For those of us who are passionate about travel, there are many places in the world that we revel in visiting, maybe even fall a little bit in love with. But then there’s another level of travel experience, one that’s far more rare…a place that just calls to your soul.
If you’ve got a minute, the exquisitely-tiny island of Symi Greece would like a word with your soul.
Surprisingly, two months ago I’d never even heard of the island of Symi. But while trying to plan a route from Rhodes to Turkey, I happened to stumble across this little gem. Though there are a few direct ferries between Rhodes and the Turkish mainland, the more common path was to Bodrum via the islands of Symi and Kos. It seemed like a good plan to break up the 3-ferry trip with a stay on one of the two islands.
So, after a quick Google image search of both Symi and Kos, I was instantly taken with the pictures of Symi with its quaint pink and yellow, Venetian style architecture. I’d never seen a Greek island that looked like Symi and I knew right away that it was an island I had to see. Sometimes I just get a feeling about a place, so I decided to spend 4 nights on Symi, longer than I devoted to anywhere else but Crete on this trip.
Symi has regular ferry service from Rhodes and the two morning options are at 8:30am and 9:30am. The 9:30am ferry makes a one-hour stop at the Panormitis Monastery on the southern tip of Symi before continuing on to the main harbor, arriving at noon. This was the ferry I had hoped to book but unfortunately it was already sold out so I had to settle for the direct ferry that departed Rhodes at 8:30am and arrived at 9:25am.
Love at first sight from the ferry
As we cruised along the Turkish coastline I spent most of the ride braving the wind on deck straining for a look at the stunning harbor I’d seen in photos. But as our arrival time approached, it was still nothing but rugged cliffs and blue sea.
And then we rounded the final bend into Symi’s protected harbor.
Hmm, how to describe this? You know how people say “when you know, you just know” about meeting the right person? Well, I’ve yet to just “know” when it comes to men (2015 update, now that I’ve met my husband I know what they mean) but I often get a feeling about a place when I research it and scroll through images. Though a picture is just a frozen moment in time, even the pictures of Symi oozed refined island charm and elegance.
Yet still, when I got my first glimpse of the harbor, I was speechless. Remarkably, the photos had not done the island justice and I immediately wondered if I would be able to. The clear, deep blue waters of the harbor were surrounded by row after row of pastel-colored neoclassical facades stacked one on top of the other climbing the side of the mountain. The colorful mansions were separated from the sea by nothing but a line of million-dollar yachts and sailboats.
I was hooked….and more than a little shocked that after so many years of traveling the world this magical island hadn’t even been a blip on my radar.
You’re slipping, McIver. Get your head in the game.
My home away from home
As I alighted the ferry and looked around, I was happy to spot a teenage boy holding a sign with my apartment’s name, EOS Studios. I had only thought to communicate my ferry arrival information to the owner late the night before so I wasn’t sure anyone would be there to greet me. Luckily, Theologis (husband of owner, Sevasti) and son were waiting patiently and in minutes we were in the car, up the hill and walking into my apartment, my home for the next 4 nights.
Theologis explained that Sevasti was at church and would come by and visit me later to introduce herself and help me with any information I needed about the island. He also pointed out their house, just one row over and up in case I needed anything before then. The apartment was fantastic, plenty of space, a small kitchen, strong wifi and most importantly, a roomy terrace with a million-dollar view over the harbor.
I spent a few minutes unpacking and thinking how nice it was to be in the same place for 4 whole nights for the first time on this trip (we changed hotels once in Chania). Technically, I still hadn’t made plans for the two nights after leaving Symi and I made a mental note to ask Sevasti later if the apartment was even available for an extra night.
As excited as I was to settle into my new apartment, I was even more excited to get out and explore the magnificent harbor below me. So I grabbed my camera and headed down the narrow streets made of stairs that wound their way down to the sea.
A brief history of Symi Greece
Often called the “jewel of the Dodecanese,” tiny Symi was once a very prosperous island thanks to a long tradition of shipbuilding and sponge diving. The legacy of this wealth is evident in the gracious mansions and ornate churches scattered across the island. Symi’s unique building style is maintained through a strict archaeological decree that regulates methods of construction for new buildings and restoration of old buildings.
