AS the bus ground up the winding mountain road the fairy lights across the windscreen, rigged to flash when the driver hit the brakes, barely dimmed. The religious icons, arranged on the dashboard with several gonks (the gonk is big in Greece; trolls are making a comeback too) gave me less hope than the postcards from previous passengers. They, presumably, made it home alive. The scenery was spectacular, but I wasn't game to look. Besides, I'd risen at 6 am to catch this groaning refugee from a transport museum, so I wasn't in a scenery mood. The point of such nerve-wrenching trips when 'relaxing' on holiday is that the destination will be worth it. Halted by a truck smashed into a taxi smashed into a pole just out of town I began to think no collection of mosaics in a mediaeval monastery was worth this, even one of Greece's finest. But it was. Nea Moni, a Byzantine monastery built in 1046 on a hilltop on the northeast Aegean island of Hios, is breathtaking. Its beauty creeps up on you - partly because the octagonal chapel is gloomy until a priest flicks the light switch, revealing glittering golds, reds and blues, in intricate scenes of religious significance and enormous artistic merit. It's all the more dazzling for the contrast with what precedes it: the small chapel at the monastery entrance contains remains of victims of an 1822 massacre when Turkish troops forced their way in and killed those sheltering there. Skulls and bones are a stark reminder of a time still fresh in the minds of most Greeks - that they weren't born then is irrelevant - and of the hostility to their Turkish neighbours whose coast is clearly visible and just a 40-minute boat trip from Hios town. Nea Moni is a staple of Hios island tours - the usual over-priced, off-the-bus, commentary, everybody-back-on-the-bus numbers for those who like their hands held and the guidebook read aloud. More sensible is the Hios Green Buses trip, allowing time to explore the gardens and ancient outbuildings and then another chilling reminder of Hios' bloody past, the village of Anavatos. Anavatos scales cliffs so sheer it can be approached only from the north. As the bus climbs towards it, there are glimpses of terraced brown brick homes and blank window holes. Where are the flowers, the bright blues and greens of Aegean windowsills? Again the answer lies in 1822, when invading Turks massacred those hiding there. Now only five people live in Anavatos, but it's still typically Greek: at the bottom of its steep main path is a taverna. Halfway to the top of the cliff from which women and children hurled themselves to escape the rampaging Turks, an old man sells postcards, pistachios and sweet-smelling oregano and lavender. Hios is a large island - at 904 square kilometres, the fifth largest in Greece - green with olive groves and mastic trees milked for the major component of chewing gum, with a 213-km shoreline that is a mecca for Greek visitors. Of course I didn't know that shore-length statistic when, buoyed by the Nea Moni success, we took the bus to the much-vaunted volcanic black stone southeastern beach of Emborio. Three hours later, numb-bottomed, thirsty and never wanting to see another olive tree, we stumbled from the bus to find, not black stones, but boulders. I wanted to cry but I was too tired. I wanted to go home, but that meant the bus. We eventually went to Pirgi, to see a mediaeval village famed for the distinctive black and white geometric designs on its walls. They were distinctive, astonishing in fact. We tramped down hot streets, past shops closed for siesta, drank warm coke at the only open cafe and went to wait in the bus shelter with a nest of bull ants for the next bus and the long, long trip back to Hios town. Travelling in Greece is like that - wonderful one day, enough to drive you to the plane to Athens the next. As tourism takes an increasingly firm hold, places like Hios, lauded in our aged guidebook for tourist-free remoteness, struggle under the strain. Names like Onassis, Chandis and Livanos are part of Hios' history - this is a shipowners' island, once home to Greece's richest and most powerful families. Their summer mansions are shielded by stone walls, and the 18-sq-km island of Inoussa, off Hios, is said to be home to 30 multi-millionaires. Only recently 80 per cent of the island's men were in the merchant navy, but that's no longer so, the former captain of a 70,000-tonne bulk carrier told me as he wrapped my ceramic bowl in his wife's souvenir shop. I saw a Chinese family in the little park near the bus terminus. I was going to talk to them, ask them if they were from Hong Kong and how it felt to be in a place with so few Chinese people - Chang's Restaurant in Athens, 'the best, most wonderful, most comfortable Chinese restaurant in the world' not withstanding. But they looked bored and hot and fed up, so I left them alone with the pigeons and the wasps and the kiosk with 25 varieties of cocktails and no toilet paper. There are no direct Hong Kong-Athens flights, but several airlines have easy connections, including Singapore Airlines via Singapore, Lufthansa via Frankfurt and Thai Airways via Bangkok. Olympic Airways flies Athens to Hios and there are daily ferries from the Athenian port of Piraeus, from Rhodes, and from the northern port of Kavala.