Regular visitors know every inch of the place and come back year after year

Vangelis the fisherman pounds an octopus on the rocks and a few foreigners get off the Scopelitis Express with their children in their arms. Vangelis asks where I’m from. «Athens,» I reply. «Of course, you smell of exhaust fumes,» he laughs. We can see the signs for the rented rooms, and there is Palm Tree with his minivan. His hat askew, he gets behind the wheel and a smile spreads across his face. «When I built these rooms 25 years ago, there was only one palm tree on the island, so I gave that name to the taverna and the rooms, and I lost my own. People who didn’t know me called me Palm Tree, and now I’ve forgotten my own name,» Dimitris Mavros tells me later when we have followed him to the rooms. There the cane screen and the pergola are the same as they have been for the past 25 years. «I don’t want to modernize them, nor do my customers. Some people ask me why I don’t renovate, but I don’t want to. I like simple, plain things, wood and cane, not new-fangled things, swimming pools and bright lights,» he says. He serves fresh fish for lunch. Tourists visit here from all over the world. «We see a lot of Scandinavians in the low season, May and October. They have extended our season. They come early because they can get better package tours then, and because they aren’t keen on the very hot summer days.» He makes sure he rents rooms at a reasonable price and has enough of them to meet demand. Yes, the Palm Tree is famous. Just one taste of his hospitality wins you over. In the afternoon, when there is lots of work, he’ll tell you to go into the kitchen and get what you want from the refrigerator. And if you happen to be running short of money, never mind, you can pay later. «What do you mean, later?» visitors used to ask in amazement. There’s no ATM on the island. «Later, next year, since I know you’ll come back,» he would astonish them by saying. And he’s right. Regular visitors to Koufonissi know every inch of the island, when the Skopelitis Express calls in, where to eat good fish, where to swim when a northerly is blowing, and which of the islanders are related to each other. They come back the following summer, perhaps in September, to find the places and people they loved. They all know Captain Costas. A spry man in his 60s, who is certain to have been a heartbreaker in his youth, he traveled the world by sea but never forgot his island where he returned to marry and settle down. But he has never forgotten the call of danger. When a storm is brewing, he goes sailing, even if it is blowing a gale and the boat skitters around on the waves like a walnut shell. Captain Costas knows this is a crucial decade for the island. «In Donousa, they have the most beautiful village and they have kept it without going mad over tourism. In Schinoussa, they have done a worse job than us.» They are not the only ones to complain and there’s an element of truth in what they say. But there are some things that make this place different. Locals confirm that their children stay on the island and don’t leave it for Athens. They keep up the family businesses. Like Spyros Venetis, who spends the winter in Athens but comes back to the family’s campsite every summer. He works there with his mother, one of the five siblings who own it. Next to the Palm Tree, the campsite offers the basic facilities that its customers expect. Venetis predicts another 10 years of tourism for the island, but Mavros says: «We won’t let the place go to ruin. There are locals in important positions on the island and we will protect the place.» * This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement, K, on July 16, 2006.