July 29, 2011 10:02 pm

Secret islands

Five Mediterranean islands you’ve (probably) never heard of offer the perfect summer escape
Tabarca, Spain

Tabarca, off the east coast of Spain

Favignana, Italy by Tom Robbins

For stressed-out city-dwellers, the island is the stuff of summer fantasy, the physical embodiment of the notion of escape, of getting away from it all. While the merits of travel can sometimes be abstruse, there is something pleasingly obvious about putting clear salty water between you and the workaday world of the mainland. Of course, the fantasy starts to fall down if the island you retreat to is rammed with holidaymakers with the same idea, so the premium is on finding an island few others have discovered. Thankfully, even in the Mediterranean, even in 2011, this is still possible.

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Have you, for example, ever been to Favignana? Italians know all about this sun-drenched speck five miles off the western coast of Sicily but it remains gloriously overlooked by the rest of the world. I admit I’d never heard of it before I went there earlier this month, and in a week I didn’t hear a single word of English spoken.

Arriving by ferry from Trapani is something of a shock – Favignana is barren, with more cacti than trees, and a rocky rather than sandy coastline. It is nicknamed La Farfalla, the butterfly, because of its shape, with a mountain ridge in the middle of the island, topped with a 12th-century castle, separating the two “wings” covered in parched fields. There is just one village, a jumble of whitewashed cubes, which at first glance could be a dusty north African desert town – it is closer to Tunis than Rome, after all. In poor weather the whole place could be bleak, but under blue summer skies, the effect is exotic.

Map of Favignana, Italy

The island was once home to Sicily’s biggest tuna processing plant, and you can take a tour of the old factory. But beyond that there is a blessed lack of tourist attractions or activities. Everyone simply rents bikes and spends their days cycling on tiny roads and dirt tracks between the various swimming spots. The most popular is Cala Rossa, given its name after a naval battle that happened here during the first Punic war in 241BC: so many Carthaginian bodies were washed up on the shore that the sea was turned red. Today the water is an almost unreal turquoise, and is rivalled only perhaps by that at Bue Marino, where swimmers leap from high rocks into the ocean.

The funny thing is that though there’s nothing to do, the days seem chock-a-block. For even if it looks north African, Favignana is resolutely Italian, and so after the long lunch, there’s barely time for a siesta and a quick swim before heading into town for an aperitivo, the passeggiata, then dinner, followed by a gelato and a stroll by the harbour’s edge.

Food becomes a major part of a trip here. Fresh tuna, lobster, prawns and squid are on every menu, while Arabic influences are common. Pasta dishes might include almond or fresh mint; desserts use candied fruit and pistachios. Ice-cream parlours are on every corner (serving not strawberry and vanilla but the likes of peach, fig, blood orange, almond and jasmine). Perhaps the best is La Pasticceria on via Garibaldi, where queues gather at 11pm each night to eat fine gelato served in warm, fresh-baked, brioches.

Combining a few lazy days here with a few in Sicily’s ravishing capital Palermo (an hour’s ferry then 90-minute drive away) would make a great short trip. But better still would be to stay for a week and rent Zu Nillu, a villa for eight that sits alone on the rocks above Cala Rossa.

Owned by the Italian actor Ricky Tognazzi, it is being rented out for the first time this summer and must be one of the most unusual villas anywhere in the Mediterranean. The house is built into a tufa-stone quarry that dates back to Roman times. The highest rooms, and roof terraces, poke above ground level and so get sea views and breezes, but others are concealed in the quarry, among extensive gardens of fig, carob, palm and pomegranate trees. Hidden between trees and columns of cream-coloured rock are outdoor showers and a swimming pool; while indoors the decor is a quirky mix of the rococo and the rustic (which works better than it sounds). Best of all, though day-trippers come by yacht, bicycle and Vespa to swim at Cala Rossa – some stopping to take photos of Tognazzi’s front door – no one can see into the utterly private sunken gardens.

At night, when the day-trippers have disappeared and you have the cove to yourself, you can sit on the roof, look back to the bright lights of the mainland and toast your escape.

