- The Island of Polyphemus
- How to Get to Iraklia
- Getting around Iraklia
- When to Visit
- The Villages
- The Beaches
- What to Eat
Once you set foot on the westernmost of the Small Cyclades, you will soon realize that it’s impossible not to be entranced by its slow pace and simple soulfulness; by its craggy coast with the breathtaking rock formations; by the 100-metre-high cliffs where wild pigeons and vultures nest; by the peaceful walking trails that lead to impressive caves and villages almost frozen in time; and by the dazzling beaches that can only be reached by boat.
Ready to explore this island paradise? Here is your ultimate Iraklia guide!
The Island of Polyphemus
According to Homer’s Odyssey, early in his epic ten-year journey, the Ithacan king and his fleet were cast ashore on the coast of an island that appeared to be inhabited only by wild sheep. There, they fell into the hands of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who shut them in his cave and blocked the entrance with an enormous rock, devouring daily a couple of them.
Resourceful as he was, Odysseus succeeded in making Polyphemus drunk and blinded him by plunging a burning stake into his eye while he lay asleep. With his surviving crewmen, they made their escape by clinging to the bellies of the sheep let out to pasture, and quickly made their way to their ship, setting sail away from the island.
Legend has it that this island was Iraklia and the cave of Polyphemus was the one opposite the cave of Agios Ioannis. What’s more, Avelonissia, the two small islets to the west of the island, are supposed to be the rocks that Polyphemus threw, hoping to sink the ship.
How to Get to Iraklia
Iraklia is connected by ferry to the Port of Piraeus, Syros, Paros, Naxos, the other Lesser Cyclades (Schoinoussa, Koufonissi, and Donoussa), and Amorgos. Starting your journey from Athens, you will reach Iraklia by conventional fast ferry (Blue Star Paros), while if you are already hopping the Lesser Cyclades, you can also get there by embarking on a scenic slow boat ride (Skopelitis Express).
Blue Star Paros is a passenger ferry in the fleet of Blue Star Ferries, the biggest ferry company in Greece. It connects the port of Piraeus with Amorgos, calling at the ports of Syros, Paros, Naxos, Iraklia, Schoinoussa, Koufonissi, and Amorgos. During the summer, it reaches Iraklia every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in about 6h 30min.
|Blue Star Route: Piraeus – Syros – Paros – Naxos – Iraklia – Schoinoussa – Koufonissi – Amorgos
Express Skopelitis, a legendary ferry that operates for more than 30 years, connects its home port, Amorgos, with Donoussa, Koufonissi, Schoinoussa, Iraklia, and Naxos. It reaches Iraklia every day except for Sunday, all year round. Here you will find the current timetable.
|Skopelitis Express Route: Amorgos – Donoussa – Koufonissi – Schoinoussa – Iraklia – Naxos
Getting around Iraklia
Iraklia is relatively small in size and, thanks to its eight marked trails, you can get around the whole island on foot. There are no taxis and no gas stations, so if you bring your car or motorcycle, make sure it is full of gas.
A mini-bus runs during the summer season on the island’s only paved road that starts from the port end ends at the village of Panagia, some 4.5km later. On its way, it calls at the village of Agios Georgios and the beach of Livadi. You will find the current bus itinerary at any of the bus stops.
The tourist boat “Anemos” sails daily at 10:00 from Agios Georgios and drops you off at Karvounolakos and Alimia beaches. On your way there, you will pass by the Seal Cave (Fokospilia), as well as by two rock formations known as Red Molos and Black Molos. Sailing by the sheer cliffs of Merichas is another highlight, and you may even stop to take a dip in its gorgeous Ammoudi beach.
The pick-up is around 16:00 but bear in mind that timetables and local itineraries are always dependent on the weather. The ride costs 15€ and tickets can be bought at Pergigiali Supermarket, preferably the day before the trip. There are required at least six people for the boat to sail.
| Tel: +30 22850 71145
Sailing around Iraklia
If you want to explore the unspoiled beaches of the surrounding islets, you can hire a local caique to take you to the tiny islet of Venetiko, just across the beach of Livadi, and the two rocky Avelonisia islets to the southwest. Ask around the port or contact your accommodation and they will be glad to assist you.
