Encompassed by piercing sunlight and azure waters, this 12-square-mile rocky island is poles apart from its Cycladic cousins Santorini and Mykonos.
With no airport and just enough ferries each day, this tranquil outpost of the Aegean mixes a laid-back unhurried feel with a new level of sophistication taking many by surprise. As you enter the ancient capital of Chora, the absence of package tourists and cruise ship hoards makes the faint hum of people dining and enjoying the 4 main squares all the sweeter. Perched 300 metres atop a sheer cliff on the sea, Chora is surrounded by stone-lined crop plots interspersed with classical Cycladic residences giving a feel as if you’d stepped back 100 years. The island has only 700 residents year-round, swelling to around 3,000 for the summer.
Our arrival is timed early. Not only do we avoid the early afternoon heat, but we also find a space in the tiny port which at best only provides shelter for about 8 visiting yachts. Today is our lucky day, as the wind has abated as forecast making the port town of Karavostasis a pleasant haven for the evening. Once secure, the group moves ashore, some to enjoy the cool waters of pebble lined swimming beach on a shimmering bay dotted with gently bobbing local fishing boats. The rest head straight for the cabana clad cafes nearby to enjoy a ‘real’ coffee, always a highlight of civilisation. Time slows as we discuss options on how to invest our efforts over the afternoon and evening.
While some choose a small boat excursion to discover isolated beaches and a few coastal caves, others choose the pool. Located on the outskirts of the main village a short bus ride away, ‘Chora Resort’ beckons with its shaded loungers, excellent pizza, mocktails, cocktails and a soundtrack so chilled ice cubes are forming in the pool. A small number of guests drift in and out as we enjoy this freshwater oasis all afternoon.
A rendezvous has been arranged for 6pm at the cocktail bar of Anemomilos Hotel, edgebound upon the verge of a sheer vertical drop. This awe-inspiring vantage point is also conveniently located at the base of the winding path that leads to the Church of Panagia, the islands star attraction floating immediately above us. I can think of no better location to observe the early evening light softening as it washes its palette over the cliffs adjacent. So captivating are the surroundings a few choose to station themselves here, eagerly attended by long term bar tender Aleks in his simple but elegant style. For the rest, the steady stream of walkers passing by hint to what’s in store and they too take to the path to play pilgrim to possibly the best sunset worship on earth. Around 12 hairpins and a 15-minute walk is all that’s required to summit the track, with each cliff edge turn revealing a new vista over Chora and the precipice into the Aegean. There’s even a couple of solitary donkeys on hand to assist with the ascent if necessary. As the flamingo pinks, lilacs and tangerine smudges give way to the deepest of fading blue, there is no clichéd clap from the crowds, just a few couples in wonderous embrace and others enjoying a few moments of silent contemplation.
Although Danae and her family team at Anemomilos present an amazing menu, tonight we’ve chosen to dine in one of the towns gorgeous squares. The sky was already starlit, as our first few turns led us into the labyrinth adjacent to the old ‘Kastro’ or Venetian Castle. From the 13th century for many years the islanders fell under the loose rule of the Sanoudo family based in Naxos a few islands away. Fascinating to explore in its own right, the Kastro’s outer perimeter wall can still be made out amongst the tiny residences that now occupy this quarter of town. The island suffered a tumultuous history through the medieval period, even seeing periods of complete abandon only to be rebuilt several times in the process.
Seated beneath a large Aleppo pine, once again we over-order. On conclusion our bellies swell with lemon laced pureed fava beans, zucchini croquettes, local mizithra cheese and lolly sweet tomatoes. The local matsata pasta accompanies casseroles of goat, lamb and rabbit, all washed down with multiple carafes of a more than agreeable house wine. Everyone’s eyes roll back as our hosts bring out a fabulous lemon sorbet for dessert, on the house of course!
Literally rolling out of the restaurant, we emerge into the village in full evening hum. Every table is occupied as we ramble from alley to square, each group animate with story and debate. Early diners meander in and out of small boutiques seeming to burst neon amongst the regulation whites, blues and abundant magenta bougainvillea. Simply finding an out of the way spot to sit, ice cream in hand and watch passers-by is a fascinating pleasure in its own right. We see glimpses of the Folegandros of yesteryear: old men playing chequers worry beads in hand and the local priest stopping for a chat with the townsfolk while enjoying a pour of the local honey and cinnamon raki.
We are tired – it never ceases to amaze how a day of relaxing can be so exhausting. Those who’ve ventured here for longer will spend days exploring the old stone donkey paths that criss-cross the island’s barren interior or hiring a moped to while away days at a few of the island’s beaches. Along the way they Instagram pictures of handsome donkeys, infinite sea views and no less than 65 churches across the dramatic landscape. Absent are the party posse of Mykonos or the umbrella led processions of Santorini, Folegandros flies beneath the radar with its unique blend of authenticity and grace.
The gentle motion of the bus winding its way back to Karavostasis sees pairs chatting quietly while a few make a head start on bedtime. The last ferry has long made way, and in the absence of any nightlife the only sound is water lapping and a little quiet cockpit banter from another group a few slips away. Back onboard a soft sea swell caresses the boat against the quay conveying a maternal sway in our berths that’s impossible to resist. Eyes close to the the brilliance of a handful of stars visible through an open hatch above.