An hour and a quarter ferry ride from the Greek island of Rodos (Rhodes) lies the impossibly picture perfect island of Halki, often spelled Chalki. In the small horseshoe-shaped harbour of the island’s only town, Emborio, freshly-painted pastel-coloured villas flow down the slope in serried tiers to the water’s edge. On the rocky ridge above the right arm of the harbour, three stone former windmills stand like sentinels on guard.
From the harbour front, I explore the labyrinthine maze of narrow paths so typical of Greek villages. In late Spring, whitewashed walls spill over with bougainvillea in shades of fuschia pink, orange and white.
At 10am one fortunate couple are ensconced in deck chairs at a table on the terrace of their boutique hotel, polishing off the last crumbs of their croissants, straw hats shading their faces from the warm sun. Lapping a couple of metres below them is the crystal clear water of the bay, accessible via stainless steel steps adjacent to the terrace, tempting them to don bathing suits. Meanwhile, a few villas along, five middle-aged ladies practise tai chi in synchronised moves.
Villas become less immaculate in appearance and the paint less freshly applied the further up the slope and the more distant the villas are from the water. Some derelict villas are for sale, the owners’ phone numbers painted on the raw stone walls which have crumbled away with the passing season. Yet even these have charm, their derelict doorways framing enchanting harbour views.
Eventually the passageways come to a dead end. From the stony slope above, sounds drift down of chickens chuckling and the clanking of a goat bell , the animals unseen. I make my way back down steps and winding paths towards the clock spire on the right hand side of the bay.
Gathered by an outdoor bread oven, a knot of four women is chatting. As I stop to literally smell the roses spilling over a wall, two of the ladies invite me to visit the adjacent 200-year old Traditional Chalki House, as its sign states. For 2.50 euros, I temporarily step back in time to their ancestral family home, furnished in late 1800s style. The kitchen and its hearth is on the immediate right inside the door, with a dining room and living area in an open plan design. The younger of the two women explains the use of some of the antique kitchen implements. Up vertiginous stairs is a spacious whitewashed bedroom complete with antique iron bed and cot sitting on wide-planked pine floorboards, with hand-worked linen spilling from the open wooden trunk. The two ladies usher me out with smiles and a wrapped lolly to go.
Further around on the right arm of the bay is the clock spire. Up some steep steps from the clock tower, just below the brilliant white town hall, is one of the best views in Halki. This is being enjoyed by Jane, an Englishwoman soaking up the sunshine on her villa’s terrace. She confides that, although she holidays with her family in Halki five times a year, she could not retire here because the town of around 400 residents virtually shuts down during winter once the tourists depart.
Following the laneway around and up to the right, I continue down a bougainvillea-lined path, passing the three windmills on the ridge above, and come to a sign indicating the way to Ftenagia beach and a tavern down a gravelled path. I follow it for 10 minutes to find that the path ends at a taverna and a beach that would be a strong contender for a “prettiest tiny beach” award.
Past some shingle, a small strip of sand leads into transparent waters in colours graduating from pale aquamarine, to vivid topaz blue, Ceylon sapphire, finishing in deeper water in tones of the royal to dark blue of Australian sapphires. My polaroid sunglasses enhance the colour transitions to breathtaking effect.
At the tavern I order coffee then, with several hours left to kill before the ferry arrives returning me to Rodos, hire for three euros one of the blue banana lounges with its own umbrella. I zone out admiring the water for a couple of hours while two hardy northern Europeans brave the “no, it’s lovely, not cold at all” water. If it wasn’t for a coolish breeze, I could imagine myself in the South Pacific.
Finally, I head back into town, hoping to sample the Halki pasta mixed with caramelised onions and fetta cheese I have heard so much about. But in late May, still early in the tourist season, at 2.30pm the tavernas along the waterfront are almost devoid of tourists. At one deserted waterfront café suggests that she could rustle it up for me if I was in no hurry. Although there is plenty of time before the ferry returns at 5.45pm, my stomach is more impatient. I head for the only taverna showing signs of life and order a dessert and a large coffee.
While I wait, a group of a dozen English artists-in-training rearrange the tables for a drawing class. Appearing from nowhere is a young Greek man clad in traditional black vest, pants and cap, contrasted with a white shirt, who allows the teacher to arrange his pose. “Make sure you don’t include his feet,” the teacher says, gesturing towards his non-traditional white trainers.
There is still time for another walk around the harbour front, more photos of the picturesque scenes, including the fisherman patiently untangling metres and metres of fishing line in front of the row of small colourful fishing boats lining the harbour. He allows me to photograph him with a smile and I comment on his patience.
Still time for one glass of red wine for two euros – cheaper than the coffee – and more information about the island from Nico, the tavern owner. I discover that one main road runs most of the length of the island, that some beaches are only accessible by boat, and that there is a Venetian Castle dating back to the era of the Knights.
In the distance, I see the ferry to Rodos returning. In typical Greek fashion, everyone clusters by the dock edge, surging in the moment the metal gangplank touches the dock. Even though I was near the front of the crowd, I just make it to a seat when the ferry departs. No wonder the ferries in the Dodecanese islands run on time!
Aegean Air runs connecting flights from Athens to Rhodes, with regular ferries to and from Halki. There is also a twice-weekly ferry to the port of Piraeus, Athens’ port.