Greek Islands

Greek Islands: everyone may find its favourite

What’s the best Greek island for you to visit? Well that depends on who you are, and what you’re looking for. Greece has more islands than Cher has wigs; this means that beyond the obvious and iconic vacation spots like Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes there are quite literally hundreds of alluring isles to choose from, and myriad mini-archipelagos to explore.

Lefkada

Greek Islands

_
Lefkada is something of an anomaly. Unlike the other Ionian islands, it’s accessible from the mainland via a causeway on the northern tip. It’s also easily reached from Europe, with direct flights to Preveza, a 40-minute drive. Lefkada’s main town, flattened by an earthquake in the 1950s, won’t take your breath away, but those famous cliff-backed beaches, Egremni and Porto Katsiki, sure will. You’ll find sheltered beaches no matter which way the wind is blowing; but if you’re here for the swell, the south coast is fantastic for windsurfing (head to Vassiliki or Sivota, home to the world windsurfing championships) and Agios Ioannis bay billows with kite-surfers. At Nidri hop on a boat to explore the little isles nearby. You can swim through sea caves on Kalamos; eat seared tuna with tarama at Errikos taverna on Meganisi, a favourite of reclusive billionaires; and watch the sunset with a basil-infused Mastiha and tonic at Mylos bar, a converted windmill on Kastos. Want to cool down or escape the summer crowds? Drive through forests of chestnut and pine into Lefkada’s mountainous interior to the somnolent villages of Karya (home to an enchanting textile museum), Eglouvi (to play backgammon under plane trees) and Exanthia (to watch the setting sun from up in the clouds at Rachi restaurant). You might even see paragliders leaping off the mountain.

Paxos

Greek Islands

_
One of the tiniest Ionian islands, Paxos packs a big punch. Not for its five-star hotels (there are hardly any) or its sandy beaches (practically none), but for its electric blue sea and three dinky harbour towns, each one so pretty it’s impossible to pick a favourite. Protected from the wind but with a lively social scene, the main port of Gaios is characterised by Venetian architecture and a high quota of stylish Italians, who own pale stone villas hidden in the wooded interior or on the crest of the limestone cliffs along the western shoreline. All roads lead to Ben’s Bar, a happy-go-lucky hangout on Monodendri beach, where you can laze under the olive trees with French toast and Piña Coladas. Make sure to rent a motor boat to putter along the coast to pebble coves or across to Antipaxos, an even smaller island rimmed by teal-blue ocean. Paths through vineyards and orchards trickle down to bays with sea so clear it looks retouched.

Hydra

Greek Islands

_
You know when Dakis Joannou, Greece’s foremost art collector, is on Hydra. His yacht, Guilty, is painted in gaudy ‘camouflage’ by Jeff Koons. Every summer, Joannou invites big hitters such as Matthew Barney and David Shrigley to create site-specific installations in the Greek island’s old slaughterhouse. Even the school is commandeered for exhibitions in the summer holidays. Car-free and protected by a preservation order, Hydra has always been the artists’ muse of the Greek Islands. Leonard Cohen set the scene in the 60s; now Brice Marden, Sadie Coles and Juergen Teller have homes here. Athenian artists take up residence at the School of Fine Arts, one of the vast, grey, stone mansions overlooking the horseshoe harbour. Less than two hours from Athens, Hydra fills up with chic Greeks at weekends. They come to disconnect and slow down, but also to see and be seen. Wily cats and weary donkeys patrol the back alleys, but all the action happens along the waterfront. Who cares if there are barely any beaches? You can always find a slab of sun-baked rock from which to leap rock from which to dive into the clearest water in the world.

Milos

Greek Islands

_
Everyone knows the Venus de Milo (which has stood in the Louvre since the 19th century). Until recently, very few had heard of Milos, the volcanic island where Aphrodite’s graceful likeness was discovered. Those in the know jealously guard their treasured island, and especially its 70 (or more) beaches, surely the most diverse and dramatic coastline of all the Greek Islands. Little by little, though, Milos is being discovered. Instagram is saturated with no-filter shots of the undulating cliffs at Sarakiniko, the bottle-green swimming hole at Papafragas, and colourful, rickety syrmata, tiny boat houses wedged between rock and sea. This painterly landscape was shaped by the minerals that have long been a source of wealth, obsidian, alum, barite and sulphur, which still bubbles up in the island’s many hot springs. As the 11.000-year-old mining industry is gradually giving way to tourism, several chic hotels have made an appearance. Go now, before the trickle of visitors turns into a tide.