By the mid 1900’s, Symi’s economy gradually deteriorated with the decline of the shipbuilding industry. Adding insult to injury, someone had the nerve to invent a synthetic sponge. Many locals fled the island to find work on nearby Rhodes or further afield in Australia, Canada and the US (I’m told Tarpon Springs, Florida is home to an unusually large concentration of Symians). These days tourism and an influx of real estate investment from Athens and the UK are the foundation for the local economy.
There are no big resort hotels on Symi, most accommodations are similar to mine, apartments rented by locals or small B&B’s. As a result, the vast majority of tourism to the island is in the form of day trips from nearby Rhodes or Kos. The first ferry arrives at 9:30am and between the hours of 10am and 4:00pm, the streets of Symi swell with camera-toting, socks-and-sandals-wearing tourists. During this mid-day occupation, most locals (and those of us who wish we were) retreat to the solitude of the hills.
After taking my morning walk around the harbor amidst the endlessly unloading ferries, I quickly decided they had the right idea. I grabbed a quick lunch, purchased a few groceries for my kitchen and headed back up the hill to enjoy the view and a little peace and quiet.
Sevasti stopped by mid-afternoon when she saw me out on the terrace and brought by a map and a cucumber from her garden (the first of many treats she would drop off during my stay). We hit it off immediately and I told her I planned to do the Circle Island boat trip the next day and wasn’t sure of my plans after that.
She also confirmed that the apartment was indeed available for the 5th night which I was convinced was a sign that I was supposed to stay. While we chatted on the terrace an orange kitty strolled by and she introduced me to Rosie, the neighborhood cat who seemed to belong to no one…or perhaps she belonged to everyone, I wasn’t sure.
After the ferry containing the last horde of tourists sailed out of the harbor at 4:00pm, I walked back down the hill to enjoy a bit of Symi’s “Golden Hour” – that peaceful time between when the last ferry leaves and before the taxi boats start coming back from the beaches.
The harbor area is nearly deserted during this time except for shop owners restocking, restaurants preparing for dinner service and yacht owners settled in on their top decks with a cocktail and a good book. And speaking of the yachts, Symi’s harbor was elbow to elbow with them. It was like a whole other community down there affectionately known by the locals at the “yacht people.”
All of which begs the question…
Who are these yacht people who travel around the world on enormous luxury yachts slipping into exotic ports of call? And more importantly why don’t I know any of them? Clearly an oversight on my part. Must make an effort to find more (or any) friends with yachts. Noted.
After my stroll past “Yacht Row” I returned to the center of the harbor to see if anyone was back at the Poseidon boat tour desk I’d seen empty earlier. Sevasti had said those desks were usually only manned in the mornings and early evening hours since they were out on trips during the day. Their sign advertised a full day “Circle Island” boat tour with stops at many of Symi’s best beaches and the Panormitis Monastery. It sounded like the perfect day and I was hoping to book it for the following day.
At the desk I met Yiannis, the Poseidon’s skipper, who explained the itinerary for the trip and said that they did have availability for the next day and just to come back at 10:00am. The price was a very reasonable 35 euro and the trip sounded like a terrific way to see a lot of the island since many of the beaches are only accessible by boat.
I thanked Yiannis and told him I’d see him in the morning. Next to the Poseidon desk there were several others for Symi’s taxi boat service. The boats run at fixed schedules for a set price and each counter had a sign listing its destination and scheduled departures. The taxi boats are a very convenient way to get around the island and it seemed like a nice day trip to get out to some of Symi’s loveliest beaches. I filed that idea away for another day.
The Poseidon Circle Island Trip
When I awoke the next morning, the weather was again beautiful and I was excited to get out on the water and see more of the island. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the dock,Yiannis said that although the trip was still going, high winds on the eastern side of the island meant the waves were too rough to visit those beaches or the Panormitis Monastery. Strike two on the monastery. I was disappointed but what can you do? He reduced the price for me a little so I decided it would still be a great day to explore the western side of the island. But it was definitely looking like I’d need to find another way to get to Panormitis before the week was out.
