Paros island, Cyclades, Greece: The Greek islands' lesser-known gem

It's not every day you get to follow in the footsteps of a saint. But the reason we're here on Paros, the third largest island in the Greek Cyclades, is the same one that forced Saint Helena here in the 4th century – the meltemi, an angry wind that roars through the region in August. We've had to abandon our attempt to visit Mykonos, a scheduled stop on our nine-day Peregrine cruise around the Cyclades, and take refuge in Paros' capital, Parikia, instead.

While our journey has been one of sunbathing, swimming and superlative cuisine, Helen's quest was a little more virtuous – she was on her way to Jerusalem to search for the Holy Cross. When rough seas diverted her to Paros, she prayed at the small local church, promising to construct a larger one if her pilgrimage was successful. Allegedly it was, so her son, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, built the spectacular 1700-year-old Byzantine pile that stands here today. Its name, Panagia Ekatontapiliani, translates as the "church of 100 doors", and a local legend asserts that the hidden 100th door will magically appear when Istanbul is returned to the Greeks.

We're being shown around Parikia by Avgi Kalogianni, the editor of Paros' free local tourism magazine, on a tour that's been hastily arranged by our two Peregrine guides.

Leaving the church, we wind through the town's photogenic maze of narrow alleyways, past toothpaste-white houses with azure-blue shutters and doors. Kalogianni stops by an ornate marble water fountain, one of three installed by a wealthy local businessman in the late 1700s to bring fresh water to the town. They soon became a popular social hub for local housewives and she tells the story of a man who lived above the fountain breaking their clay jugs to protest about the noise. The next day they simply returned with louder metal ones.

"Unfortunately, the fountain had to be turned off 50 years ago," she adds, "because tourists started showering in it."

The meltemi isn't the only thing to sweep through the Cyclades in August; tourists also swarm to the islands during the peak summer season too. Paros is nowhere near as popular as the Cyclades' big guns, Santorini and Mykonos, but it's starting to experience similar problems. In Parola, the magazine Kalogianni edits, she describes last August as being "out of control" with "crowds swarming the alleys and the beaches, queues in the restaurants [and] irritation and rough behaviour".

There's talk about limiting the number of cars on the island but local authorities seem reluctant to act. Until then, your best bet is to visit during the quieter shoulder months of June or September.

Our time here is fleeting, just an afternoon and an evening before we strike out for Mykonos again (unsuccessfully, as it turns out). I spend it enjoying a simple dinner of grilled whole dorado at a beachfront restaurant while reading about all the Paros attractions I didn't have time to see. I vow that next time I'll spend a day at Golden Beach, a world-renowned spot for kitesurfers and windsurfers.

I'll also hike along the Byzantine Road, a 1000-year-old marble trail that connects the sleepy mountain villages of Lefkes and Prodromos. I'll make sure I amble through the Valley of the Butterflies, which every summer is blanketed by thousands of Jersey tiger moths. And I'll catch the ferry to neighbouring Antiparos, the laid-back summer haunt of Tom Hanks and his Greek wife Rita.

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Thanks to the meltemi, I feel I've discovered a lesser-known gem – which, let's face it, is the perennial prayer of every traveller.

TRIP NOTES

VISIT

Paros is a year-round three-hour fast ferry ride from Athens. During the summer, there are also ferry connections to most of the other islands in the Cyclades. See ferries.gtp.gr

CRUISE

With a maximum of 49 passengers, Peregrine's nine-day "Cruising the Islands of Greece and Turkey" combines visits to Mykonos, Santorini and the ancient Turkish city of Ephesus with less-explored islands such as Amorgos and Folegandros. Prices from $4975. See peregrineadventures.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/greece

paros.gr

Rob McFarland was a guest of Peregrine.

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