(CNN) — The Greek island of Samothrace is a vision in green. The craggy rocks of Mount Saos, the island’s highest mountain at 1,611 meters (5,285 feet), give way to gentle slopes covered in oddly shaped plane trees, forests of oaks and majestic cedars.
Fed by the clear waters of three rivers, rare and endemic plants flourish. Vegetables grow in the fields around the port of Kamariotissa near the western tip of the island, while olive trees and solar panels line the dug-out terraces along the southern coast.
Located in the Aegean Sea near Greece’s northeastern border with Turkey – the island is a short ferry ride from Alexandroupoli on the mainland – Samothrace was once known in the ancient world for its religious sanctuary. Today it is a magnet for ecotourists. Here are some of its strengths.
An island of “young feet”
Therma, on the north coast, is a good base for exploring the island. Most accommodation here is simple, focusing on the environment as much as possible. Who needs luxury when there’s a stream playing a symphony outside your window?
Nature is what it’s all about, according to Kaliopi Parselias, owner of Parselias Studios for over 30 years. “Samothrace is a different island,” she says. “You have green forests, rivers, waterfalls and people come to walk on the mountain and some people like the sea. It’s a virgin island.”
Parselias has been running the B&B for over 30 years and initially their guests were mainly Greek families with a few Germans. “But now we have people from all over Europe,” she says. With one caveat: “Young people, because Samothrace needs young feet to walk.
Many of them choose to stay at Camping Varades, right by the sea, named after “varades”, a kind of beehive inside hollow trees, explains manager Anastasios Vavouras. The bees operate as a cooperative, of course, and the campsite is collectively owned by seven people. Their aim, he says, is to offer visitors “another way to spend their holidays here… focused on mountain activities, in a quieter and more free environment”.
The majority of campers are Greeks in their 20s and 30s, like Giannis Tsakiltsidis, a student from the mainland on his first visit to the island. “You can spot campers of all ages here to experience a calmer, more undiluted view of Greece,” he says.
Tsakiltsidis came here to hike. Ancient trails crisscross the mountains and hikes range from beginners to more serious hikers.
River hikes and cascading pools
The island is known for its ‘vathres’, or pools fed by waterfalls.
In northern Samothrace, waterfalls cascade over smooth rocks forming vathers, natural river basins. The three on the Tsivdogiannis River, just outside Therma, are the easiest to reach. It is impossible to touch the bottom of the first vathra with the feet, but Gria Vathra, the second, is not so deep. Naked hippies appear as water nymphs, gliding past confidently clad swimmers. They waded through the water, their meager belongings bundled over their heads, before scaling a rock face to the third pool.
Three other vathres are located on a track starting about three and a half miles further east from Therma along the coast road. The river that crosses them is the Fonias, which begins at Mount Saos and empties into the sea. Fonias means “killer” in Greek, which suits perfectly its brutal power when the water overflows. In dry weather, however, the path to the first vathra is a fairly easy walk of less than an hour. Families, some with small children, walk along the river bed alongside huge plane trees, golden ferns and old gray stones.
At the first waterfall, also called Fonias, people sunbathe while children paddle in the shallow outdoor ponds, and swimmers try to stay under the steep falls of the first vathra. Halfway up the rock face, there is a rope tied to a tree. The brave swing, Tarzan-style, before launching into the icy waters below.
The second vathra, Gerania – which is also fed by a waterfall – is another 30 minute hike.
Fashionable youngsters attempt the climb dressed only in bikinis and sneakers, but hiking shoes are useful. The first section involves a steep climb aided by a wire rope, then a challenging zigzag over a dry stream leading to a narrow, flat track bordering the mountain (only part of it is fenced). A brief final descent reveals your reward: a shimmering iridescent green body of water. Blue-bodied, black-winged dragonflies, each marked with a single yellow dot, glide across the surface, while the humans unfazed continue their purification rituals.
The path to Kleidosi, the third waterfall, is also nicknamed “killer”, and for good reason. It is not recommended.
Mountaineering for the pros
The round trip from Therma to the top of Fengari, as the Greeks call it Mount Saos, is just over 11 miles but according to Vavouras, only the “daring ones” aim for the summit. “It’s a difficult path to climb, but there are structured paths so you don’t run any risk of danger or slipping or falling,” he says. Like many trails on the island, this one comes with warning signs along the way. Remember that you are alone in the event of a problem.