Our revised plan for the day called for extended stays at the stops on the western side of the island and our first stop was a deserted cove near Nanou Bay where we able to spend some time swimming from the boat or make a hike up the hill to a little church at the top. I figured there’d be plenty of time for swimming so I opted for the hike.
After an hour or so at Nanou, we headed on toward the island of Seskli just off the southern coast of Symi. As we cruised along the island’s rugged coastline, I got acquainted with some of my fellow passengers. I was surprised to discover that most weren’t tourists at all but Symi residents. Many were retired British couples who’d bought property on Symi and either lived here full-time or for half of the year. Each new person I met had a similar story, they’d come to Symi on holiday years ago and simply fell in love. The luckiest of them had bought property back in the 80’s or 90’s when the real estate market was soft. These days, you won’t get that lucky. If you want a second home on Symi, it’ll cost you.
As we chatted, I casually mentioned that I was a travel blogger and suddenly they all seemed a bit more guarded. Concerned, perhaps, that I might expose their Symi secret to the world. I, of course, could completely understand why they might want to keep this little island all to themselves. It’s bad enough they already have to share it with the world every day from 10am – 4pm.
At Seskli the crew prepared a delicious BBQ lunch for us while we lounged on the beach and went for a swim. Our final stop was my favorite, Agios Georgious Beach. Backed by a dramatic cliff making it completely inaccessible by land, this perfect little sliver of beach is lapped by turquoise waters dotted with a handful of sailboats and yachts. As we approached the beach from the sea it felt like we’d drifted onto a movie set, almost too spectacular to be real.
Several of my fellow passengers took advantage of our mooring in the bay to leap off the top of the boat into the inviting Aegean Sea below. I decided to pass on the flying leap but did have a nice swim (though the water is still pretty cold this time of year!). Because of the size of the cliffs, Agios Georgious is in the shade after 3:00pm so we left shortly after that and headed back for town.
I was still a little disappointed about missing out on the western side of the island but our day exploring the eastern side was completely fantastic and, after all, I still had 3 more days left to see the rest.
When I got back to the apartment that night Sevasti stopped by to see how my day was and to bring me a piece of homemade cheesecake…on her birthday! It was so sweet of her to keep coming by with treats and I was comfortably settling into the role of coddled house-guest.
Another day in paradise
The next day I did a little more research into my options for getting to Turkey by ferry so that I could decide for sure about staying an extra night. I had two nights open that I had planned to use to get between Symi and my next confirmed stop, Ephesus in Turkey. Getting between the two was a somewhat convoluted affair involving multiple ferries and buses.
I realized I could get at least as far as Bodrum, Turkey with a single day of travel and then use the next day to get to Ephesus. But first, I had to make sure I could get a ticket on the ferry I needed from Symi, after all I’d already been burned once on ferry availability this week.
Sevasti recommended a travel agency called Symi Tours so I headed over to their office to book the ferry from Symi to Kos for Thursday morning. They weren’t able to book the connecting ferry to Bodrum since it was operated by a Turkish ferry company but assured me I’d have no problem booking it once I arrived in Kos.
Once that was settled, I happily confirmed to Sevasti that I’d be spending a 5th night in her apartment. Feeling pretty productive already, and now with an extra day to spare, I decided to spend the rest of the morning and afternoon catching up on some writing and photo editing. Have I mentioned my Symi “office” has a pretty great view?
Dinner in the harbor capped off a perfectly lovely day.
Third time’s the charm at Panormitis…sort of
After striking out twice with Panormitis (the ferry from Rhodes and the Poseidon trip) by Day 4 I was determined to get to this monastery on the other end of the island.
The day before, when I stopped in the Symi Tours office to book my ferry to Kos, I’d asked about their bus to Panormitis but unfortunately, it didn’t run again until Friday, the day after I was leaving. But they told me the local bus goes every day at 2:00pm and then returns at 3:30pm. Sounded like a good plan to me.