Serifos

Greek Islands

_
The sleeper hit of the Cyclades, Serifos is the summer retreat of interior designers and architects who prefer to keep the sandy beaches to themselves. Even in August, you’ll find coves where you can skinny dip in blissful solitude. That’s because the best beaches (Kalo Ambeli, Vagia, Skala) are only accessible via bone-rattling dirt roads or donkey tracks. Better still, rent a motor boat from the laidback harbour, Livada. In the cascading hilltop Chora, there’s barely any nightlife, no smart boutiques or fancy hotels. But who cares when you can kick back with fennel pie and raki at Stratos, pick up Natassa Kalogeropoulou’s minimalist ceramics at Kerameio, and listen to Greek folk in the open-air amphitheatre. And all less than three hours from Athens.

Amorgos

_
It’s not easy to get to Amorgos. In high winds, the fast ferries stay grounded and the slow boat takes upwards of eight hours from Athens. When you disembark at Katapola, a sleepy harbour lined with great little fish tavernas, a sign announces: ‘Welcome to Amorgos. Nobody will find you here.’  That’s just the point. This craggy Cycladic island has always attracted loners, hikers, divers and pilgrims, who shuffle up the cliff face to the Monastery of Hozoviotissa, a sliver of white dangling 300 metres above the sea. The water here is a million shades of blue and so startlingly clear you can see every sea urchin lurking on the rocky shore. Even the sage-scented hiking trails are called Blue Paths, because the sea and sky are visible in all directions. With a population of under 2.000, the locals are outnumbered by shaggy goats that blend in perfectly with the burnished landscape and hippie vibe.

Mykonos

_
Mykonos had gay clubs and sunrise parties long before rave culture was even invented. Its bohemian allure hasn’t faded since the 1960s, although the once naked beaches now have nail bars, personal trainers and house music pumping out all hours. The influx of supermodels and superyachts has inspired hot new hotels and restaurants. The hippest place to show off your abs is Scorpios, a louche beach bar that puts Ibiza’s finest in the shade. After hours, it’s always Astra, where you might find Keith Richards chatting up Karolina Kurkova. The gay crowd has dwindled, but drag queens and oiled bodybuilders make a splash at Jackie O, overlooking Super Paradise bay. If the glitzy excess gets too much, escape to Fokos taverna for superfood salads and lamb chops, or Kiki’s, an off-grid grill-shack overlooking Agios Sostis bay, where even Naomi Campbell has to queue for a table. Or cruise over to the tiny island of Delos, an archaeological sanctuary that once thronged with 30.000 sun worshippers (the temple is dedicated to Apollo, the Greek god of light).

Santorini

_
Cooling American and Chinese honeymooners line up to take selfies as the sun sinks behind Santorini’s caldera, the flooded volcanic crater. That view may be a romantic cliché, but it still takes your breath away. A volcanic explosion blew out Santorini’s heart 3.500 years ago, leaving black-sand beaches, vertiginous cliffs in psychedelic hues, and swirling rumours about Atlantis in its wake. The eruption also preserved the ancient city of Akrotiri under layers of ash, and created fertile ground for exceptional Assyrtiko grapes and Vinsanto wines. Apart from a boat trip to the smouldering crater of Nea Kameni and hot springs at Palia Kameni, there’s not much to do but gaze at the mesmerising views from your suite, dangling on the edge of the caldera.

Cephalonia

_
Casting Penélope Cruz as a Greek peasant is improbable. Shooting a World War II film on an island flattened by an earthquake in 1953 sounds even crazier. And yet Captain Corelli’s Mandolin put under-the-radar Cephalonia in the spotlight in 2001. The dramatic scenery still lives up to the hype: milky-white Myrtos beach, the island’s pin-up; pine-fringed Horgota beach; and the giddying heights of Mount Ainos, a national park where deer and wild horses roam. Outdoor Kefalonia organises four-wheel-drive safaris, if you can’t face the hairpin bends. Surprisingly, the two prettiest seaside villages, Assos and Fiskardo, didn’t make the cut. The rocky coastline around Fiskardo is deliciously pristine: go snorkelling at tiny Dafnoudi or Emblissi, flanked by slabs of limestone that turn the water electric blue.

