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168km (91 nautical miles) SE of Piraeus

Paros is accurately (but hardly enticingly) known as the "transportation hub" of the Cyclades: Almost all island boats stop here en route to someplace else. As a result, Paros has suffered from the reputation of the place on the way to the place where you're going. At present, Paros is still cheaper than either Mykonos or Santorini -- in fact, some call it the "poor man's Mykonos" -- although rising prices are making that nickname anachronistic. Comparisons aside, Paros's good beaches and nightlife have made it a popular destination in its own right. Because of the absence of any single five-star attraction -- there's no antiquity here to rival Santorini's ancient Akrotiri and nothing to rival the beauty of Mykonos's perfect Cycladic architecture -- a lot of visitors come here simply to have a good time windsurfing, sunbathing, and partying.

Still others -- not necessarily opposed to having a good time -- are drawn back to Paros because of its other attractions. Admittedly, if you come by ship, your first impression after docking at the main port and capital Parikia will be of the kitschy windmill on the quay, travel agents, cafes, and the fast-food joints lining the harborfront. Where, you'll wonder, is the town described as "charming"? Take a few steps inland, and you'll find it. Parikia has an energetic marketplace and the Ekatondapiliani, the 100-doored church designed in the 6th century by the famous architect Isodore of Miletus. Winding streets, the paving stones meticulously marked off with whitewash, lead off from the main square. One street meanders up and up, passing marble fountains and modest houses with elaborate door frames, to the remains of a medieval castle, built with chunks pillaged from various local ancient temples.

Parikia manages to be both cozy and cosmopolitan. The town has a lively cultural life: The Archilochos Cultural Society stages a winter film festival and hosts a summer music festival (www.archilochos.gr). This is also the home of the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, which has exhibitions and lectures, and offers courses in painting and literature (www.aegeancenter.org). There are also lots of shops and galleries exhibiting and selling work by artists who spend all or part of the year here.

Out on the island, there's a scattering of appealing villages and two must-see spots: the hillside village of Lefkes in the interior, and the picture-postcard seaside hamlet of Naoussa. Paros also has enough good beaches to keep almost any visitor happy.

Paros is large enough that even if you're just here for a day, renting a car makes sense. If you're here in May or June, you can make an around-the-island tour that includes a morning visit to Petaloudes (Valley of the Butterflies), a visit to Lefkes, a stop for lunch in Naoussa, a swim at your beach of choice, and a night back in Parikia, where you visit the Byzantine Ekatondapiliana Cathedral and then shop and stroll the evening away. Other months, when the butterflies are not on Paros, you may want to spend more time visiting the cathedral, and taking in the archaeological museum, combined with a boat trip from Parikia or Pounta to the little island of Andiparos.