In season, the tourist boat Anemos sails daily to the nearby island of Schoinoussa as well, setting sail at 09:25 and coming back at 16:15 (15€). Schoinoussa, however, is a lovely island that deserves a visit on its own. So, if you have some time to spare, hop on the local ferry, Express Skopelitis (6 times per week, 20min ride), and spend at least a couple of days on this other gorgeous island.
When to Visit
A visit to Iraklia during the summer months of July and August guarantees great weather and ferries running full tilt, but accommodation is expensive and hard to find. Meanwhile, in late spring and early fall, you continue to enjoy the same pleasant weather as the peak seasons, only without the tourist crowds.
However, if you are looking for the best time to discover the local culture, then come to participate in one of the island’s festivals, ranging from music concerts to religious festivals.
Important religious feasts are held to commemorate Saint George’s Day on 23 April (if it doesn’t fall between Palm Sunday and the Sunday after Easter Day), the Assumption of Mary on 15 August, the Day of St. Michael, the Archangel, on 8 November, and the Day of St. Nektarios on 9 November. The church service is held at the Saint’s church and once it is over, the parish offers homemade food and desserts, as well as wine, at the churchyard. Usually, further feasting to the sounds of traditional music follows at one of the island’s taverns.
But the most special day for the island is the eve of the day commemorating the beheading of Saint John the Baptist (Agios Ioannis) on 28 August. This is when vespers are held in the big chamber of the cave of the same name, which is wonderfully lit by the candles of worshippers, who bring the saint’s icon from the church, where it is kept, along with food for a picnic under the trees by the cave’s entrance. Fanis Gavalas Festival, which lasts for three days (28-30 August), is also held in honor of Agios Ioannis and includes concerts and feasting with traditional island music, theater performances, and traditional games.
Sparsely inhabited, Iraklia has two villages: Panagia in the middle of the island, and Agios Georgios, where the port is located. A paved road of about 4.5km connects the two settlements, whilst a dirt byroad leads to the ghost village of Agios Athanasios. Stroll about their alleys, where time flows at a different pace, and enjoy a trip to the past!
Agios Georgios, with its 110 permanent residents, is the port and main village of Iraklia. It is a small but sprawling settlement behind a tamarisk-backed beach, featuring an attractive cove-like harbor. Here, moor the ferries that connect Iraklia with its neighboring islands, as well as the excursion boats that make the tour of the island, stopping at various beaches. Near the port, you will find an ATM, a grocery store, and a mini-market, while most rooms and taverns are placed either here or on the outskirts of the village towards the beach of Livadi.
|Attractions: Church of Saint George, Taxiarchis Church, Livadi Fortress
|Beaches: Saint George Beach
|Trails: Trail #7 (to Agios Athanasios), Trail #8 (to Vorini Spilia)
Panagia or Hora is an unspoiled one-street village and the island’s main farming hub, an hour’s walk inland along the paved road. Wander its twisting cobbled alleys and admire the whitewashed houses with blue shutters, chimneys topped with clay pots, and traditional baking ovens. In the village, you will find some small chapels, a few café-shops, and a tavern, as well as captivating views of the surrounding island. Three signposted trails (#1, #2, #3) start from here and take you to the Cave of Agios Ioannis, the Pappas Peak, and Merichas Bay, respectively.
| Attractions: Church of Panagia
| Trails: Trail #1 (to Cave of Saint John), Trail #2 (to Chapel of Prophet Elias and Pappas Peak), Trail #3 (to Merichas Bay).
It is also worth exploring the abandoned hamlet of Agios Athanasios built according to the typical Cycladic architecture. Constructed with elements of the surrounding environment, the village’s old houses were naturally insulated due to their broad stone walls and the wood-and-hay structure on the roof.
| Attractions: Chapel of Agios Athanasios
| Trails: Trail #4 (to Selladi), Trail #6 (to Averou)
Church of the Taxiarch
On the small island of Iraklia, you will find no less than nine churches, all with their dazzling white color contrasting with the blue of the Aegean. Actually, all three settlements on the island owe their names to one of their churches.
At Agios Georgios, you will find the beautiful church of Saint George and the Church of the Taxiarch, while the Chapel of Agios Athanasios stands at the entry point of the village of the same name. The stone-built Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary (Virgin Mary translates to “Panagia”) is the landmark of the village of Panagia and the island’s largest and most imposing church. From Panagia, a 2km signposted footpath climbs up to the quaint Chapel of Prophet Elias, at the top of Mt. Pappas, from where you can enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding islands.
