Summer of Dupes: Alternatives in the Aegean


In April, Princess Cruises told passengers that it was canceling a scheduled stop in Santorini, Greece, citing congestion. Four cruise ships were already anticipated to arrive on the same day in June, and were it to join, the ships would have brought some 17,000 visitors to an island of 15,500 residents.

In the Aegean Sea, more than 1,000 islands fill the waters between Greece and Turkey, and the coastlines are lined with spectacular bays. Both countries set tourism records last year, a boon for two fragile economies, but one that follows and in turn fuels frenzied development that threatens local livelihoods, cultural heritage and ecological balance, particularly on the Greek islands.

With plenty of whitewashed islands and historic coastal towns offering the same charms as their neighbors, it’s time to look beyond Mykonos and Marmaris to lesser-known spots that might benefit from more visitors. Whether you’re in search of a hiking adventure, a cultural excursion or seclusion in rugged beauty, here are five destinations that offer distinctly Aegean experiences, without the crowds.

When Michelin expanded its Turkey guidebook last year, the quiet district of Urla, near the port city of Izmir, stole the spotlight. On a windy peninsula with clay-heavy soil, the hilly region has a rich winemaking tradition that dates back 6,000 years. A near-total government monopoly on winemaking stymied production for decades, but recently boutique makers and chef-driven restaurants have carved a path for themselves and put Urla on the gastronomic map.

Newer wine producers like Hus focus almost exclusively on indigenous grapes, joining longtime innovators along the Urla Vineyard Route, which winds through rolling fields, olive groves and nine wineries, two of which have beautiful guest rooms, including 2 Rooms hotel at Şarapçilik (from $230). Each producer is no more than a 20-minute drive from the next.

“It’s as if everything here is passed down from word of mouth, from generation to generation, from season to season,” said Seray Kumbasar, the sommelier and co-owner of Vino Locale, a fine-casual restaurant among vineyards.

The local grape Bornova Misketi, a semisweet ancestor of muscat, features in many of Vino Locale’s Italian-leaning dishes. Ms. Kumbasar and her husband, Ozan, who is the chef, take a hyperlocal approach, harvesting the restaurant’s produce alongside the farmers who supply it. Most menu items are bright takes on simple ingredients: The heart of a local artichoke is boiled in a fragrant broth of herbs and citrus, then doused with olive oil and paired with fava bean purée and kumquat.

On the way to the coast from wine country, the restaurant OD Urla has a similarly light-handed style. Wood-fired dishes, like a gently cooked octopus or squid drizzled with fermented pomegranate syrup, combine seafood from the peninsula’s waters with produce from an on-site farm.

In the charming town of Urla itself, stone alleyways connect multi-hyphenate spaces like İstifçi, where a combined design and wine store leads to a restaurant and hotel; laid-back hangouts like Filos Coffee and Wine, which serves a selection of the area’s wines by the glass; and mom-and-pop shops that do one thing very well, such as Girit Pastanesi with its bademli kazandibi, an almond-studded caramelized milk pudding.

The seaside town of Ayvalik, 250 miles southwest of Istanbul, was once a hub of Ottoman-era olive oil production. Many of the industry’s stone factories are now populated with workshops focused on traditional Turkish crafts. Despite growing tourism, Ayvalik retains “a raw texture,” said Özlem Erol, the founder of the design store Moyy Atölye, as well as “a permanent community that lives and produces here.”

At her boutique, Ms. Erol works with women artisans to design clothing made from feretiko, an airy, handwoven fabric of hemp and cotton, as well as other crafts, like baskets made from the bark of hazelnut trees and braided wooden stools. At Bovindo, one of many shops selling porcelain works created on site, a ceramist creates elaborately etched plates based on her mother’s old dishware. At Tia Vine Cafe & Bar, the husband-and-wife co-owners, Hasan and Neşe Erdem, serve local wines alongside Circassian family recipes, such as haluj dumplings, pockets filled with puréed potato and covered in garlic yogurt.

Most of the action is centered in the neighborhood of Macaron, where every other corner seems to have either a small-batch olive oil store, antiques market or boutique hotel. The most contemporary, Ivy Ayvalik, opened last year in a traditional stone home (from $70). Four compact but comfy rooms sit above a neon-lit cafe and wine bar that stays lively late into the evenings.

From town, it’s a three-mile drive to the island of Cunda and its Ayvalik Islands Nature Park, where you can explore the rocky coves and a hiking path through the hills that opens onto sweeping views, before heading into Cunda’s main town for plates of sardine tartines at Ayna and herbal drinks at Cactus, one of many cocktail bars that circle the area’s central square.

