The cliffs on the west coast of Paxos bear the brunt of the winter storms – the fissures in the white, ribbed limestone also revealing where the Venetians came to quarry stone, honed out of the rocks in large rectangular blocks. On crests, which in places stand 180m high, are a few gnarled olive trees bent by the weather.
On Antipaxos, the next island south, to which we head in our speedboat, the olives have been replaced by vines, which thread across the island’s gently undulating form. The grapes produce a red wine, but the locals value its sweetness so dearly there’s rarely a bottle left for visitors like us to buy. I can’t hear the lap of water against rocks, so syrupy is the Mediterranean when the sun is squarely on its back. But I can hear birds, which we disturb as we enter an inlet, the water curling, like the tail of a comma, behind a promontory to reveal a glass-flat pool of blue that finishes in a crescent of pebbled beach.
The water’s depth is hard to gauge; it plays constant tricks on the eye because of the sea’s blinding clarity and the filtering effect of the white stone. “You can literally take a knife and collect your own lunch here: wild capers, seagulls’ eggs, limpets,” says Anglo-Greek Ben Spatha-Hobdell, who lives on Paxos. He is the owner of Ben’s Bar, a former windsurfing shack, now a low-key club on Monodendri Beach, where the pizzas are fired by olive wood, and pomegranates and rocket are plucked from the garden behind. It is the island’s beating heart, even if that beat is to the slow grooves of samba under dappled shade, where the seats are a gypsy mix of colours.
Spatha-Hobdell is skippering our boat. The day before, he had free-dived for sea urchins, and we ate his spoils for lunch, the delicate pink fingers of flesh doused in lemon juice. We watched him open razor clams to reveal tiny, transparent prawns, still alive when he slipped them into my nine-year-old’s mouth, like a bird feeding its young. “I come here to collect salt from the rock pools to eat with tomatoes, fresh bread and olive oil,” he says. He shows us where his friends go for a mud bath, a beauty treatment favoured by Paxiots, and describes free-diving off Antipaxos, looking for grouper and bream: “The sea floor is full of boulders and rocks. Fish hide in the holes. It’s like a labyrinth down there; you never know what you might find.” He tells stories about the pirate Barbarossa, of hidden treasure and secret staircases at the backs of huge black caves. During the second world war, he says, a Greek submarine came and hid in the same dark place. As I listen, I see a man on the far side of the inlet. He is about 70 and is walking over the rocks with a bucket – a local collecting limpets, wearing nothing but a pair of shoes.
Antipaxos, and its bigger sister Paxos, are an hour’s water-taxi ride from the much‑better-known island of Corfu, which belongs to the Ionian Islands off the west coast of mainland Greece. It’s this boat journey, short but crucial, that has saved Paxos from the hordes. Its size has also helped: 8km long and 3km across at its widest point.With development so scarce the sky above is still a black hole studded with white pinpoints at night.
The main towns of Gaios, Loggos and Lakka occupy three sheltered, natural harbours along the island’s east coast and look towards the hills of Epirus on the mainland. To drive between Gaios and Lakka – effectively the length of Paxos – takes a little over 10 minutes, and that’s in a Fiat Punto down narrow, often rutted roads, between olive groves planted centuries ago by the same Venetians who quarried the island’s stone.
Rather ironically, because of its pronounced lack of sophistication, Paxos attracts an elegant crowd – people who don’t want the look-at-me culture of Mykonos, nor the 1980s home-counties feel of Corfu; people who don’t see the point of paying for an overpriced hotel on Santorini or a luxury mega-spa on Crete. The lack of sandy beaches here is of small concern; acolytes appreciate Ben’s Bar – which is everything St Tropez’s Le Club 55 is not – and are happy to eat at roadside tavernas such as Kakalegio, outside Gaios, which serves the most delicious butter beans, bacalao and honeyed saganaki for under €10 a head.
“You can have fun anywhere in the world,” says Nikos Antiohos, who owns Erimitis, the closest thing Paxos has to Ibiza’s Café del Mar. “There are very few places, however, where you can truly relax.” Paxos is changing, he concedes, “but gently, in a nice way. Like Ithaca and Hydra, its size protects it – and the laws that stop us from building and cutting down trees.”
Many of the Paxos regulars are Italians; they’ve been visiting since the 1960s and have homes at Mongonissi. Among them are the Agnellis and heirs to Europe’s biggest drinks and textiles fortunes. Increasingly, a few media folk come and go, such as members of the Newhouse family who own Condé Nast, and it’s also attracting European fashion designers. But while this new guard may be picking up on the noise around Paxos, they’re not here to table-jump; such activities are for other parts of the Mediterranean – even if Paxos gets its fair share of glamour, from Kate Moss to Tom Hanks, who cruise in on superyachts during the August peak. For now, however, Paxos remains a place for people who are comfortable enough in their own skin that they too might think about collecting limpets, wearing nothing but a pair of shoes.
