As the EasyJet flight circles the scorched-earth landscape of Greece’s party island, a Fleet Foxes lyric is stuck in my brain.
‘And you will go to Mykonos
With a vision of a gentle coast
And a sun to maybe dissipate
Shadows of the mess you made’
I’m playing over the possible meanings, and what this island will mean for me. The Cyclades takes its name from the Greek ‘kiklos’ because its islands ‘circle’ the sacred island of Delos, the ancient religious centre and mythical birthplace of Apollo. Delos is just a few miles from Mykonos, but there’s little doubt which island is most central to life in the archipelago these days.
“Mykonos is a strange place,” says my driver, poring over an island map whose most notable feature is a Starbucks logo. Just 10,000 or so people call it home, but in summer that bulges beyond belief. Charters jet in. Beaches and roads and restaurants overflow. Music throbs and cocktails kick. “It’s crazy, you have to push people to get through the town,” he sighs. “You can’t walk.”
I’ve come in autumn, however. I want to see Mykonos when the hedonism is in hibernation, when the sting is gone from the sun. When I drive to the party hub of Paradise Beach, I find thousands of empty Champagne bottles stacked up against a fence, 10-litre cocktail buckets for €120, and a ‘Twerk it, bitch!’ special kicking off at 4pm. But a cool breeze blows over empty loungers too, as if Mykonos itself is breathing a sigh of relief. It feels like its guard is down.
In October, locals seem to come out of the woodwork. They’re here all year of course, just hard to spot in the melee. Now, I sit for coffee on a backstreet by the harbour in Hora, the main town, watching people come and go to mass — an old woman in a black headscarf, a mother playing with her daughters on the sand, gnarly-fisted men hobnobbing beneath flourescent cafe lights.
At Vienoula’s Garden Hotel, where I’m staying, I ask the owner for a local restaurant recommendation, and get a little mark on the map above a northwestern beach called Agios Sostis. An hour or so later, I lean my dusty rental bike against a wall and follow the smoky bouquet of a barbecue down towards an emerald cove with a tiny, whitewashed church. There’s a queue outside Kiki’s Tavern, and a waiter directs me to ‘Mr Vasilis’ in the kitchen.
I find a huge man in a Hawaiian shirt, holding court at a salad bar. There’s a 30-minute wait, he explains. But it’s worth it. Not long afterwards, my lunch is plucked from a grill sizzling with calamari, fish and pork chops big enough to club a man to death with.
“What’s best?” I ask.
“The best thing is the queue outside,” Mr Vasilis grins.
In many ways, Mykonos is a mirage. Made famous as a luxe escape by Jackie and Aristotle Onassis, it’s both one of the Med’s hottest party scenes and a celeb crossroads, visited by everyone from Leo to Mariah and Versace (it’s got a Nobu, and private cabanas with their own butlers, whirlpool baths and Ligne St Barth skin products at Nammos restaurant on Psarou Beach). But you don’t have to twerk it or spend a small fortune to get to the heart of the island either. It’s a place you can explore easily in the shoulder season, spotting little churches and dovecotes, pulling into swimming coves, taking the boat to Delos, or just following your nose.
‘And a sun to maybe dissipate
Shadows of the mess you made
By early evening, the tight lanes’ and toothpaste-white buildings of the Old Town twinkle with jewellery and souvenirs. Handfuls of tourists head out for sundowners, leaving trails of aftershave and perfume in the air.
“The girls want to get sunset,” I overhear one man saying. “Aw, we’ve seen about 20 f**king sunsets already!” his friend moans.
Mykonos is indeed a strange place. But waves lick against the teetering buildings of Little Venice, and everybody looks beautiful.
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)