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How a Greek island of sugarcube hamlets and wild beaches is winning the battle against mass tourism

"I’ve long harboured a theory that the greater the faff of getting there, the lovelier the Greek island"
"I’ve long harboured a theory that the greater the faff of getting there, the lovelier the Greek island" Credit: getty

Beside a square canopied in bougainvillea, Hugh Cave was telling me about July in Ios’s only town, Chora. Naked drunk teenagers played football in the small hours one night, apparently. “Pure terror,” Hugh said. 

Frankly, I couldn’t see it. Ios has a reputation as a party island but outside Hugh’s jewellery shop, Theros, cats dozed on chairs and locals gossiped over sludgy coffee at Cafe Neos. In Chora’s lanes earlier there’d been white churches with roofs painted the cerulean blue of the Cycladic sky. There’d been old boys in bars; flicking rosary beads, dawdling over glasses of tsipouro as if the first to finish had to buy the next round. Yes, there’d been a shop selling “I left my liver in Ios” T-shirts but nude sportsmen? Not one.  

Mind you, I couldn’t see Hugh as the long-haired youth who’d arrived wearing beads and a sarong in 1976 either, a period when an island of fishermen and goat-herders became a playground for the Love Generation. He fell in love with the island and then a local girl, now his wife.

The thing to understand, Hugh continued, is that Ios is two parallel worlds. There was the party one in July; it’s confined to late-night bars in Chora and neighbouring Mylopotas beach. Simultaneously, there was the Ios the hippies had discovered. The island of sugarcube hamlets, dumpy windmills and wild beaches that represented 95 per cent of its area. “Ios remains incredibly beautiful,” Hugh said. “It has a pure, natural energy to it.” 

That was the Ios I’d come for – the one promised by Calilo. 

The hotel may be a game-changer for Ios when it opens on an isolated bay on June 22. The pre-launch advertising talks of “ultimate luxury”: five-star-plus accommodation in 27 suites, posh spa treatments, three restaurants preparing organic produce from the hotel’s allotments. More intriguing is its promise of privacy. That sounds like marketing guff. Actually, it’s obvious – Calilo’s owner Angelos Michalopoulos owns a quarter of Ios.

The Chora, with its white houses tumbling down a rust-red hillside Credit: GETTY

It took the Greek-American financial trader and his wife Vasiliki Petridou three years to jigsaw together coastal land from 2,137 landowners. I know what you’re thinking: private islands, selfish global elites. Yet on one per cent of the area the couple have built two bars and Calilo (they also have a second hotel near Chora, Agalia). The rest they’ve left wild, making this the largest private coastal conservation project in the Mediterranean.

It was the only way to be sure, Angelos explained. “Otherwise Ios will become another ex-beautiful island like Mykonos or Santorini. It’ll be one more island that was a victim of its own success.”

To understand that comparison you need to know that Ios lies midway between its famous neighbours. They are expensive, swanky, insanely popular – Santorini’s 5.5 million visitors made it the most visited island in Greece in 2017.

Ios is none of those. It received 250,000 visitors in 2017 and I think I know why. From take-off at Heathrow to stepping on to Yialos harbour took me 11 hours: two flights (I went via Athens), two transfers, one ferry from Santorini. Fly direct to Santorini and you’re still looking at six hours. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve long harboured a theory that the greater the faff of getting there, the lovelier the Greek island. But I remember thinking, this better be worth it.

Ios receives around 250,000 visitors each year Credit: GETTY

First impressions around the harbour weren’t promising. It seemed a long way to come for booze cruises in mock pirate galleons and a bar called Sweet Irish Dream. Angelos wanted to show me the other Ios. We met at Koumbara beach beside one of his new(ish) bars, Erego. Boho beach-club summed it up: cabanas on the beach, sand floors in the restaurant, a fishing boat painted with butterflies as a DJ booth. And there things went a bit hippy. 

Erego, Angelos said, is a contraction of Everyone is a revelation of good. Calilo is shorthand for Create a life you can fall in love with. Angelos’s website (michalopoulosangelos.com) has 279 gnomic quotes taken from his books; stuff like “a soul’s ugliness can be much more ambitious than her beauty”. Frustration at financial life or a self-styled philosopher? Possibly a bit of both. Whatever I’d expected of a hyper-rich developer, Angelos was not it. 

Calilo is a highly personal project. That means the décor is a little idiosyncratic

We boarded a speedboat like a jet-fighter – the one available to transfer guests to Calilo from Santorini and Mykonos – to blast down the island’s sheltered east coast. Past Chora, its white houses tumbling down a rust-red hillside. Past the whump-whump of clubs on Mylopotas. Into a coastline of dreams: cove after wild cove of sapphire water and white sand, all inaccessible by land, all empty apart from wild goats. If you’ve been to Santorini or Mykonos you’ll know how improbable that is. By my count, there are 32 of them on Ios.

