Connecting on the Island of Ios

a street on the island of iosA few weeks from now, I turn one year closer to 30. It’s a reality that isn’t sitting well with me.

At the beginning of the year, I decided I’d spend the summer in Europe, with most of my time spent on the island of Ios in Greece. During the summer months, the island becomes a haven for young backpackers seeking to soak up the sun, water, and the suds. I knew there wouldn’t be another chance to do this pre-30. It was time to do it now, before I became that “dirty old backpacker.”

But like all the best-laid plans, this one fell through. I have to return to the US in June to speak at TBEX, cutting my summer trip in half. Now there will be no spending the summer in Greece enjoying my “pre-30″ crisis. My trip to the Greek islands will only last a few weeks before I move on to Italy, Hungary, and Sweden. Something had to be cut.

So, heavy heart in hand, I arrived in Ios more than two weeks ago to stay for four nights. I stayed six. Then, leaving for Santorini, I ended up returning two days later. I missed Ios too much. I stayed for another week before I left for Paros and Mykonos. Now I’m contemplating spending my last two days in Greece back on Ios.

I often talk about what travel is and what it means. What does it mean to travel? To backpack? Is one form better than the other?

Travel doesn’t fit into a box. It’s a lot of things. It’s more than seeing a place or a style of travel. But one thing that permeates all discussions about the nature of travel is that, at the end of the day, travel is about making connections. Not only with places, but with people, too.

beautiful ios beaches

Ios is quite beautiful, with a picturesque town, great beaches, and historic terraced cliffs. But there’s nothing really special about the island itself. There are more beautiful islands in Greece. And, really, I prefer my islands to have more palm trees, jungle, and tropical fish.

While there’s something for everyone on Ios, its main draw is still the partying, beaches, and crowds. I came for that atmosphere, but I stayed because of the connections I made with the people. I’m pulled back there because of those connections.

Arriving pre-season before the crowds, I made friends with the owners of empty bars and restaurants. George at the Greek restaurant the Nest taught me some Greek. Alex from Blue Note Bar introduced me to the variety of Greek alcohol. Many nights, Demetri and Nicos from Slammers discussed the sad state of Greek politics with me over ouzo. When you arrive so early in the season, there aren’t many tourists other than those looking for work. So you bond and chat because it’s only you, not a rotating door of people every three days. And sometimes, you just click.

beautiful ios beaches

You meet a lot of people when you travel. Faces and names begin to blur after a while. You become friends on Facebook, but you rarely ever see each other again. I’ve met thousands of people on the road, but only a handful of people whose weddings I’ll attend and babies I’ll meet. It becomes a rare occurrence when you meet people you connect with on a deeper level. It happened to me when I lived on the Thai island of Ko Lipe in 2006, where, four years later, all of us were having Christmas together. It happened on Haat Rin in 2007, where, two years later, I attended the wedding of my Australian friends. It happened last year in Valencia, when three Americans, two Australians, and one Malaysian shared a dorm room for a week and clicked so well that people asked us how, when, and where we had became such good friends, given our different nationalities. “We just met three days ago,” we’d say to their astonishment.

And so again on Ios, a group of strangers came together and acted as though they’d known each other for years. Some will work the whole season on Ios. Others leave in a few weeks. Some stay half the summer. Some left before me. But all of us impacted each other in some way, and each day I see a common update on Facebook from those who have already left: “I miss Ios.”

Time is different on the road. Days feel like weeks and months like years. Two weeks on Ios felt like an eternity. When I left, people couldn’t believe I was only there two weeks. To them, and to me, it felt much longer. I don’t regret only spending two days on Santorini and Mykonos, though, because it gave me more time with friends on Ios. Travel is about the people we meet more than the places we see.

And somewhere out there, other travelers are connecting and forming bonds that will last far into their futures, too. Somewhere in the world, they too are nicknaming themselves “a family” and just watching the world go by together…
the family

Want more information on this awesome island? See my guide to Ios and find out how you can travel there.

  1. Jim Neuner

    Awesome article.
    It still amazes me that friends like that, even after 20 years of being apart, are just as easy to slide back into being friends. True friendship is just as easy as that. When ever you see them they are present but when they or you are away they still have a presence with you. And to me, that kind of friendship is what makes life worth living.

  2. Great post Matt. I know what you mean as I have met some lifelong friends whiel traveling as well. Glad you got to check out Santorini;-) I understand that no matter how beautiful a place is, the biggest draw to stay in one location or another will always be the relationships and conections with people that you discover and create.

  3. Nice piece of writing, Matt, and very true indeed. You’re so right about out of season being the best time to visit the Greek Islands – when the locals and seasonal workers aren’t seeing 500 drunken backpackers stumble through the door each night, you’ve got a much better chance of actually connecting with them. Had totally the same experience as you on Kos a couple of years ago – it was the end of the season (mid-late Sep) and everything was starting to close up. Often my mate and I were the only people in a restaurant or bar – as a result, we regularly spent hours chatting to the owners & staff, and they in turn had a lot more time to do so.

