Out in Lesbos - and proud of it

A long-time favourite with gay women, the third-largest Greek island offers a one-stop introduction to the country's culture - historical sites, secluded beaches and wonderful food. But the real bonus is the lack of mass tourism, says Tracey Macleod
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The Independent Travel

Lesbos has an image problem. Type the name of the Greek island into an internet search engine and the first link takes you to a hardcore porn site. Send someone an e-mail, as I did, called "Contacts for Lesbos" and the message bounces back, screened out by their anti-smut software.

Lesbos has an image problem. Type the name of the Greek island into an internet search engine and the first link takes you to a hardcore porn site. Send someone an e-mail, as I did, called "Contacts for Lesbos" and the message bounces back, screened out by their anti-smut software.

As the birthplace of the poet Sappho, the island is best known for giving its name to lesbianism, and it's still a popular gay holiday destination; our flight contained several groups of travellers with shaved heads and tattoos, though unlike the usual package tourists, they were women. But it's also a great option for a family holiday, particularly if you're looking for more than just a beach and a bar from your Greek island.

Lesbos lies just five miles off the coast of Turkey. As Greece's third-largest island, it's big and prosperous enough not to have to rely on tourists for its income. The island's ouzo and olive oil are celebrated throughout Greece; many of the 100,000 islanders are employed in producing them, often using traditional, small-scale methods. So it's still possible for visitors to get a taste of old-fashioned island life by steering clear of the main tourist areas (which as tourist areas go, are still relatively undeveloped). Add historical sites, museums, Roman ruins, hot springs, great walking and wildlife, and the island offers a one-stop introduction to Greek culture.

For our first foreign holiday with a two-year-old, we weren't looking for a week on the beach, so Lesbos's mix of activities appealed, as did direct flights from Gatwick, and the island's reputation for some of the best food in Greece. Trying to read up in advance about our destination proved tricky. The only guidebook I found was called "Birding on Lesbos" (the island is also a popular destination for those who just like to watch). And online guides tend to focus on the most popular tourist destinations, Petra and Molyvos, on the north coast of the island, while we were staying on the less visited south coast, near Plomari, the main ouzo-producing town.

The tiny airport offers perhaps too authentic a Greek experience. There are direct flights from several UK airports; in order to make life easier for the tour operators, they are all scheduled to arrive and leave at the same time. The scrums at check-in and baggage reclaim are nasty enough to satisfy anyone nostalgic for their backpacking days.

The first surprise comes on the road from the airport, which twists through the island's capital, Mytilini. Huge Ottoman mansions line the route, the legacy of the town's history as a trading centre under Turkish occupation. Mytilini may have lost its strategic importance, but it's still a surprisingly prosperous and cosmopolitan-looking place. Judging by the number of new car dealerships we passed, there's obviously still plenty of money around.

The 500-year Turkish presence has left its mark on the architecture across the island, where tall grey villas with shuttered windows are the norm, rather than the squat, white buildings normally associated with the Greek islands.

We spent our week in a tiny cottage, with a shady vine-draped terrace, surrounded by peaceful olive groves. Peaceful, that is, unless a member of the local donkey chorus was entertaining us with one of his frequent 10-minute braying recitals. Having spent the last two years teaching a child that donkeys say "hee-haw", we had to modify the sound to something more like an alien being tortured. Still, it was hard to resent our noisy neighbours when we woke one morning to the excited cry of "Donkey!", as our son spotted two of the beasts contentedly chomping grass just beneath our bedroom window.

Five minutes' walk from our house, down a dusty track, was a beach, Agios Isidoros - a mile-long, curving sweep of shingle, with clear water and more sand than we had any right to expect, given that we'd only booked 10 days earlier. But it was brown, not golden. And even though we hadn't gone to Lesbos for a beach holiday, some atavistic drive kicked in and we found ourselves journeying further afield to try to get a fix of the white sand and azure sea we were carrying around in our mental image banks.

After a few such expeditions, we had to face facts. The beaches on Lesbos are brown. Even at Petra, one of the island's most popular resorts, the beach is a dun-coloured ribbon. Petra's strip of scooter-hire shops and bars advertising Sky Sports and cheap Guinness make it the nearest thing on the island to a tourist resort, and we escaped gratefully to our relatively unspoilt bolthole in the south.

Eventually we found a good beach, with white sand and blue sea, at Tarti, a sandy cove at the end of a fiendish mile-long stretch of bumpy track. The number of sun-loungers set out on the water's edge led us to expect the imminent arrival of a coach party, but again, we were the only people there for much of the day.

Apart from the beach, Tarti consists of three tavernas, all with shady terraces. One of them looked more promising than the others, in that there were daily fish specials chalked up on a board. But if you don't know the Greek alphabet, or speak Greek, it's difficult to decode a board like this. Inevitably you end up blurting "souvlaki" in panic, or returning to the laminated menu, with its German and English translations. I spent a few frustrating show-and-tell minutes at the blackboard with our non-English speaking waiter, before giving up and asking for the usual suspects.

