Such cheerfulness is not widespread in Greece: a shopgirl at the Hugo Boss boutique in the Athens airport had sniffed, "Mykonos is like Hawaii—everyone knows about it now!" And before we left for our vacation, a cousin had dashed off an e-mail warning from an Internet café in Mykonos: "Beware: The Italians have invaded the island! Again!"
"It isn't just the glamorous people who come here anymore," admitted Tasos Ioannidis, whose family owns the Belvedere; Tasos and his brother Nikolas manage the hotel. "From the sixties to the eighties it was good. There was an Argentinean painter named Pierros who owned a popular bar; he brought all the VIP's—the king and queen of Greece, Elizabeth Taylor, Steve Rubell." Nikolas agreed: "Before the big hotels came, it was all about eccentricity: gay, straight—everyone had a good time. But fashion designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen, they still come. There's something mysterious about it: if you meet someone on the beach, I can guarantee you will see them again. It's very sexy."
Especially at the bikini-optional beaches. Not only does Mykonos boast one named Paradise (home to the moonlit raves of Cavo Paradiso, the cliff-top club where famous DJ's spin), but it one-ups the nirvana concept with another called Super Paradise, a onetime gay beach that's now more like Greek Girls Gone Wild. For me, though, peace and quietude were found miles away at virtually deserted Agios Sostis beach, where I met a young Californian couple who are professional models. "Mykonos still has some magic left," the woman said as her tattooed love god bodysurfed in the sea. "There aren't many places on earth this beautiful, where you can run naked on the beach and not have icky guys gawking at you."
That's Mykonos—model-tested, mother-approved.
—James Patrick Herman
Her radiant eyes retreated behind a fearsome squint, her lips were swallowed by a frown. This was not the look of joy I was expecting from my fiancée. I'd pulled a hundred strings to secure a room at Elounda Beach, the famed resort that draws rock stars and Arab potentates to its primly manicured bay on Crete. But now she brooded on the Versace-clad bed while I smoked Marlboro Lights, two at a time, on the terrace. Waving her hand dismissively at our private pool, she finally said: "I want to go back to Hydra."
Hydra is for those who yearn for a place where nothing much happens, but also one that seems to have a lock on timeless truths. On a typical day in summer, the early-evening parade on Hydra's quay is dominated by day-trippers. Ferries from Piraeus disgorge tourists, sleek Ferretti yachts sway gently on the water, and fishing boats bob defiantly beside them. But by nightfall, Hydra is left to its residents, Athenian weekenders, jet-setters (Joan Collins owns a house here; Prince Charles is a frequent visitor), and those with a yen for something other than classical ruins and lemming-packed beaches. These faithful take drawing classes at the School of Fine Arts or the Hotel Leto, hop water taxis to isolated beaches, and seek moments of solitude in any of the island's dozens of jewel-box churches.
Forty years ago, when Sophia Loren came to film Boy on a Dolphin and Leonard Cohen arrived to find his muse disguised as a lotus fruit, Hydra had its chance to become another Mykonos, the epicenter of Europe's summering elite. It had already been nicknamed the Greek St.-Tropez; it would soon attract A-listers like Brando and Onassis, while the avant-garde—Allen Ginsberg, David Bowie, penniless paint-slingers, self-styled philosophers—would flock to the little $1,500 sugar-cube house Cohen had bought with an inheritance.
By day, the expatriates would scramble up above the port town into the hills to the monastery of Profitis Ilias or the convent of Agia Eupraxia. There they might sit beneath a cypress tree to sketch the dreaming town below—with its sunburnt palette of ochers, grays, crimsons, and whites—or fix their gaze across the milky-blue Saronic Gulf to the Peloponnese. In the evening they would meander through Hydra's honeycomb of cobbled lanes—slippery from centuries of use—to convene at tavernas and cafés in the port. They feasted on the swordfish and lobsters the fishermen had just brought back in their pastel skiffs, drank heavily, smoked pot or unfiltered Karelia cigarettes, and wove sophisticated conversations about poetry and art and who was sleeping with whom. Hydra became a haven, as much a place for pilgrims of the spirit as for tourists. And for a while, it seemed as if this redoubt would be overrun.
It never was. The island has stayed true to itself: an idyll that spurned the quickening pace of life dictated by modernity and Mammon. Cars and bicycles were banned; donkeys still provide the only locomotion up its whitewashed alleys. The strictest building codes in Greece have kept the town of Hydra looking mostly as it did in 1825, when William Townshend Washington, George's nephew, ranked it among the four places that had "struck forcibly upon [his] imagination" during his world travels. Even Richard Branson, who owns one of Hydra's 18th-century Venetian mansions, was unable in the late nineties to persuade the islanders to let him build a $30 million luxury resort there.
My fiancée and I were later married on Hydra, where the materialism of modernity is kept in check by a sense of history and a respect for nature. When we saw a train of 20 donkeys trudging their way to our hilltop reception bearing champagne glasses, ovens, and pots of hydrangeas, we knew the balance had been preserved.
—Gregory A. Maniatis
The thing about a small island is that specialization won't get you far: someone who can't pick a sea urchin off a rock, roast lamb on a spit, or build a fire might do well on the island of Manhattan but not on Paxos, seven miles from the southern end of Corfu. So it is that heroes are scattered around Paxos—heroes like Yiorgo, Karkaletzos, Teo, Stamati, and Yanni, who can dance, cook, sing, fish, steer a boat, hypnotize an audience—scattered in the three ports of Gaios, Lakka, and Loggos, and points between.