    I thought Kos itself (and Kardamena town in particular) had been utterly destroyed by British package tourism. And it had – but having the chance to hang out with the locals meant that I didn’t have to deal with the crappy bits any more than absolutely necessary. I was very sad to leave in the end, which I didn’t expect at all when I got there.

  4. Excellent write up, Matt. The more we travel, the more opportunity we have to meet people that while we only know for a short time, we’ll remember for a lifetime.

  5. Isn’t it exciting to meet new friends and know instantly that they will always remain “old friends”.

    My grandparents made many friends like those you described while traveling around the world in their younger days. I visited those friends in Australia when I was there years ago and they were amazing resources to me.

  6. Chris


    As an “older” traveler (I’m practically fossilized at 41), I was all prepared to bust your chops about your “pre-30 crisis,” then you had to go get all touchy-feely on me. Now, all I can say is…

    Wow, fantastic piece! In a few quick paragraphs, you captured one of the many emotional aspects of travel perfectly. The world would be such a kinder, calmer place were everyone able to experience that same level of connection just once. Not exactly a novel thought on my part, but certainly worth noting every now and again. Thanks for the read and travel safe!

    • NomadicMatt

      I only say old because at some point, partying with college kids just gets weird. Well, at least in the Ios spring break style.

      Sorry to get all mushy but it had to be done!

  7. Great post Matt! Ios was my absolute favorite place while in Greece. I wish I could have stayed two weeks… scratch that, I wish I could have stayed the entire summer. The Purple Pig hostel will always have a special place in my heart. Thanks for bringing me back!

  8. Nicki

    Fantastic post, Matt!

    This is why I love to travel. My absolute best friends in the world are the ones I made while studying abroad during college. We all live in various parts of the country and around the world, but we are friends for life even if we only see each other once a year–that’s if we’re lucky. But these are the most true and easiest friendships. :)

    Keep traveling and keep making lifelong friendships!

  9. Love this article, it speaks to the heart of travel. I got lost on Ios back in 97 for 12 days- amazing times and friendships. Same happened again there in 98. My best friend and I never tire of laughing at our memories there. But I have those same experiences living with global travelers, in our feral house in London, my Europe campervan adventure family, Cape Town chaos family and so many more. It never ends, I have family all over the world and I understand the emotions you are going through right now. It’s so wonderful knowing you have the capacity to feel so much love for so many different people, even after spending only a short time with them.
    Just as a side note- ‘a dirty 30 year old backpacker?” Never. I’m 34 and still going, my husband is 36 and now our 2 year old is getting around with a backpack on her back. You are never too old and even greater things will arrive for you in the 30’s.
    Thank you Matt. This post and allowed me to stop for awhile and smile with intense joy at my own personal memories of the incredible times I’ve spent with my ‘families’. I really miss them right now and can’t wait for the new one to arrive.

    • NomadicMatt

      There’s only so long you can be hanging out with 22 yr olds! But Ios in 97? Must have been so….different….

      • I’m going to have to get back there to compare it. It sounds as if the party is still going strong. I stayed at the Purple Pig during its first week of business- stoked to hear it’s still alive and kicking!

      • Di

        Ios in 1980.. now that was something!! one summer I went for 6 weeks to see all the islands and spent 5 wks on Ios… ha ha! as for partying with 22 yr olds. I still do that occassionally. Age is only how many years you’ve been on earth for. It’s how you feel on the inside that matters (I’m 48:)

      • Dee

        I visited Ios, whilst backpacking and island hopping, back in 1982. It was amazing and buzzing even then. We slept on the beach next to what was then the Far Out Cafe. I remember another snack bar called Munchies, too. There were a lot of drugs around back in those days, even a joint being passed down the bus queue waiting to go back to town. I thought it was a great place but, alas, got food poisoning from bad orange juice and spent three days in bed.
        I never forgot Ios and am trying to book another visit right now. I’m sure it’ll be a totally different experience, as I’m no longer part of the ‘young set’, but I’m still excited to be seeing it again.

  10. Heather

    Do you really think traveling post-30 will be that awful? It’s really not that different from pre-30….I promise.

    • NomadicMatt

      No, it won’t be…but eventually, I think you get too old to be partying with the college kids like they do on Ios.

  11. tess

    Those were the exact islands I visited when I was backpacking ten years ago. We only spent a few days on each of Mykonos, Santorini, Paros and Naxos, but spent more than a week on Ios due to a missed ferry and fate. My best friend and I still consider that week one of the best of our lives!

  12. I spent some time in Ios as well and made a great connection with 3 Aussie’s. Your photos and narrative bring me back to those whitewashed warrens and nights of debauchery!

  13. Ed

    Damn bro! What a good post. I hope my travels are full of relationships like this. Its what I fear, not being able to connect on that level.

    A few years ago, I spent a month in one city, at a couple of different backpackers… having new friends come-and-go every week was great fun at first, but got me down after a while.

    So go pre-season you say? Sounds good to me.

