The Aegean island of Samos has aquamarine waters and ancient sites but its real charm is that it has a life of its own that remains untarnished by mass tourism

The search for authenticity that little place you discovered where they are genuinely pleased to see you and which retains its original charms is cursed by the Heisenberg Effect. The observer inevitably spoils what he's observing. Or, more precisely, the host community, in its eagerness to please in order to get the revenues, spoils it.

The Heisenberg Effect was brought home last year on a small and startlingly beautiful Greek island. The very phrase "Greek island" kicks off a whole chain-reaction of mental images: deep blue skies, crystal seas, whitewashed simplicity and a fiesta of gnarling: gnarled olive groves, gnarled goatherds, gnarled ancient peasant women, stooped and toothless in a frightfully picturesque fashion perhaps related to the fact that most of them starved as children but which, all the same, the Greek postcard industry is happy to perpetuate as shorthand for simplicity, hardiness and timeless values. The retsina tastes gnarled. The coffee is gnarled. Even the food (we imagine) is gnarled.

It's nonsense, of course. The Greek islands are a continent in themselves. Ithaka and Hydra are as different as Austria and southern Portugal. Each island has its own character, geographical and human. And the timeless, simple way of life in which we fondly imagine ourselves to be participating is just another variation of the Peter Mayle Fallacy. Those gnarled peasants sleep now on mattresses stuffed solid with undeclared income from tourism, and the woman who owns the little taverna almost certainly owns a dozen other businesses and is richer than most of the people she serves. (And have a look at her slender, glossy daughter and her tall son smiling over the grill with his perfect teeth: that's what a bit of money and good nutrition does to you.)

On one such island, I got involved in a debate about the future of the tiny fishing-port town. It is, currently, perfection. One neo-classical building has been, properly, painted terracotta. To drive along the harbour-front, it's necessary to have one wheel slightly over the edge; diners at the tavernas have to edge their chairs out of your way. The arrival of the bus is an event: everyone cranes forward to watch it topple, as one day it surely must topple, into the drink. There is a bakery (OK), a greengrocer (execrable) and two supermarkets (both tiny, not super at all, one execrable, one unspeakable). There is one good restaurant, and one which used to be good until the chef fell in love and, initially, couldn't eat, then, subsequently, couldn't cook.

But now they want to move forward. They want to move parking from the present amiable chaos into a regimented, paid-for car park behind the harbour, and bus everyone in on little electric golf-carts. They want to paint all the buildings terracotta. All must have the same, officially sanctioned, awnings. There will be proper streetlighting. Centralised bouzouki music will be piped.

And then nobody will want to come there, because it's not just about what people want to come to, but what we are going away from. From regimentation. From uniformity. From regulations. From health and safety. From the overwhelming British hegemony of the jobsworth. The very things this island wants to "improve" are the things we want to remain the same.

But there is another island, popular among the Greeks, less so quite inexplicably among the British. It's an island that won't change to what it (mistakenly) believes will appeal to the tourists, because it has an existence of its own. It's big enough to be varied, small enough to possess its own idiosyncratic, and distinct, personality. There are mountains and plains, vineyards and olive groves, a humming little seaside holiday town with no pretensions to be anything else, and a main city that sees no need to tart itself up for us, because it has things of its own to be getting on with. It has an ancient history beyond an obdurate peasantry scratching a living. It also has an economy.

The place is called Samos, in the northern Aegean. From the eastern coast, you can swim to Turkey. (A small but thriving cottage industry is devoted to people swimming in the opposite direction, hoping for a new life in Europe.) It's a curious place, and I'd rather like to live there.

Even arriving on Samos, the airport has a peculiar charm. You'd not be surprised if an old DC-3 taxied up to the ramp. Nobody is trying to sell you anything. The notoriously churlish Greek police actually smile. The international dehumanisation of gates and barriers and admonitory signs (ticking you off for something you hadn't even thought of doing) and chutes and ding-dong announcements and pat-down areas: all absent. It's an odd combination of an old-style public baths (an impression of tiles and waxed lino) and a 1930s ferry terminal. It is, in short, rather nice, strangely reassuring, and, quite inexplicably, welcoming. You're glad to be there, and you feel that Samos is equally glad you've arrived. Quite possibly an illusion, but a pleasant illusion all the same.