Livadi Fortress (Kastro)
The fortress of Livadi, deserted since 1940, stands on the hillside above the beach of the same name, its houses ruined and overgrown. Among the remains, there is a temple dedicated to the god Zeus and a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Tyche (Fortune). It can be accessed via a short footpath from the island’s paved road.
Merichas Bay is a place like no other when it comes to the rugged natural beauty it hosts. Surrounded by imposing 100-meter-high sheer cliffs, it is equally captivating whether you approach it by land or by sea. Following the relatively easy footpath of 1.5km that starts from Panagia village, you will have the chance to watch predator birds that nest in the cavities of the rocks. Alternatively, if you opt for a boat ride, you can visit the two beautiful beaches that lie below the cliffs and add up to the impressive landscape.
Agios Ioannis Cave
Cave of Agios Ioannis
The Cave of Agios Ioannis is one of the biggest and most impressive geological monuments in the Cyclades. It can be explored to a depth of 120m but is thought to be part of a much larger cave system, yet to be opened up. Inside, there is a shrine, and the cave opens up into a large chamber with stalactites, stalagmites, natural pillars, and a rare stalagmitic substance known as moonmilk.
Local lore says that after a shepherd had taken shelter in rough weather close to the cave, the icon of Saint John the Baptist (Agios Ioannis) was depicted on the back of his shirt. Together with some villagers, he returned to the point he had found shelter, and they saw the tiny opening of the cave, inside which they found the saint’s icon. The cave is dedicated to him, and, on his feast day (28th August), an evening service is held in the big chamber, which is wonderfully lit by the candles of worshippers.
Tip: Be prepared to crawl on your knees in order to get in the cave and bring torches, as there is no artificial lighting inside.
Between the port of Agios Georgios and the deserted village of Agios Athanasios, there have been found some 25 spiral rock drawings, dating back to 3.000 B.C. As their name “mpousoules” (compasses) suggests, they might have been carved for orientation purposes. A popular belief is that they were signs left by pirates to mark the places they have hidden their treasures, while archeologists argue that they might signal a settlement, a graveyard, or a water source. According to other theories, they could be indications of the astronomical knowledge of the Cycladic Civilization or even symbolize snakes, which were thought to bring good luck.
No matter their use, these mysterious petroglyphs have long intrigued locals and experts alike!
Unorganized, quiet, and secluded, the beaches of Iraklia offer crystal-clear turquoise waters and ultimate tranquility. On the eastern side of the island, Agios Georgios, Livadi, and Tourkopigado can all be easily accessed on foot or by bus. The southwestern coast hosts Iraklias’s best beaches – Ammoudi, Karvounolakos, and Alimia – but they can only be reached by the tourist boat “Anemos”. And to the north, Vourkaria and Vorini Spilia require some hiking, but the landscape is captivating, and their cool waters are ample reward!
Agios Georgios Beach (port)
Located next to the picturesque port of Iraklia, Agios Georgios is the most easily accessible beach on the island. It is endowed with white sand, crystal-clear waters, and tall tamarisk trees. The nearby taverns offer a range of food options and a cozy atmosphere.
The largest beach of the island has magnificent turquoise waters, golden sand, and tamarisk trees providing natural shade. The Fortress (Kastro) is perched on the hillside above, whilst the tiny islet of Venetiko lies just across. The beach is a fifteen-minute walk southeast of the port.
Moored fishing boats, goats on the slopes of the surrounding hills, and a fjord-like bay compose the picturesque scenery of Tourkopigado. The beach is ideal for when the north winds blow, as well as for those looking for peace and seclusion. You can get there either by bus or by hiking along a 2.5km trail from Panagia village.
Ammoudi of Merichas
A gorgeous remote beach in the bay of Merichas, Ammoudi is surrounded by 150-meter-high sheer cliffs. The beach is covered by fine pebbles, and its crystal-clear waters are ideal for snorkeling. Hiking to Merichas, you can admire it from above, but the beach itself can only be accessed by sea.
With deep blue waters and imposing boulders, the small pebble beach of Karvounolakos is probably the most beautiful on the island. Hard to reach by land, the easiest way to get there is by hopping on the boat that sails from the port of Agios Georgios.
A sand and gravel beach, Alimia features crystal clear waters and the wreck of a German WWII seaplane. A buoy marks its position, and even though the sunken craft can be easily seen from the surface, the daring ones would probably love to dive 9m down to get a closer look. You can access the bay via a trail beyond the Cave of Agios Ioannis (#5), but it is more easily reached by boat from Agios Georgios.
