, with luggage in hand, before heading to their hotel. This year, the building owner’s children are reportedly taking over operations there from the colourful long-term tenant, and – sadly – changing the name of this historic little hangout. Scarpa remains the go-to spot for sunset drinks right on the sea, also at Little Venice. Aigli has always been a personal favourite of mine, for atmospheric early evening people-watching or an energy-reviving late breakfast. Strategically-placed Aroma was the spot for coffee and, of course, Remezzo for its all-encompassing harbour views. All of these are iconic Mykonos institutions that I hope remain intact forever.
Victoria’s Secret has no place in Mykonos, nor does the endless string of sushi bars. And Agyra isn’t the only fatality of the mega-bucks being thrown into Mykonos by local and foreign investors. One of the great things about Mykonos has always been its quirky little shops.
There were always boutiques on the main drag of Matogiannia and its offshoots where you could find unique items, whether they’re Greek-designed bikinis, a pair of cool espadrilles perfect for pounding the cobblestoned alleyways or a colour-splashed beach bag you’d want to keep forever. The stores where you can pick up a classic Greek all-white cotton beach shirt or knitted dress still exist, thankfully. I’ll never forget the knit bikinis and brash, barely-there mini-skirts that my fellow Greek-Aussie friend and I ordered from a lady who hand-crocheted them for us in a couple of days. I’m not sure she’s still knitting bikinis these days; hope she is.
With fistfuls of dollars and euros, the big names seem to be pushing their way into the small shopfronts of the island’s narrow streets in a bid to cash in on the mind-boggling large numbers of visitors and I find it rather depressing.
The good news is that Mykonos, the bad boy that it is, refuses to conform to the whims of rampant capitalism and globalism. I happily confirmed this was the case on a mid-September visit last year, this time with my Italian (as fate would have it) husband Carlo and my sisters Popi, who was visiting from Sydney, and Mariellena, the eternal “baby” of the family, even though she has one of her own now. A die-hard Mykonos disciple, when Mariellena was younger, she could not obviously follow me to what she pronounced “Mykanos”, so she has been making up for it ever since.
These days, she makes sure to book in a few days every summer at one of the numerous elegant yet free-spirited small hideaways in a quiet beach location and kick back with hubbie, sipping on fresh fruit cocktails and tucking into the delicious beach-body friendly fare for which the island is known. This is Mykonos, after all. It’s all about staying svelte even when you’re in chill mode.
Older and infinitely wiser, we followed Mariellena’s – who’s now the family expert on Mykonos – and the four of us headed to Mykonos for a brief getaway.
We booked a sweet, family-run hotel right above blissfully umbrella-free Panormos beach, a peaceful location far from the bustling capital Hora. And, as soon as we arrived and took in our first views from our balcony of a delectable, sweeping curve of a beach, we knew that we wouldn’t want to leave.
But, like every precious long weekend island getaway I’ve enjoyed far from the office and the madding crowds of Athens, three days on Mykonos literally felt like a full week of unwinding that comprises four essential ingredients – soft sand, azure seas, good food and great company.
We spent long lazydays lounging on beach beds, sipping on tall glasses of Pina Colada, swimming, taking long walks along the beach as the sun dipped into the Aegean and enjoying dinner at the same beach bar, where we dug our feet deep into the sand below our wooden table and agreed that this is how every summer dinner should be done.
One day we headed over to the calm deep blue waters of Agios Sostis beach, whose distance from town has also kept it free of umbrella and sun lounger sets – which means that it attracts fewer people.
In the late afternoon, we trekked up a low hill to Kiki’s Taverna, another island legend which quickly became a guidebook favourite thanks to its authenticity, remoteness but particularly its lack of electricity (it has since been connected). The menu is simple: chargrilled locally-sourced meats and octopus, crisp salads, pulses and fried potatoes. Who needs anything else?
I had visited Mykonos so many times but this was my first visit to this classic dining spot. We waited in the queue for one of the few tables and, being September, it wasn’t too long. The proprietor brought us some wine to make the wait more interesting, as was our conversation with another classic fixture on the island – John Shortall, who uprooted from the UK years ago and spends his days weaving pieces of jewellery with vintage opium pipes he found on the banks of the River Thames.
We had a silent chuckle when one young Russian gentleman arrived and asked if he they take bookings. “Not even if Putin called,” was the terse answer from the owner, delivered always with a genuine smile.
Back at Panormos’ beach bar, we laughed and laughed and laughed, swayed to great music and laughed again, bonding ever closer like family should on holiday. I remembered and relived the unadulterated magic that is Mykonos. When you whittle it down to the basics, the truth of the matter is that the island has never lost its hippie soul and it likely never will.