Mathraki: Discovering a Secluded Greek Island
In May 2023, I was lucky to travel to the Greek island of Mathraki to join a Long Swims Week organized by British swim tour operator SwimQuest. As part of my swimming training for the English Channel, this week was the perfect opportunity to swim a lot of distance over a few days and see how my body would hold up. What I did not expect, but was thrilled to enjoy, was such a beautiful natural environment rich with diverse flora and fauna, both underwater and on land.
As I’m raising funds for The Nature Conservancy with my English Channel swim, I wanted to share my observations on this Greek island both from a tourist (this post) and from a swim training and nature perspective (another post)––as our swimming adventures were peppered with marine and land encounters in terms of wildlife and fauna.
Mathraki: Long Swims Week with SwimQuest
First things first, let me briefly explain the concept behind Mathraki’s Long Swims Week.
Alice Todd, founder of SwimQuest, heard from friends at the Serpentine Swimming Club that I was training for a solo crossing of the English Channel and emailed me. She introduced the week as 8 km of swimming a day, split between two swims, with the highlight of the week being a 10 km circumnavigation of Mathraki Island, followed by a celebratory meal at a taverna. It sounded awesome.
At this point in my training, when I was transitioning from winter pool training to summer open water training, putting some distance in sounded like a great idea and a week of intense swimming back to back would tell me if my body could take it without injury.
A few days later, I was in Corfu and from Corfu, boarded a small boat to the remote island of Mathraki. Within our group were my friends Vanessa, Boris, and their daughter. The other swimmers, Cerian, Lawrence, Julia, Kim-Leigh, and our swim guides, Paul and Patricia, I would get to know through the week.
Over the course of five days, I swam a total of 40 km/25 miles, something I’d never done before. For some perspective, if I swam the English Channel in a straight line, which won’t happen, the overall distance would be 36 km or 21 miles. Mind you, I will have to do that all in one go, not over the course of five days, and with the uncertainties of currents, winds and tides in colder water.
While some of the swims allowed us to take in the shoreline of Mathraki and surrounding islands, others crossed deeper stretches between islands over open water where the sea bed disappeared from sight and all I could see was the color blue. The underwater exploration this afforded would become my favorite part of the week, as I was literally sightseeing in the sea, looking for anemones, sea grass prairies, and schools of fish.
Back on land, either early in the morning or late at night, we all enjoyed the peace and solitude of this remote island whose unspoiled nature revealed a few secrets to us in the off season. Altogether, we were only 40 people on this nature preserve with a surprisingly rich biodiversity.
The island of Mathraki, part of the Ionian Islands in the Ionian Sea, covers a surface area of 3.5 km2 and is located south-west off the coast of Corfu. It took us roughly 40 minutes by power boat to get there from Corfu.
Interestingly, from our hotel, we faced the massive mountain ranges of the Albanian coast rising in waves from the sea. Every night, we would see Corfu light up like a Christmas tree and the coast of Albania remain dark, two different worlds living so close yet so far. It felt eerie, like ghosts of Albania’s Communist past still hovered above the coast, a country forgotten by time.
It reminded me of reading The Palace of Dreams by Albanian author Ismail Kadare when I was studying law at university. This anti-totalitarian fantasy took me away to a distant land, the poetry of the writing as powerful as the messages it conveyed.
“For in the nocturnal realm of sleep are to be found both the light and the darkness of humanity, its honey and its poison, its greatness and its vulnerability.”Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams
Whether or not the inhabitants of Mathraki had any contact with Albania, I do not know, but they had contact with a place much further away, in the strangest twist of fortune.
Mathraki is home to 35 inhabitants in the winter, and roughly 100 in the summer. It is tiny, tiny, tiny. Yet, discussing with local families, we found out that many islanders had emigrated to New York to look for work opportunities, settled there and returned home like migrating birds in the summer to visit their families. Ironically, a restaurant-owner who hosted us one night had the thickest New York accent you can imagine. What were the chances on a tiny Greek island?
Our hosts, George and his family, had not been tempted by the Big Apple and were entirely part of the fabric of the island. George’s dad was a former mayor of Mathraki and George had no desire to move to New York, a “terrible place where people are robots.” For him, the island was the most beautiful place in the world, and he was proud of it too.
Together, they ran a hotel with an open air restaurant on a sandy cove between two rocky bluffs on the eastern side of the island. From morning to night, the family worked really hard to make our experience unforgettable and to prepare the island for tourist season.
As it turned out, the week we visited was the first week that the island was reopening to business after coming out of a total winter shutdown. In between boat and restaurant duties, they operated a digger and used their bare hands to build a rocky base for a pier fit to welcome summer boats. We felt quite privileged to enjoy Mathraki without the crowds.
In the morning, we were greeted to each new day by the local rooster and, sometimes, by Dimitri, a guy who lived on top of the island and had a knack for weed-whacking the roadside at 6.30 am. Flashing a bright grin from his beat-up red car as he drove past us at breakfast, he was certainly a character and again, sported the thickest New York accent ever.
In the afternoons and evenings, George showed us around Mathraki and took us to the top of the island, home to a school that shut down in September 2022, after accommodating only one child the previous year. It seemed that the plight of Mathraki was no different to many small islands in Europe, where young families moved to the mainland for education and work.
With tourism as the only industry on the island, contained during the three months between June and September, that was hardly surprising. From a nature conservation perspective, it was also a blessing in disguise, as the island went into hibernation mode for the best part of the year. In Mathraki, nature could thrive in its own time.
