In late July there’s no shortage of takers for the two-hour journey to Europe’s most southerly outpost, the tiny island of Gavdos, 48kms off the south coast of Crete. The ‘Samaria’ ferry which plies the iridescent blue water from Paleochora, arrives at the jetty on time, and the assembled throng of backpackers, trucks loaded with building materials and fuel, and minibuses carrying an older generation of traveler, is eager to get out of the unremitting Cretan sun and reach the shade on board.
Gavdos, with just 45 permanent residents and encompassing only 36 square kms, has achieved an almost mythic status as the last ‘undiscovered’ island retreat in Greece, untouched by mass tourism. For years Gavdos was the preserve of a few hardy independent travelers, who rocked up on Sarakiniko beach to camp and sleep for free under the trees and a canopy of the brightest stars in Europe.
But today it’s a different story: that traveler demographic still comes, but in much greater numbers than ever. Others tempted by the still limited but increasing amount of built accommodation on the island, come too. This influx is unsurprisingly bringing with it huge challenges for the island and those who have its best interests at heart.
I’d booked accommodation at the island’s famed Sarakiniko beach. Described as a ‘studio’ – two beds with kitchenette. ‘It’s the best rooms you can find on the island’ said the Athens-based agent. It was cheap – 25 euros a night. But as we were shown to a terrace of stiflingly hot, depressingly dark rooms on high ground way back from the beach, even 25 Euros seemed too much for what was on offer. No fan. No air con. A battered fridge – with no power. ‘The electricity will be on this evening for a few hours,’ said the agent’s young tanned and pony-tailed Polish property manager. With the look and feel of one of those complexes built by the US military to practice urban warfare in a third world country, the thought of my five-year-old son and I spending the night here was, let’s say, unappealing.
Perhaps the beach below, stretching along Gavdos’ northern coast, would be a redeeming factor. It wasn’t. Sarakiniko beach is today blighted every few hundred yards with ugly concrete bunkers – makeshift tavernas with their own perpetually humming generators, serving cold beer and souvlaki. Four-wheel drive vehicles nestle with the tents under the few trees. Our visit isn’t made any more pleasurable by a fierce wind that scythes across the sand.
Leaving ‘the room’ before nightfall brings a feeling of elation and escape. I call the agent and offer to pay for the night booked. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asks. I respond by saying we want something more suited to our needs. ‘You don’t like it – fine’ the agent replies abruptly, and terminating the call.
Relieved to be away from Sarakiniko, we drive up 4kms to Kastri, the inland capital and find a different approach to hospitality in Gavdos. George Papadakis began construction of the Princess Apartments in 2002. Built of stone and timber in a traditional design, the six apartment houses and restaurant is the start of his vision to nurture something special for Kastri, whose only remaining original inhabitant is his father, Vassilis. “I like to do things legally,” he says, unlike the creators of the many illegal constructions in place at Sarakiniko.
An additional benefit of Papadakis’ responsible approach is that his comfortable apartments can utilise the official 24hr electricity supply available to those who go through the correct channels. The apartments constructed by George Papadakis are an example of how tourist development of the island can be managed in a sustainable way; sensitive to the needs of the increasing number and type of visitor; environmentally responsible and committed to working within the regulatory systems which desperately need to be applied to manage the growth of tourism on the island.
George’s grandfather was the priest in Kastri duuring WWII. As the German occupation of Crete reached Gavdos in the summer of 1941, it was his grandfather who negotiated with the invaders to secure the safety of the then 300 families who lived on the island.
Today his grandson’s protective vision is helping create a better future for this special island.