Think Sicily (www.thinksicily.com) offers a week at Zu Nillu from €6,530 for up to eight people. For hotels, see www.iprettiresort.it, www.cavebianchehotel.it and www.casalmarefavignana.com. Tom Robbins flew from London to Palermo with Easyjet (www.easyjet.com); returns cost from £60

Vis, Croatia by Claire Wrathall

Map of Croatia

Almost the westernmost of the larger Dalmatian islands, Vis remains, mystifyingly, one of the least visited. Despite its abundant charms, you won’t find luxury hotels, restaurants or marinas, though it is popular with yachts. Indeed, you won’t find much at all in the way of places to stay, though Vis town has the unpretentious 10-room Hotel San Giorgio (which also lets out a lighthouse on a nearby islet), as well as a handful of simple waterfront restaurants serving excellent local fish. Instead you’ll encounter Mediterranean beauty of a kind that has all but disappeared elsewhere: a landscape of fragrant maquis, rosemary, lavender, figs, olives and vines (the island produces some of Croatia’s best wines; resiny white Vugava and peppery red Plavac), and almost deserted beaches and coves you’ll need to hire a scooter to reach.

The scarcity of tourists on Vis is due partly to its remoteness (it’s two hours by ferry from Split) but also to the fact that it was once a naval base. Tito established his supreme headquarters in one of the island’s many caves during the second world war, and until 1989 foreign visitors were forbidden. Traces of military installations remain visible across the island: from the fort at the top of the hill overlooking Vis town’s great natural harbour, for example, you can glimpse an entrance in the rock to a concealed berth big enough for three warships.

The legacy is a very real sense of tranquillity – what Croats call fjaka, which translates approximately as “lazy mood” – and a pace of life that cannot fail to slow you down. The only obvious excursion is a boat trip to Modra Spilja, a grotto on the neighbouring island of Bisevo. Between 11am and noon, sunlight refracted though the sea pierces the dark cave, casting an unearthly electric-blue light up through the water, which in turn plays on the walls in a glittering blue-tinged rainbow.

The Venetians made less of an impression on Vis than on more developed Hvar or in Dubrovnik, but it has its share of gothic and baroque palazzos, and a handsome Italianate Franciscan monastery stands at the end of the peninsula that extends into the main harbour.

Most remarkable, however, are the classical remains. A little way out of town on the main road, there are Roman baths, the hypocaust still discernible along with an impressive mosaic floor. Behind the town, tennis courts stand on the site of a Greek necropolis. The remains of a Roman amphitheatre have been excavated beneath the monastery, and some believe there’s a whole Graeco-Roman town waiting to be revealed. But just as the people of Vis are in no hurry to cultivate a tourist industry, for the moment they’re content to let it lie.

Hotel San Giorgio (www.hotelsangiorgiovis.com) has doubles from €103. Croatia Airlines (www.croatiaairlines.com) and Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) fly to Split, from which Jadrolinija (www.jadrolinija.hr) operates ferries

Tabarca, Spain by Annie Bennett

Map of Tabarca, Spain

Just over a mile long, a quarter of a mile wide and totally flat, Tabarca was once a refuge for pirates from the coast of north Africa, who stopped off here before launching attacks on Spain’s eastern coast. Today the island attracts numerous tourists, but few stay overnight. Ferries from Santa Pola, Alicante, Guardamar and Benidorm make it a perfect day trip, with as many as 3,000 people a day disembarking on the harbour in August. But if you wait until late September – or better, go in spring – there will only be a few dozen other visitors, as well as the 40 or so people who live there all year round.

The only inhabited island off the Valencian coast, Tabarca has just a few streets and hardly any vehicles – there is a little truck to take people’s luggage from the ferry to the handful of modest hotels.

Surnames on the island sound vaguely Italian rather than Spanish – Russo, Chacopino, Capriata – which is because the original inhabitants in the late-18th century were in fact fishing families from Genoa. They were living on the island of Tabarka off Tunisia when they were taken prisoner by the Tunisian governor and kept as slaves for 27 years. Charles III of Spain paid a ransom to free them and decided to resettle them on this island, renaming it Nueva Tabarca and building fortifications to protect them from further attacks.

You can still see the vestiges of these 18th-century walls, with three baroque gates. The small town seems to have changed little over the last couple of centuries. The long, straight streets are flanked by once-elegant, low-rise houses. Looking up at the balconies, you might see an octopus pegged onto a washing line to dry in the searing sunlight.