But the idea of Samos as a year-round island with an existence of its own is no illusion. Two thousand years ago it was known for its pottery and its wine; the Samian wines, particularly the sweet Muscats, are widely exported today.

Close to the airport lies the Heraion, the classical Greek temple to the goddess Hera, once linked to the town by the "Iera Odos" the Holy Way by a 6km road dating back to the 7th century BC, and lined with 2,000 statues and with graves and funeral monuments. The Heraion wasn't just a temple to Hera, but the temple to Hera, the centre of the cult and quite possibly the first to have an enclosed, roofed sanctuary. The following century, the Samians built the Tunnel of Eupalinos, a kilometre-long vast water-conduit astonishingly constructed, without the use of compasses, theodolites or even written mathematics, beginning at either end and meeting perfectly in the middle. How they pulled that off is still a mystery, though one which might have been known to Pythagoras, born there around 570BC and commemorated by a modern sculpture on the waterfront at Pythagorion (renamed from Tigani "frying pan" in 1955 in honour of its famous son).

Samos has been part of the Byzantine Empire, when it was chief island in the Aegean military complex; unwillingly annexed by the Ottoman Empire (at which point most of the population headed inland to the mountains and the fertile central plains, avoiding Turks and pirates alike); a semi-autonomous state; and it wasn't until 1912 that Samos became part of the new Kingdom of Greece.

This is, in short, no simple backwater turned tourist-trap.

And this may be why it's so appealing as a holiday destination. More than anything else, it reminded me in that strange way you can be reminded of something you never quite knew of southern France before that became California-sur-Med. The roads follow the sometimes precipitous course of the terrain, branching off with sudden swooping curves, emerging unexpectedly over terraced vineyards or agricultural plains. One V

C moment you can be driving along a typically Aegean maritime landscape, the next in a deep shaded tunnel with running brooks and the heavy green forest scents of pine and galbanum. One-shop villages and small towns appear suddenly around a bend in the road; a hairpin curve brings you to a startling vista of the sea and, near enough to touch through the haze, the rocky coast of Turkey. A causeway across the saltmarsh passes a long, low building: a military station with an observation tower where a Greek soldier stares through powerful, unblinking binoculars at a Turkish soldier across the strait, who is staring back at him; and so peace is maintained.

It's usually silly to say that a place has something for everyone, and Samos is no exception. Those between 17 and, say, 26 years old, who toil in the shadow of their hormones, might prefer somewhere sweatier, somewhere more doof-doof-doof-dooffa. Otherwise... here's the Armonia, a small family-run hotel near Kokkari, on the north-eastern coastline: light, airy, dtendu, it is indeed like a Côte d'Azur hotel back 30 years ago, overlooking a perfect horseshoe bay a few minutes' walk through the pines.

A half-hour stroll downhill in the evening takes you to Kokkari town where, for some reason that nobody could explain to me, prices, as in Samos overall, are about two-thirds of the rest of Greece (except for beer, which is less than half the price).

Unable to face walking back up the hill due to idleness and strong drink, I enquired about a taxi; the waiter took me by the arm and led me through the village to the taxi-stand, chatting affably as we went. This felt more like the original Greek xenofilia, the fondness for strangers, than the tourist-trap wolf-beam you more commonly encounter. "Come! You want eat? Good! BEST!"

In Psilli Ammos, Mrs Frangou and her two sons run a taverna with three apartments, as close to the silver-sand beach as they could be without sinking. One of the sons rides past bareback on his horse, the other sits in the taverna practising his bouzouki, tuned to an unfamiliar scale; the music on Samos has a powerful Turkish influence, quite unique. Mrs Frangou brings home-made cakes; a tiny general store two minutes away sells anything you need (and you'd not be surprised to find those kaleidoscope-rubber buckets and spades). Children play on the clean sand in the shade of the tamarisks.

