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Up until now, the highlight of my year was arriving at the supermarket and finding there was no queue outside.

But, after taking part in Intrepid’s first Greece Retreat in Syros, I now have too many highlights to choose from. It might be exploring ancient ruins, swimming in the Aegean Sea, or meeting an awesome group of people… it’s hard to say.

Greece is famous for its islands, with thousands of holiday-makers travelling to Crete, Corfu and Santorini every year, but this brand-new Retreat on the lesser known island of Syros rewarded me with an authentic Greek experience and a slower pace of life. There’s no denying that the face of travel has changed, but I’m so pleased I made the decision to dust off my passport and get back out there.

So, if you decide to do the same, here’s what you can expect on an Intrepid Retreat in Syros.

1. You’ll see fewer international tourists than on other Greek Islands

Travellers in Mykonos

Exploring with my new group of socially-distanced friends!

Before meeting up with the group in Athens, I got chatting to a waitress about my upcoming trip to Syros, a relaxed island in the heart of the Cyclades. She was surprised to hear I was heading there, as while it’s a popular spot for Greek travellers, very few international tourists visit. While this meant I was the palest person in Syros, it also meant we got to see a slice of the real Greece.

Our passionate local leader, Vasiliki explained to us that the island is alive all year round, not just in the summer, and she dreamed of leaving behind her city life in Athens and moving to Syros. With a prosperous agriculture and shipbuilding industry, the people of Syros don’t rely on international tourism as their main source of income. This meant interactions with locals felt authentic, rather than a performance put on for tourists.

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2. You’ll learn about Greek history through storytelling, food and music

Making loukoumi

Aggeliki, showing us how to make her loukoumi.

My poor knowledge of Greek mythology had always been my Achille’s elbow, but after hearing timeless stories of ancient democracy from a local guide, Mariza, at the iconic Acropolis of Athens, I was well-versed on the country’s epic ancient history.

In Syros we met the lovely Aggeliki at her family-run sweet shop that specialises in a local treat called loukoumi. She explained her grandfather had arrived on the island in 1932 and started the sweet shop, which sells Greece’s version of Turkish Delight. Trying the loukoumi flavoured with bergamot, mastic and honey gave us a real taste of Greek history and culture.

Back outside, wandering around the town square, Vasiliki shared stories of rebetiko music we could hear playing, Greece’s answer to the blues, which we often heard in restaurants and public spaces. Rebetiko began in the early 20th century and told tales of broken hearts, empty pockets and exile. The mournful, beautiful melodies are still popular across Greece today.

3. You’ll have time to relax… and only have to unpack your bags once!

Hermes is the Greek god of travel and exploration – but there’s no Greek god of packing. While I love the fast-paced nature of a group tour, staying in the same hotel throughout this trip meant we didn’t have to frantically gather our things each morning or haul our suitcases from one place to the next (which is especially great for me as I’m one of those ‘I might need 47 t-shirts for this five day trip’ type of packers.) This also bought us a couple of extra hours in bed every morning, which was a blessing after finding out how delicious Greek wine is!

Staying in one place meant we really got to know Syros, and had the chance to check out multiple beaches, try different restaurants, and explore all the charming hilltop villages. After bonding with the bakery staff and the old men playing backgammon at the local café, we felt like locals.

4. You’ll adjust to the slower pace quicker than you might think

Traveller and leader in Mykonos

A day trip to Mykonos.

While waiting for our taxis to the beach to arrive, Vasiliki explained that the island runs on GMT, also known as ‘Greek Maybe Time’. Ironically the alarm clock was first invented in ancient Greece, but timekeeping isn’t a huge priority in the Cyclades, so I took great pleasure in taking off my watch and adjusting to island time. Several afternoons were spent horizontal on the beach, with the passing of time measured only by the number of Mythos beers consumed.

On Syros you can stop for a coffee in the middle of the night, wake up early to wander the town, or stay up late to drink red wine on your balcony. We were treated to so many incredible views, like the gorgeous maze of streets on a day trip to Mykonos, or charming pastel hued homes sloping into turquoise waters in Syros, so we were more than happy to just slow down and take it all in.

5. You’ll eat (a lot!) of fresh, delicious food

Everything’s better with a little feta! As someone who had never been to Greece before, my experience of Greek food was limited to questionable 2am souvlakis from dodgy kebab shops. After evenings filled with fresh Greek salad, tzatziki, and fennel, leek or cheese pies at amazing local restaurants recommended by Vasiliki, I was completely won over, and armed with a load of new recipes to butcher at home. Fellow vegetarians and nut allergy sufferers needn’t worry as there were so many options and I never felt like I was missing out (although the Syros sausages did have me tempted for a moment!).

The culture around food is something I wish I could replicate at home in London, as each meal is a joyous event spread out over several hours, filled with lots of laughter, wine, and more olive oil and cheese than I’d usually consume in a year.

6. You’ll feel more comfortable than you expected, despite the current restrictions

Of course, travelling at this time comes with certain restrictions. At the Welcome Meeting before the trip began, we all had to complete a COVID-19 health checklist and again before each ferry journey. It was very strange to greet our group members without as much as a handshake, but we got used to it soon enough.

In Greece, masks are to be worn in enclosed places, such as shops, public transport, taxis, and on the ferry, but thankfully the great weather meant we were rarely inside. Seats on ferries were cordoned off, restaurant tables were spaced out, and we took multiple taxis everywhere to maintain physical distance within our own group. Locals also followed these guidelines diligently, and hand sanitiser was available everywhere we went.

International travellers arriving in Greece were also required to fill out an online government form at least 48 hours prior to arrival, and there is random temperature testing at Athens airport, but I’d suggest checking your government website for the most up-to-date information for your nationality.

VIEW OUR CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) CUSTOMER INFORMATION HUB FOR THE LATEST TRAVEL UPDATES

We were all on the trip for different reasons; some to relax after a stressful few months, others to seize an adventure after too much time stuck indoors, but Syros gave us all exactly what we needed. I’ll always remember my trip to Greece whenever I smell the sea air, oregano, and hand sanitiser.

Based in the UK or Europe? You can book your place on the Syros Retreat today. Otherwise, see what local tours are available closer to home for you.

All images by Eleanor McDonald.

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