If I go the Marmara way, I walk down a rough dirt road in the direction of a village smaller than Marpissa. Walls here are made of whitewashed cinder blocks, which I'm told are now forbidden, as Páros, despite all the building that is going on, is an architecturally protected island; but the Marmara way seems very far from such directives. In a field of hobbled goats is the rusty chassis of a car. I pass another field in which a man in a sweat-stained fedora and two women wearing Russian-style babushkas are digging up potatoes. They wave at me. The only signs in English are for ROOMS, painted crudely on boards nailed to listing posts among dry weeds. The beach called Molos is flat and long and there are few people present (mostly small groups of Greek families wearing traditional large bathing suits). I go to one of the beachfront tavernas; its rickety wooden tables are set under enormous eucalyptus trees with whitewashed trunks. I order a salad of tomatoes (fresh from the garden in back) and tiny, crisp deep-fried prawns from the sea; I can hear the surf as I eat. Only Greek is spoken here, and I'm happy to comply.
My boyfriend, Michael, and I are standing in a field of wildflowers, surrounded by a mountainous landscape that reminds me of England's Lake District. But we're not in the land of Wordsworth and Coleridge; we're on Ándros, the northern-most and most fertile of the Cyclades. Our hosts, my stepcousin Tomas and his wife, Ornella, are initiating us in a local custom: a strenuous afternoon hike.
We start 20 miles south of the island's capital, Ándros town (otherwise known as Hora). Stone steps called kalderimia lead us down a steep ravine to an old, abandoned water mill that was used as a bakery until the 1950's. Then it's a vigorous climb uphill, where our reward is a view of the Aegean. Although we speed up for the last 45 minutes of our journey, we navigate the treacherous descent on uneven kalderimia in near darkness, the only light provided by the stars and nearby houses. By the time we reach the edge of town, it's pitch black.
We have come to Ándros for three reasons: its proximity to Athens (just three hours away by bus and ferry), because I have family on the island's eastern coast, and—perhaps most important—its refreshing lack of hype. Tomas, a figurative painter with a London dealer, and Ornella, a cosmopolitan Italian, live just north of Hora in the prosperous village of Stenies, which was built by Greek shipping magnates in the 19th century. They moved here two years ago from the more remote volcanic island of Nísiros, so that Tomas would be closer to Athens and art openings in London, and because Ornella missed her family back in Rome.
The town's jasmine-scented streets are inaccessible by car and therefore ideal for walking. My cousins have invited us for dinner, but Tomas, knowing we'll need help navigating the town's mazelike sidewalks—most of which go either straight up or straight down—meets us halfway between our bungalow and Stenies. We scramble up steep public paths, feeling like voyeurs as we peer past backyards into stately houses. By the time we reach their stately house—a stone structure that dates back almost 100 years—we're famished.
Ornella has prepared a selection of savory mezes—garlicky skordalia, cool tzatziki—and fresh fish with tomatoes and olives. As we eat, we trade stories of island life: Manhattan versus Ándros. One of the advantages of living in such a town, Tomas says, is that he's able to work on his art all afternoon, without interruptions (Andros is practically deserted in the off-season). "Do you ever feel isolated?" "Do you miss 'culture?'" we want to know. No problem, says Tomas. He orders new books from Amazon.com (address: Stenies, Ándros) and keeps up with current events on-line. His description of a typical Ándros day, however—the beach in the morning, a leisurely lunch, then painting and reading in the afternoon—trumps anything we New Yorkers can offer.
The next day, in Hora, Michael and I are surprised to find paintings by Picasso on the walls of the diminutive Museum of Contemporary Art. The so-called New Town, with its shops and restaurants, is lovely, but we linger in the Old Town, with its grand villas and marble streets. At the end of a peninsula, joined to the mainland by a narrow stony bridge, is an islet on which the crumbling remains of a Venetian fortress lie. Behind us, beckoning at the sea as if he longed to return to it, is a bronze statue: the unknown sailor of Ándros. He may wish he were back out there, sailing the Aegean, but I think he's rather lucky to have washed up on these shores.