Halki: Time out on a timeless Greek island

On Halki the pace is slow, the food is good and the locals welcome you like one of the family. Linda Cookson succumbs to its laid-back charm

The clock on the harbour-front of the tiny Greek island of Halki is right twice a day – at 4.20am, and 4.20pm. It's held the same time now for as long as anyone can remember. Once upon a time, when it was still working, it used to chime loudly, day and night, at 15-minute intervals – so noisily that everyone's sleep was being disturbed. With a splendid collective shrug to both time-keeping and technology, the islanders just stopped the clock – and peace was restored.

The tale of the silenced clock tells you everything you need to know about this Dodecanese island. Small, quirky and totally enchanting, it's an hour or so from Rhodes in real time, but light years away in character – a wonderful scrap of magic set in the sparkling Aegean.

Everyone's first glimpse of Halki is from the water. At only 10km by 3km, and with a local population of under 300 people, it's not the sort of place where you'd expect to find an airport. But your arrival becomes part of the whole fairy tale, as the shuttle boat from Rhodes draws nearer to its destination and the contours of the island start to emerge through a haze of silvery heat.

Three windmills appear first, high on the hillside overlooking the harbour. Beyond them, higher still and in the hinterland of the island, are the ruins of a Crusader castle. And then the waterfront itself starts to take shape – an amphitheatre of colourful Venetian mansions and more simple, traditional island homes, ranked in tiers around a perfect horseshoe harbour.

Next to the tower of the stopped clock is the town hall, white as a wedding cake. To the east of the harbour is the island church of St Nikolas, patron saint of sailors, resplendent with a magnificent cream- and blue-painted bell tower. In front of the church, local fishing boats, safely returned from the previous night's catch, bob peacefully in the turquoise water like pilgrims come to rest.

And this, in a nutshell – or, more accurately, a seashell – is Halki. (The island's name – also sometimes written as Chalki – comes either from the Greek word for shell, or from the word for copper, which was mined here in antiquity. Typically, no one's quite sure.) The harbour town of Emborio, where you land, is the island's only settlement – as sleepy and pretty as a model village. And with only one road and almost no traffic, the pace of life is as gentle as you might imagine.

This unrushed tranquillity is part of Halki's special charm – equally captivating both to new visitors and to the many travellers who return here regularly. Such tourism as there is began in the 1980s, when Halki received grants from Unesco and the European Community to restore its then crumbling waterfront. It was officially designated "the Island of Peace and Friendship" by the Greek government. And this is no mere label. Visitors to the island find themselves welcomed into the community like part of an extended family.

Who cares about the odd power cut? (Electricity comes by underwater cable from Rhodes.) And so what if the water runs out every now and then? (The island depends on weekly tanker deliveries.) What matters more is the succession of broad smiles and calls of kali mera that accompany your morning trot along the harbour-front to buy a breakfast pancake, dripping in local honey, from Dimitri's bakery.

Most visitors rent properties on the waterside. Earlier this month I stayed in Villa Anouska, dinky as a doll's house and with a lovely stone terrace that was sometimes nearly impossible to leave, other than for the gentlest of swims in the shimmering water below. Whole days can pass by here, just in tracking the shifting rainbow of colours on a nearby deserted island or watching the sea's mosaic of blues and pinks turn to indigo and violet as lights start to twinkle on the harbour front. Only the drift of inviting smells from the string of waterfront tavernas breaks your reverie.

That's the time to repair to one of the bars before deciding what and where to eat. At Theodosia's you'll be greeted with a cheeky wolf-whistle from Stergo the parrot. At Costa's, Jiannis will apologise for the lack of crisps and bring you olives and nuts instead. One retsina can easily lead to another. But when you're finally ready for food, don't miss the signature "Halki pasta" served most days at Lefkosia's taverna, or at Babis' taverna on Sunday nights. The pasta is made fresh on the island, and mixed with burnt onions and melted feta cheese into a mouth-watering bubbling goo.

