(UPDATED August 2017 with new highlights)
Greece with Kids
When we travel as a family every summer, we try to spend at least two or three weeks in one place. That gives us enough time to do the popular activities but also to travel deeper and find the spirit of the destination. We discover our favorite breakfast places. We get to know the cashier at the grocery store. We become regulars at restaurants. In short, we figure out how to go beyond being standard tourists and make a city ours.
Thus far, we’ve always chosen places with a lot to do: Paris; Florence; London; Cortona, Italy (perfectly situated for day trips around Tuscany and Umbria). But we loved our previous visits to Greece and wanted to spend a few weeks with the kids on a Greek island. This would be a test for the family – how would we get along without a lot to occupy us? Would we go stir crazy? Or could this work as well as our previous summer trips?
The Choice of Naxos
Greece has a lot of islands. How to choose just one for three weeks? My criteria were:
- No cruise ships. 10,000 temporary visitors from cruise ships ruin the feel of an island.
- Close enough to other islands to take ferries. Just in case we developed island fever, we wanted to be able to easily escape for a day or two.
- Family-friendly. We wanted good beaches and a non-party atmosphere.
- Accommodation. There should be an Airbnb rental or hotel close to the beach and also close enough to the main town to easily walk in for meals.
- Flights. We didn’t want to take a 7-hour ferry from Athens. So the island needed an airport with regular flights.
After looking all over Greece, the choice came down to Paros and Naxos. Friends of mine love Paros. But in writing to other family travel writers, Naxos was the preference of most. So we went with Naxos.
I initially tried to find an apartment or house through Airbnb, but there was nothing available near Naxos Town (Chora) for our dates. We didn’t want to have to rent a car our entire stay to stay outside of the city, and we didn’t want to search for parking every time we came into town. So I moved past Airbnb to TripAdvisor. One of the top-rated hotels was the Nissaki Beach Hotel. It’s on a beach. It includes a well-reviewed breakfast. It’s a short walk to town. It has a pool. It sounded pretty much perfect. Even booking eight months in advance, their two-unit suites were already reserved, but luckily they let the five of us stay in a superior suite. Lodging was done!
Getting to and from Naxos
You know how ferries and flights were two of my search criteria? Well, in Greece nothing is as easy at it seems. We went to book flights on Aegean Air several months before our planned dates and…all of the good flights were already sold out. Apparently tour agencies buy up the best tickets. So book really early! Instead of having an easy connection to Naxos from Marseille, we had to overnight in Athens and take an early morning flight to Naxos – the only thing available for a week. It worked out well and we enjoyed our quick trip into the Plaka district of Athens, but it meant an additional airport check-in, another security check, etc… Note: if you’re in a similar situation and have a layover in Athens, stay at the Airport Sofitel. It was easy to take the metro into Athens, and staying right at the airport meant that we didn’t have to wake up too early for our morning flight or take a chance on getting stuck in traffic.
And the ferries weren’t any better. Once we got to the island and started planning day trips, we discovered that the ferry schedules of Sea Jets and Blue Star were terrible. Paros is visible from Naxos Town, so we tried to plan lunch there one day. Nope. We could get there in the morning, but the only return ferries were before 12:45pm or after 7:15pm. Not very family-friendly if it’s a hot day and we don’t want to wander around the town for several hours. So we nixed a lunch in Paros. For Santorini, we discovered that the latest return every day was 3:30pm. If we were trying to have lunch at Dimitris (our favorite restaurant) and then get back to the port, we wouldn’t be able to make it. So we scrambled, got a place to stay for a night and did a two-day trip to Santorini instead.
Mykonos wasn’t any easier. Actually, there’s a 10:45am ferry every day from Naxos to Mykonos that would work perfectly with the return boats. BUT…the 10:45 is sold out every day. The reason? A lot of people fly out of Mykonos since the destination options are better than from Naxos, and they buy those early ferry tickets far in advance to line up with their flights. We had similarly purchased 12:55pm ferry tickets far in advance to connect perfectly to our 3:10pm flight. But after our initial ferry experiences where we were 50 minutes late departing Naxos to Santorini and 25 minutes late departing Santorini to Naxos, we politely inquired about the daily 12:55 Mykonos departure. What we learned from the Sea Jet rep was that it was now officially a 1:05 departure, but that every day it left closer to 1:30. We would miss our flight! Our only real alternative was to shorten our stay on Naxos by a day, spend a night in Mykonos and then have plenty of time to catch our flight. So that’s what we did. It was nice to get to Mykonos after all, and we had a fun 24 hours there, but it was surprising to find out that literally all of the ferries run late. Learn from us: build plenty of extra time into your plans if you’re relying on the Greek ferries.
So once we were in Naxos, and had determined that day trips to the other nearby islands weren’t really feasible, what did we do? Well, we relaxed and enjoyed the island. Two days we rented a car and drove around the northern half of the island. We had lunches in the cute, very small towns of Filoti and Halki, visited the Olive Museum in Eggares, found goats, saw marble quarries and got a better feel for Naxos. But the rest of the time we took it easy.
Every day we would wake up, enjoy breakfast on the beach at the hotel, swim in the sea and pool before it got too hot, relax in the room a little, go into town for lunch, relax a little more, go swimming again in the late afternoon, get cleaned up, dine in town or at the hotel, and enjoy loukoumades (Greek donuts) and ice cream on the way back to our hotel. We loved the routine! A few times we mixed it up by getting drinks before dinner, but otherwise every day was the same, and after three weeks the kids weren’t ready for it to end. We became addicted to life on a Greek island!
