Sunday, May 6, 2012

From Urban Utopia to Island Paradise

We had a wonderful but hectic week in Paris punctuated with the arrivals of our kids, nephew and friends. Planning a trip around a race with some who are running and some who’ll be on the sidelines can be a crazy endeavor because there are countless logistics to worry about, not to mention the physical and mental task of getting ready for the challenge. But now that we're in the land of tzatsiki and the sea, our trip has taken on quite a different pace. We went from urban utopia to island paradise -- and the temperatures jumped by 15 degrees -- after just a few short hours in the air and have started focusing our efforts on being very busy relaxing!

First a bit of background on our family’s history with Mykonos... Joe and I visited the island as backpackers in May 1979, just before the crowds of the high season had descended, and fell in love with the place. Its whitewashed labyrinth of pedestrian lanes, fresh seafood, sunburned hills and picture-perfect harbor were everything we’d imagined a Greek Island would be. At our suggestion, Chris and Caroline also paid a visit when they backpacked in Europe in 2007. They loved Mykonos perhaps even more than we did since the beach party atmosphere in late June was in full swing. We’d always hoped we could visit Mykonos as a family and somehow the stars aligned so that we could make it happen. We enjoyed swapping details and comparing notes about our two trips with the children, almost 30 years apart. Joe and I enjoyed finding the simple little beachside guesthouse we’d stayed in a mile and half outside town for about $10 a night and showing it to the kids. And they took us to the thatched roof hut they’d rented at a backpackers’ colony for about the same on the other side of the island.

Upon arrival in Mykonos, this time by plane to its tiny airport, I was transported back to the first time I set foot on the island off the ferry ramp. It was my initial taste of the Aegean and through the cool smell of the sea, Mykonos exuded the charm and warmth the Greek isles are known for. Its enchanting beauty captured my imagination at first sight with its particular palette of red, white and blue: brilliant whitewashed buildings offset by shutters and furnishings in shiny royal blue enamel and abundant arbors of magenta bougainvillea. The Myconian tricolored decor hadn’t changed in 33 years and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that neither had the town. Mykonos had remained the same, save the addition of an ugly concrete parking lot on reclaimed land just beyond the harbor and a new port for large ships about two miles up the coast north of the old town.

The one other difference was that the fleet of pastel Vespas had morphed into a parade of brightly colored ATVs. A few of the delicate motorbikes continued to zip around the island, but the sturdy vehicles, decidedly safer and which led to many fewer tourist mishaps, reigned supreme. We rented two of the rugged four-wheelers and with two of us on each, had a blast exploring as many corners as we had time for on the hilly island. We drove to several out-of-way corners including the famous party sands of both Paradise and Super Paradise beaches. Of course, both were deserted save the four of us, a group of middle-aged singles from a tour staying at our hotel and a handful of camera-laden Japanese tourists. Since it's late April, all remains calm but it’s clear that the season is about to begin. As we ate our Greek salads on the taverna terrace at Paradise, we watched as workers hung super-sized speakers from the rafters, polished the seaside dance floors, painted myriad barstools and varnished the undulating bar. Quiet, unassuming Mykonos becomes a party island in June and an around-the-clock, pulsing bacchanalia in July and August. But in the spring it is a tranquil, picturesque fishing haven with just enough people-watching, including the transient streams of day-tripping visitors from the cruise ships which have started to anchor offshore, to make it interesting.

Our whitewashed hotel overlooked the harbor where we caught the ferry for a morning trip to Delos, the Aegean’s holy island noted as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Majestic stone lions line its sacred main way and there are significant ruins of what used to be a bustling commercial and religious center. Just outside our airy room for four was the enchanting, powerful smell of jasmine from the profusion of delicate, pale yellow flowers bursting from the bushes encircling the patio. From the hotel's wrap-around portico, we had a beautiful view of the town's windmills set on a hill and built by the Venetians in the 16th century. I will never tire of looking at Mykonos' trademark row of white cylindrical structures with their pointed, straw-capped roofs and graceful wooden spokes. I indulged in a manicure-pedicure, one of my favorite personal pampering treats and one I hadn’t enjoyed since we’d left home, at a freshly opened salon down one of the town’s bright lanes. The cherry on top of the treat was enjoying it with Caroline – a perfect mother-daughter shared pleasure that would serve us well as we slipped into our sandals and exposed our now pretty feet to the Greek sunshine.

Our days on Mykonos have been so very different from those in Paris in terms of almost everything: mood, food, colors, tempo, language, weather and attitude. But despite their distinctions, they’re two of my favorite places in the world and I am still finding it hard to believe that I’ve been lucky enough to share them back-to-back with the three people I love most.

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