Symi Island is the type of place where time is irrelevant. The only schedule a visitor could possibly need or want here is the ferry schedule. That being said, this exquisitely beautiful isle seems a delightful place to ‘miss the boat’ – particularly if you have a mere afternoon slotted for your visit.
Symi is a small Greek island (26-square miles), and one of 12 main islands constituting the Dodacanese Archipelago. Although only 2,500 islanders now inhabit Symi, history reveals that it was once a populous and veritable commercial trading destination, primarily in the sea sponge industry. (Indeed, there was a time when sea sponges were considered luxurious bathing and cosmetic accessories.) The island’s economic strength declined sharply in the mid-20th century, a result of overfishing and the depletion of natural water resources. Tourism is now Symi’s primary source of income; however, plans for construction of a reservoir in the foothills have incited hopes of additional visitors, jobs, water, and economic stability. Many residents are eager for the project to begin, but I wonder – will that reservoir, that financial usher of more tourists and income to this miniature paradise, disrupt the peace and tranquility that make it so timeless and seductive? I am convinced there is no better time than now for a visit to Symi Island.
Traversing the southern Aegean on The Gemini, a 37-foot Whitecruise Yachts luxury charter, could possibly be the ultimate highlight of any trip to the Dodacanese. From Panormitis at the south end of Symi Island to Yialos Harbor in the north, a vast indigo sea with hazy outlines of distant islands filled the starboard side while remote inlets carved into the mountains on the port side beckoned visitors to turquoise waters and serene white beaches promising solitude and privacy.
As we rounded the final turn toward the island’s main harbor a scattering of cypress and calabrian pines, a cluster of windmills, and a lone chapel bedecked the craggy outcroppings of the petrous hillside above us.
Minutes later we arrived in Yialos Harbor where the island’s laid-back, aeonian spirit washed over me like a restorative breeze on a warm summer day. Shopkeepers who greeted us on arrival were so relaxed and amiable that it was impossible to determine if they were trying to make a sale or simply imparting that they’re grateful for our visit to their island home. Akin to reuniting with old friends after a long absence, conversations commenced, stories were told, and time on Symi was of no importance whatsoever …
… until we realized that our hosts at Taverna Neraida were patiently awaiting our arrival and we were, well, unfashionably late. A few frenzied moments later my friends and I were seated al fresco and sipping glasses of Athiri, a delightful white wine that pairs perfectly with a hot summer day. Fragrant platters of Greek salad, fresh sea bass, ratatouille, and stuffed eggplant arrived table side. More wine was poured, stories were told, laughter ensued (thanks in part to a bottle of Mastika and a wickedly rousing drinking contest between pals Daniel and Isoul), and time again stood still.
Post lunch, seven rather inibriated revelers found ourselves again wandering the streets of Yialos (Symi Town), chatting with island locals and passing countless shops displaying more bins of sea sponges than one could possibly imagine – or need. Sufficiently saturated in all things sea sponge, my friends Kinya, Sheryl and I eventually chose to abandon the others in our group and embark on a fast track to purchase the leather products we’d coveted earlier at Takis Leather Fashion. Marvelous idea, however we quickly discovered that a fast track plan is nearly impossible in Symi Town. With virtually each step we took there was new reason to pause for a photo shoot.
Steep hillsides surrounding the amphitheatre-shaped bay were awash in color with gorgeous, brightly painted 19th century neo-classical mansions adorned in ornate trim and ironwork. Sleek, luxurious sailing vessels anchored in the harbor swayed idly in the placid water, their masts clinking in hypnotic rhythm against the boom. A horn sounded somewhere in the distance, perhaps near the town’s clocktower landmark. Chummy locals lounging at sidewalk cafes, imbibing their beverage of choice summoned us with questions about our lives – our homeland – as if we’d been friends for years.
Fast track plan long abandoned, we eventually arrived at Takis Leather Fashion where we purchased sandals, handbags, wallets and more. And we chatted with our new friends there. We told them about our lunch at Taverna Neraida and marveled to them about their spectacularly beautiful island paradise. Somewhere down the harbor front the horn sounded again, which prompted our friends at the leather shop to suggest we might want to make our way to the ferry, as that horn signaled it was preparing to depart.
We gathered our belongings, said our goodbyes, and slowly wandered toward the ferry, pausing to greet islanders waving at us from shops and cafes. The horn sounded yet again, although this time much longer and louder. Our stroll quickly turned into a brisk walk, then a run. Between steps I heard shouts from the boat begging us to hurry. Realizing it was unlikely that we would arrive in time for departure, I pondered that it certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing to miss the boat – to stay a few more wanderlust hours or perhaps overnight on Symi Island.
But as luck (or lack of) would have it, Kinya, Sheryl and I were whisked up by charming locals on Vespa scooters who were summoned by other members of our group to fetch us and deliver our wayfaring selves at the gangplank where we scampered aboard just as it was preparing to lift from the dock. The timing was impeccable. Damn the bad luck!
IF YOU GO:
#NowIsTheTime to visit Greece …
- Culture & History: Holy Panormitis Monastery of the Archangel Michael, a Greek Orthodox pilgrimage monastery and Byzantine Museum, is located on the seafront in Panormitis. An impressive monastery with ecclesiastical exhibits, folk art, a beautiful courtyard museum and gardens, and the tallest Baroque bell tower in the world. Peak season shoulder-to-shoulder crowds substantially reduced the monastic ambiance one would hope for when visiting, but I imagine an off-season visit would be a suitable time to experience the Panormitis Monastery.
- Adventure: For spectacular panoramic views – and a nice workout – ascend the 350ish steps of the Kali Strata (meaning “the good way”) between Yialos and the village square in Chorio (Horio). Or take the Kataraktis route, the road less traveled. Both can be accessed just steps from the harbor, and locals are happy to provide directions. The Kali Strata and Kataraktis are ancient stone steps so be sure to wear appropriate walking or hiking shoes and bring along sun protection. Naturally your exhilarating hike should be followed by a bit of R&R at nearby St. Nicholas Beach.
- Shopping: Takis Leather Fashion has an extravagant collection of sandals, footwear, handbags, wallets, belts, outerwear — even leather art. Designer Takis Psarros is world-renowned for his one-of-a-kind creations.
- Dine: Taverna Neraida, located just steps off the main square in Yialos, is one of 50+ restaurants/tavernas in Symi dishing up flavorful mezedes (appetizers), fresh fish, and delicious Greek cuisine.
- Stay: Numerous vacation rentals, B&Bs, and hotels are located in and around the harbor area in Symi Town, each offering a variety of amenities and sleeping arrangements.
- Transportation: Whitecruise Yacht Charters, based in Rhodes, Greece, provides 7 luxury yachts for expeditions throughout the southern Aegean. Our travel group’s experience with Whitecruise was absolutely incredible, with many thanks to an expert and professional crew, luxury travel amenities, and the timeless beauty of the Aegean Sea. If you’re interested in ferry transportation, Dodekanisos Seaways runs daily schedules to ports throughout the Dodecanese Archipelago.