Photo: Mint Images/Getty Images
Lunchtime in Apollona, a small village nestled in the khaki hinterland of Rhodes, and everything is quiet – except for a terrace on a small side road above the houses. Here, a mix of locals and visitors sit around wooden tables, on which half-drunk carafes of wine, platters of roast meats and feta-freckled salads stand next to bowls of homemade bread. Between the tables a stout man in an apron walks around, explaining dishes, telling stories and pouring the wine he gets from the vineyards of friends on the island. This is Giannis, owner and creator of the taverna, Paraga, and a man consumed by a passion for Rhodes’ rich gastronomic heritage.
Lunch starts with three types of bread and a thick eggplant dip with sesame and yoghurt. Many of Paraga’s recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. Our main course, a rich beef stifado, has been cooked in clay since morning, giving Giannis a wonderful theatrical moment by gently cracking open the ceramic pot to reveal a unctuous stew served with succulent broth-soaked potatoes. We eat greedily and gaze out over the lush green hills, holm oaks and Italian cypresses that emerge among the silver-gray olive groves and spindly vineyards.
Apollona is just one of dozens of villages in the hills and valleys of inland Rhodes, many of which are linked by footpaths and are home to traditional tavernas or quiet village bars. These peaceful hamlets are perfect for spring break when you can spend your days hiking and exploring instead of avoiding the heat. This area also offers glimpses of a very different island from the built-up coastline. One of the first Greek islands to embrace mass tourism, Rhodes is best known as a family-oriented fly and flop – sun, sea and sand with a good dollop of Greek history thrown in. But it is earlier in the season that can be the nicest time to visit.
Our base for the first few days is the newly opened Elissa: a sleek, minimalist-designed hotel on the small undulating beach of Kallithea, about 10 minutes’ drive from Rhodes Town. Like much of the coastal strip of Rhodes, Kallithea itself feels a little faded, but we follow a recommendation from Elissa’s concierge and hop in a taxi for dinner to the small village of Koskinou, a few miles inland.
The surprising thing about Rhodes is how it changes within minutes of leaving the coast. We arrive at the picturesque central square of Koskinou, where a small, brightly lit cafe is filled with men sipping coffee from thimbles while a bunch of little boys stomp a soccer ball against the nearest wall. A sign for the Tasos taverna leads us into a warren of cobbled alleys, where low-slung, whitewashed houses are draped in sweeping swaths of tangerine and plum-colored bougainvilleas. It seems impossible that the bright lights and bustle of the coast are just a five minute drive away. As we settle for big plates of smoky chicken, garlic tsatsiki, and luscious, honey-infused baklava, we feel like we’re on an entirely different island.
The next day we set out to discover some of the island’s famous sites: the Roman streets of the old town of Rhodes, the historic fortress and the famous spa at Kallithea Springs. They are all packed with visitors, so much so that it’s a relief to get back to the quiet pool of the Elissa.
Later, sipping cold Mythos beers, we pore over an old-fashioned road map and map out a route for the next day, passing several inland villages on our way to our second hotel near Lindos.
Fortunately, driving in Rhodes is easy and not challenging. The roads are quiet and built to accommodate the day trip coaches and jeep safaris found in even the quietest backwaters. And there’s plenty to see, including hundreds of religious buildings – mosques, churches, chapels and monasteries – each offering a glimpse of the island’s turbulent history, be it Roman or Byzantine, Ottoman or Italian. We stop at Tsambika, a small Byzantine monastery at an altitude of 240 meters. The 350 steps prove challenging, but the 360-degree views of the island’s crystal-clear beaches and lush green interior are well worth the effort.
The south of the island proves to be very different from the north, where the continued sprawl of large resort hotels slowly disintegrates to reveal the long arc of the beach at Vlycha Bay. We settle into our room at the Lindos Blu – an architect’s dream of a hotel, with rooms and terraces cascading down the hill – and stare at the jagged mountains across the bay, their jagged outlines like sprawling, sleeping alligators half buried by the sea.
The big draw on this side of the island is the historic town of Lindos, but when we get there the cobbled streets are packed with cruise groups and excursions, and we quickly escape back into the hills to visit the isolated village of Embonas, said to be the to be the most traditional on the island. It’s a little more touristy than we expected, but still retains an authentic charm, with several wine caves, tavernas and shops selling locally made baskets, rugs and linens, along with knitted slippers with huge pom poms on the toes that I can’t resist at all . On the way back we make a short detour to the small resort of Pefkos, to visit the crystal clear waters of Lee Beach.
On our last day we apply one last village visit with an early lunch in Lardos, just a few minutes drive from our hotel. Like Koskinou, it feels a world away from the bustle of tourist buses and tour groups in Lindos. Instead, it’s full of the slow charm in which the Greek islands excel. We watch the quiet comings and goings of the leafy main street and agree that despite all the ancient sites and long sandy beaches, it’s in the quiet inland villages where the heart of this historic island really beats.
Annabelle Thorpe traveled with the Greek tourist office (visitgreece.gr) and stayed in
the Elissa (doubles from £193 B&B; ellaresorts.com) and the Lindos Blu
(doubles from £226 B&B; slh.com)