North-East Aegean Islands

Situated in the north-east Aegean, just five miles from the coast of Asia Minor opposite the Eritrean peninsula, Chios is Greece's fifth-largest island, and arguably one of the country's most interesting destinations. Chios ticks all the boxes of what most visitors expect from a typical Greek island holiday - lovely beaches, picturesque harbours, colourful fishing villages and sleepy mountain hamlets - but also boasts a its own distinct charm and a host of attractions, both natural and cultural, not found anywhere else. Yet in spite of all the island has to offer, it remains little-known as a holiday destination, attracting just a couple of international flights a week in the height of the season (one from Belgium and one from the Netherlands). That said, convenient connections via Athens make Chios perfectly accessible for travellers from further afield, so whilst the island has been spared the excesses of mass tourism, it does have a pleasantly cosmopolitan and rather sophisticated feel.

One of the reasons that Chios has never fully exploited its tourism potential is that the island simply hasn't needed to. Thanks to a highly successful shipping industry and an equally buoyant agricultural sector, this is one of Greece's most affluent islands, evidenced for instance in the fact that Chios Town boasts the country's third largest library, after Athens and Thessaloniki. Historically, Chios owed its often privileged status to being the sole producer of a highly-prized commodity: mastic gum. The mastic tree, a relation of the pistachio, may grow elsewhere, but only in the south of this kidney-shaped island will its bark yield the natural mastic gum, a uniquely flavoured product associated with all manner of health-giving properties. Such was demand for the gum, that in the 14th century the island's Genoese rulers created a network of fortified villages throughout the south of the island, so that this precious crop could be protected from the constant threat of pirate attacks. Even under Ottoman rule, the inhabitants of Chios enjoyed better treatment and a greater degree of autonomy than other subjugated Greek territories, for the Sultans and their entourages were so partial to mastic that the didn't want to jeopardise their supply. To this day, the landscape and the way of life in the south of the island continues to be shaped by the cultivation of mastic. Although synthetic gums have replaced the role of mastic in some of the more mundane applications such as varnishes, its unique properties are still prized in the manufacture of confectionary and cosmetics, and the local cooperative has been very successful in repositioning mastic for the 21st century, trading on its unique provenance and natural goodness. Like the product itself, the Mastic Villages, as they are collectively known, bridge the gap between ancient heritage and modern application. Within the medieval walls of such beautifully preserved villages as Pirgi and Mesta, free wi-fi has been installed in all village squares, just one sign that these are living communities and not just open-air museums maintained for the sake of tourists.

In addition to mastic, Chios was also noted for the quality of its citrus fruit, grown on the fertile plain to the south of Chios Town, an area known as Kampos. Beautiful mansions built from local honey-coloured stone by the Genoese merchants that founded the trade make this area reminiscent of Mallorca's Soller valley, and a small museum has been created in one of the ancient orchards, where as well as learning more about the citrus trade, you can taste some of the exquisite preserves and confectionary that is produced locally. In the island capital itself there are several shops selling all kinds of mastic and citrus products, which make excellent souvenirs, from mastic toothpaste to artisan tangerine-flavoured pasta.

In contrast to the gentle, shrub-covered hills of the southern mastic district and the lush plain of Kampos, the island's northern half is rugged and mountainous. The central section of these mountains is covered in fragrant pine trees, whilst the scarcely populated north coast is barren and wild. This variety of landscapes makes Chios an excellent choice for walkers, who can choose between gentle and more challenging terrain, from shady forest walks to coastal paths with panoramic views. In the spring, the island is awash with countless different species of orchid, adding another dimension to the landscapes.

In addition to the medieval mastic villages, other cultural attractions include Nea Moni ("New Monastery", "new" in this case meaning "built in 1042"), a UNESCO World Heritage site in the centre of the islands whose mosaics rate amongst the finest examples of Byzantine art in the world, and the deserted (and allegedly haunted) hilltop fortress and village of Anavatos, to name but two of the most striking.

Whilst there is much to be explored, Chios is equally suited to dedicated relaxation seekers, and the island boasts a large variety of beaches, from the gently shelving pale sands of Karfas to the black volcanic pebbles of Mavra Votsala, and from the long expanse at Volissos to tiny sheltered coves such as Agia Dynami. A few of these beaches, including Karfas, Komi and Agia Fotini, offer sunloungers, parasols and other tourist facilities in the season, but others remain completely untouched, and outside July and August it is often possible to find a spot you have all to yourself.

Whether you are planning a thoroughly relaxing beach break or a more active holiday exploring the sights, or most likely a combination of both, the diverse attractions and distinctive charms of Chios are bound to leave a lasting impression.

Mesta village square

Mesta village square

Mesta village square Karfas beach The deserted village of Anavatos Katarraktis harbour Medieval alleyways in Mesta Distinctive architecture in Pirgi Chios Town Nea Moni monastery Karfas beach The distinctive volcanic beach of Mavra Votsala near Emporios Church in Mesta Traditional shop selling preserved fruit from Chios Mobile melon market in Pirgi Elinda beach near Avgonima Citrus museum in Kampos Katarraktis Agia Dynami beach near Mesta The west coast Local shop in Mesta Picnic in the mastic grove near Mesta Volissos

Accommodation in Chios:

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Other Areas in North-East Aegean Islands