Later that night when discussing my plans for the next day with Sevasti, she offered to call and confirm the bus times for me. It turned out there was also a 7:00am bus to Panormitis and since I often like to get an early start on my day, that sounded like a good plan to beat the usual crowds at the monastery.
So the next morning I was up at sunrise and made my way down the hill to the bus stop a little before 7:00am. It was my first opportunity to see some of the mountainous interior of the island and it was just as beautiful as Sevasti had said. It was a 30-minute ride across the island and as we made our descent out of the mountains I got my first look at the magnificent Panormitis Monastery.
As we pulled up to the front of the monastery, I asked the driver what time the bus returned to town. Since the 2:00pm bus returned at 3:30pm I assumed the morning bus did something similar but I had neglected to ask before I boarded (rookie mistake). To my dismay, the driver replied “3:30pm.” Now, don’t get me wrong, it was a gorgeous monastery and I wanted some time to explore it a bit but common wisdom said that could be accomplished in an hour or two. Eight hours seemed like overkill.
My only other option was to snap a few pictures quickly and get right back on the bus back to town. That didn’t seem like a good option either so I decided to stick it out and sightsee a little in the area. I didn’t really have anything else planned for the day so why not?
Dedicated to Archangel Michael, the patron saint of seafaring Greeks, the Panormitis Monastery is considered one of the most beautiful in the Aegean Sea. Its most spectacular features are the bell tower, the mosaic floor and the Saint’s icon. Thousands of pilgrims visit the monastery every year to honor the icon of the Saint and, of course, they are often joined by thousands more tourists.
But Panormitis is more than just Symi’s number one tourist attraction, you can actually rent a room here if you’re looking for true peace and quiet on your holiday. A monk’s cell goes for about $10 a night. I decided to file that under “quaint” and stick with my lovely apartment in town.
After exhausting my monastery experience in about two hours, I decided to take a walk over to the nearest beach, Marathounda. I’d heard the taxi boats took people to and from this beach from town each day so I thought I might be able to catch one of those back to town earlier than 3:30pm.
The walk was about two miles down the main road – uphill, then downhill, then uphill again (Shannon would be proud that I am getting my 10,000 steps in today!) – but it wasn’t too bad. And since I hadn’t really seen many of Symi’s beaches this was a good chance for a little quality beach time.
It was 10:00am by the time I emerged onto the pebbly beach and I was slightly surprised to see it totally deserted. The beach chairs were stacked up, the lone tavern closed and there was not a soul in sight. In fact, the only signs of life on Marathounda at that hour were the goats. And there were lots of them.
But the beach was pretty so I wandered around taking a few photos and unintentionally striking fear into the goats who scattered in poorly-thought-out directions as I crunched along the pebbles. Satisfied with my photo shoot and concerned about further stressing out the goats, I un-stacked a lounge chair, popped open the striped umbrella above it and settled in for a little quality time with my book (thank goodness I had thrown my iPad into my bag at the last minute this morning). I mean, really, where else in the Greek Islands can you have a whole beach to yourself?
Around 10:30am the family that ran the local tavern arrived to open for the day and they seemed just as surprised to see me as the goats had. Apparently, no one usually arrives at this beach before noon-ish. During the next hour a handful of other beach-goers arrived by car and settled into nearby chairs but no sign of any boats. Over lunch at the taverna I asked about the taxi boats and they said they weren’t running today because of the waves. Figures.
They offered to call me a real taxi (there are a few on the island) which would have cost about 30 euro but by this time it was after 1:00pm so I figured I could manage the walk back to Panormitis and catch the bus back.
By 4:00pm I was back in town after a full day of sightseeing. Sevasti stopped by to bring me some local cheese and honey (I love this woman) and when I relayed my bus experience she had no idea the morning bus didn’t return on the same schedule as the afternoon one which made me feel slightly less stupid.
But regardless of the more than ample time spent on the other side of the island, I decided it had been a pretty fantastic day overall. An experience that was uniquely Symi, you could say.