It's well worth writing down the names of a few Greek dishes you fancy, and showing them to your waiter. Everywhere we ate, we tried to order a speciality of the island, stuffed courgette flowers, deep-fried in golden batter, and prepared slightly differently in each taverna; the filling might be rice and herbs, or egg, mint and feta. It's also worth braving the embarrassment and asking (by gestures if necessary) to have a look at the fish in the kitchen. It was like this, while my partner cringed beneath his laminated menu, that I hunted down a whole gilthead bream at our local beachside fish restaurant. It cost about £20, but grilled over charcoal and served just with olive oil and lemon, it was the best fish I've ever tasted.

To fill those rare hours when we weren't eating and drinking, we went for long drives across the island, usually on some kind of food-related mission; to the cheese-producing area of Mantamados, or to the ramshackle mill at Kerameia, the last working water mill in Greece, which grinds flour for the Mylelia range of gourmet pasta.

The island isn't spectacular, but there's a rugged beauty in the volcanic landscape, with its silvery spread of olive trees. The main roads that cross the centre of the island tend to be well maintained, and I soon mastered the art of under-taking - slowing down and pulling over to allow faster drivers to pass. Smaller roads, particularly in the mountains or around the coast, can still contain some scary surprises, in the form of sheer drops, crumbling bridges, and the inevitable donkeys in the road. But you can drive all day without seeing a high-rise hotel. And after a few days, you tend to stop laughing at things like the sign for the "Lesbian Wildlife Hospital".

Lesbos may be an island with a history of strong women - and there are still several thriving women's agricultural collectives - but the sight of a female driver carrying an adult male passenger is still enough to provoke curiosity and derision from the men drinking outside the cafés. And if that adult male should attempt to walk through the town centre openly pushing a pram, well, the hilarity.

I was well advised to leave passenger, child and pushchair in the car-park at the foot of the town when I went to explore Molyvos, the beautiful hillside town that is Lesbos's most famous feature. It's a remarkable sight from a distance, with handsome, red-roofed villas and a hilltop castle. The steep, cobbled lanes that wind up through the town are largely inaccessible to traffic (and pushchairs). The rush screens and vines which shade them create a dark, souk-like atmosphere. But most of the shops sell tourist tat, and there is little sense of Molyvos as anything more than a stage set.

The real discovery of our trip was Plomari, the island's second-largest town, just a couple of miles down the coast from where we were staying. It looks like a scruffier Molyvos; it too is built on a hillside, above a fishing port, and though not as architecturally striking, it's far less touristy. Walk up the single street that takes you up from the main square - don't try to drive up it unless you fancy reversing shame-facedly past tables of amused drinkers - and, amazingly, you're in a real Greek town, with shops selling lace and lawnmowers and women leaning out of their windows to talk to each other, and tiny storefronts selling cheese pies and the ouzo for which the town is renowned.

Here's the weird thing about ouzo. Despite the taste, people actually drink the stuff. All the tavernas offer "ouzomezedes", snacks to eat with the aniseed drink, which might range from grilled cheese to fried octopus balls. We tried, but we just couldn't develop a taste for it. Just as the Colman mustard fortune was said to be made from what customers left on the side of their plates, the Barbayannis empire must owe a lot to what tourists leave in their fridges.

There's one last cliché about the Greek island holiday that Lesbos doesn't fulfil. It isn't particularly cheap, at least since Greece joined the euro. A waterfront meal and a bottle of plonk that might once have cost a few quid can now easily reach £20.

Our blow-out lunch at the island's most celebrated restaurant, the Vafios Taverna in the hills above Molyvos, was nearly double that, but worth every cent for a taste of the traditional dishes the owner's grandma used to make, and a view of the Turkish coast into the bargain.

Our holiday ended on an authentically chaotic Greek note; the air-traffic controllers were going on strike, and we had to arrive at the airport hours early, and queue in the sweltering heat outside the terminal building. But it's the fact that Lesbos isn't quite geared up for mass tourism that makes it so unusual. It offers visitors a chance to enjoy a Greek island holiday without feeling implicated in the destruction of that island's traditional way of life.

Before I went, I would mumble that I was going to "a Greek island", rather than saying the name. Now I'm just going to come out and say it straight; I went to Lesbos and I'm proud of it.

Tracey MacLeod travelled to Lesbos as a guest of Simply Travel (020-8541 2211, www.simplytravel.com). For departures from Gatwick or Manchester on 25 September or 2 or 9 October, a self-catering week at Romvos Cottage in Agios Varvara costs £485 per person (four sharing) or £743 per person (two sharing), including car hire; under 12s pay 10 per cent less.

Travelling independently, the best approach is to fly to Athens, take the bus to the port of Piraeus and board a fast ferry to Mytilini. See 'Greek Island Hopping 2003' (Thomas Cook, £12.99) for more details