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161km (87 nautical miles) SE of Piraeus

Tinos has some very good restaurants, some fine beaches, exquisite dovecotes, and handsome villages with houses decorated with locally carved marble doorways and window fanlights. But that's not why most people come here. Each year, thousands of pilgrims come here to pray before the icon of the Virgin Mary in the church of the Panagia Evangelistria (Our Lady of Good Tidings) -- sometimes called the "Lourdes of Greece." Thousands of others come here to baptize their babies at Greece's holiest shrine. Although Tinos is the most important destination in all of Greece for religious pilgrims, it remains one of the least commercialized islands of the Cyclades -- and a joy to visit for that reason. Don't let your first sight of Tinos's undistinguished harbor alarm you: behind the seaside sprawl of architecturally undistinguished restaurants, and cafes are lovely meandering lanes just waiting for you to get lost in them and discover their little courtyards and chapels.

From well out to sea, Panagia Evangelistria -- illuminated at night -- is visible atop a hill overlooking Tinos town. Almost any day of the year you can see people, particularly elderly women, crawling from the port on hands and knees up Megalocharis, the long, steep street that leads to the red-carpeted steps that are the final approach to the cathedral. Adjacent pedestrian-only Evangelistria is a market street, as well as a pilgrimage route for those who choose to walk it. The street is lined with stalls selling vials of holy water, incense, candles (up to 2m/7 ft. long), and mass-produced icons. There are also several jewelry and handicrafts shops, one or two cafes, groceries, old-fashioned dry-goods stores -- and a surprising number of shops selling both incense and battery-powered kittens that roll over and meow.

Don't even think about arriving on Tinos without a reservation around August 15 (Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin), when thousands of pilgrims travel here to celebrate the occasion. March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation) is the second-most important feast day here, but it draws fewer pilgrims because it is harder to travel by sea in March. Pilgrims come here on July 23 (the anniversary of St. Pelagia's vision of the icon) and on January 30 (the anniversary of the finding of the icon). Remember that Tinos is a pilgrimage place: It is considered very disrespectful to wear shorts, short skirts, halters, or sleeveless shirts in the precincts of the Evangelistria (or any other church, for that matter). Photographing the pilgrims, especially those approaching the shrine on hands and knees, is not appropriate. On the other hand, photographing the joyful baptismal parties approaching or leaving the church is just fine.

Like Naxos, Tinos was ruled by Venice for several centuries and, like Naxos, Tinos still has a sizeable Catholic population. You'll see signs of Tinos's Venetian heritage in the number of fine old Venetian mansions (known as pallada, the word also used for the harborfront), on the streets off the harbor. Tinos town has a clutch of Catholic churches, including the harborfront churches of St. Anthony and St. Nicolas; out on the island, the Church of the Virgin Mary Vrisiotissa, near the village of Ag. Romanos, on the main Hora-Pirgos road, is an important Catholic pilgrimage shrine. The village of Loutra has a folk-art museum in a Jesuit monastery, staffed by monks who come here from around the world.

The villages of Tinos are some of the most beautiful in the Cyclades. Many of the most picturesque are nestled into the slopes of Exobourgo, the rocky pinnacle crowned by a Venetian castle visible from the port. Many villages are connected by a network of walking paths that make this island a hiker's paradise. In these villages and dotting the countryside, you'll see the ornately decorated medieval peristerionades (dovecotes) for which the island is famous, as well as elaborately carved marble lintels, door jambs, and fan windows on village houses. According to one tradition, there are 365 churches scattered across the island, one for every day of the year; others boast that the island has 1,000 churches. The island's beaches aren't worthy of superlatives, but they are plentiful and uncrowded throughout the summer. All this may change if an airport is built here -- all the more reason to visit Tinos now. If you want to do as the Greeks do, you'll spend a day or two here; do that once, and you may find that you keep coming back to this very Greek island.

Looking for Dove ...  -- Tinos is famous for its dovecotes, stout stone towers elaborately ornamented with slabs of the local shale, with ornamental perches and passageways for the doves. Venetians built the first dovecotes here. They brought with them the dovecote's distinctive miniature tower architecture. They used the doves' droppings as fertilizer, and the birds soon became an important part of the local diet. Locals still sometimes cook them, often in tomato sauce, as a winter dish. Some of the most elaborate of these birdhouses grace the towns of Tarambados and Smardakito; keep your eyes open. It is said that the island is home to 2,000 of them. Look for signs announcing detours to TRADITIONAL DOVECOTES as you explore the island.