Beaches and boating
Pachia Ammos is the only sandy beach on the island.
Giovanni Rinaldi/Adobe Stock
For the less energy inclined, there are spring-fed baths at Therma dating back to Byzantine times, as well as beaches everywhere. Kipos, near the east coast, has beautiful bluish pebbles while Pachia Ammos, to the south, is the island’s only sandy beach. Boat tours from Kamariotissa or Therma stop at Vatos beach (near Pachia Ammos but otherwise accessible only via a grueling hike) and take you past Kremasto Nero. Meaning “Suspended Waterfall”, at full flow, the water plunges directly into the sea without touching the cliffs, hence its name.
Farther down the south coast, glowing gray rocks rise menacingly above the waves, covered in what looks like a giant abstract work of art. It’s Tis grias ta pania, or “the old lady’s laundry”. Legend has it that one day a strong wind blew a woman’s laundry onto the rocks. Angry at her loss, she rained down curses, turning her clothes to stone.
History buffs are also catered for in Samothrace. The Arsinoëion, or Sanctuary of the Great Gods, is where the statue of Nike, known as the “Winged Victory of Samothrace”, was found. Sculpted in the 2nd century BCE and now on display in the Louvre, it is one of the most famous works of ancient art. The temple predates the days of classical ancient Greece and was once the religious center of the North Aegean. It has been partially rebuilt and there is a replica of the Nike in the small museum.
Medieval Chora is the main town of the island.
Located high on Mount Saos, Chora is the capital of the island. In the citadel built in the 15th century by the Genoese ruler Palamedes Gateluzzi, it is worth having a coffee at the cafe at its base and enjoying the view of the city. There are pretty streets to stroll where flowers overflow from planters and tree branches create canopies over restaurants and cafes.
The small Folk Museum of Samothrace is set up like a traditional village house, filled with religious icons, photographs and household items. Look for a raki still that looks like a huge turkey baster, with a copper bulb and a long metal nozzle attached. In addition to the usual souvenirs like magnets and windmills, you can also buy shepherd’s crooks.
Goats and vegetables
There are goats everywhere in Samothrace. In the simply named Goat Shop in Chora, they are on T-shirts, bags and bandanas. Elsewhere, they wander aimlessly on roads, stand on branches, mindlessly chew and forage among walnut trees. “Our goats are famous all over Greece,” says Parselias, but not for the reason you might think. “They graze near the sea, so they are very tasty.”
The best goat dishes are found inland in family restaurants in green forests or with beautiful sunsets. Bare-chested youth mingle with multi-generational families, up to their elbows in goat meat washed down with glasses of ouzo or Fonias beer from the island’s microbrewery. Locals have more than 20 different ways to prepare goat. Whether baked with plums, marinated in red wine, or smothered in quince, almost everything on the menu is raised, grown, or made by the people who serve you.
It’s not all meat, though – there’s excellent seafood, as you’d expect from a Greek island, and vegetarian specialties include fasolada tsigirista, a stew of cooked beans and left to sit for a day before being fried. Several Therma restaurants offer vegan options, including non-dairy versions of spanakopita, a traditional Greek pie typically made with spinach and feta.
Some restaurants sell their products on site and you can buy cheese, honey and olive oil directly from farms on the island.
Party with the hippies
Visitors come to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of Samothrace.
At night, Therma comes alive with a street market. The islanders sell well-made jewelry with semi-precious stones, handmade leather bags and more. Dreadlocked women in skimpy tops and bearded men in baggy shorts drift slowly into town. They dine late, talk enthusiastically, before falling silent to listen to haunting renditions of traditional songs. Soon everyone is on it. When the moon is full, it’s time to party – environmentally friendly of course.
People working in tourism in Samothrace grew up here, and none of them take its rugged beauty for granted. They work together to protect it, because as Parselias says: “Samothrace has very good energy. People say it’s quiet. When they come here, they are tired, have a lot of problems. After a week, they are new people.
No matter what you come for – be it the walks, the beaches or the food – she knows you will be back.