Angelos sympathised: “After seeing the 10th beach when I came by yacht in 2003 I was sure there must be a Russian waste dump here. There was simply no way that this place could have been left virginal.”

We anchored in Pepa bay (one of Angelos’s) and waded ashore through seas no Instagram filter could improve. A terrace built from surrounding rocks jutted discreetly at one side. The idea was to rent Pepa to Calilo guests as a private beach. 

“Privacy is the most precious thing in the 21st century,” Angelos said. “[With Calilo] I want to give people the ability to liberate themselves even if only for a day; to hug someone they love, to feel freer, to leave feeling lighter and more liberated than when they came.” That hippy thing again.

A wild goat heads to the beach Credit: GETTY

We were now at the opposite end of Ios to Chora. Calilo was around the corner in a long inlet. Built from stone quarried on site and softened by 41,000 planted trees, the low-rise development sat surprisingly gently in what was a wild bay. Here and there were olive trees – some of the 535 transported from the Peloponnese after they were due to be felled for firewood. It’s nonsensical economically, Angelos said. “But can you imagine this grandmother” – he patted an 800-year-old trunk affectionately – “as a kilogram of ashes?”

You’ve probably gathered this is a highly personal project. That means the décor is a little idiosyncratic. Walls and ceilings in suites are entirely mosaicked with marble chunks. There’s so much black and white striped marble in bathrooms you could hide a herd of zebras. In places it’s bohemian by way of Liberace.

Still, the idea is to nudge you outdoors: to your well-screened pool or the hotel’s 900ft private beach. Wow-oh-wow bays like Manganari, Tris Klisies and Kalamos are around the corner. I could see how time might become meaningless down here; how days could melt into a continuous blissful now. 

Still, after 11 hours of travel it seemed a shame not to explore. The party people watch the sunset at Pathos bar on cliffs above Koumbara. It’s spectacular if bonkers: Nessun Dorma swells through the PA, the sun sizzles into the sea and millennials snap selfies in the infinity pool. I preferred that above Chora. I wandered up through its lanes to sit on a hilltop crowned by matchbox-sized chapels as atmospheric as cathedrals. As the bay hazed into golden light, Chora below sank into dusk, looking more Moorish than Mediterranean. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful.

At such times Ios feels timeless. No, the island hasn’t changed much, a twinkly, white-haired owner said in a traditional food shop, Mosenta. Feeding me spoons of honey from his hives – light and sweet from thyme and wildflowers in summer, dark and caramely in winter – he said: “My farm, it’s a paradise. Ios is easy life.”

"The idea is to nudge you outdoors: to your well-screened pool or the hotel’s 900ft private beach"

So, I hired a car and hairpinned into the scrubby hills behind Chora. Past the remains of Skarkos, the best preserved early Bronze Age Cycladic settlement ever discovered (excavated finds are in Chora’s Archaeology Museum), I wound towards a windy north-east cliff. A local legend says that Homer is buried there. Six other places in Greece claim the same. They’ve erected a marble headstone just in case. Still, his line in the “Iliad” about beauty heightened by mortality and decay resonated at Paleokastro. The 14th-century castle crumbled on east-coast cliffs, a series of toothy walls vanishing into thorny scrub that smelled faintly of goats. Within was a tiny church shaded by an olive tree. 

I lingered far longer than planned, gazing out to islands in a cobalt sea, listening to the waves far below. It was almost meditation. Hugh was right: there’s a pure energy to Ios.

At Psathi afterwards (a few summerhouses behind a wild bay), I sat on the terrace of Alonsita restaurant with a platter of goat’s cheese with wild capers, anchovies in olive oil, stuffed vine leaves and tomato fritters. It was proper Greek: so simple, so delicious. Owner Nikos said the cheese came from his 20 goats, the olive oil from his trees, the honey from his hives. Mum was in the kitchen. We were 10 miles from Irish Sweet Dream. It could have been a century. 

Did he think an airport might benefit Ios? Nikos rolled his eyes. 

“Airports!” he spat. “Everywhere they go, the money comes and it destroys.” 

And he’s right. The irony of Ios is that its bad reputation has been its saviour. The boozed-up teenagers have scared off international developers, sparing Ios from 40 years’ rampant commercialisation. And if it takes a wealthy Greek-American to safeguard it for the next 40, well, that’s fine by me.

How to get there

James Stewart was a guest of Calilo owner Luxurios (luxurios.com). Calilo (calilo.com) opens on June 22. A suite costs from €350 (£305). easyJet (easyjet.com) and Norwegian (norwegian.com) fly from Gatwick to Santorini from £58. Ferries to Ios from Santorini with Blue Star (www.bluestarferries.com) cost from €12.50.