Greece, a firm favourite among UAE travellers, is back.
The country's famous beaches, sunlit islands, renowned cuisine and rich culture have long attracted visitors from the region, who, pre-pandemic, would visit in hundreds of thousands.
Covid-19 has been a tough experience for Greece's tourism sector and those whose livelihoods depend upon it. But a new quarantine-free travel corridor with the UAE, plus direct flights to Athens with Emirates, Etihad and Wizz Air, offer the hope of a recovery this summer.
Although tourist numbers may be down this year, and some Covid documentation is still required, avoiding the hordes in Athens and the more popular islands can still be a challenge. So, for those looking for a Greek getaway without the nightclubs and tour groups, the understated island of Andros remains a shrewd choice.
Andros is in the same neighbourhood as Mykonos – renowned as Aegean party central – but Andros’s people are well aware that the islands, Greece’s best tourism asset, have struggled in the past with the pressures of mass tourism.
Before 2020, tens of thousands of visitors would spill out of massive cruise ships and tramp through the streets of Kos, Santorini and Mykonos. Their presence maintained jobs but threatened to change the character of local communities.
Amid this annual deluge of visitors, some islands played their cards a little closer to their chest. Among them was Andros, a large island without an airport that is an easy two-hour ferry ride from Rafina on the mainland.
Unlike some of its more famous Cycladic neighbours, Andros is green and fertile, but also blessed with clean beaches, sleepy villages and luminous sunshine. It has been a haven for Greek intellectuals and has a thriving arts scene, quality museums, old churches and ancient monasteries.
More importantly, Andros offers that indispensable element of any journey to the Greek islands – the feeling that the rest of the world has fallen away.
In reality, though, Andros has always been connected to the rest of the world. Its communities made their (often dangerous) living from the sea and this has left its mark on the island, which is steeped in emigration and seafaring.
Rich shipping magnates were able to turn their properties over to the artists they funded, and the island's relative wealth was reflected in Greece's 2015 entry for the Academy Awards – Little England – a wry reference to the island's booming economy.
Despite it being historically wealthier than some of its neighbours – Mykonos, for example, was a relatively sedate place before tourism took hold – Andros has been more cautious with its development. You won’t find towering resorts or garish clubs here; you’re more likely to spend your evenings enjoying excellent mezze in a village square with local families.
A good place to start is the main town, or chora, on the east coast. Getting there from the main port at Gavrio on the west coast requires a hire car or scooter. Visitors can also hop on one of Andros’s old but reliable KTEL public buses.
The chora has fewer than 4,000 inhabitants and juts out from a headland into the sea. It is full of neoclassical mansions and marble-paved squares. Nestled among these are several museums and art galleries, such as the Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art belonging to the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation (entry $6).
Started in 1979, this handsome building's two wings exhibit a treasure trove of 20th-century Greek and international art, including the eerie sound sculptures of Takis (born Panagiotis Vassilakis) whose avant-garde use of magnets fills the museum with a reverberating wall of noise.
A roof garden on the museum’s new wing also offers a view out over Aegean beaches and the lonesome Orthodox church of Agia Thalassini, perched on its rocky outcrop overlooking the waves.
On nearby Empirikos Street is the beautiful neoclassical home of the Petros and Marika Kydonieos Foundation (free entry or donation). Set up in 1994, it is a cultural and intellectual centre that promotes and exhibits modern art and art nouveau. Children can take part in free workshops on ceramics and Byzantine music.
Andros is bathed in Aegean light and fresh air, and it’s not long before visitors get hungry. Further down on Empirikos Street is Endochora, a stylish restaurant that offers innovative takes on Greek classics and Italian dishes.
For something more energetic than art galleries and dinners, Explore Andros travel agency offers activities all over the island. River trekking, scuba diving, boat trips and rock climbing to see the Via Ferrata waterfall in Palaiopoli – the biggest in the Cyclades – are all on offer.
Even in the off-season there is plenty to enjoy. During the Andros Foot Festival after the summer months, hikers are encouraged to come and walk the island’s 180 kilometres of signposted routes and trails while enjoying events put on by local cultural associations. The hiking is year-round, and the 100km Andros Route is certified as one of the best trails in Europe.
Andros’s older cultural wealth is also reflected in its religious institutions. North of the chora is the Monastery of Saint Irene. Built in 1780 but restored in 2006, it offers a sweeping view over the rugged coastline and its museums have exhibitions on the island’s wildlife, written history and traditional musical instruments.
Small studio hotels, such as Anemomiloi Studios, dot the town. It is a 10-minute walk from the centre of the chora and its white poolside units have furnished terraces that allow you to drink in the sleepy countryside in which the town nestles.
The stillness of the island encourages reflection; despite its intellectual heritage, in many ways it is the simple life on Andros. No jet skis or Hollywood celebs. Not too remote, and within striking distance of the mainland, Andros is still removed enough to feel adrift from our pandemic world.