Travel: The island that time forgot

At the southernmost tip of Europe, Ariadne Birnberg uncovers a mayor, three goats and the nymph-witch Calypso
From the south coast of Crete I used to make out its hazy bulk and think it was Africa. Actually, it was Gavdhos, one of the most marginal, unvisited, undeveloped islands in Greece. Associated in the Greek consciousness with shipwrecks, political exiles and depopulation, people found themselves in Gavdhos through necessity not choice. No prime minister ever visited, no profit-hungry developer surveyed the area and no holiday brochure featured it.

Situated in the Libyan sea, 20 miles south of Crete, this small triangular island, its 40 inhabitants outnumbered by goats, is Europe's southernmost point, but no plaques, monuments or crazy signposts mark this fact. Instead, the southernmost tip is reached by foot and ends with a scramble down to a desolately beautiful stone beach.

Somewhere on the island, legend has it, Calypso - Homer's nymph-witch - waylaid Odysseus for 10 years in her enchanted cave. Beautiful, but cut-off, Gavdhos existed more in myth than reality, and its tired, forgotten inhabitants left the island for an easier life.

Now, in an urgent bid for economic development, Gavdhos is reincarnating itself as a tourist idyll. A European flag was hoisted this summer, there are plans for a camp site, an expanded harbour, and small-scale development. Eco-tourism is the buzz word. The tourists are coming, and some of the islanders who left, returning.

Curiosity aroused, I set sail for Gavdhos. Two and a half hours later in the white heat of midday, the boat approached the tiny harbour of Karave. I spotted two tavernas, a collection of dusty tractors, and a small, sweaty throng of people waiting to greet us. I also noted, with satisfaction, a jewel of a beach, empty and glistening in the sun, a mere stone's throw from the harbour.

Within minutes, most of the passengers had clambered into the tractors and been driven off in a dust cloud up the dirt track to Sarakiniko, the island's "resort". Until recently, the tractors were the island's only form of transport but then, with much pomp and ceremony, a bus was donated. Sadly, it conked out within the week, no doubt defeated by the potholes troubling the island's only road.

I was staying with Nikos Tsiridanis, the uncle of the president of Gavdhos, and a friend of a friend, (in Greece, everyone is a friend of a friend). Nikos was a wiry, good-humoured man whose looks and grit defied his 70 years. His home, next door to the president's unpresidential two-roomed bungalow, stood on top of the hill overlooking the bay. It was surrounded by olive trees, sheep, chickens, a well, and an allotment, in the middle of which sat a clay statuette of a beautiful nymph. Nikos explained her provenance: "I bought it from a man who said she was Helen, but I christened her Calypso and to hell with it. Birds shit on her, but she doesn't bat an eyelid!"

In the afternoon, Nikos gave me a bumpy ride in his car to Sarakiniko, a long, wild, sandy beach on the north coast, that is fringed with pines and Lebanese cedars. I chose my tree, flopped in its shade and snoozed, breathing in the smells of the sea, the thyme and the pine-scented breeze. A cock crowed, the sea boomed in the background and the crickets shrieked with ferocious intensity. There was little evidence of the hundreds of tourists dispersed somewhere on the island. And this was the most exploited beach; the only one with rooms for hire and boasting more than one taverna. Ravenously hungry, I settled at one of the tavernas and ordered squid and salad from a menu that included goat, meatballs, courgettes, butterbeans, stuffed tomatoes and feta cheese drenched in olive oil and oregano. Tasty traditional Greek fare, and plenty of it.

I spent most of my stay in Sarakiniko, and time pulsed to a slow rhythm. People came here to get away from it all, to write, to gaze in the noiseless, inky night at the star-sequinned sky, to be romantic, to forget their worries. One day, I bumped into Theofilos Tsiridanis, four-times elected president of Gavdhos. "You're still wearing your watch!" he exclaimed, apparently offended. "It's better without."

After several stress-melting days on the beach, I decided it was time for a trek, and set off with two friends to cross the north of the island. After an hour, we reached Kastri, the island's eerie capital - now a forlorn settlement of stone dwellings and home to three families. To our left was the mayor's house, to our right the police station, flying the Greek flag. Three goats crossed the street. We walked on past oleanders, prickly pears and the ubiquitous cedar trees.

Suddenly, before us was a dense, green forest, resonant with the sweet- sharp scent of pine, that looked like it had never been trodden in. We plunged in. Bees and butterflies danced about our feet and flitted across the purple-flowered thyme until we reached Ambellos, a parched, sun-bleached plateau, once the centre of grape production in Gavdhos, now, like Kastri, a ghost village. We arrived while Niki, the only sign of human life, was winnowing barley. Dressed in overalls, headscarf and Ray-Bans, she looked like a cross between a peasant and a Mafia widow. She proudly told us that her name meant victory. A good name to have in this harsh, dry terrain.

Niki pointed out the way back, but the final stretch of our journey was a sobering experience. Gert, one of my companions fell heavily. Luckily, he was unhurt, but I wondered, not for the first time, what would happen on this remote island in the event of an accident. By the time we reached Sarakiniko, I was ready for the slow life again.

This year, the island's tourist credentials were given an added boost from an unlikely quarter - Turkey. In June, in the latest round of territorial sabre-rattling between Turkey and Greece, a Turkish naval officer suggested that Gavdhos might not be Greek. This obviously went beyond the pale. Development plans, long in the pipeline, were given a new lease of life, and Kostas Simitis, the Greek Prime Minister paid a visit.

On my second day, Gavdhos was playing host to a Cretan delegation staging a national demonstration on the island. Looking forward to some informal theatre, Nikos and I installed ourselves at Karave along with a few German tourists whose boat had failed to arrive. The island's officials - the priest, mayor, doctor and policeman - had gathered at another taverna. There were a couple of dozen people all told. A huge ferry swung into view and disgorged several hundred people brandishing sunhats, camcorders and delegation stickers. Within minutes, the harbour was transformed into a makeshift amphitheatre. Two hours passed in a whirl of dance, music and ardently proclaimed patriotism, culminating in the presentation of a fax machine to Theofilos.

Finally, a power cut brought proceedings to an abrupt halt and the boat departed leaving behind a handful of dazed locals, several platters of fish bones and cold chips, and a battalion of empty bottles.

I returned to the rooms to find Nikos organising his bookings for the month ahead. "What's the date today?" he asked. I didn't have a clue. "That's Gavdhos for you," he chuckled.

! Reaching Gavdhos requires planning. Once in Chania, Crete, catch the bus from the main bus station in the town centre to either Hora Sfakeion or Paleochora. The bus fare for this daily service is about pounds 5. There are regular ferry crossings from these two towns throughout the year, weather permitting. Allow good time in case of a postponed return journey, and always check the details with the tourist information office in Chania. Ariadne Birnberg stayed at Calypso's Rooms in a double room with a shower for pounds 8 per night. To book, ring Nikos Tsiridanis direct from Crete (0823 42118). Alternatively, head straight for Sarakiniko where most of the accommodation on the island is found. For further information, consult 'The Rough Guide to Crete', which has a couple of pages on Gavdhos (Penguin, pounds 8.99).