Daytime alternatives to balcony-lounging can be equally undemanding. Apart from a sprinkling of tiny near-deserted coves, some reachable only by water taxi, Halki has two small main beaches, both with shady vine-smothered tavernas and each within a 15-minute walk of the harbour. Ftenagia, with pebbles and rocky swimming platforms, lies across a rough track round the back of the island's single hotel, which re-opened last year after a rather ritzy facelift. Pondamos, the other easily accessible beach, is a sandy crescent tucked over the saddle of the hill behind the harbour.

The walk to Pondamos takes you along Halki's one-and-only road, the improbably-named Tarpon Springs Boulevard, which was funded by islanders who emigrated to Florida early last century after the collapse of the local sponge fishing industry. As you meander through a landscape of olive trees and prickly pears, with goat bells clanking all around you, the luminous sweep of the bay comes suddenly into view, as fresh and blue as a cornflower.

Beyond Pondamos, the road climbs steeply to the ruined village of Chorio, formerly the island's capital. Above is the picture-book castle, with magical views over the island and out to sea. Make the hour-long walk at sunset and look back towards Emborio, and you'll see how the island's hillside cemetery, gathered around an exquisite blue-domed church, becomes a shimmering citadel as it catches the last of the sun's fire. It's a strangely moving experience.

But for a real journey into Halki's spiritual heartland, do make time to explore its awesome mountainous interior, where eagles soar above scores of small churches and monasteries. A minibus service is available, although it's just as likely that a friendly local will offer you a lift. The people of Halki are rightly proud of their heritage.

I took a ride with Galandi, a native of the island (and owner of Stergo the parrot). His brother-in-law, a lecturer in religious studies and history, was visiting from Athens, and between them they had a story for every stone. As we drove past Chorio, Galandi pointed out the ruins of what was once the island's graveyard. His grandfather had been buried there, he explained, but the family had decided to re-bury his bones in Emborio's cemetery. They identified his skeleton quite easily, he said cheerfully. The old man had been buried with his favourite pipes.

The official goal of our journey, at 1,500ft above sea level, was the Monastery of St John, the island's saint. At the end of August it's the scene of a massive annual celebration, with friends and relatives of the islanders flocking to Halki to join in the party. Dimitri the caretaker and his helpers had already started preparing trestle tables in readiness for the feast. For the rest of the year the place is as still as a stone, looking over simple small-holdings of fig trees and bee boxes and the infinity of water beyond.

The highlight of the trip was a detour to the deserted Monastery of St Palarniotis, housing an idyllic small church with a ceiling painted with stars. In the courtyard outside, a single eagle feather had come to rest on the unmarked grave of a nun. All the while, in the harbour far below us, fishing boats went quietly about their daily business. T S Eliot once wrote that history is a pattern of timeless moments. Perhaps that's why time doesn't really matter on Halki.

Travel essentials: Halki

Getting there

* There are no flights between the UK and Halki. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies to Rhodes from Gatwick and Liverpool; Fly Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com) has flights from Gatwick, East Midlands and Manchester; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.

* The Nikos Express ferry from Rhodes to Halki (75 minutes) leaves from the port of Kamiros Skala, a 40-minute taxi ride from the airport (expect to pay about €50). Departures at about 2.30pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and about 4pm on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Single fares €8.50.

* At weekends the Dodecanese Pride catamaran operates from Mandraki harbour in Rhodes Town at 10.30am (€21).

Staying there

* Nissia Holidays (UK office 01455 289421, Greek office 00 30 22410 29222; nissiaholidays.com) offers villas and apartments, including Villa Anouska, and organises transfers from the airport to Halki for €55pp. There is still some villa availability in September and October.

* The Captain's House (00 30 22 4604 5201), a 19th-century mansion, has doubles from €35.

* Hiona Art Hotel (00 30 22 4604 5244; hionaart.gr) has doubles from €100.

More information

* Greek National Tourist Office: 020-7495 9300; gnto.co.uk

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