Travel: Andros, Greece

FOR MANY, the Greek Islands conjure up images of cross-tipped whitewashed cubes perched above an azure sea, cats nestled in wicker-seated chairs and glasses of ouzo silhouetted against the setting sun. For me, these visions are merely two-dimensional clichés that don't even scratch the surface of what Greece's plentiful and diverse islands have to offer.

Not just a two-week stop-off for sun, sea and sand, the Greek islands, in particular the Cycladic island of Andros, are so rich in natural beauty and culture they can provide an ideal destination all year round.

Having a Greek father, I spent most of my childhood summers at our holiday house on Andros, the most northern of the Cyclades. As an adult, I prefer to visit off-season, enjoying the temperate weather and tranquility that coincide with the dispersal of summer crowds.

With a colourful history that dates back to ancient Ionian settlers Andros, in common with many other Greek Islands, has been influenced by a host of occupiers. This shows in its architecture, from the ancient ruins of Paleopolis to the Venetian-style villas in the island's capital, Hora. Holding a vital position geographically, Andros has for a long time been considered the haven for Greece's wealthy ship owners, and at the weekends is packed with rich Athenians staying at their sprawling coastal properties.

Known for its green valleys and mountain springs, Andros is well-watered rather than wind-swept, with a richness of landscape that is rare on other islands and it has developed a reputation as a destination for walkers and hikers drawn to the rocky terrain, undiscovered beaches and winding paths.

With this in mind, local businessman Makis Pantzapoulos decided to set up Onar, a resort nestled inconspicuously between two cliffs and a deserted beach at Achla in the east of the island. Featuring nine luxurious but simple villas built in traditional style from Andros stone, Onar blends into its surrounding landscape. The resort is only really accessible by boat or by a nail-biting journey down a 9km-long vertiginous dirt path that hugs the cliff-side as if its life depended on it. The journey is definitely better done in a 4x4 but instead of squeezing your eyes shut, take the time to savour the views – on a clear day you can see all the way to the neighbouring island of Evia.

Its inaccessibility is one of Onar's best aspects – waking up to a breakfast of local honey and fresh yoghurt, saying hello to Marjorie the donkey then taking a walk to the nearby clear lagoons or beach really is the ideal way to relax. As well as hikers who enjoy the cliff paths surrounding Achla Beach, Onar's location has also made it a favourite for yoga lovers and aspiring artists.

For those who prefer to be a little closer to civilisation, the nearby village of Stenies and its environs provide affordable and pleasant accommodation in the form of family-run B&Bs. Perched above a valley overlooking Yialia Bay, Stenies is a cluster of beautiful red-roofed houses and sloped gardens. Pedestrianised throughout, the path through the village is edged by a small stream taking water from the mountains to the houses via a marble lined public wash house still in use.

Villagers take their turns to irrigate their flower beds and fruit trees by using rags to divert the flow of water into each garden throughout the day. Those who are a little self-conscious might not enjoy the stares visitors get from wizened old ladies when taking a meander along the narrow streets, but I have often found that a cheerful "kalispera" will shock a hostile look into a smile.

Stenies is also a great starting point for one of Andros's many walks. Starting in Apikia, the village further up the mountain from Stenies, he takes in the Sariza springs – where Andros's water is bottled and distributed throughout Greece – as well as a ruined mill, bubbling brooks and clear pools teeming with dragonfly and terrapins. Other popular walks include the Ormos circular, which takes in the Dhipotamata Gorge and a beautiful but steep trek from Andros Town to the mountain-top Panachrandou monastery via the beautiful springs of Menites.

Chatting with some keen walkers we discussed a Greek version of bagging Munros where, instead of mountains, churches are ticked off the list. After a quick tally came to over 400, I speedily backtracked, but the idea of using churches as a vehicle to see the island has still stuck. Each represents a particular saint and, as anyone who has seen Mamma Mia! will know, can be in incredibly hard to reach, but the locations are glorious.

If you are all walked out, the bustling cafes, restaurants and shops of Andros Town provide a welcome change. Visit one of the many modern art galleries or pop into the high-end artisan boutiques crowded on to the cobbled streets leading to the picturesque harbour. Many restaurants open less regularly off-season, but there are still plenty of places serving local, seasonal specialities. Try Me Nou beside the bus station for beautifully cooked Greek food with a modern twist or Zacharoplastia or Art Caf on the main street for to-die-for custard cakes and sweet Greek coffee. If you fancy a bit of luxury, Micro Anglia, the island's first five-star hotel, is pretty special.

Visiting Andros and delving a little beyond the usual beaches and tavernas, you experience another side of the Greek islands. Instead of picturing ouzo, churches and cats, you will remember the scent of wild oregano on the mountainside, the sound of fresh water hitting moss-covered stones and the feeling of being completely at peace.

FACTFILE

Without an airport, Andros is off the main tourist trail and has never succumbed to the package holiday curse. Despite this, it's easy to get to. A regular ferry leaves from Rafina, Athen's lesser-known port, situated half an hour from the city's airport. Be sure to elbow the black-clad pilgrims heading to the neighbouring island of Tinos out of the way, or they will steal your seat.

• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 7, 2010

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