Paxos Poseidon's playground

Paxos has long been a favourite of the cognoscenti, and now the smallest Ionian island is accessible by seaplane. Linda Cookson gets there ahead of the high-summer hordes
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The Independent Travel

The Ionian Islands are at their finest in early summer. The countryside is a carpet of irises and wild lilies. Roadways are fringed with screens of yellow broom, splashed with the scarlet of poppies. And at night, in the olive groves and over the harbours, fireflies pop their fuses like fistfuls of diamonds flung upwards into the dark.

Paxos - the smallest of the main Ionian islands, at only five miles by two - provides all of this loveliness in exquisite miniature. According to legend, it was formed when Poseidon, God of the sea, struck the water with his trident to create a secret island paradise where he could hide away with his lover, Amphritite. Nowadays, although the island can no longer claim to be a secret, it still retains an intimacy and charm, thanks partly to the lack of designer hotels or an international airport.

Intriguingly, this summer has seen air travel to and from the island become possible for the first time - courtesy of a 14-minute seaplane connection with nearby Corfu. A Canadian- owned company called AirSea Lines introduced the EU's first scheduled seaplane service. The little twin-prop 17-seaters fit the toy-town setting of Paxos perfectly - buzzing across the island's skies like rocking horses with wings. And twice-daily flights between Gaios, the island's capital, and Corfu Town mean that a day-trip across the water for lunch is feasible and not too expensive: just €60 return (£43).

We arrived on the island on 1 May. Although its involvement in a United Nations tsunami relief programme in Indonesia had threatened to delay the start of the service, the seaplane was running as planned. And Paxos's three harbour villages - Gaios, Lakka and Longos - were already well advanced in their preparations to receive the first visitors of the season.

"Waiting for the barbarians," remarked my partner ruefully, in reference to the Kavafy poem. But, in truth, the hospitality felt homely and genuine. On the waterfronts, hire boats had been anti-fouled, tavernas had been lime-washed, and shutters everywhere had been freshly repainted in vivid Ionian dark green. The welcome mat was out.

As it turned out, 1 May was an especially happy day on which to visit - being Easter Sunday in this year's Greek Orthodox calendar. We reached the village of Lakka - where we'd been told to expect the main action - late in the afternoon. First impressions were discouraging; the party seemed all but over.

The streets were silent, although still swathed in the garlands and branches that had been strewn in the path of the Epitafios procession on Good Friday night. Empty firework shells and paper streamers testified to wild partying on the Saturday. And the aromas of rosemary and garlic hovered around the embers of charcoal fires where lambs had been spit-roasted for Sunday lunch. But right now, with the exception of a few dozing cats, the place seemed deserted.

We needn't have worried. Behind the closed doorways - decorated for Easter with crushed eggshells, dyed the traditional red - the village was simply sleeping off its collective hangover. Before long, like its cats, it began to stretch and yawn.

By nightfall, everything was rocking, with parties of revellers piling into the restaurants under a blaze of fairy-lights decked with holly-leaves, bells and candles. Diogenis, who runs a taverna on the main square, was making a few minor adjustments to the illuminations. From halfway up his ladder, he explained that the boxes of lights depicting spangly hens, Easter bunnies and the ilk had got lost somewhere along the line. But the Christmas lights had been in perfect working order. And what, after all, are a few misplaced reindeer among friends?

Lakka is the scruffiest of Paxos's three picture-book harbours, but probably the most fun. It's certainly the most off-beat. The village electrician, Babis, sports the e-mail soubriquet "sparkydancer", a reference to both his trade and his skills on the dance floor.

A small square that is the location of one of Lakka's nicest backstreet hideaways has the improbable title Platia Edward Kennedy, in honour of a visit from the Kennedy family in the 1960s to broker Jackie Kennedy's wedding contract with Aristotle Onassis. Allegedly, the deal was struck over a table at what is now the Alexandros restaurant.

