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Samothraki (Samothrace)

Samothraki, Greece

Long a vacation secret of the northern Greeks, Samothrace (or Samothraki) is beginning to open to international tourists—particularly those who enjoy nature in its wilder forms. According to Homer, Samothrace was the island from which Poseidon watched the fall of Troy.

By Edward Batchelder

Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre

Samothrace, a relatively small island in the North Aegean near Turkey, has made one major contribution to world culture—the magnificent sculpture of Nike (Victory) that gave its image to the Rolls Royce radiator cap and its name to the world's largest sneaker manufacturer. Nearly eleven feet tall, winged, headless, and armless, the statue is a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture, summing up all the accomplishments of the Greeks at the very historical moment that their power was beginning to wane.

If you actually want to see Nike, however, you shouldn't go to Samothrace; the sculpture has been in the Louvre since shortly after its 1863 discovery by French amateur archaeologist Charles Champoiseau. What should draw you to Samothrace is a chance to see a less commercialized Greek island that remains rich in natural wonders—one of the highest mountain ranges in the Aegean, with clear streams of cascading waterfalls and rock pools for swimming, a landscape that stays green through late summer, and a coastline of secluded sand and pebble beaches. And though the original Nike may be absent, her spirit lingers in the beautifully sited Sanctuary of the Great Gods where she was discovered, looking north over the ocean.

The villages of Samothrace

Samothraki

Your first introduction to the island will be via the port town of Kamariotissa—a small but bustling village that consists mostly of a long narrow main street that runs along the harbor's edge. Here you'll find a string of cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs, broken only by the occasional shop offering souvenirs or beach essentials, a few banks with ATMs, the island's only internet café, and most of its car and motorcycle rentals. Kamariotissa is, in summer, more or less non-stop traffic, and this is even more pronounced when the ferries arrive, disgorging scores of cars and motorbikes, along with hundreds of mostly Greek tourists looking to rent the same. There are hotels and apartments in town—most of right behind the main street—but unless you're really attached to nightlife, you should seek lodgings elsewhere, along the north shore where Samothrace's beauty lies.

If you head out of town on the main road for about 14 km, you will come to Therma. Despite being a small cluster of hotels, rental apartments, and shops and restaurants catering to tourists, Therma is actually quite pretty due to the lush foliage that surrounds and runs through the middle of it. Because it lies within walking distance of several campgrounds, it's also the alternative nightlife spot on the island—evenings find it thronged with waifish-looking Greek youth in dreadlocks and rumpled clothing. It's conveniently located right above a pebble beach with a small harbor where tour boats depart for daily circuits of the island, and as the name suggests, Therma is the site of the island's mineral springs, a business that attracts both the elderly and infirm and the young and New Age-ish.

Samothraki Hora

The island's capital, Hora, is concealed in a natural amphitheater in the mountain six kilometers above Kamariotissa—the better to hide it from pirates during the medieval period. It's a small but charming town of narrow streets that twist their ways up and down along the hillside, and the central section offers a number of popular restaurants, Greek-style kafeneion with their tables spilling out onto the street, and trendy Western-styled cafés, many with beautiful views over the sea. It also hosts the island's small hospital, a tiny but entrancing folklore museum, and the ruins of a fort.

Beaches on Samothrace

Pahia Ammos Beach, Samothraki
Pahia Ammos

Pachia Ammos, on the south shore about 15 km from Kamariotissa, is postcard-perfect—nestled between two arms of rock that extend into the sea, with dramatic cliffs rising above it. The beach offers 800 meters of sand and protected swimming, stretching from a well-developed south end (offering a beach bar, an excellent fish taverna, fresh-water showers, and chaise lounges with sun umbrellas) to a quiet and undeveloped end on the north (offering peace and solitude). The beach is accessible by bus from Kamariotissa.

Kipo Beach, Samothraki
Kipos Beach

The second most popular beach is Kipos, a kilometers-long pebble beach that curves around the eastern tip of the island. Though it lacks Pachia Ammos's sand, it does offer very comfortable sunbathing, crystal-clear water for snorkeling and diving, and an even stronger dose of peace and solitude (although there is a small food stand). Kipos lies about 18 km east of Therma on the north shore road, and also can be reached by bus.

The stunning Vatos beach vies with Pachia Ammos for sand and scenery, but can only be reached by tour boat or several hours of hiking from Pachia Ammos. However, nearly the entire north shore of Samothrace functions as a beach. The road follows the sea closely, and there are innumerable quiet spots where visitors pull off and walk down to claim their own private pebble beach nestled in the curve of the shoreline.

