Europe: Greece - Island Overview

by Lori Seto

If you learn just one Greek word, it should be "Opa!" Shouted with enthusiasm, it means "Bravo -- Wonderful -- Hooray!" and is the perfect way to describe a Greek island honeymoon, with its heady mixture of romantic vistas, savory local foods and wines, and water, water everywhere. Whether you choose one island or several -- peaceful or party central -- the combinations of sunny splendor are blissfully endless. (In addition, two island groups, the Dodecanese and Northern Aegean Islands, are tantalizingly close to Turkey -- don't miss the opportunity to explore that exotic land, as well.)

This treasure trove of islands is blessed by Aphrodite. By day, laze away on a sunny coast or explore medieval villages -- and make it a point to take a siesta with the locals after lunch (a café stop for sweet Greek coffee and baklava will bring you back to life). At night, linger over dinner, traditionally an all-evening affair that begins with mezedes (hors d'oeuvres) at 7 or 8 p.m., then stroll the moonlit streets, toast Greek music with ouzo (the national drink, an anise-flavored liqueur best diluted with water), and dance until dawn.

All island trips begin with a flight to Athens, on Greece's mainland. Stay a few days if you like, then start your island odyssey by plane (fly to an island with an airport - not all have one - then fan out by ferryboat) or boat (from Piraeus, a port town seven miles outside of Athens). If you want to sample many islands with minimum hassle -- or you're short on time -- consider a cruise. You unpack once, enjoy luxe amenities en route, and glimpse a number of islands without coordinating ferry schedules. Sign up for shore excursions to further maximize your time. If you prefer a more intimate vessel, smaller ships and private yacht charters are available from Athens.

Knot Note: Many seasonal businesses (including hotels) are closed from November to March. Also, all place names below are followed by their Greek names, if applicable.

In A Word: Sunshine

A visit to the Greek isles is all about sunlight -- the way it sparkles off the Mediterranean, transforms your pale skin to bronze, turns up the contrast between whitewashed homes and deep blue sky, and slowly slips over the edge of the earth at day's end. If you can't wait to get out of that wedding dress and into a bikini, these islands are the place to go.

Birthplace of the artist El Greco, Greece's largest island marks the boundary between Europe and Africa. Blessed by Mother Nature, Crete delights the senses with its fertile valleys, mountain peaks, sacred caves, and fresh local goat cheese, basil, figs, and wine. This is a great place to explore (by car) and relax for a week if you're not interested in island hopping. From Athens, consider flying into the seaside town of Chania (Hania) -- where the island's 700 years of Venetian and Turkish rule are charmingly evident -- and out of the bustling city of Iraklion (Iraklio), a good home base for many sidetrips, including one to the stunning Palace of Knossos, where the king of the early Minoans lived. Set amid olive and cypress trees, the palace is a mazelike complex of rooms, courtyards, and stairways.

The Cyclades
This group of islands sprinkled in the Aegean Sea orbit -- Cyclades means "circling islands" -- around Delos, once a sacred island and the spiritual heart of the region where no one was allowed to be born or die! (Its collection of archeological ruins is now a popular daytrip destination.) Ripe for island hopping with frequent ferry service between shorelines from May to September, this collection includes two of the most beloved Greek isles -- Mikonos and Santorini -- and many of the sights for which Greece is famous: whitewashed square houses and simple chapels set against a bold blue sky. Here are some of the highlights.

Mikonos (Mykonos)
Located in the northern reaches of the Cyclades, cosmopolitan Mikonos is known as hedonistic party central in July and August, but has much to offer year round. Besides the summer siren of beautiful beaches (go early and head north to avoid the crowds or strut your stuff at see-and-be-seen Paradise Beach) and scuba diving (one of the few Greek islands that permits it), off-season visitors will love the charming labyrinthine-like streets of the city of Hora and the largest nightlife scene on the islands. Start your evening in Mikonos Town watching the sun slip away at a mellow bar in Little Venice, then unleash your passion at one of many discos.

Santorini (Thira)
This is the cliff-rimmed crescent island that beckons you from travel-agency posters, and it doesn't disappoint. Santorini, one of the southernmost Greek islands, was formed by a huge volcanic eruption that tore the island in half. The caldera (cauldron), the flooded crater of the volcano, is a magnificent sight from the island's 1,000-foot heights. You can hike the six miles between the island's two principal towns, bustling Fira and lovely Ia, which sit atop these heights -- clinging precariously to the lip of the volcano -- and offer staggering views of the sunset. Don't miss the Pompeii-like ruins of Akrotiri or Thira and samples of the excellent local wine at Boutari Winery, all located on the southern half of the island.

This tiny island in the middle of the Cyclades is renowned for its ceramics and hidden treasures, including 365 churches and chapels. There's the charming medieval town of Kastro, built in the ruins of an ancient acropolis perched atop a rocky peak on the eastern shore. As is the case on many of the Cyclades, there are quite a few lovely hikes within this island's rolling interior, including one leading to a 12th-century monastery on the island's highest summit. A trio of amber-sand coves -- and other secluded sandy nooks accessible only by foot -- await you along the southern coast.