Along the coast, in a strict conservation area, a group of 16 wealthy Australians have taken the three ultra-luxurious villas at Marnei Mare, perched magnificently on a clifftop, with shaded gardens and steps running down to the Aegean. The willowy, sophisticated concierge rules with a rod of silk; anything almost anything they want is theirs to command. Yesterday was, oddly, a Greek Night. Ancient Greeks, you understand. She laid on chitons and laurel wreaths. All part of the service.

And from that to a tiny, two-roomed, 18th-century fisherman's cottage on a tiny rocky promontory in Kerveli bay. Look out of the bedroom window and there is no sign of land, only the aquamarine water 6ft below and the sound of the gentle waves. Ten minutes' walk through the groves on the headland brings you to Kerveli: a taverna, a shop, a road back. Lina brings her daughter Stella to say hello. Her husband Manoles comes by with a couple of melons from his fields. Then you are alone again.

But alone or not, you're never far from the reality of Samos as a working island with its own life. Once I was on Hydra on the last day of the season. The awnings were rolled up. The tables brought indoors. The ferry brought not excited visitors and journey-fractious children, but lavatories and air-con parts. The set-dressing was carried into the wings and the crew came on to strike the set. In Gaios, on Paxos, the end of the season is the same: the square is one day busy with late-season holidaymakers and summering British and Italians, the next day empty, rain-lashed, shuttered up. One day a cat will slink across the paving-stones. The next, an Albanian labourer, dreaming of home. Otherwise, it's over. Just rain, until next Easter.

Samos keeps alive. In Samos Town, there are plays, concerts, shops, cinemas: a miniature metropolis. (The owner of the little taverna in the shady back street welcomes us even though it's mid-afternoon, no known mealtime. "Where are you from? How do you like Samos? You have a nice face; I think you have a warm heart." For once, it's not tourist bananas, but genuine. They say the people of Samos are cool. I think they are perhaps just reserved; free, perhaps, of that Greek exuberance which can sometimes edge into the phony.)

And so life continues. The banks do banking, the schools teach, the Samians mill around. Above the town is one of the most beguiling places in Greece, which is to say, on Earth: Ano Vathy, the old harbour-town, perched on the hills behind its modern counterpart. It is like the imagined memory of an Aegean port come true: the sea below, the air redolent of herbs and cooking, winding precipitous streets. A river-gorge cuts through it (water is everywhere on Samos, tumbling down from the rocks, running through the valleys, bubbling from the ground).

There is not a right-angle in Vathy. It is impossible not to get lost; impossible to care if you do, because there is always another pretty street, another caf or bar, another schoolyard with children laughing and tussling. I took a taxi back up the hill after lunch, but then caused inconvenience by not knowing where I had parked the car. Two baking hours later we found it 10 yards away from where the taxi had dropped us.

As I said, it is impossible not to get lost in Vathy. And of all the places on Samos, Vathy is where I should like to be right now. Direct flights from London, three and a half hours, run from now until the end of October; otherwise, a night's stopover in Athens salt cod and rainbow ouzos at Brettos on Odos Kydathinaion and a short hop in the morning. I am tempted. Very tempted. And of course the best thing about the place is that, whatever time of year it is, Samos is always open.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Michael Bywater travelled to Samos as a guest of Simpson Travel (020-8392 5858; ). A week at the Anatoli Hera Studio in Psilli Ammos costs from 500 per person, including flights from Gatwick and transfers. The 18th-century fisherman's cottage in Kerveli bay can be booked through Simpson Travel.

Charter flights are operated from Gatwick and Manchester by Thomas Cook Airlines (0871 230 2406; ) and Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; ) between May and October.

Olympic Air (020-8283 1980; ) offers flights throughout the year from Heathrow via Athens.

Staying there

Hotel Armonia Bay, Kokkari (00 30 22 7309 2279; ). Marnei Mare, Marnei (00 33 22 7303 0830; ).