We swimmers thrived differently, often around a good meal and a drink.
Isn’t the Greek diet known to be the healthiest around? This seemed very fitting for a swim camp. As Greek food was also notoriously tasty, I suspected we would be in for a treat––which we were. George’s mother, Nora, was quite the chef.
On Mathraki, there were three restaurants or tavernas, all offering excellent homemade fresh and seasonal Greek food. I was one of five vegetarian swimmers in a group of 10 and, both at Nora’s and elsewhere, we ate wonderful Greek salads with local feta cheese seasoned with olive oil, tzatziki, butter bean stews, eggplant moussaka, sauteed wild beet greens, barbecued zucchinis, garlic mashed potatoes, or fried goat cheese or yogurt. Everything was fresh, non-processed, full of color.
In the foraging category, the island was home to a variety of wild beet (Beta genus) that we had for one of our meals and brought back childhood memories of Croatia to Boris. I only saw it cooked, but my guess is that it looks like a regular wild beet––shiny, dark green and possibly waxy.
Everything was really yummy and nutritious, most meals finishing on a hot drink, coffee or tea, only occasionally on baklava or other honey nut pastries. Breakfasts were a feast of local eggs, fresh cut fruit, white bread and cereals with local honey.
This week of Greek food made me seriously reflect on the diet I was used to in England, where we ate a lot more sugar, refined breads and animal fats. Mathraki’s was definitely better and inspired me to improve my habits at home.
In hindsight, the thing that struck us most was how fragile Mathraki’s environment was. As tourists, it would have been easy to think that because we paid for our vacation, we were entitled to an all-you-can-consume experience. By learning about the fragility of Mathraki, we turned into its protectors, realizing how important it was to protect the precious nature that was entrusted to us for a few days. It was a real privilege.
Now, down to the details.
It may not be customary to think about plumbing when going on vacation, but in the case of a small island like Mathraki, plumbing was actually a very big deal. As part of the hotel’s house rules, George asked us not to flush any toilet paper down the drain.
Like everybody on Mathraki, we binned toilet paper, to prevent clogging pipes not built to deal with paper in any amount. This reminded me of binning toilet paper in Thailand and was an easy habit to develop.
On Mathraki, tap water was considered not drinkable water, so we couldn’t refill our water bottles in the bathroom. Instead, we bought 1.5l plastic bottles of water at the bar to drink in our bedrooms.
This scarcity of drinking water made tea time an interesting moment after Julia instituted a daily post-swim afternoon tea. One of us would rush downstairs to buy a bottle of water, so we could all have a cup of tea on the open air terrace and reminisce on the day’s currents, marine wildlife or stroke styles. Ah, the joys of a British swimming holiday :) Not having drinking water on tap was also an incentive for all of us not to waste water.
Food at the hotel was home cooked from scratch, without any shortcuts. George and Nora explained to us that our meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, would be ready on the communal table with plates filled with food. However, to prevent any food waste, they would only refill or serve seconds upon request. Since they cooked our morning omelets from eggs laid by their hens, it made all the more sense not to waste any precious food. I don’t know if it was conscious on our part or not, but we strived to finish off any plate, so as not to waste anything during our meals.
Light Pollution & Night Sky
You may have guessed that an island like Mathraki would not have the sort of limitless access to energy that city people would be used to. I switched off the lights in my bedroom when I left and didn’t leave any unnecessary appliances plugged in either. The best illustration of “island” energy use, for me, was the near-absence of road lighting, which was amazing.
How often are we lucky enough to look at the sky and see stars rising above the horizon after dusk, whole constellations forming above our heads, the full moon bright as a white balloon and its craters clearly delineated? Thanks to very few lights illuminating the road, we were able to go on night walks by the light of the moon, enjoying total darkness, taking in the sounds of the night and the fleeting movements of nocturnal animals startled by our human intrusion.
For anybody looking to unplug, Mathraki was an amazing place, as wifi was constantly patchy as well as very slow, making any attempts to open web pages a waiting game. Streaming video, would have been impossible and I don’t think that any of us tried. Content with a lack of constant news or social media bombarding our minds, none of us missed the lack of internet and reveled in conversation, contemplation or social interaction.
What To Do in Mathraki
After I returned to London, a friend asked if Mathraki would be a good destination for his summer holidays. I had a pause. Of course, Mathraki is surrounded by a few beaches, so it would be a good destination for beach-loving crowds. However, it is not easily accessible and Greece has a lot of other beaches to offer.
I know that this particular friend loves cultural tourism, and honestly, I wouldn’t say that Mathraki was a hot spot for that. The small church on the hill, dedicated to St Spyridon, is ancient and a very interesting religious building, with olive tree groves on its doorstep. As far as I could see, that was it on the island in terms of cultural highlights.
To me, the real draw of Mathraki was the scenic swimming opportunities. The itinerary prepared by the SwimQuest team was perfect for our group of experienced swimmers looking for challenges, and I also know that they organize other short distance swim camps. I bet that these include a lot more “reading in hammock” time than ours did :) I had brought two books for my week and didn’t even get through the first one, as we were mostly knackered at night, socializing, or going places to eat or to swim.
So, there. If you are a swimmer, Mathraki would be a wonderful vacationing island.
On that swimming note.
What really made me fall in love with the island was its spectacular and understated nature. I invite you to read the second installment of this Mathraki trip over six days of swimming and nature adventures.