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Travel

Aegean Sea has many destinations to offer for those avoiding tourist traps

PATHS OF GREECE VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image provided by Paths of Greece, a national hiking cooperative, of hikers on Sifnos, Greece, where the group has worked to restore trails for close to a decade.
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PATHS OF GREECE VIA NEW YORK TIMES

An undated image provided by Paths of Greece, a national hiking cooperative, of hikers on Sifnos, Greece, where the group has worked to restore trails for close to a decade.

ULTAVA HOUSES VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image provided by Ultava Houses of one of the four traditional village homes that comprise the Ultava Houses hotel, which have been updated with amenities like private rooftop pool terraces, in Datça, Turkey.
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ULTAVA HOUSES VIA NEW YORK TIMES

An undated image provided by Ultava Houses of one of the four traditional village homes that comprise the Ultava Houses hotel, which have been updated with amenities like private rooftop pool terraces, in Datça, Turkey.

BUKET YAŞAR VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image provided by Buket Yaşar of gently cooked squid drizzled with fermented pomegranate syrup and greens from the on-site farm at OD Urla, a restaurant north of the town of Urla, Turkey.
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BUKET YAŞAR VIA NEW YORK TIMES

An undated image provided by Buket Yaşar of gently cooked squid drizzled with fermented pomegranate syrup and greens from the on-site farm at OD Urla, a restaurant north of the town of Urla, Turkey.

GIORGOS KORDAKIS VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image by Giorgos Kordakis at the 18-suite Nos Hotel & Villas, the latest addition to the island of Sifnos, Greece.
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GIORGOS KORDAKIS VIA NEW YORK TIMES

An undated image by Giorgos Kordakis at the 18-suite Nos Hotel & Villas, the latest addition to the island of Sifnos, Greece.

PATHS OF GREECE VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image provided by Paths of Greece, a national hiking cooperative, of hikers on Sifnos, Greece, where the group has worked to restore trails for close to a decade.
ULTAVA HOUSES VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image provided by Ultava Houses of one of the four traditional village homes that comprise the Ultava Houses hotel, which have been updated with amenities like private rooftop pool terraces, in Datça, Turkey.
BUKET YAŞAR VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image provided by Buket Yaşar of gently cooked squid drizzled with fermented pomegranate syrup and greens from the on-site farm at OD Urla, a restaurant north of the town of Urla, Turkey.
GIORGOS KORDAKIS VIA NEW YORK TIMES
                                An undated image by Giorgos Kordakis at the 18-suite Nos Hotel & Villas, the latest addition to the island of Sifnos, Greece.

In April, Princess Cruises told passengers that it was canceling a scheduled stop in Santorini, Greece, citing congestion. Four cruise ships were already anticipated to arrive on the same day in June, and were it to join, the ships would have brought some 17,000 visitors to an island of 15,500 residents.

In the Aegean Sea, more than 1,000 islands fill the waters between Greece and Turkey, and the coastlines are lined with spectacular bays. Both countries set tourism records last year, a boon for two fragile economies, but one that follows and in turn fuels frenzied development that threatens local livelihoods, cultural heritage and ecological balance, particularly on the Greek islands.

With plenty of whitewashed islands and historic coastal towns offering the same charms as their neighbors, it’s time to look beyond Mykonos and Marmaris to lesser-known spots that might benefit from more visitors. Here are five destinations that offer distinctly Aegean experiences, without the crowds.

TURKEY

Urla

When Michelin expanded its Turkey guidebook last year, the quiet district of Urla, near the port city of Izmir, stole the spotlight. The hilly region has a rich winemaking tradition that dates back 6,000 years.

Newer wine producers like Hus focus almost exclusively on indigenous grapes, joining longtime innovators along the Urla Vineyard Route, which winds through rolling fields, olive groves and nine wineries. Two have beautiful guest rooms, including 2 Rooms hotel at Sarapcilik (from $230).

“It’s as if everything here is passed down from word-of-mouth, from generation to generation, from season to season,” said Seray Kumbasar, the sommelier and co-owner of Vino Locale, a fine-casual restaurant among vineyards.

In the charming town of Urla itself, stone alleyways connect multi-hyphenate spaces such as Istifci, where a combined design and wine store leads to a restaurant and hotel; laid-back hangouts such as Filos Coffee and Wine; and mom-and-pop shops that do one thing very well, such as Girit Pastanesi with its bademli kazandibi, an almond-studded caramelized milk pudding.