Tip: From Alimia beach, walk over rocks – or swim – in a westerly direction towards the next cove, where you will find a tiny sandy beach known to locals as Alimnitsa.
Vourkaria cove has a small pebble beach with crystal-clear green waters and difficult access. Descending the trail that leads to the Cave of Agios Ioannis (#3), you will see the cove from afar, to your west. Once at the cave, two consecutive trails (#5, #6 – about 90min) will take you to the beach before ending at the village of Agios Athanasios.
Vorini Spilia (Northern Cave)
Named after its two small rocky caves, Vorini Spilia (Northern Cave) has white sand and gorgeous turquoise waters. To get there, follow the 1.3km trail from Agios Georgios (#8). Bear in mind, however, that since the beach is affected by the northern winds, it sometimes collects litter on its shores.
Tip: For amazing sunset, head to the low rocky beaches of Xilobatis and Trimpounas on the northwest side of the island!
Thanks to the eight marked trails, you can get around the whole island on foot!
Trail #1 – Panagia to Papas Peak
From the water reservoir of Panagia village, follow the signposted footpath that passes by the chapel of Prophitis Ilias (Prophet Elijah) and ends at the island’s highest peak, Pappas (420m), from where the views to the nearby islands are spectacular.
|Distance: 1.8km | Total Time: 30min – 40min | Altitude: 190m | Difficulty: medium
Trail #2 – Panagia to Merichas Bay
Just below the water reservoir of Panagia, a signposted footpath leads to Merichas Bay, a place of outstanding natural beauty. The enchanting setting is completed by rare species of birds such as wild pigeons and vultures that nest at Mericha’s sheer cliffs.
|Distance: 1.5km | Total Time: 30min | Altitude: 60m | Difficulty: easy
Trail #3 – Panagia to Agios Ioannis Cave
The challenging 2.6km hike starts just a few meters before the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. Follow the signposted track west before zigzagging up to a saddle well to the north of Selladi, the highest point of our hike (270m). Here, the path meets Trail #4 and drops down to the south around the back of the mountain. A painted red arrow on the left indicates the turning to the cave, whose whitewashed entrance is just below a church bell, hanging from a cypress tree.
|Distance: 2.6km | Total Time: 45min – 1h | Altitude: 170m | Difficulty: medium
Trail #4 – Agios Athanasios to Selladi
From the deserted village of Agios Athanasios, a trail ascends steadily and ultimately leads to Selladi, on the northwest slope of Mount Papas, where it meets Trail #3 towards Agios Ioannis Cave.
|Distance: 1.1km | Total Time: 45min | Altitude: 60m | Difficulty: medium
Trail #5 & #6 – Agios Ioannis Cave to Averou to Agios Athanasios
Trail #5 starts at the Cave of Agios Ioannis and heads to the west, above the cove of Alimia at Averou, from where Trail #6 starts, ending at the village of Agios Athanasios.
#5 |Distance: 1.4km | Total Time: 30min | Altitude: 70m | Difficulty: easy
#6 |Distance: 3.3km | Total Time: 1h 20min | Altitude: 100m | Difficulty: medium
Trail #7 – Agios Georgios to Agios Athanasios
From the village of Agios Georgios, a dirt road crosses a small plain with the olive groves and seasonal farming produce and leads to the abandoned settlement of Agios Athanasios.
|Distance: 3km | Total Time: 45min | Difficulty: easy
Trail #8 – Agios Georgios to Vorini Spilia
A dirt road connects Agios Georgios with the secluded bay, Vorini Spilia, running through olive groves, grazing goats and sheep.
|Distance: 1.3km | Total Time: 30min | Difficulty: easy
What to Eat
Iraklia’s cuisine is classic, simple Cycladic, starring fresh fish and seafood, tasteful local meat such as goat stuffed with rice and baked in a clay pot or braised, and, of course, local fava (split-pea puree). Don’t miss out on the excellent thyme honey and cheeses, such as mizithra, xynomyzithra, anthotyros, and hard cheese, and make sure that you sample pitaridia (homemade noodles) and aranista (lentils cooked with fermented wheat). And then, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with meletinia (sweet mizithra cheese pies with cinnamon), xerotigana (fried dumplings), and local pasteli (sesame bar).