A Symi storm rolls through
Late that afternoon after my eventual return from Panormitis, Theologis stopped by to take down the big umbrella on my terrace. He said they were expecting a big storm to pass through tonight with high winds. Oh goody, I thought, a little adventure!
That evening as the clouds moved in I headed into town for dinner by the harbor and to ponder my options for the next day. By the time I got back from dinner the winds had picked up considerably and you could hear the steady chorus of banging shutters around town. When they say on Symi that they’re expecting high winds, they’re not kidding. I hadn’t seen wind like this since the infamous Bora Bora cyclone incident.
The wind continued through the night with the occasional bouts of rain but I did manage to fall asleep for a while until a wave of particularly hard gusts roused me from bed with loud banging of my own shutters, which I’d thought were pretty well secured in the open position. I’d been sleeping with my windows open since I arrived but with the noise they were suddenly making I was worried I might be waking up the whole neighborhood so I figured I’d better get up and try to figure out how to close them.
When I opened my front door I almost stepped right on Rosie the cat who was huddled by my front stoop. I felt bad for her out there in the wind and rain and she definitely had the look of a cat who was hoping to improve her current circumstances. With the door still open she gazed up at me pitifully as if seeking permission to enter…and then she waltzed right in without even giving me the courtesy of a chance to respond. Rosie knows a sucker when she sees one.
The shutters were a battle in the wind and darkness (and with hair blowing sideways in my face). They had to be closed from the outside but then locked from the inside through the screen. After I finally managed to figure out how to secure them, I went back in to see what kind of trouble Rosie had gotten into. She was just walking around the apartment sniffing things and purring wildly while pleading for head scratches. I didn’t have any milk but I poured her some water and when I got back into bed she curled up on the corner of the bed like someone who’d run this racket before.
The next morning when Sevasti stopped by to see how I’d weathered the storm, I told her about my middle of the night shutter adventure. Judging from the hint of disapproval in her knowing look when I got to the “frightened kitty in the wind” bit, Rosie may or may not be worthy of Academy Award consideration. But I was glad Sevasti didn’t mind too much because it was nice to have a kitty around for a night. I miss mine!
An attempt at sunset
On my first day in Symi, I’d asked Sevasti if there were any good spots in town for watching the sunset. Since Symi’s mountainous harbor faces north, it’s not the best for sunset viewing. However, she told me that the best spot for sunset was Toli Beach on the western side of the island. There’s no boat or bus service to Toli but there is a road if you have a car. She offered to check with her husband and see if there was a good night that they could take me over there for sunset which I thought would be awesome. We decided to try for Wednesday night, my last on the island.
Early that morning I took a walk way up the hill to the village of Symi, high above the harbor. The views were magnificent from up there and I walked around for a while wandering down various side streets looking for even better views. I spent most of the rest of the day catching up on work (and starting on book #2!) and enjoying the incredible “office” views from my terrace. Around 6:30pm Sevasti came by to pick me up and we were off for Toli Beach. Unfortunately, the weather still wasn’t cooperating after the big storm the night before and dark clouds towards the west threatened to quell our sunset experience.
When we arrived at Toli, Sevasti introduced me to her aunt who runs the one and only taverna on Toli. Thanks to the gloomy weather we had the place to ourselves as Sevasti’s aunt brought out Greek coffee and desserts for us to enjoy while we chatted. A great time was had by all but we had to do without the sun which remained stubbornly buried behind the clouds. It didn’t matter, it was so nice of Sevasti and Theologis to drive me across the island just for the chance to see the sunset.
By 9:00pm I was back in my room and sadly packing up to catch the ferry to Kos in the morning. I didn’t want to leave Symi but I had a pretty ambitious week ahead in Turkey and the one extra night was all I could spare.
But if there’s one thing I do know for sure about Symi, it’s that I’ll be back…sooner, rather than later (and hopefully on a yacht!).
Because when you know, you just know.
Next stop, a ferry to Kos and onward to Turkey!!