Surrounded by sparkling blue waters, elegant harbours and tranquil bays, Paxos is rated as one of the world’s Top Twenty Great Escapes. But then it’s always been a place for a good escape: legend has it that Poseidon created Paxos by bashing Corfu with his trident to create a peaceful getaway for himself and his partner Amphitrite. Perhaps his actions were partly a premonition of the port of Corfu in the 21st Century – disgorging thousands of camera-clad tourists, or pale holidaymakers from northern Europe, descending in their droves in the charter jets that arrive continually from dawn until midnight at Corfu airport.
It’s enough to make anyone fling his trident, and it’s just as well he did, because Paxos, and its tiny sister island Antipaxos, are sparkling gems set in this part of the Ionian, and if you know where to go, there is much that is serene and magical in these islands off the beaten track.
The pioneers of tourism in Paxos were two Brits, Eliot Watrous and Patrick May, who first visited the island as servicemen in WWII. After the war, Watrous went on to create the Greek Island Club, one of the first travel companies that began to open Greece up to the British and European tourist market.
By the 1980s tourism had replaced olive oil production as the mainstay of Paxos’ economy. Today the permanent resident population of Paxos is around 2500. In summer it rises to 10,000 and the sleepy port of Gaios is transformed as tourists arrive in droves on day trips from Corfu and the Greek mainland. On the waterfront is the office of Yannis Avranitakis, born in Paxos in 1953, Avranitakis has established Gaios Travel as one of the island’s most successful small businesses, offering quality accommodation, car and boat hire – all with a sensitive personal touch.
Yannis’ insights into tourism on Paxos are enlightening. “We don’t need more tourists,” says Yannis. “We need a different kind of tourist.” And what he means by that, is tourists who want more than the packages offered by the big tour operators – visitors who want to explore aspects of Paxos’ rich culture and environment so often ignored.
I soon got a glimpse of what Yannis means: a stroll along the port brings you to the Paxos Municipal Museum and Gallery, an elegant neo-classical building that houses an extraordinary collection. The exhibits include the traditional Paxiot dowry gift of ‘leg-stirrups’ for the bride, to attach to the marital bedposts for that extra something to help the baby-making process. Now you can’t find those at Ikea!
Some of the most interesting items in the small museum are the remarkable paintings by the Paxiot artist and priest Christodoulos Aronis (1884 -1973). A 1908 graduate of the Athens School of Fine Arts, Aronis specialised in portraiture and landscapes as well as religious paintings. Many of his commissions adorn in churches in Corfu and Paxos, and in some of the major Orthodox cathedrals in the UK where he spent the latter part of his life. The paintings at the Paxos museum are the single largest collection of his work in one location and show his most personal figurative and landscape work.
Less than six kilometres to the south of Gaios is the tiny island of Antipaxos. In peak season many flock to this tiny pristine isle (with an area of just 5 square km) on day trips from Corfu – heading out on packed sightseeing boats to swim in the crystal clear waters for which the island has become famous.
My advice is to steer clear of its most famous beaches like Vrika and Voutoumi where every day in the high-season you’re likely to find yourself too close for comfort with others wanting to experience the Ionian’s most perfect beaches. Go for a walk; you’ve got every chance of getting a beach to yourself.
I was lucky enough to stay the night and savour Antipaxos’ delights without the daytime invaders. With very few properties on and a resident population of not many more than 30 owners and their families, this is the ultimate getaway location.
Yannis invited me to stay at the stone and timber house he recently finished building on his family’s land – an elegant property on high ground that took eight years to construct. After a 20 minute boat ride we tied up at the tiny harbour of Agrapidia in the early evening, and soon Yannis was introducing me to his neighbours, all of whom are winemakers. The island is famous for the quality of its wine, with the oldest and largest commercial producer being a local priest Papa Vangelis. Plots of land passed down through the generations are separated by rolling hills of vineyards and joined by a few meandering lanes.
We headed off into the warm evening to toast the sunset on the rooftop terrace of Vasilis Vlachopoulos, a former merchant ship captain, who having sailed the seven seas, now prefers to tend his vines on this idyllic isle. And who can blame him. Perched on a hill with sweeping views to the south we sat on his rooftop verandah as the sun set.
To the west, a vast expanse of the Ionian sea and hidden beyond, is Italy. If ‘sublime’ was a word invented to describe one experience, one place, one time; then it would be sitting in good company on that simple terrace that late summer evening, and as the light began to fade, sharing the sweet fruit of the vines which surround us.
Though rooms and villas are available to rent on Antipaxos, they are in short supply, so best to book early. Contact Gaios Travel or Lychnaria Paxos Accommodation for details. The author is grateful for the assistance of the Municipality of Paxos, Spyros Bogdanos, Yannis Avrantakis of Gaios Travel and Faye Lychnou of Lychnaria in the research for this article.