One hour from Athens, the island of Kea remains a local secret – an Athenian weekend hangout and summer hideaway where people mark their patch with a second home and a speedboat. You can reach the island from the lesser known port of Lavrio in the very southeast of Attica (Greater Athens) – a port that’s not as easily accessible or as connected to the scattering of Greece’s islands as the popular ferry hub of Piraeus.
The Cyclades Islands are usually defined by laid-back Naxos and Paros, the more bohemian Mykonos and Ios and the picture perfect Santorini. Yet not many have heard of Kea – the closest Cyclades getaway to the mainland, but one that feels much, much further away.
Maybe this is what gives Kea (known to locals as Tzia) its untouched charm, coveted by those in the know like a secret garden whose gate is open… if you know where to find it.
It sure is deserving of a little more tourism injection.
“Things need to change,” said Yiannis, a former ship Captain, now souvenir shop owner who lives in the small town of Korissia, where you will find the harbour. His shop is only metres away up a small slope, yet it’s clear these backstreets see very few visitors, many of whom choose to stop in the cafes that line the seafront for the typical Greek freddo coffee before moving on.
He caught me taking a selfie against a Greek blue door and summoned me over, where I stared at an eclectic mix of souvenirs politely before he pulled up a chair and asked me to join him. Greeks love to talk, sometimes about nothing in particular (which is just as beautiful) and other times they have stories. Stories of the real Greece behind the glossy brochures, or tales of the tiny towns you find yourself in which become less typical as the locals fill it with colourful detail.
The street was already colourful, and so was Yiannis’ life – tales at sea, the sacrifices for his son to have a good education and the material things in life he wanted, and how the time comes to slow down and make another life for yourself. Like running a shop in your hometown that has never quite picked up the pace of neighbouring lands. And so we talked about why very few tourists come here and what he wants to see happen, the port connection being the main crux of the problem. He even showed me a guidebook from the 1990s where the map didn’t even list this island’s name.
No dotted lines marked a route to enter.
“But…” he added, despite the sad face, “I don’t want to see it become another Santorini or Mykonos.” By that he meant beautiful but overrun in parts; thriving but at the expense of authenticity and local life. A hard balance to strike in a country whose accessible natural beauty will always draw in the crowds.
I came to Kea to take advantage of its unknown and untouched persona. The unknown serving my insatiable curiosity that never rests; untouched being the ideal place for a self-imposed writer’s retreat where I would have little distraction and be able to completely disconnect.
My retreat for four days was at the Porto Kea Suites (a Small Luxury Hotels of the World property) just minutes away from the tiny port. It’s made up of a mixture of individual buildings that blend typical Greek island architecture with a modern twist – whitewashed and honey toned buildings splashed with stone features, that give it a bold touch of luxury while being able to sit harmoniously with the village surroundings and rugged hilly terrain. It’s the only property of its kind on the entire island, where you are meant to lose yourself for hours in a chic and luxurious space, before getting lost in random wanderings on this simple and unstirred island.
My room was a beautiful studio, classically decorated and complete with enough storage space and a mini-kitchen to call it a home. My balcony overlooked the property’s gardens, with a sea view to match, and I was soon all too easily swayed by the direct view of the sun-drenched swimming pool. There was always time for a break or a pool-side nap in between churning out lines of narrative.
I often went for short walks – to Korissia’s tiny coastline or to nearby towns accessible via half hour walks along the curving roads that followed the dropping cliff faces, dotted with churches for an elevated view and benches, ready for lovers to take the best seat and watch the sunset. I took in local life when the sun went down sampling the daytime cafes turned bustling bars and seafood tavernas that line the Vourkari town harbour as glistening yachts pulled in for the evening.
But it wasn’t long until the peaceful charm and rugged green landscape of the wider island piqued my curiosity. Well off the tourist trail, this would be one island to explore that would certainly feel remote and enchanting.
The hotels’ Manager, Georgia, had agreed to show me around and my one request was to go hiking, since she was an avid island rambler herself. Kea has nearly 40km of walking routes – various trails through overgrown woodland that winds around hills and lead you down into valleys. Pathways that always connect you from wilderness to the four ancient cities of Ioulida, Karthaia, Koressia and Poiessa.
We took trail number one that started in the central town of Ioulida – considered one of the main gems of the island – whose pretty terracotta rooftops, cobbled steps, narrow winding streets and old arches were a treasure trove of antiquity. I climbed rooftops accessible by tiny steps to survey the town, and walked archways of flowers to find the perfectly square white houses and their blue (and sometimes pink) doors.
The pathway eventually led us to an unkempt, rustic countryside that we had all to ourselves, where we followed the wall as a marker and, in other parts, completely off-track with nothing but a dirt trail to mark the way. Wandering the central part of the island, many take this route to head down into green miniature valleys and past the Kea Lion – a 6th century BC sculpture with a cheeky grin. It’s well signed posted and guarded by the island goats.
Our adventures actually got really off track via a wrong turn. The glistening curving coastline was much further than it appeared and we eventually called a taxi in defeat. Kea certainly makes for a grand adventure if you really want it.
I ended my time on the island being shown around on speedboat by Yiannis, the owner of local boat tour and dive operator Kea Divers, in the company of the hotel’s owner and daughter. Athenians sharing their summer in a home not far from home. Having shown people around the island for over 20 years, the team behind Kea Divers claim to “know every secret of the water” and so I spent glorious hours bouncing the waves and surveying the island in all its secluded glory.
From gorgeous blue and green coves and isolated beaches on every corner we rounded, to swimming the turquoise blue waters to reach the shore where I would climb to the pre-prehistoric settlement of Kefala (the temple of Athena being as ancient as the Parthenon in Athens), these local boats have certainly found the jewels in the island’s craggy surface.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Kea needs to be a little more established without being ruined, since it already attracts particular visitors. Its ruggedness lures in the hikers. Its waters are a magnet for sailing aficionados and professionals wanting their badge of honour in passing through what is said to be a difficult passage between the mainland (Attica) and Kea, called Cavo Doro. Its close proximity to the mainland makes it accessible for those who want to spend a few days in Athens but also explore a nearby island and enjoy some beach time. Its climate makes it a perfect spot for a late sun destination come September.
Kea is a slice of the real Greece, where tourists may come but locals outnumber. Where, in the words of shopkeeper Yiannis, things need to change to pull in the more discerning traveller, but my hope is… only a little.
Things to Know:
- Ferry schedules from Lavrio port to Kea can be searched and booked online here. This comprehensive overview and tips about Greek ferry trips includes detailed information on timings, ticket bookings, routes and helpful apps to download.
- Prices for a double room at Porto Kea Suites start from €129 / £93 . You can find more information and book your stay here.
- Kea Divers offer scuba dives and snorkelling boat trips all around the island. Contact them directly to customise your plan
- For further information on travel throughout Greece, visit the portal DiscoverGreece.com, who hosted me during my stay in Kea. A comprehensive resource, you can use its iGreece facility to plan your travels in and around the country
Planning to Travel to Kea, Greece? Pin It!