With resort-filled Bodrum to its north, the nightlife capital of Marmaris to its east, and the ever-popular Greek island of Rhodes to its south, it’s a surprise that Datça has stayed relatively unknown. That is, until you look at a map: the long, narrow peninsula is connected to the mainland by a thin isthmus (plus a ferry from Bodrum) that’s somehow been enough to deter most visitors.

Güven Çetinkaya is the chef and co-owner of the Ultava Houses hotel, which consists of four traditional village homes that have been updated with amenities like private rooftop pool terraces (from $170). He said that unlike in more touristed areas, most of Datça’s residents have lived there for a long time. The region’s strict building codes have kept large developments away.

Along with a waterfront of fish restaurants, there’s Eski Datça, or the old town, where bougainvillea spills over stone buildings. There are just enough small restaurants and cafes to start and end your days here, but most visitors spend the hours in between exploring the pebbled beaches tucked into büks, or “bends,” that dot the peninsula’s 200 miles of coastline (Aquarium Cove is a standout).

The drive along the peninsula’s interior — marked by Valonia oaks, deep river gorges and stonewalled almond orchards — is just as spectacular. Along the way are detours to fishing villages turned into modest beach towns, home-style restaurants set in lush gardens, and at the peninsula’s western tip, the ancient site of Knidos and its Hellenic amphitheater.

Almost a third of this island in the western Cyclades can only be reached by footpaths, which act as small windows into its storied history. Some routes date back to the Neolithic period; others were forged by the miners of gold and silver who made Sifnos one of the richest stops in ancient Greece. “Today, they are still used by the locals to reach their terraced fields and small chapels, as well as by hikers,” said Fivos Tsaravopoulos, co-founder of Paths of Greece, a national hiking cooperative.

For close to a decade, the group has carefully restored some 60 miles of the island’s network and organized several self-guided themed hikes. One is a remote nine-mile path that circles Sifnos’s highest point, Mount Profitis Ilias, and passes chapels, terraces and a nature preserve known for bird-watching. “It’s the only way to experience what it’s like to live on this island, one of the most pristine in the Cyclades,” said Mr. Tsaravopoulos, who hopes the paths encourage more travelers to come during the shoulder seasons, when there’s good hiking weather.

In between hikes you can enjoy long meals of Sifnian delicacies, many slow-cooked in olive-wood-fired ovens. Since Nicholas Tselementes, considered the most important chef in Greece’s history, established himself here in the early 1900s, the island has kept up its culinary reputation.

Sifnos staples like revithada, a baked chickpea stew, and mastelo, roasted lamb, can be found at every taverna, while newcomer eateries like Cantina lean more creative — smoked-ox-cheek-croquettes topped with eggplant béchamel, for example. For a stay that rivals those in Mykonos, the 18-room Nos Hotel & Villas (from $825), the island’s latest addition, is all stone and marble surfaces, cinematic lighting and pools perched on the hillside.

About an hour west of Santorini by ferry, Folegandros is a quieter option for a classic Greek-island getaway. The sparsely developed island has no airport, less-accessible beaches and few visitor attractions — and that’s the draw. Its latest hotel, billed as its first luxury property, capitalizes on this feeling of seclusion: Gundari is in an 80-acre nature reserve known for its population of Eleanora’s falcons (from $640).

Unlike other luxury developments in the Cyclades, which often stoked ire among locals, Gundari hopes to set a different tone through its small-footprint commitments. The hotel has its own wastewater treatment system, and all of its stonework was made with rocks excavated on-site. An on-site farm, which employs traditional agricultural practitioners, will soon launch after-school programs.

Each of the 27 rooms comes with a private infinity pool, and its restaurant, run by Lefteris Lazarou — the chef behind Athens’s Michelin-starred Varoulko — will serve a rotating menu of unfussy seafood dishes, such as octopus carpaccio with fava bean cream and black garlic. From its cliffside setting, you can head down to white sand or pebbled beaches via e-bike.

The main port town of Karavostasis is little more than a fishing village. The second largest village, Ano Meria, has ancient hilltop ruins, traditional farmhouses and the Ecomuseum, which captures what homestead life was like. Chora, the island’s de facto capital, with its quintessential whitewashed squares on a cliff’s edge, has all the charm of busy towns on nearby islands but maintains an intact local community.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2024.

Recently we made a list of most powerful motorcycles under the 10 lakh mark. Well…

An electric BMW M3 variant is in the works BMW M division’s boss expects his…

India relies heavily on import for meeting its requirement for critical minerals like Lithium, Niobium…