The Dodecanese
Hugging the Turkish coastline, this group boasts the tourist magnet island of Rhodes, beautiful beaches at Kos, historically notable Patmos, and the quiet getaway islands of Lipsi (near Patmos) and Simi (near Rhodes), where a once thriving ship-building and sponge-fishing industry left beautiful pastel-colored mansions and elaborate churches in its wake.

On this rocky island -- which would be two if not for a slender isthmus -- it is believed that St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation in the Cave of the Apocalypse more than 1,900 years ago. Don't miss the imposing medieval complex of the Monastery of St. John, high above the port of Skala -- the priceless treasures in the museum and the breathtaking view of the sea below make the climb worthwhile. Beaches along the northeastern coast are a big draw, but don't plan on baring all when you're there -- nude sunbathing is prohibited.

Rhodes (Rodos)
Rhodes is the largest island of the Dodecanese group. The capital, Rhodes City, is actually two cities in one: The mesmerizing old town is surrounded by dramatic medieval walls while the new town is a modern city of wide streets crammed with luxury hotels, restaurants, shops (where you can buy Rhodian specialties such as handmade carpets and kilims), and a concentration of nightspots second only to Mikonos. Head for the white-sand beaches along the sheltered east coast for 300 days a year of sunshine and primo sunbathing. Need a break? Take a trip down the coast to Lindos, a charming little town of pebbled streets located under the steep rise of its acropolis. Walk or ride donkeys up to see the ruins and enjoy one of the most dramatic views in all of Greece.

The Northeastern Aegean Islands
The major islands among this group north of the Dodecanese along the Turkish coast are Cypress tree-blanketed Samos and beach-blessed Hios (Chios). The attractions of Samos are on the north coast: Hike or bike the Platanakia region for its verdant valleys and quaint mountain villages; stay in the town of Karlovassi to windsurf and be relatively near the island's best sand-and-pebble beaches (finish your day with a glass of the excellent local wine). The southern coast of Hios offers ample clean and quiet white- and black-pebble sandy beaches and picturesque medieval villages such as Mesta and Piryi, famous for its signature geometric decoration.

The Ionian Islands
Located off Greece's northwest coast, the pleasant-weathered Ionian Islands offer a beautiful balance of lush scenery, lovely beaches, and a good selection of restaurants and hotels. Here are two of the highlights, one for action and one for inaction.

Corfu (Kerkira)
Like many islands, Corfu sates a variety of tastes with beach, city, and inland village daytrips. Corfu town offers both a cosmopolitan new town and Greece's largest old town, where you can spend many an hour immersing yourself in medieval architecture and people-watching at Liston, café central. After the sun sets, take in a sound-and-light show at the Old Fort (May to mid-September) or join revelers at one of many nightspots.

Kefalonia (Cephalonia)
An earthquake in 1953 leveled most of th relaxing and verdant island's buildings, but Fiskardo, a scenic coastal village, and natural wonders such as the Melissani Grotto and Drogarati Cave (the unusual stalagmites in the large chamber were once witnesses to a concert by Maria Callas) were spared. Be sure to taste the island's famous local honey and yummy red and white wines.

The Sporades
Along the northeast coast of Greece lie the little-known Sporades, or "Scattered Islands". Lacking historical sites, these islands appeal to beach lovers, shutterbugs, and those seeking relatively unspoiled Greek culture. Three deserve mention: Skiathos and Skopelos -- both blanketed with pine trees -- and rugged, remote Skyros.

The most visited and expensive of the Sporades due to its location closest to the mainland, Skiathos is the place to go for a beach -- the island has more than 60 golden beauties -- fine dining, and a bustling nightlife.

Shutterbugs will have a field day in Skopelos's picturesque port town bursting with churches, rugged cliffs, a grotto-spotted coastline, scenic hiking trails, and fruit and nut orchards - the plums and almonds are scrumptious.

Skyros (Skiros)
Skyros is difficult to get to and therefore less expensive and less affected by tourism. Come here for lots of local flavor, crystal-clear waters (great for diving), and spirited festivals - the island adds the pagan "Goat Dance" to Carnival festivities and honors St. George (patron of shepherds) with a big party on April 23.

When To Go: Greek Islands At Their Best

  • Best weather: May, June, September, and October. July and August can be uncomfortably hot (and unbearably crowded); the winter months are cold and damp -- it can even snow!
  • Best prices: Prices peak in July and August. Rates during "shoulder" seasons can be up to 50% less.
  • Festival highlights: Carnival is celebrated with parades and raucous revelry during the three weeks before Lent in February; Holy Week around Orthodox Easter is a special time in every town; wine festivals occur during June and July throughout the islands (Rethymnon [Rethimno] in Crete hosts the islands' most famous in July)

Photo: Courtesy of Liz Zack and Mike Bruno

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