Ayvalik

The seaside town of Ayvalik, 250 miles southwest of Istanbul, was once a hub of Ottoman-era olive oil production. Many of the industry’s stone factories are now populated with workshops focused on traditional Turkish crafts. Despite growing tourism, Ayvalik retains “a raw texture,” said Ozlem Erol, founder of the design store Moyy Atolye, as well as “a permanent community that lives and produces here.”

At her boutique, Erol works with women artisans to design clothing made from feretiko, an airy, handwoven fabric of hemp and cotton, as well as crafts such as baskets made from the bark of hazelnut trees and braided wooden stools.

Most of the action is centered in the neighborhood of Macaron, where every other corner seems to have either a small-batch olive oil store, antiques market or boutique hotel. The most contemporary, Ivy Ayvalik, opened last year in a traditional stone home (from $70). Four compact but comfy rooms sit above a neon-lit cafe and wine bar that stays lively late into the evenings.

From town, it’s a 3-mile drive to the island of Cunda and its Ayvalik Islands Nature Park, where you can explore the rocky coves and a hiking path through the hills that opens onto sweeping views.

Datca

With resort-filled Bodrum to its north, the nightlife capital of Marmaris to its east, and the ever-popular Greek island of Rhodes to its south, it’s a surprise that Datca has stayed relatively unknown. That is, until you look at a map: the long, narrow peninsula is connected to the mainland by a thin isthmus (plus a ferry from Bodrum) that’s somehow been enough to deter most visitors.

Guven Cetinkaya is the chef and co-owner of the Ultava Houses hotel, which consists of four traditional village homes that have been updated with amenities such as private rooftop pool terraces (from $170). He said that unlike more touristed areas, most of Datca’s residents have lived there for a long time. The region’s strict building codes have kept large developments away.

Along with a waterfront of fish restaurants, there’s Eski Datca, or the old town, where bougainvillea spills over stone buildings. There are just enough small restaurants and cafes to start and end your days here, but most visitors spend the hours in between exploring the pebbled beaches tucked into buks, or “bends,” that dot the peninsula’s 200 miles of coastline (Aquarium Cove is a standout).

GREECE

Sifnos

Almost a third of this island in the western Cyclades can only be reached by footpaths, which act as small windows into its storied history. Some routes date back to the Neolithic period; others were forged by the miners of gold and silver who made Sifnos one of the richest stops in ancient Greece. “Today, they are still used by the locals to reach their terraced fields and small chapels, as well as by hikers,” said Fivos Tsaravopoulos, co-founder of Paths of Greece, a national hiking cooperative.

The group has organized several self-guided themed hikes. One is a remote 9-mile path that circles Sifnos’ highest point, Mount Profitis Ilias, and passes churches and a nature preserve known for bird-watching. “It’s the only way to experience what it’s like to live on this island, one of the most pristine in the Cyclades,” said Tsaravopoulos, who hopes the paths encourage more travelers to come during the shoulder seasons, when there’s good hiking weather.

Enjoy long meals of Sifnian delicacies, many slow-cooked in olive-wood-fired ovens. Since Nicholas Tselementes, the most important chef in Greece’s history, established himself here in the early 1900s, the island has kept up its culinary reputation. Sifnos staples such as revithada, a baked chickpea stew, can be found at every taverna. New eateries such as Cantina lean more creative — smoked ox-cheek croquettes topped with eggplant bechamel, for example.

For a stay that rivals those in Mykonos, the 18-room Nos Hotel & Villas (from $825) is all stone and marble surfaces, and pools perched on the hillside.

Folegandros

About an hour west of Santorini by ferry, Folegandros is a quieter option for a classic Greek island getaway. The sparsely developed island has no airport, less-accessible beaches and few visitor attractions — and that’s the draw. Its latest hotel, billed as its first luxury property, Gundari, is in an 80-acre nature reserve known for its population of Eleanora’s falcons (from $640).

Unlike other developments in the Cyclades that stoked ire among locals, Gundari hopes to set a different tone through its small footprint. The hotel has its own wastewater treatment system, and all of its stonework was made with rocks excavated on-site. An on-site farm, which employs traditional agricultural practitioners, will soon launch after-school programs.

Each room comes with a private infinity pool, and its restaurant, run by Lefteris Lazarou — the chef behind Athens’ Michelin-starred Varoulko — will serve a rotating menu of unfussy seafood dishes, such as octopus carpaccio with fava bean cream and black garlic.

The main port town of Karavostasis is little more than a fishing village. The second largest village, Ano Meria, has ancient hilltop ruins, traditional farmhouses and the Ecomuseum, which captures what homestead life was like.

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