The grandest building, the Casa del Gobernador, or Governor’s House, is emerging from two years of restoration and will soon reopen as the Hotel Boutique Isla de Tabarca. Until that happens, the most appealing place to stay is the Casa La Trancada, a traditional fisherman’s house, with just three rooms and an apartment. Or you could go for the Hostal El Chiqui, whose owner runs a taxi boat service from Santa Pola and is also in charge of that all-important truck to take care of your luggage.

www.latrancada.com; www.hostalelchiqui.com. For ferry information see www.alicanteturismo.com

Gökçeada, Turkey by Annabelle Thorpe

Map of Turkey

The Turkish city of Çanakkale is not the place to be on a swelteringly hot day. But perched on the Dardanelle straits, it is the most accessible place to hop on a ferry to Turkey’s Aegean islands.

Three hours after the ferry ground its way out of Çanakkale, I stepped onto the quiet harbour at Kuzu on the island of Gökçeada. The air was thick with the scent of thyme, which grows wild across the island, and a stiff breeze meant the temperature felt reassuringly cooler than on the mainland. But most pleasing was the feeling that I had somehow stepped back 15 years – guesthouse and pension signs swung in the breeze outside slightly ramshackle houses, and there was a wonderful lack of the pastel-coloured apartment blocks that characterise so many of Turkey’s coastal resorts.

In spite of the lack of mass tourism (or perhaps because of it) there is plenty to do. Many of the beaches are completely free of development, although I found plenty of life at Aydincik Plaji, in the far west of the island, where the breeze picked up and the water was scissored by kite- and windsurfers. Nearby, there were rock tombs to discover, and further afield a handful of ruined Greek villages bear testament to the mixed heritage of the island.

It’s a ramble in the morning, laze on the beach in the afternoon kind of a place, and I found myself spending a considerable part of my days lazing in cafés such as Barba Yorgo in Tepekoy, drinking tiny cups of syrupy coffee and eating even more syrupy baklava.

The unspoilt nature of the island means that this is not a place to come in search of luxury. But the Zeytindali Hotel is charming: two stone-built houses in the traditional Greek style, housing 16 rooms that are simple without being spartan. The real joy is its restaurant, which serves breakfast and dinner on the pretty terrace, with most of the ingredients sourced on the island. I found myself addicted to the home-made thyme honey, which went well with the salty home-made cheeses that appeared on the breakfast table each morning.

The fact that it is the largest of Turkey’s islands makes it likely that developers and aparthotels will soon start to appear. But for now, Gökçeada is a blissful escape – unpretentious, undeveloped, unchanged.

Gestas (www.gestasdenizulasim.com.tr) run ferries between Gökçeada and Çanakkale four times a week. www.zeytindalihotel.com

Fourni, Greece by Chris Deliso

Map of Greece

Between Patmos, Samos and Ikaria, in the easternmost Aegean, Fourni is an archipelago of 12 islands which have all the allure but none of the flashiness of more touristy Greek isles. Painters and photographers will love its sparse hills that run gracefully down to the sea, and at dusk pass through subtle shades of rose and violet, black and tan. Indeed, there is something of the Scottish isles (albeit with much balmier climes) to this wild, lonely place.

From Samos and Ikaria, ferries call in to the island of Fourni’s main settlement – also called Fourni – where colourful fishing caiques bob on a waterfront unremarkable but for a few psarotavernes (fish restaurants). Inland from the port, Fourni’s shopping street ends with a square, contentedly set under two grand plane trees. Village elders and visitors alike come here to pass the time, drink a strong Greek coffee and take in the action, such as there is. Although there are no luxury villas, little pensiones operate, and the Archipelagos Hotel offers handsome modern rooms.

Beyond this main village are only a few isolated settlements, but Fourni has a larger-than-life history. The longer name of Fourni Korseon, which is sometimes still used, refers to the French Corsairs and Barbary pirates who used the archipelago’s hidden coves to hide out. Fourni’s strategic position came to the fore in the second world war, when Greek small craft laid wait here before harassing German warships.

Nowadays, however, visitors are more entranced by the island’s beaches and sparkling clear waters. These range from sandy stretches covering entire bays to tiny, secluded coves. To reach the more distant, or the little-visited isle of Thymena, recruit a local fishing boat. In general, though, walking is de rigueur, as Fourni has no car rental, and only one taxi.

See www.archipelagoshotel.gr and www.fourni.com. Chris Deliso is co-author of ‘Greek Islands’ (Lonely Planet)

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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