My first trip to Greece was back when I was 21 – a week’s package holiday to Faliraki in Rhodes to celebrate graduating from university. It involved plenty of fishbowls of cocktails and dancing on tables, mixed in with a bit of sightseeing and a lot of sunbathing by the pool. My travel style has changed just a bit since then (as has my alcohol tolerance) and I’ve discovered that Greece has so much more to offer. But when it turned out that the Greek villa I’d spontaneously bid on in a travel auction and ended up winning was in one of the country’s top party destinations, I couldn’t help getting a few worrying fishbowl flashbacks.
Set in the blue waters of the Aegean Sea, Ios is one of the Cyclades Islands and just a 30-minute hop by ferry from Santorini. But where Santorini is full of cruise ship passengers and honeymooners, Ios attracts a whole different crowd. In the summer months it’s a hedonistic haunt for 18–30s backpackers island-hopping around the Mediterranean. It’s a place where you party all night and sleep it off on the beach all day.
The tiny main town of Chora has something like 30 clubs, where you can down shots for a free t-shirt (or while getting hit over the head) and then dance until the sun comes up. Nothing wrong with that, unless you’re nearer 40 than 20 and can’t remember the last time you stayed up past 1am. Let alone my parents who were coming along with me! But it turns out there’s a whole different side to Ios.
The party season in Ios is actually pretty short, running from mid-June until mid-August. So by the time we arrived in mid-October the crowds had long moved on and our ferry from Santorini dropped off just a few of us before heading on its way north to Athens. We were a mix of couples and family groups, with a distinctly older age range than you’d have seen disembarking a couple of months earlier.
Our home on Ios for the week was On the Rocks villa, set on the brow of a hill overlooking the port on one side and across the Aegean to Santonini on the other. It was an unbelievably peaceful place, where all you could hear was the bleating of sheep and the bells of the goats grazing around the villa (and occasionally nipping into the gardens when they thought no one was looking). It would’ve been pretty easy to let the whole week pass in a haze of reading, swimming and lazing, but there were places to explore.
Down a rocky track from the villa is Valmas Beach, a small cove with turquoise waters so clear you can see straight down at the sand below. There’s a taverna right on the beach, but by October it had closed for the season and there was no one else in sight. It was like having our own private beach. You could walk up onto the terrace at the taverna and imagine what it was like in the summer – packed with people eating and drinking. But now it was eerily deserted, with the shutters up and the owners relocated for the winter.
About 15 minutes’ walk from the villa is the biggest town in Ios, Chora (though that’s more a description than a name – the word Chora means ‘main town’ and you’ll find them all over the Greek islands). Ios’ Chora has a line of shops along a main road, and on the opposite side the old town stretches up into the hillside. From a distance it looks like an impenetrable mass of tightly packed whitewashed buildings, but up close you spot the narrow gaps between them that lead into twisting and turning cobbled passageways.
Everything closes down in Ios from 2pm to 5pm, so as we wandered uphill through the old town the only signs of life we could see were the island’s many cats – searching for scraps of food or grabbing a siesta in the shade. At 5pm the town started to come back to life, with shopkeepers opening up their shutters and café owners laying out chairs ready for the evening. There are a few shops and restaurants that stay open into October, but you’re more likely to see locals than tourists there at this time of year.
We carried on climbing to the top of the hill where there are four tiny white churches. Apparently there are 365 churches on Ios – one for each day of the year – and that’s with only 2000 permanent residents too. Most are locked up and looked after by a local family who make sure they don’t fall into disrepair. Chora’s highest church is Ios’ top sunset spot, where you can look down onto tiny boats in the port in one direction and Chora’s mass of white dotted with blue domes in the other. The sunlight made the churches glow before it dipped down out of view behind the neighbouring island of Sikinos.
A bit further past Chora is Mylopotas Beach, a 1.5km-long stretch of golden sand that’s Ios’ most visited beach. In the summer you’ll find beach clubs and lines of sunbeds, but in October I counted less than 10 people on the whole length of it. The bay is really sheltered so it’s great for watersports, and even off season you can hire a stand-up paddleboard or rent a boat and explore some of the hidden coves along the coast. One café at the far end of the beach had stayed open and we stopped for lunch there along with a mix of late-season visitors, locals and expats about to leave the island before winter.
After getting used to almost having the island to ourselves, it was hard to picture what it would’ve been like in the middle of summer. When the streets of Chora pounded to the beat of music pumping out of the bars and its narrow streets were packed full of people. When the beaches were covered in sunbathers and the waters full of boats and windsurfers. I loved our peaceful version of Ios, but I can’t help wondering what it would be like to see the other side – I guess I’ll just have to go back and see for myself.
Should you visit Ios off season?
Do if: you want a peaceful trip, you don’t like crowds, you don’t mind self-catering or eating out at a limited selection of restaurants, you want to have more interaction with the locals, you want good value.
Don’t if: you’re after good nightlife, you want to meet lots of other travellers, you want to eat out for every meal, you want a big range of activities to keep you occupied.