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Greek odyssey

For a tourist-weary American on a minimalist budget, the island of Karpathos is just right

KARPATHOS, Greece — Being half-woman, half-bird, the mythological Sirens may have looked more outlandish than a band of female punk-rockers. But these gals could sing. Ancient mariners blithely chased their captivating euphony toward irresistible fate. Perhaps it's the lingering song of the Sirens that now lures me to the Greek isles.

Rising from three seas, Greece offers a plethora of water-hemmed oases. They entice modern travelers with seductive beaches, savory food and alluring music. The dilemma is choosing which island to visit.

Greece boasts over 2,000 isles and islets. The largest is half-again the size of Delaware, while the smallest rises as a mere speck above the waves. Some are privately owned enclaves for the caviar-and-cognac crowd. The others range from overrun and touristy to remotely agrarian.

Poring over guidebooks, I seek one that is large enough to feed a week's vacation, yet small enough that I will not squander time trying to digest a gluttony of far-flung attractions. I want picturesque villages, sun-drenched beaches and a tourist infrastructure so I can avoid bunking with the cows. English should be widely spoken, but I do not want a place overrun with American cruise commandos. Most of all, it has to be cheap.

I end up with Karpathos. Lying between Rhodes and Crete, the 116-square-mile island features a rugged, mountainous north with flatter, more fertile land on the south. Historically, the Romans and Byzantines occupied the isle. During medieval times the island served as a pirate lair.

Today, its 5,000 inhabitants engage in farming, horticulture, grazing, fishing and a burgeoning tourist industry. I aid the economy by hiring a taxi at the airport for the 11-mile ride to Karpathos town, the island's major village. We stop at the Blue Bay Hotel. Located a mere 60 yards from the beach, the rooms here cost half as much as shoreline properties across the street.

Rather than stars, Greek hotels use a letter designation system with grades ranging from E-class on the bottom to A-class at the top. The Blue Bay falls into the intermediate B-category. My room is clean and basic at best, but I don't plan to spend much time indoors.

Nikos Kritsiotis manages the hotel. He says most of his guests are German, Scandinavian and Dutch. He sees few Americans, which is fine with me. If I wanted to vacation with my neighbors, I would have visited Coney Island, not a Greek island.

Even though one car rental agency operates across the street, Nikos recommends a competitor. He drives me there, and I soon pocket keys to a Suzuki Samurai.

Every side of the car sports gaudy yellow decals. Not only do they advertise the rental firm, but I suspect they warn locals that a madcap foreigner sits behind the wheel. I drive off to explore the island.

A paved loop takes me through the streets of Karpathos town on the island's east coast. It then twists over hills covered with olive trees, passing domed chapels that shimmer like buttons on somber mountain bodices. I drop down to Arkasa on the west coast. In 1923, archaeologists here found the remains of a fourth-century Byzantine church and its fine mosaics. The art now decorates a museum in Rhodes.

With Karpathos about seven miles across at its widest, distances are short, and there is little traffic on the road. People stop on the pavement to talk to one another through car windows. Nobody honks horns to get them to move. Free of road rage, the drive is more relaxing than riding a golf cart through a retirement community.

My route heads north along a rocky, wave-crashed coastline reminiscent of California's Big Sur. It then turns back across the island and passes through four hillside villages. Town streets are often single lanes. When two cars meet, someone has to find a pullout so the other can pass. In America, it could be fist-shaking chaos. Here, it works.

One of the prettiest villages I encounter is Othos, where houses are painted indigo on their lower halves and white on top. I watch as a man brushes a fresh coat of purple trim. He says his name is Costa. For 15 years he lived in Paramus, N.J., where he worked as a bridge painter. It seems nearly every Greek I meet in Karpathos once lived in the United States or Canada. With one of the island's biggest exports being workers to the New World, it's no wonder the people here are fond of Americans.

The island's crown village is Olympos, a town capping the crest of a 2,000-foot-high ridge in the mountainous north. Founded in 1420, its isolated position sequestered it from pirates and the onslaught of modernization. Here, matrons dress in traditional tunics, men grind flour beneath windmills, and the aromas of smoke and bread still waft from outdoor ovens.