Corfu

_
Corfu is the It Girl of the Ionian islands. The cosmopolitan capital is a charming clash of Venetian, British and French colonial influences. Evenings kick off with cocktails on the Liston (a colonnade modelled on Paris’s rue de Rivoli), followed by dinner at Corfu Sailing Club, overlooking a floodlit fortress. With its pastel villages, rolling olive groves and grand manor houses, the rest of the island recalls Tuscany, but with far better beaches. The smart set stay on Corfu’s north-east coast where the Rothschilds like to unwind. It’s wall-to-wall Sloanes and speedboats at Agni, a tiny fishing village with three rival tavernas. From here, you can rent a boat and putter to your own cove: perhaps Nissaki, Agios Stefanos or Kerasia. These idyllic bays still resemble the ‘delectable landscape’ that Lawrence Durrell fell for in the 1930s.

Ithaca

_
Despite its legendary stature, the homeland of Homer’s hero, Odysseus, remains surprisingly under-the-radar. Ithaca’s turquoise and emerald coves are popular with the sailing set, but few visitors venture into the forested hills. So, you might be the only person exploring dramatic hiking trails, like the heady trek to the church of Anogi, covered in 16th-century frescoes, or the 8th-century BC ruins of Odysseus’ palace.

Folegandros

_
The village square should be your first port of call on any Greek island: settle into your favourite café, pick up local gossip, and adjust to the languid pace of life. On Folegandros, this presents a challenge: the cliff-hanger capital, Chora, has not one but three squares, each brimming with a jumble of cafés, tavernas and dinky raki bars. From Chora, zigzagging steps lead up, up and away to the only real landmark, Panagia church; make the pilgrimage at sunrise. Folegandros, which means ‘iron hard’ in ancient Greek, is as barren as its name suggests. Fruit trees are protected from fierce winds by rings of stones. You won’t find sandy beaches lined with sunbeds; only limpid, pebbly coves, such as Katergo, Ambeli and Livadaki. Water taxis service some beaches in high season; otherwise you’ll have to scramble down rocky footpaths to cool off.

Syros

_
On Syros, capital of the Cyclades, you won’t find sugar-cube villages and whitewashed lanes. The colourful 19th-century city of Ermoupoli is built on twin peaks, one Orthodox, the other Catholic, the heritage of a long Venetian occupation. There’s still a strong Italian flavour in Ermoupoli’s marble piazzas, princely mansions, and miniature replica of La Scala, the showpiece of a year-round cultural scene. Syros hosts festivals of animation, dance, digital art, film, classical music, jazz and rembetiko, the Greek blues popularised by local musician Markos Vamvakaris. A few rembetiko joints have survived in the upper town, Ano Syra. Once Greece’s ship-building centre, Syros still has a boatyard at Neorio. But the most splendid legacy of the shipping industry are the manor houses in Vaporia and Poseidonia. The beaches are slightly less splendid, with the exception of Delfini, Varvarousa, and Aetos in the wild north.

Zakynthos

_
Zakynthos, or Zante, has shrugged off its reputation as a destination for lads on tour by rebranding itself as Greece’s greenest island. It’s not just the emerald hills sliding into the electric blue Ionian: much of the south coast is a nature reserve where endangered loggerhead turtles hatch in the sand. The turtle beaches are off limits, but there are countless coves in every hue of green and blue. Favourites are tiny Xigia, with its bubbling underwater springs, and craggy Porto Limnionas, with sunbeds wedged between the rocks and palm-frond umbrellas positioned between the pine trees. Skinari is the starting point for boat trips to the most famous landmarks, the Blue Caves and Shipwreck Beach, where a rusting liner leans into the chalky cliffs. From Keri, you can cast away for Marathonisi island, another turtle sanctuary. The mountainous interior, all sleepy stone villages poking out of pine forests, is great for hikes and bikes. Askos Stone Park is a wildlife sanctuary inhabited by deer, chinchilla, and dozens of other species.