This low-key sentiment is reflected in the properties for rent through Scott Williams, a specialist agency founded by UK-based Victoria Hooberman and Maymie White. “I’ve always said wifi matters less to our clients than houses with charm,” says Hooberman. “That’s now becoming less acceptable, but on Paxos people still put soul at the top of their wish list. And family. They want their kids to go feral and not worry about a thing. My 11-year-old disappears to the beach and gets his own lunch with friends. Someone is always looking out for him, because everyone knows each other here.”
Hooberman is nothing if not easy-going. Like me, she loves Koukla House: all duck-egg blue and white, mint and aubergine, with a vast outdoor kitchen and large pool, where the paving is peppered with the shrivelled fruits of fallen olives. And it’s exceptionally good value (from £933 per week). But she also concedes that there is a shift afoot. In recent years there has been a run of larger, smarter private homes coming online, which I am here to see. Chief among them is Villa Ostria (from £10,000 per week), an elegant, polished new property in the hills above Gaios. The interiors, by Dutch decorator Lian Vermeer, are a mix of whites, creams and natural linens, and it was built by locals – the Fanariotis brothers, who own the Genesis Taverna on Gaios waterfront – which is what gives the house its Paxiot feel.
Everything about it works for a large family: the outdoor dining area, kids’ bunk room and basement cinema for that rare occasion when the meltemi blows through. The views roll down towards the sea at Avlaki Bay, where the occasional white sail turns pink in the fading light.
Equally appealing is Villa Marina (from £8,929 per week) above Mongonissi Bay. It is so replete with bougainvillea, green-painted shutters and billowing white curtains that you can’t quite see the windows or the terracing, or how the three separate houses (one sleeping six, the other seven and the third two) come together. The only indication of anyone staying there is a small boat moored to a private jetty below.
Less romantic, but striking, is Aresti House (from £16,000 per week), a stone and glass Le Corbusier-like structure made up of guest cottages and suites linked by pathways and sunken courtyards, surrounded by prairie-style planting. Owned by a Milanese family, Aresti – new to the rental market and sleeping 16 – is very well-located, with steps leading directly down from the garden to the rocks and the sea.
But there’s not much to do at Mongonissi. For those who want to wander in and out of town, the better choice is Waterside House (from £10,000 per week) above the harbour in Lakka – a busy town with real shops, real fishermen and a lively taverna culture. It consists of two villas – one sleeping four adults and two children, the other eight adults – with a shared pool.
Alati – what Scott Williams calls The Secret Beach House (from £22,321 per week) – couldn’t be more different. Built in 2011 and only recently available to rent, it is in a secluded location in thick cypress forest, where the Italian owner has constructed a huge pirate ship for her grandchildren to play in the shade of the scented canopy. Alati’s interior is a cool, stone-walled, concrete-floored warren stuffed with Moroccan lanterns, Bangladeshi textiles and outsize lamps fashioned from chicken wire. Mattresses sit on stone plinths, while large white sofas flank coffee tables piled high with books and bowls of shells. The pool is tiny, but even at the height of summer you have nearby Alati Bay to yourself, shared only with the guests of the owner’s second house (opening next summer), a few minutes’ walk up another cypress-covered hillside.
This run of smarter, bigger properties may well attract a more moneyed set to Paxos. But these newcomers will struggle to find over-priced bars and restaurants in which to spend – they haven’t yet evolved. That isn’t to say there aren’t good places to eat and drink. There is Taxidi in Loggos, for rocking mojitos. I return to Ben’s Bar for lunch almost every day, for grilled octopus and inexpensive but excellent rosé. The stand-out dining spot is Vasilis in Loggos, which delivers Michelin-calibre food (caramelised octopus with lentil salad, flavoured with honey and lavender, or red mullet served with wild greens) with street-taverna soul. Not once do we have a bad meal.
Still, I look hard for things not to like. And when I find one – a giant caïque packed with adventurous daytrippers from Corfu who have come to swim in the Paxos grottoes – I simply zip away, leaving a thousand heads bobbing around like birds on the surface of the sea. By nightfall, their chatter has been replaced by the singing of swallows, which in the falling light skim their wings across Villa Ostria’s pool before diving deep into the gorge below, where cicadas chirrup and the earth smells of a sun-scorched day. When I wake up, it is 3am. I am still outside, sleeping in the place I like best: beneath a big black hole of empty sky, wondering where in the world this is. How good it feels to discover that locations like this still exist – so peaceful that for a moment I think I’m in Africa, when it’s actually a precious corner of Ionian Greece.