In a year when Greece’s economic crisis sent ripples throughout the global economy, the Greek government was left fearing that one of the country’s main sources of revenue – tourism – would dry up. Fear not. According to the Federation of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE), international arrivals increased 10 per cent in the period from January to July 2011, reaching 6.5 million.
Rhodes and Kos, both part of the Dodecanese island group, led the charge: Kos had the second biggest increase in foreign arrivals at a staggering 26 per cent. It seems that Greece won’t need its own version of Australia’s “Where the bloody hell are you?” tourism ad campaign. So what is it about Kos that has the tourists arriving in droves? For the first-timer, Old Town is the perfect springboard to acquaint yourself with the island and its history.
A major port during the times of antiquity, Old Town was a central trading area between the east and west. Approaching by ferry, the medieval castle of Neratzia (the Castle of the Knights of St. John) dominates the port, giving the island an aura of intrigue.
The main part of Old Town is just across the picturesque palm tree-lined esplanade. You’ll know when you’re there because you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into the pages of a historical storybook, surrounded by stone walls, cobblestone streets and historic buildings. A network of elegant pedestrian-only streets, the town is committed to maintaining the integrity of historically significant sites, whilst tasteful new buildings blend in seamlessly.
At one moment, you could be gazing into the shop window of a jewellery designer, the next practically tripping over ruins from the 1st century BC. It can leave you a little incredulous, experiencing a thriving, modern town juxtaposed against it’s own weighty history. Be sure to visit the medieval castle, Byzantine mosque, and Venetian town hall, for a meet and greet with the island’s past occupiers. You can easily spend the day here, ducking into museums, exhibitions and a host of shops.
By my calculations, Kos Town might have the largest number of shoe stores per capita than any town in the EU! The lovely square at the centre of town offers respite from the heat, where the largest plane tree in Europe stands – an astonishing 15 metres in perimeter. Its branches extend far and wide, creating a canopy over much of the square. They say Hippocrates taught his students about the art of medicine at the base of this very tree. A scenic (and economical) way of getting around town is on bicycle.
There are well surfaced bike lanes, which is unheard of on most Greek islands, adding to the relaxed atmosphere. The achievable size of the island lends itself to car hire. When you’ve done your dash in Kos Town, take the time to explore the island’s wonders – from archaeological sites to sandy beaches and rustic villages. Just outside of Kos Town is Asklepeio, an archaeological site built in the 4th Century BC, which once served as a medical school (where Hippocrates studied) and Temple to Asclepius, god of medicine and ancient healing. Further afield is the Castle of Antimahia. Built on one of the highest points of the island, the extensive ruins of the castle are unmanned, un-signposted, and thankfully unlocked. Its undulating walls and lookouts are still intact, stalks of wheat grow wild throughout.
For breathtaking sunset views, you can’t beat Zia, a charming village nestled in the mountainside. An array of traditional shops sell local produce among the plane trees, a cool place to spend late afternoon. The tavern-style restaurants all take advantage of dramatic vistas of the sunset, creating the setting for a perfect Mediterranean evening. With over 100 kilometres of coastline, Kos has an abundance of beaches to tempt you. Many of them pleasant but, without any distinguishing features, blend in to each other.
If you are searching for something unique, the standouts are Camel Beach, Therma Loutra and Kefalos. Camel Beach is one of the hippest beaches for the Italian jetset, with its green thatch umbrellas and a rusty unused pier, perfect for diving into the water below. A small brightly painted beach shack, run by a Greek hippy, sells food and refreshments.
For a beach experience that Hippocrates would have approved of, Therma Loutra (Hot Springs) are natural hot springs that gush directly out of the mountain, and meet the cool Mediterranean Sea. Brave the unpaved rocky dirt path and you’ll be rewarded with therapeutic waters, and a generously proportioned spa bath made of arranged boulders, creating a large communal space to enjoy with other spa goers. For the adventurous, a night visit to Therma Loutra provides an ominous moonlit atmosphere and a more pleasant temperature to enjoy a hot bath. Kefalos beach is the most photographed beach on the island, and for good reason. It has a long, sandy shore and you can swim the aquamarine waters across to Kastri, a tiny island just large enough to carry a small church.
St Nicholas was the protector of sailors, which is fitting for a church marooned on it’s own island. You can swim or kayak over, make a donation (if your bathers have pockets) and even ring the bell.
Getting there: Olympic and Aegean Airways have daily flights from Athens and other major cities in Greece during peak season. Easyjet flies to Kos from London. Daily ferries from Athens and major island groups. Staying there: Family-friendly Atlantis Hotel offers studios and bungalow-style beachfront accommodation close to Kos Town. Eating there: Elia in Old Town serves up regional Greek cuisine in a century-old stone building. Mylos Bar in Lambi is a stylish beach bar offering sleek cafe fare.