MILOS, Greece - The Greek island of Milos is less well-known than some of the others in the Cyclades group of islands, such as the world-famous Santorini and Mykonos.
But Milos, a volcanic, horseshoe-shaped island about 100 miles southwest of Athens, is a perfect beach destination, and with no major ruins of note, natural beauty is the main attraction.
Otherworldly rock formations decorate its coasts, and the Aegean Sea provides a collar of the palest blue-green water on powdery white beaches. Its most unusual feature is an array of colorful sand belts, running from cream to black, with pebbles of nearly every color.
Some are reachable after a long and bumpy adventure on dirt roads that stumble through the island's rugged western hills. Some are reachable only by boat, spread out at the base of a cliff. Yet another is reachable by land, as long as you're willing to clutch a rope as you scale a crease in the cinnamon-hued cliff above. One guidebook put the number of sand belts at more than 70.
The island is big enough to consume four days of solid exploration, but small enough at about 57 square miles to yield at least some of its secrets in that time. You'll find plenty of Greeks and other Europeans on vacation here, but despite the thriving tourist industry, massive ocean liners don't call and the stream of tourists from the small airport and passenger ferries don't overrun the island. There is bus service on the island, along with beaches that are footsteps away from restaurants.
Greece has been hard-hit by financial crises in the last 18 months, with occasional strikes and protests in Athens over austerity measures, and some shops closed in popular shopping districts as locals cut their spending.
But life in the islands, at least for visitors, seems far-removed from all that, and tourists in beach destinations like Milos are unlikely to experience any disruption in their holiday related to the country's larger economic struggles.
Still, the island isn't a fantasyland. The real lives of the 5,000 or so year-round residents are more clearly on display here than on bigger tourist islands. The island's long mining history (including the mining of two types of clay, bentonite and kaolin) still defines many hilltops and feeds many families.
My wife and I recently spent four days on Milos, finding ourselves exhausted in the evening by our pursuit of the beaches, but glad we also pushed ourselves to do a few other things. We clambered up the castle ruins atop the lovely white-washed Cycladic village of Plaka at sunset and also took time out for a scenic drive to the laid-back northern town of Pollonia, where we lunched on octopus.
The sunlit alleyways of the village of Tripiti are gorgeous, as are the brightly painted fishermen's boat garages slung along the water at St. Constantine on the northern coast.
We also visited the volcanic pumice dunes that surround a small beach at Sarakiniko. At times, it looked like the moon, or a landscape covered in hastily whipped batter.
We stayed at a clean, small hotel about a five-minute walk outside the lively port town of Adamas called Hotel Ostria. It is newly built, friendly and comfortable, not to mention sharply decorated. Its breakfasts were notable for the locally made pastries.
We also found a terrific meal at O! Hamos - loosely translated, it means "What an uproar!" - along the marina about a half-mile from the center of Adamas. It's pricey, and the servers struggled to keep up with the packed tables, but the bubbly atmosphere and big courtyard made it a nice place to sit and talk - and write on the chairs as previous diners have done, if you like.
Tender lamb chops and goat in lemon sauce cooked in clay pots made it a memorable meal.
If you go
• Milos: www.milos-island.com online. About 100 miles off the coast of Athens, Greece.
• Getting there: Fly to Athens, Milos or the tourist island of Santorini. Ferries or boats sail to Milos from the mainland port of Piraeus (near Athens), Santorini and many other Greek islands. Check boat and ferry schedules at gtp.gr or danae.gr Flight schedules are at milostravel.com
• Accommodations: Hotel Ostria, ostria-hotel.gr . Rates vary by season. 2011 rates for two guests: $129 (90 euros) for May 1-June. 15; $172 (120 euros) for June 16-July 15; $215 (150 euros) for July 16-Aug. 31; $143 (100 euros) for Sept. 1-30.