With no fringing reefs or changing ocean depths, the Greek islands have a habit of surprising you with their jagged perimeters and rocky cliffs that have a tendency to tumble into the sea when nobody is watching. Covered by an opaque haze, landing in Karpathos happens quickly and heavily, the wheels touched down with the kind of force that has the Greek mama sitting next to me crossing her heart and muttering sharp repentance-laden prayers.
The second largest island in the Dodecanese, Karpathos sits in a remote part of the southeastern Aegean sea. Although within arms reach of surrounding islands, Crete and Rhodes, the island is often strangely overlooked as a base for people’s summer holiday plans. It could be because unlike its flashier neighbours, Karpathos doesn’t subscribe to becoming a Grecian Disneyland where everything has been whitewashed and tourists queue to buy mass-produced trinkets. Thankfully it is also the island that hasn’t turned up to the party; you won’t find many clubs or party bars in Karpathos. A couple of shots of ouzo is as wild as it gets on a Saturday night. Luckily hitting the clubs was not part of the agenda, hitting the trails, however, is.
And hiking trails is something that the northern part of Karpathos has in abundance. Once out of town, a distinct scrubby wilderness takes over. Sandy rocks mingle with ancient rubble left over from pirate settlements, olive trees provide shade over goat trails, and the sea meets the shore with a lazy crash. “Paradise is in your head” our guide turned botanist turned voice of reason would declare whenever a group member would passionately hyperbolise Karpathos as “paradise found.” It was definitely easy to dream of impossible plans to move into one of the island’s windmills and live a simpler life of strolling through the sun-drenched hills. Who wouldn’t want to live on an island where the passengers on the flight over from Athens greeted each other with exaggerated hugs, beaming wrinkled smiles and enthusiastic slapping handshakes. The people of Karpathos take simple, joyful living very seriously.
Which is why they feel personally threatened by the boatloads of tourists that are shipped to the island for day trips and half day runarounds. “They come all this way to take just one picture, they even bring their lunch with them” our local guide had said confused at why visitors seem to hold no interest in getting to know the “genuine” Karpathos. Dropped off on the island with packed lunches courtesy of their all-inclusive resort packages, sunburnt tourists walk past Greek mamas that are rolling out handmade Makarounes to be sold in their homely restaurants. The tourists bypass the hidden trails, secret pockets of history, and far-flung treasures of the island to get a tan on one or two standard beaches. “Mass-tourism” has become a dirty word in Karpathos as the locals try and avoid a similar fate to nearby islands that haven’t been so careful with the protection of their natural environment and economy.
While coming to Karpathos with a mass-tourism operator is like taking one picture, participating in the MEET tour is equivalent to taking a thousand. Centred around being fully immersed in protected areas of Northern Karpathos, participating in the tour is also participating in a movement towards a sustainable future for tourism on the island. And yet even a thousand pictures wouldn’t do Karpathos justice. A picture of one of the island’s blue coves wouldn’t convey the sweet smell of wild thyme as it mixes with the salty sea breeze. A snapshot of the winding village roads wouldn’t carry the faint sounds of distant church bells jingling in the hills. You’re just going to have to go.
The Mediterranean Experience of Ecotourism (MEET) Network works with the locals to provide an authentic and eco-friendly experience. Check out their tours of the Mediterranean here: http://www.meetnetwork.org These are tours with a difference and are perfect for travellers of all ages. The Karpathos tour will have you feeling like a local by the time you leave.
Karpathos is an hour flight from Athens. Aegean Air fly there twice daily.
Top tip: Go in winter and have the whole island to yourself.