Food on Samothrace

Goat

There are a few restaurants that shouldn't be missed. The hillside village of Profitas Ilias boasts four tavernas specializing in goat—all of them are good, but Vrachos, in the center of town, is rightly acknowledged as the best, especially for goat. In the even smaller town of Ano Meries, a few kilometers off the north shore road near Kipos, is Karydies, which serves a wide range of tasty Greek foods in a garden setting and also specializes in goat. In Kamariotissa the Climataria Taverna specializes in, you guessed it: goat. The cozy To Stenaki in Hora makes wonderful crepes for those whose sweet tooth demands more than the fruit offered by most tavernas.(Sorry, no goat). Finally, be sure to try some of the fish tavernas located along the north shore or try Akrogiali Psarotaverna at Lakoma Beach. Needless to say they eat a lot of goat in Samothraki but there are lots of other meats and vegetables, and of course being an island the fish is fresh and plentiful so if you are concerned that the only thing to eat will be goat, don't worry. (But goat is really good... way better than lamb).

Around Samothraki

Sanctuary of the Great Gods
Sanctuary of the Great Gods

Your sightseeing should begin with a trip around the island.The boat "Samothraki" makes all-day trips that include a brief history and some remarkable views you can't see otherwise, as well as swimming stops at several beaches and a cookout (the boat is associated with the Petrinos Kipos restaurant in Kamariotissa). After that introduction, you should pay a visit to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. The earliest discoveries here date back before the Olympian deities to the earliest fertility goddesses of Mediterranean, and the Sanctuary was the site of a mystery cult that continued well into the time of Christ (everyone from Odysseus to Philip of Macedon was said to be an initiate). In addition to the Sanctuary itself, which warrants several hours of hiking and contemplation, there's a small museum with an exact replica of the Nike.

Samothrace Waterfall

Another destination should be the Fonias River, called "the killer" because of the massive floods that sweep down it every spring. A 30-minute walk along a boulder-strewn and tree-shaded path leads you to a lovely waterfall and swimming basin, and a second waterfall awaits another 30 minutes up the hillside, though this hike is a bit more treacherous due to the unstable path. For committed hikers, it is possible to make it to the top of the 1611-meter high Mount Fengari, the place from which the god Poseidon legendarily watched the Trojan War, but it's not recommended without a guide from the Samothrace Hiking Club.

To relax from your exertions, try the sulfur springs of Therma—there is a commercial spa in town or you can walk up the road to the right of the spa to find two free locations. The first is enclosed and tends to attract younger people, while an outdoor bath overlooking the harbor is frequented by older people. To cap off the day's activities, the island runs a steady schedule of free cultural entertainment in the three main villages, ranging from traditional dance groups to contemporary musicians from Greece and Turkey (which lies only a few kilometers away). Schedules are hung in almost every café and hotel, but are unfortunately only in Greek, which means you'll have to ask for a translation.

Getting to Samothrace

Saos II Ferry Alexandroupolis-Samothraki

Samothrace has no airport, and ferry connections to neighboring islands (usually only Limnos and Lesvos) vary widely depending on the season but don't get your hopes up. The most dependable connections are with the mainland: there are several ferries per week from Kavala and four boats per day from Alexandroupoli, and in the peak season, there is also a faster Flying Dolphin. As with any Greek island, the schedules shift unpredictably; your best bet is to call, work through a travel agent, or simply turn yourself over to the gods of chance in the knowledge that you will, somehow, be able to get there sooner or later. You can also use Ferryhopper.com whose schedules are accurate and you can purchase your ticket on-line and pick it up at the ferry.

Edward Batchelder writes about music, politics, and travel from Buffalo, NY.  He is currently working on a biography of the singer Diamanda Galas. You can e-mail him at Edward(remove this)@Edwardbatchelder.com

Hotels on Samothrace

Samothraki Village Hotel
Samothraki Village Hotel

Kamariotissa offers a number of hotels; if you're committed to staying near the action, your best bet is the Nike Beach Hotel at the north edge of town—it has sea views, wheelchair access, and is within walking distance of the fun. In the area of Palaiopolis, Samothraki Village offers accommodation with free Wi-Fi, a swimming pool and separate children’s pool overlooking the Thracian Sea. The port of Kamariotissa is 6 km away. Located at a hill above the pebbled Makrilies Beach, Eroessa - Samothraki Beach Apartments & Suites Hotel features a 100-m2 pool and a children's playground. The property offers modernly decorated accommodation with free Wi-Fi. Closer to Therma are the lovely Mariva Bungalows, sequestered a short walk from both the town and the sea in a grove of fruit trees, and a bit farther along the coast is the crisp new Archontissa Resort, located directly on the water and offering small apartments with cooking facilities. Budget minded visitors should be comfortable in Therma at the Orpheaus Hotel or the Studios Lakastania, or any of the many smaller domatia that can be easily found along the north shore. The truly budget conscious should check out the extensive campgrounds, which are patronized by people of all ages.

You an also find hotels in Samothrace on Booking.com's Samothraki Page with photos, guest reviews, maps and booking information.

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