  14. Christopher Hampton

    I came across your blog today whilst researching my trip to Europe next month. I really enjoyed your writing on Ios. I spend a month there in the summer of 1979 (yeah….that long back!!). Not alot has changed it seems. It was my first overseas trip as a 19 year old. I still talk about Ios and advise people that after 21 years of age – you run the risk of being outside the demographic. It was a lot less commercial back then. The only transport being a bus from the port to the main beach. It was a sure party island with great backpacking representation from so many countries. The nightly entertainment was to sit back with the Irish guys and watch the Scandanavian guys drink themselves to tipping over level – which given that they never had access to cheap beer in their countries – that never seemed to take too long.

    My travel buddy (we’re still great friends – he was best man at my wedding) and I walked over to Aghia Theodoti – the beach on the far side of the island to check it out. (Walking was the only option). We stayed a week there. What an idyllic place – we – like about the other 10 or so backpackers would dig a hole in the sand and sleep the night there. There was an order of seniority – determined by your length of stay – you moved more east along the beach until you secured the cave – which we had for our last couple of nights after the German backpackers decamped. We’d eat at a house near the beach where a wonderful lady cooked great evening meals. She was a great help treating me for a nasty jellyfish sting as well.

    I look forward to heading back there after reading your commentary – purely for nostalgic sake. The warm waters and terrific locals made the place. I’d stay in a hotel now – not 25 in a dorm room and will certainly take your advice and travel out of season, maybe dragging my son or daughter along (they’re both within the demographic :)

    Thanks for inspiring me to return, not on my upcoming Euro trip (this one will be my first time back in Amsterdam since the same time) but certainly on the the one after…..

  15. I really enjoyed reading this piece on Los. It was uplifting and sad at the same time. Is that possible? Great site Matt! :)
    twitter: jamieloveove

  16. Dianne Murray

    Oh, Matt……I was ready to run out and buy my very first backpack!! Then it hit me that I was 64 and that slowed me down!! Why did I wait so long???? Oh, I remember, I was working. Too bad teaching didn’t pay well enough to finance travelling. But I swear, I’m working on getting to Italy this year!! I’ll get one of those train passes…do they have senior ones?
    I love reading your blog. I keep trying to get to the heart of my own blog….educational value of exchange students, but the traveling and the global understanding parts are going better. I’m beginning to think there aren’t many teachers interested in exchange students. Too bad! We hosted over 30 internationals while I was teaching.
    Thanks for all you do to encourage and motivate us, as well as educate us!!!

  17. Hey Matt-
    I just came across your blog and love it. I totally know what you mean about connections, and can relate to how the Greek islands pull people in. I came to Santorini with my buddy in 2005 for 6 days, but my buddy ended up taking a job and staying 5 weeks. I’m now back here again – this time for the entire summer. There are five of us living here this summer and we absolutely love it. We’ve certainly gotten to know the owners and staff at the restaurants and bars we hang out in — we actually played beer pong yesterday with two servers at Beach Bar!

    Anyway, I just added your feed to my reader! Keep up the good writing

      • Alex

        haha I thought so! I don’t “know” him per se (as in, he probably wouldn’t remember me) but I did the Greek island hopping tour with Contiki (which I know you’re not a fan of) from May 27 – June 8, and Barnaby knew my tour manager.. but we ran into him each night we were there. He was super nice though! When were you there?

  18. I can’t think of much that would make a summer in Greece better except for making strong connections with people there. It’s amazing how travel can bring people together (or make you realize how much you want to strangle them.)

  19. What an awesome post! And so true … Some of my best friends are people I’ve met while traveling. It’s incredible and it’s exactly how you describe it. Sometimes you just click … instantly. It always amazes me when that happens and I go “now why don’t I ever meet such fantastic people in my home country?” Don’t know. It could be that when you’re traveling, you have a different mindset? maybe … I really don’t know but I am so glad (and grateful) to have met such incredible people during my travels.

    And what’s this about being “a dirty old backpacker”!!! You just seek out OTHER “dirty old backpackers” that’s all :) Problem solved lol

    • NomadicMatt

      Ha! ha! I just meant at some point, I’m going to be too old to be partying with the young kids in a place like Ios!

      But you are right- it’s amazing that you can click so well with people so quickly.

  20. Carla Hildebrandt

    I miss Ios!! I can say this now. Matt you have done a great job describing Ios and your website is amazing. I’m happy to have met you in Ios and good luck on your future travels! Carla :)

  21. Canoehead

    I went to Europe for a year and spent 16 days in Ios waaaaay back in 1985. The place was a wild party island then like it is now, and I met a group of people from Australia, Sweden, Ireland and elsewhere all living in the same house in the town on the hill, then owned by a women charging 180 drachmas a night (about $2USD). We went to the square for dinner, partied in the clubs on the road to the beach at night, hung out at the beach all day and then after a few weeks we saw each other off the island one after the other with a dinner at the port the night before leaving. I travelled alone to Ios but Ios time is different than real time for sure and you formed friends quickly. One of the best experiences of my life.

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