Backing butt-first down a cliff path towards a hidden cove, my footing gives way. Sand billows up into my eyes. I grasp the thick rope tied to a stake at the top of the descent, steady myself and get my bearings.
Through a narrow gap in the rocks below, I can see the shimmering sea. A swimmer is doing a neat front crawl a few hundred yards out, and it looks like he has the ocean to himself. I’m determined to spoil his solitude. Inching on down, I reach a wooden ladder, the final steps to Tsigrado Beach. But just as I’m about to climb onto it, a blonde girl in a black bikini appears from nowhere, glides by and asks if I mind taking her picture. I oblige, and she scoots on ahead.
Milos, in the Western Cyclades, is a rock star, and Tsigrado is just the beginning. Similar in shape to Santorini, only larger, the island encircles a blown-out volcanic crater. Its geology blows my mind. Imagine a volcano erupting through a sweet shop, leaving the results frozen in time. There are jagged stacks, smooth pumice tufts, random rocks that look like they’ve been dusted with turmeric and saffron. Miners have scoured the earth here for millennia, digging for obsidian, perlite and myriad other minerals. Take a boat trip around the coast, and you’ll see psychedelic stratification and basalt columns.
It makes for sensational beaches too. At Fyriplaka, to the south, I pass two kayakers about to paddle around a chunky sea stack beneath cliffs threaded with tendrils of white, yellow and red. Sarakiniko, to the north, is a meringue-like moonscape, with curving pumice formations smooth and chalky to the touch, and a little inlet leading to blue, choppy waves. At Paleochori, I swim along the coast to warm sulphur springs where you can see tiny bubbles shooting into jade-green water — popping up from holes in the sand, between rocks, with little fish whizzing about between them. There’s a distinctive pong above the surface.
Several people make a point of telling me there are more beaches on Milos than any other Cycladic island. The numbers vary. Is it 75? 90?
“When I first came to Milos, it was so white I couldn’t open my eyes for the brightness,” says Gladwin Kiritsi. Originally from Belfast, and still speaking with a Northern Irish accent, Gladwin first visited in the 1980s with her partner, who hails from Milos. She remembers him taking her out on a boat and leaping into the water with a cigarette still in his mouth.
“At first I thought I married a Greek god,” she jokes affectionately. “But it turns out I married a goddamned Greek!”
There’s more to Milos than geological goodies, as Gladwin shows me. Together, we walk through a stunning set of Roman ruins — including a theatre — near Trypiti, and pass by a suite of catacombs said to be the most important early Christian monument in Greece. Then she points out an olive tree in a grove of hundreds.
“That’s where a farmer discovered the Venus de Milo,” she says. As in, the actual Venus de Milo. The marble masterpiece, with its twisting torso and mysterious missing arms, was discovered here in 1820, before being whisked away to Louis XVIII and the Louvre. It’s still a touchy subject.
We drive down corkscrew roads to the fishing village of Klima, where Gladwin and her husband have a pretty syrmata (traditional fisherman’s house), just inches from the water. With boat sheds on the ground floor and living areas above, plus brightly painted balconies and gates, these properties have become a hit on Airbnb. Syrmata began life as caves, Gladwin tells me. As we talk, the sea rakes the pebbles back and forth, and older passers-by tell us to mind our step on the slippery piers.
I’m trying to think of a way to take a piece of Milos home. Back on the main drag, after sitting in the cobbled town of Plaka to eat a pizza topped with taste-bombs of tomato, and a sweet, nutty baklava, we hit on an idea. Gladwin calls a jewellery store owner, and she opens up for me to sift through the cases, eventually picking out a butterfly necklace made of black lava for my daughter.
Its rocks set Milos apart. But as with all of the Cyclades, the longer I stay, and the more people I speak to, the more difficult it becomes to describe.
“Milos is multifaceted,” says Leonidas Fotinos, relishing the syllables of the word. “Mul-ti-fa-ce-ted. It’s off the beaten track. It doesn’t obey the mass tourism rules.” Leonidas runs the aptly named Small Islands travel company out of Adamantas. He’s the man who introduced me to Gladwin, and he also takes me on a jeep safari through the island’s wild, western half — a nature reserve. Visitors are coming in growing numbers to Milos, he tells me, but he sees no danger of the place becoming a package holiday hotspot.
Leonidas invites me to dinner at To Petrino, a family-run restaurant a short drive outside Adamantas. He’s a big man, resting a forearm on his wine glass as he talks, enthusing about the island’s geology while we pick our way through an equally rich spread of salad, pitarakia (cheese tartlets), lachanodolmades (stuffed cabbage rolls) and roulades made to the owner’s mother’s recipes. The rosé flows, and we get talking about life, philosophy, the future. After the age of 50 “you realise you are a product with an expiration date,” he muses. “You realise you don’t have countless moments left; the moments are limited. So you value them. You make sweet compromises.”
I can’t think of better advice for touring this remote part of the Cyclades.
See our complete Cyclades guide here — we’ll be publishing tales from across the islands throughout the month.
Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)