We dined at at least 25 different restaurants in Naxos Town over two trips. Virtually all of the meals were good. Some places had good service, some didn’t. If there was one that we really liked, we went back a second time. There were only a few that we loved enough after two or more visits to recommend:
- Nissaki Restaurant. This was at our hotel and had the best food of anywhere we dined. It was also the family-friendliest location, since our kids could run around the beach and even walk well out into the shallow water while they were waiting for their meals. We dined here four times and every time was excellent.
- Ginger. This was a 5-minute walk from our hotel and had excellent food and service.
- Zorba’s. Right in the middle of the main stretch of restaurants down by the harbor, Zorba’s had some of the best seafood we found.
- Oasis. Close to the hotel. Everything was excellent.
- Strofili. One of the best sunset views and really good seafood.
- Piperi. The best gyros on the island. Easy to find on the way into town.
- Pizzadelia. An easy option for take-away when we didn’t feel like another sit-down meal. We liked all of their pizzas, but the spinach/feta is particularly mouth-watering.
- 1739. We had drinks at 1739 seven nights. It’s a climb from the main town, but the view at sunset is excellent, and they have the best homemade lemonade we’ve found anywhere. For the adults, the sangria is great.
- Honorable mention: Naxian Capriccio near the harbor. Our second meal wasn’t quite as good as our first, but the potato donuts with tomato jam and the caramelized octopus were amazing.
I should note that we were consistently disappointed in the food and service at the beach restaurants near the hotel, other than Nissaki Restaurant. Beware!
Food Pricing and Advice
For our family of five, we averaged 60 Euros a meal at excellent restaurants. With desert and drinks it might be closer to 70-80 Euros. We learned quickly never to order five main courses since there was simply too much food. Every meal either my wife or I opted out of ordering and shared everyone else’s food. It worked out perfectly.
Nissaki Beach Hotel Review
We loved the hotel that we chose. All five of us stayed in one room – three sleeping on one king-size bed and two on twin beds. There was plenty of space, and I appreciated they didn’t require us to get two connecting rooms, even if the adult stuck on the king-size bed with two kids rarely slept perfectly. The pool was great – very kid-friendly – and the location was excellent. The beach is only a few steps from the hotel and it’s the quieter section of beach, compared to the busier, larger areas just a few minutes’ walk where people rented beach chairs and paddle boats. The coolest feature is that the sea is shallow to several hundred meters out, so kids can walk way out and play ball or swim around without it being deep. It’s a very fun atmosphere in the sea and on the beach all day, continuing until after sunset given how warm the water is.
Beyond the beach, the location is good because it’s just a few minutes from town and there’s a large public parking area next-door, which meant it was easy to park the two times we rented cars. The staff was uniformly excellent, and the owner of the family-run hotel was always around to make sure things were perfect. Breakfasts are especially good, with a broad assortment of food, sweets, fresh juices and fruits.
Sunset is the best time of the day in Greece. Naxos Town is perfectly situated for the sunset. We had drinks above the town several nights at 1739 as the sun was going down. You can also enjoy the sunset from anywhere along the harbor. St. George beach, at the hotel, is also a good spot, but you need to head far up the beach to get the best angle, or walk right across the parking lot to the right of the hotel.
The most famous sunset viewing spot is the Temple of Apollo (Portara), dating to the 6th century BC. It’s roughly a 15-minute walk from the hotel and it’s well worth going up there at least once during your stay.
As with virtually everywhere else, it’s worth getting up for sunrise at least once too. Naxos Town was hopping when I walked through at 6am, with some restaurants full of people who had stayed out all night (a little strange, since otherwise it doesn’t seem like an island with a party/club scene). But at the Portara I was virtually alone – a nice change to the crowded sunsets there.
Even though we loved the hotel, over three weeks an Airbnb rental in town would have been preferable. We wouldn’t have had to eat out every meal, we would have had more space and we would have slept better. But given the trade-offs of what we found – a good flat outside of town vs. a great hotel in town – we were happy with our choice. This goes back to my previous advice: book early! If you’re looking at spending several weeks in Greece, or for that matter anywhere else during peak tourist season, start your lodging search a year in advance, and your flight/ferry search as soon as the airlines and ferry companies load those dates into their systems.
We were very happy with Naxos. Is there enough to do for three weeks? It all depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re hoping for an active vacation, you may be ready to move on after a few days. We enjoyed the routine, and our kids really didn’t want to leave. My wife was going a little stir-crazy at the end but I would have been good for another week. If you’re planning day trips, plan two-day trips instead, especially to Santorini and Mykonos, and book hotels in those locations far in advance. We lucked out in both places finding hotels that could sleep the five of us on short notice, but it took a lot of searching.
We returned in August 2017 for eight nights / nine days. We booked even farther in advance to get a two-room suite at Nissaki Beach Hotel. The layout definitely worked better than our previous setup, and the sunset view was a bonus. Most of our stay was very windy, which sounds like a bad thing but it cooled things down considerably from our first visit. The sand at St. George beach is heavy enough that it wasn’t blowing around even as restaurants were struggling to hold onto their menus and napkins.
We drove around the island once, going through Filoti and Halki again and adding in Lionas Beach and lunch at the island’s number one rated restaurant there (according to TripAdvisor), Delfinaki. Our meal was excellent. We also stopped at Plaka Beach and Agios Prokopios. Based on the comments below a lot of people like staying on Agios Prokopios, but to us it was a little too crowded and spring-break-like, and we would miss not being able to walk into Naxos Town.
The ferry schedule finally made sense for a day trip to Paros. We took the Blue Star Ferry over at 9:30am and the Sea Jets boat back at 2:25pm – except that it was late again and we left closer to 3:15pm. Frustrating since if Sea Jets had any way to track its boats we could have spent more time in town instead of waiting in line at the port. C’mon Sea Jets – can you try to suck a little less? We loved Paros Town but didn’t have enough time to get to Naousa. Next time we head to Greece we’ll add in a few days on Paros.