Image: Milos
Marc Levy  /  AP
This August 2010 photo shows an arch at Klefitko on the southern coast of the Greek island of Milos.
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updated 4/20/2011 5:01:58 PM ET 2011-04-20T21:01:58

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 160 kilometers 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 volcanic-ash 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 guide book put the number of sand belts at more than 70.

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Slideshow: Glorious Greece (on this page)

The island is big enough to consume four days of solid exploration, but small enough at about 150 square kilometers 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 such as Milos are unlikely to experience any disruption in their holiday related to the country's larger economic struggles. Still, the island isn't a fantasy land.

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.

Four days on Milos
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 whitewashed 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 at Armenaki restaurant.

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 of 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 a short distance 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.

Slideshow: A European tour (on this page)

Two of our days in Milos we rented a car and set out for farther-flung beaches.

We spent one exploring the western hills to find the tiny beaches that are at the end of winding and dusty roads, and tucked in the folds of the rocky coast — practically invisible until you stumble onto them.

When you go, fill the tank, pack plenty of water and food and don't hurry: The spider-webbing roads are poorly signed and barely maintained in spots.

If you have the time, it's worth the adventure to find the small, pleasant beaches, such as St. John, where there's shade and room to swim, although no amenities.

One day, we drove along the southern coast to the black volcanic sand beach of Gerontas. It's easier than some others to find, but you'll need a sturdy pair of shoes for the walk. From a dirt lot above the coastline, we followed a mining company road before clambering down a ravine to this soft sand beach.

It's big enough to allow 30 or 40 people to feel secluded, while the rocky cliffs provide shelter and a little shade. The swimming is easy in the calm waters, and there are rocky caves, outcroppings and even an arch for entertainment.

Exploration by boat
Guided beach tours in Milos, some by kayak, some by boat, are big business. And for good reason — a lot of the beaches worth visiting are only accessible by boat.

After eating at one of the bustling tavernas that jostle for space around the marina in Adamas, we surveyed the many tour boat operators who set up their billboards side by side to market their services, all for about $72 (50 euros).

If you go

We were immediately attracted to Elias Xidous, a smiling, hardworking man who clearly took the quality of his clients' experience seriously, and it showed in the deliberate way he described his service.

Elias took us and about 15 other tourists, mostly Greek, on a beach-hopping tour of Milos' southern coast on his 15-meter sailboat, "To Oneiro," or The Dream.

We pushed off in the morning from the splendid, colored pebble beach of Paleohori on the island's southern coast (trips start at Adamas, unless it's windy, which it often is on the island's northern coast).

First, we stopped at Gerakas, reachable only by boat. The cream-colored kaolin cliffs pour into a smooth, narrow strip of beach, and the beach's shelter from the open sea makes swimming there a pleasure in gin-clear water.

We took about an hour there to frolic. If you decide to spend longer there, you have to be prepared for a lack of shade and a lack of amenities, other than peace and beauty.

We spent much of the day at Kleftiko, the southwestern point of the island where caves there were once used by pirates as hideaways, according to Elias and guidebooks.

Languid rock arches and other curious formations help create a dreamy, fantastical cove that, like Gerakas, has a narrow, pillowy strip of beach with opportunities for shade. You won't be alone: Tour boats come and go, each pulling up for an hour or two to take it all in. Elias even leads an entertaining, if unspectacular snorkeling jaunt.

Lunch was seafood in a red sauce over pasta — prepared in the boat's below-deck kitchen — and the evening snack included cheese, olives and ouzo. Not bad.

Along the way and back, there are tiny beaches, caves and strange noses of rock — not to mention mining operations that offload onto tankers that pull up next to the kaolin cliffs.

By the time Elias pulled the boat back into Paleohori, the sun was shedding a copper hue on the island, and a day in the sun and water left us drained and invigorated at the same time.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Glorious Greece

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  1. Pillars of worship

    Construction on the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens began in 515 B.C., and was completed 700 years later by Emperor Hadrian in 131 A.D. There were originally 104 Corinthian columns, but only 16 remain standing now. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Sandy escapes

    Millions of visitors enjoy sunny days on Anthens' beaches each summer, with warm weather seeming to last longer into fall. Many beaches have a small entry fee that helps pay for keeping the beaches clean. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stunning sight

    An Orthodox bell tower overlooks the port town of Fira on the Greek island of Santorini. With a view to one of the most stunning sunsets in the Mediterranean, Santorini is one of Greece's most popular tourist destinations. (Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ancient attraction