Crete

_
Greece’s largest island, the birthplace of Zeus, Crete has ancient ruins, snow-capped peaks and beaches galore. Sunshine is pretty much guaranteed year round, but spring is especially lovely for rambling and sightseeing. The Minoan palace of Knossos is glorious, despite the steady stream of coach parties. The 16km-long Samariá Gorge also teems with pilgrims, but there are 50 more canyons to explore, often with only the elusive kri-kri (wild goats) for company. With the exception of Elounda, a pocket of bling popular with oligarchs, the north-east coast is scarred by over-development. Instead head south, where there are miles of empty sand dunes, sprinkled with simple yoga retreats such as Yoga Rocks at Triopetra and Yoga Plus at Agios Pavlos. Or take a back-to-nature break with Wild Fitness at Milia, a 17th-centruy hamlet powered entirely by solar energy. Time slows almost to a standstill in the mountain villages, where locals with formidable whiskers welcome you with shots of raki (Cretan grappa) for breakfast and celebrate saints’ days with a volley of gunshots. Even the road signs are peppered with bullet holes.

Rhodes

_
When the writer Lawrence Durrell arrived in Rhodes after World War II, he found an island devastated by centuries of crusaders and invaders. Like the fallen Colossus, it was ‘a Rhodes dispersed into a million fragments, waiting to be built up again.’ Since then, Rhodes has reinvented itself as one of Greece’s top travel destinations. The big draw is the medieval citadel in Rhodes Town: stroll along the battlements and you’ll spy Byzantine churches, Roman ruins, synagogues and minarets. In the maze of alleys, seek out Marco Polo, a 15th-century guest-house decorated like a pasha’s harem, with an enchanting restaurant in the garden.

Symi

_
Little Symi has the prettiest port in Greece. As you round the headland, neoclassical mansions in every shade of apricot and peach rise like a mirage from the sea. Built by 19th-century sponge and spice merchants, the whole town is now a national monument. You need strong legs to explore, it’s about 500 steps up to the crumbling acropolis, but you won’t need a car. The only proper road peters out at Panormitis monastery, a major pilgrimage site. Ravishing beaches such as Ayios Yorgos Disalonas (backed by monumental cliffs) and Marathounda (where goats will try to filch your picnic) are only accessible by boat or on foot. In the rugged hinterland, more than 100 monasteries are hidden among the pine and cypress forests.

Naxos

_
Naxiots once made considerable fortunes exporting potatoes, cheese, marble and emery. Locals bequeathed undesirable seaside plots, useless for farming, to their laziest offspring. When tourists cottoned on to the island’s scores of fabulous beaches, these wastrels found themselves sitting on gold mines. The west coast of Naxos is fringed with mile upon mile of powdery sands. Agios Prokopios and Agia Anna delight toddlers and teenagers alike with their shallow waters and beach bars. As you head south, the beaches get wilder: Plaka, where you can gallop across the dunes on horseback, Mikri Vigla for windsurfing and kitesurfing, and crystal-clear Kastraki.

Tinos

_
Tinos has more than 50 villages, each vying to be fairest of them all. In Pyrgos, famous for its marble craftsmen, sculpted birds and flowers decorate every doorway. In Volax, basket weavers squat outside cottages carved from giant boulders, seemingly flung from the heavens by Zeus in a fit of pique. Tinos is only 15 minutes from Mykonos, so it’s a wonder it isn’t overrun with tourists. The harbour is swarmed on 15 August, however, when Orthodox pilgrims flock here to kiss the icons at Panagia Evangelistria monastery, one of the holiest sites in Greece. Otherwise, the island is miraculously untouched. Solitary chapels and whimsical dovecotes stud thyme-scented hills, dropping to sandy bays whipped by the meltemi wind. There’s a nascent surfer scene on Kolibithra bay, where a VW camper van has been converted into a cute beach bar.

Patmos

_
Patmos has an indefinable je ne sais quoi, an otherworldly quality that radiates from its crowning glory, the medieval monastery of St John. This turreted fortress, bursting with Byzantine relics, is named after John the Divine, who conjured up his apocalyptic revelations in a cave nearby. Pure-white Chora, a World Heritage Site, is where A-listers and fashion editors stay. High walls and heavy doors conceal magnificent mansions dating back to the 16th century.

_

Related Posts