There are two ways to get to this cloistered hideaway. One is to take a ferry to the port of Diafani, then ride a bus to Olympos. The other is to go overland on a mountain-hugging dirt road. I choose the terra firma route.

Departing early in the morning, I charge up the graded roadway that parallels the island's spine. Peaks rise on one side with wisps of cloud obscuring lofty 4,000-foot summits. Few buildings blemish the treeless slopes. Except for the blazing blue Aegean lapping far below, the land looks as wild and desolate as Nevada cowboy country.

After a two-hour drive, I round a corner and see the homes of Olympos clinging like glitter glued to a mountain crest. I park and walk into the car-free town.

Shops, taverns and residences line a maze of streets so narrow that two donkeys would have to honk to pass. Waitresses serve coffee and beer. Storefront and sidewalk merchants offer everything from tourist trinkets to fine handicrafts. Most speak English, and their smiles seem genuine.

Traipsing aimlessly upward, I ultimately reach the town crest where cliffs plummet to surf and shore. Near a mountain saddle, a bank of windmills faces the ocean. Because blasting gusts could damage rotors, none are rigged for operation today.

While most residents now live in modern comfort, a few traditional Olympos houses remain as family museums. Shop owner George Hatsipapas shows me one. We enter a single-room dwelling about the size of a suburban garage. Rows of hand-painted plates line upper walls. Family photos hang below. A flower-covered table stands in the middle of the room, and a built-in bed occupies the corner beside a central pillar.

On one wall stands a display case with religious icons. A television graces the opposite wall, and a Mickey Mouse box decorates the table. They represent icons of a different existence.

"In this house," George says, "you would have your children, your father, your mother and your grandmother. Two generations at least. Today, everything has changed."

Attire represents another evolving tradition in Olympos. While maidens now cram lithe bodies into hip-hugging slacks and skin-clinging blouses, mature women still don the costume of old. I see them everywhere in black tunics often embroidered with vivid pink and green flowers. Some top their outfits with long, colorful aprons.

I remain in Olympos until after the last tourist bus leaves. Eventually, I, too, depart, driving back as the sun dips to darkness.

For those inclined to nightlife, Karpathos town provides a happening place with boutique shopping and outdoor restaurants. Music blares from discos where exuberant dancers boogie on table tops and fling napkins to vent their enthusiasm. Ear-bleed rock 'n' raunch, however, is not the sound I crave. I ask Nikos where I can sample Greek folk music.

"You must go to Antoni's Taverna," he suggests. "Every Thursday night, a group of local musicians comes there to eat and play. Buy a meal and the music is free."

Ten men sit at a table in the corner of the restaurant. Nine are older, gray-haired and balding. One is a school-age lad. Between food and drink, they play their lyras and lutes. The sound is hand-clappingly festive. When the young man takes a turn on his grandfather's instrument, it is clear the talent is being passed on.

I sit at a small table along the wall in the moderate-size room already brimming with patrons. Before long, I am engaged in conversation with everyone sitting around me. It is hard to be a stranger here.

Ulysses Lagonikos tells me about living in New York for 54 years. He says his son was born in the city and his daughter on Long Island. He has now come back home.

"Life is good here," he says, "and the climate is one of the finest you can find. Eleven months a year we have a sunny sky. When I tell my neighbors in New York, they don't believe me."

With days brilliantly warm, I spend idle time lazing on Karpathos' beaches. Across from the hotel lies a long strip of sand that arcs around Pigadia Bay. Beyond the main beach lie dozens of more intimate coves. I point the Samurai toward one at Achata. A two-mile dirt track drops from the mountains to a remote beach complete with lounge chairs and bar.

On my last day I stop for coffee in the hillside village of Pyles. Then I stroll through town.

A light breeze whispers up the valley, barely rustling leaves. Swallows zing by, their swept wings slicing the air. From the olive trees shading the vacant roadway come chirps and squeaks. A woman waters her peach tree from a sloshing hose while apron-clad grandmothers sweep stoops with scratchy brooms. Shy cats ignore it all, scampering by on silent paws.

Amity and serenity — these may be Karpathos' songs of the Sirens. Like mariners of yore, I have succumbed to their euphony.

Dan Leeth, a frequent contributor to the Deseret News Travel Section, lives in Colorado.