    The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena and perhaps the most famous surviving building from ancient Greece, sits at the top of the Acropolis and overlooks Athens. Construction on the temple began in 447 B.C. and completed in 438 B.C. Today, the temple attracts millions of visitors a year. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Taste of the city

    The Agora on Athinas Street, otherwise known as the Athens Central Market in Athens, is a great place to buy affordable, fresh food. The market is open Monday through Saturday, and everything from meat to fish to vegetables to herbs is available. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The modern face

    Concrete buildings typifying Athen's urban sprawl are visible from the Acropolis. The city, which has expanded geographically throughout the 20th century, has had severe problems with urban pollution that have improved in recent years. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Holy refuge

    Monks and hermits have found refuge in the monasteries at Meteora in Athens for more than 1,000 years. The gigantic rock formations in central Greece, which still puzzle scientists as to how they came to be formed, are visited today by thousands of tourists. The Holy Meteora have been maintained and protected as a monument of humanity by UNESCO. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A look at the past

    Visitors view the old winch system that used to bring people and supplies to the monsteries inside the Monastery of Agia Triada at Meteora. The monastery, which is perched atop a pinnacle and is accessible by taking 140 steep steps, may look familiar because it was featured in the James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only." The two monks who still reside there often show visitors around. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Art through the ages

    Frescoes by 16th century Cretan painter Theophanes the Monk have survived over the years and can be seen inside the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas at Meteora. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A sea of tourists

    Tourists stand before a seawater tank containing sea life of the Mediterranean Sea at the Cretaquarium in the city of Irakleion on the island of Crete in southern Greece. This tourist destination, which opened in December 2005, works as a modern-day research, educational and entertainment facility. The aquarium was developed to hold 32 tanks containing around 2,5000 organisms from 200 species. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Climbing the ranks

    The Athens Olympic Stadium was built in 1982 and hosted the European Championships in Athletics that year. The city won the honor of hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics, and after an extensive renovation on the stadium, including a roof redesign, the building reopened just in time to host the opening ceremony on Aug. 13. Today, the venue hosts everything from major sporting events to concerts. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Birthplace of the Games

    In the 8th century B.C., the first Olympic festival was organized in Olympia (tradition dates the first games to 776 B.C.). Ruins of the ancient stadium are still evident at the site, though a fire in August 2007 ravaged the area and scorched the museum that housed some of Greece's great archeaological collections. Still, the Olympic flame of the modern-day games are lit by the reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the stadium. (Petros Giannakouris / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. House of antiquities

    The statue of Sleeping Maenad, which dates back to the time of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) can be seen at the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The statue presumably adorned a luxury residence and was found to the south of the Athenian Acropolis. It is just one of the many important artifacts from various archaeological locations around the country from prehistory to late antiquity. (John Kolesidis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Supporting ladies

    Tourists admire the six caryatids of the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis Hill in Athens. Caryatids are female figures that serve as supporting columns that hold up roofs. Renovation works to restore them were underway for 30 years and finally ended in November 2008. The entire temple was dedicated to Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheus when it was built between 421 B.C. and 407 B.C. The caryatids are on a porch on the north side called "Porch of the Maidens." (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frozen in time

    The Lesvos Petrified Forest on the Greek Aegean island of Lesvos is a UNESCO heritage site. The Petrified Forest numbers around 70 trees of various sizes that are ancestors of today's pines and cypresses, and were fossilized when the area was covered in volcanic lava around 20 million years ago. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Healing waters

    Bathers relax in the waters of the hot Loutraki spring near the town of Aridea in northern Greece. Curative tourism is among a series of new products that Greek authorities want to highlight in a bid to diversify the country's usual recipe of sea and sun. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Home of the gods

    A hiker climbs Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the ancient Greek gods in central Greece. The mountain is the country's highest, standing at 9,570 feet. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rich draw

    The Hozoviotissa Monastery on the Amorgos island, built in the 11th century on the side of the Prophetes Elias Mountain at 300 meters above sea level, is reportedly dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Having for decades relied on its archaeological wealth to draw tourism, Greece now seeks to exploit an equally rich religious tradition to entice visitors from fellow Orthodox countries. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Athens, Greece
    Julian Finney / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (18) Glorious Greece
  2. Image:
    Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP
    Slideshow (23) A European tour

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