Elsewhere, an eclectic string of bars and restaurants lines the quayside. In the heart of the village, 75-year-old Spiro Petrou, recovering from a knee replacement operation, has run the kafeneion on the main square for as long as anyone can remember. To translate it simply as "coffee house" does it no justice. Meeting point, gossip shop and occasional gambling den, it's one of the friendliest places on the island. The interior is a living piece of history - with bare floors and rocky tables, panelled walls the colour of clotted cream, curling maps, faded prints, and a display of dusty bottles that has been unchanged for 30 years.

Lakka is the northernmost harbour on Paxos. A mile or so along the east coast is Longos, the smallest and most picturesque of the three main villages. Its perfect horseshoe bay is fringed by cypress trees and overlooked by a ruined windmill. Even the derelict factory near the village beach, which used to process oil and soap from Paxos's swathes of olive groves, has a tumbledown charm of its own. Among its other attractions, the village is renowned locally as the home of Vassilis' restaurant - the waterfront institution that seems to have secured everyone's vote as serving the best food on Paxos.

Gaios, a further four miles along the coast, completes the trio: a sweeping, crescent-shaped bay protected from the open sea by the nearby wooded island of Ayios Nikolaos. A pretty Venetian square fronts onto the quayside, behind a welcoming line-up of European flags.

As the most cosmopolitan of the settlements, it's inevitably the "Do let's stop off for cocktails" point of rendezvous, come the height of summer, for what my partner calls the "Big Yachts and Gold Sandals" brigade. But the atmosphere remains comfortable and laid-back.

Spiro Bogdanos, the mayor, is passionate in his commitment to the island's cultural heritage. The man is a mould-breaker. Last year - thanks to his energies, and after an inspired renovation project that transformed the old schoolhou- ses of Lakka and Longos into concert halls - Paxos was designated as a European Village of Culture. Festivals, events and exhibitions are set to continue for the rest of the year.

Museums, it must be admitted, are in short supply on Paxos. The Gaios museum houses various artefacts, along with a range of more folksy items such as clothes, cooking utensils and other memorabilia of everyday island living over the centuries. But it's fair to say that these things aren't necessarily everyone's cup of tea. A 17th-century wedding bed - complete with anapafsolia (wooden rings hanging from the canopy) in which the virgin bride was expected to insert her feet - was more than enough to send me hastily back out into the sunshine. On the other hand, the olive press museum at the inland village of Magazia is well worth a visit - not least for the lovely drive into the island's interior that it entails.

It's said that every family on Paxos owns at least 500 olive trees, and the olive oil is rightly celebrated. It's made from lianolia olives and has a distinctive, deep-gold colour. As you pass among the groves, along winding roads and sleepy country lanes, you see an entirely different aspect of island life. Ladders bleached of colour lean against tree trunks. Bales of tough black netting are spread under the trees, weighted down with stones in readiness to catch the falling crop.

It's as though the landscape had been draped in widows' veils. All at once, the coastal resorts and their tavernas feel hours, rather than minutes, away from you. Everything feels suddenly silent, slow and still - as timeless as the dry-stone walled terraces that separate the individual olive groves, as uncomplicated as the unattended goats ambling mildly by.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Linda Cookson travelled with Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7888; www.tapestryholidays.com), which has houses from £539 per person per week, including flights.

Seaplanes to Paxos fly twice daily with AirSea Lines; book through Corfu Travel Enterprises (00 30 26610 49800); €35 (£25) each way or €60 (£42) for a same-day return.

STAYING THERE

Most apartments and villas are pre-booked by travel companies. Independent travellers should approach Planos Holidays ( www.planos.co.uk), which has offices in Lakka (00 30 26620 31744) and Longos (00 30 26620 31530). Studio rooms in Lakka cost around €40 (£27) per night. In Longos, Stamatis Dendias's Minimarket (00 30 266 20 31597) has rooms for €50 (£34) per night in high season.

MORE DETAILS

Ionian Islands Tourism (00 30 2 6450 26559; www.visit-ionianislands.com).

Greek National Tourism Organisation (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk)

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