Four of the six small islands in the patch of the Aegean between Náxos and Amorgós have slid from obscurity into fashion in recent years. Inhabited since prehistoric times, the group is known commonly as the Lesser Cyclades and includes Irakliá, Skhinoússa, Áno Koufoníssi and Dhonoússa. The islands’ popularity has hastened the development of better facilities and higher prices, but, with only limited ferry services, they’ve managed to avoid mass tourism.
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Irakliá, the westernmost of the Lesser Cyclades, and with the least spoilt scenery, has just over 150 permanent residents. As the first stop on the ferry service from Náxos, the island is hardly undiscovered by tourists, but with fewer amenities than some of its neighbours, it retains the feel of a more secluded retreat.
The port of Áyios Yeóryios is a small but sprawling settlement behind a sandy tamarisk-backed beach that gets quite crowded in August. Livádhi, a big, shallow beach, is 2km southeast of the port and its crystal-clear waters are the main tourist attraction of the island. The asphalted road continues 3km on to the tiny capital Panayía (Hóra), which has no lodgings to speak of. In season, a local boat sails from the port at 11am to make a tour of the island, stopping at the small sandy beach at Alimiá and the nearby pebble beach of Karvounólakos.
A little to the northeast of Irakliá, the island of Skhinoússa is just beginning to awaken to its tourist potential. Its indented outline, sweeping valleys and partly submerged headlands – such as the sinuous, snake-like islet Ofidhoúsa (Fidoú) – provide some of the most dramatic views in the group.
An asphalted road leads up from the port of Mersíni to the capital, Hóra (also called Panayía), for 1.2km. From Hóra you can reach no fewer than sixteen beaches dotted around the island, accessible by a network of dirt tracks. Tsigoúri is a ten-minute track walk downhill from northwest Hóra and gradually being developed. The locals’ preferred choice of beaches are Alygariá to the south, Psilí Ámmos to the northeast, and Almyrós, half an hour southeast.
ÁNO KOUFONÍSSI (usually referred to simply as Koufoníssi) is the flattest, most developed and most densely inhabited island of the group. With some of the least-spoilt beaches in the Cyclades, the island is attracting increasing numbers of Greek and foreign holidaymakers and as it’s small enough to walk round in a day, it can feel overcrowded in July and August. The best views are not of Koufoníssi itself, but out across the water to mountainous Kéros island.
The old pedestrian street of HÓRA, crossing a low hill behind the ferry harbour, has been engulfed by new room and hotel development, but the town still retains its affable, small-island atmosphere. All the good beaches are in the southeast of the island, improving as you go east along a road that skirts the gradually developing coastline along the edge of low cliffs. Fínikas, a fifteen-minute walk from town, is the first of four wide coves with gently shelving golden sand. The next beach, Fanós, is the youngsters’ favourite, because of the beach bar that dominates the stretch of sand. Next is Platiá Poúnda, where caves have been hollowed out of the cliffs. Further east, the path rounds a rocky headland to Porí, a much longer and wilder beach, backed by dunes and set in a deep bay. It can be reached more easily from the town by following a dirt road heading inland through the scrub-covered hills.
Dhonoússa is a little out on a limb compared with the other Lesser Cyclades, and ferries call less frequently. Island life centres on the pleasant port settlement of Stavrós, spread out behind the harbour and the village beach. Most sunbathers head for Kéndros, a long and attractive stretch of shadeless sand twenty minutes over the ridge to the east; a World War II wreck can be easily spotted by snorkellers. The village of Mersíni is an hour’s walk from Stavrós, while a nearby path leads down to Livádhi, an idyllic white-sand beach with tamarisks for shade. In high season a beach-boat runs from the port to all beaches, many of which are nudist; the locals don’t seem to mind.