Island Enlightenments

Why go to the Greek Islands? The question should really be, “Why not?”

For many people, Greece is synonymous with islands. If you need a vacation from your busy mainland Greek vacation, the islands exert an irresistible pull.

Explore a tight, twisty maze of whitewashed cubic houses with vibrant trim. Dig your toes into the hot sand while basking under a beach umbrella. Go for a dip in the crystal-clear, bathwater-warm Aegean. Nurse an iced coffee along a bustling harborfront, watching fishermen clean their catch while cuddly kittens greedily beg below. Indulge in fresh seafood at a rustic seaside taverna, and chat with the big personality whose family has owned the place for generations, all while watching the sun gradually descend into the sea. Putter along remote-feeling roads across the spine of the island on a rented ATV, then drop down on a twisty lane to a desert-isle cove with an inviting beach. The Greek islands really do live up to their worldwide acclaim.

While I appreciate a healthy dose of restorative island time, I prefer to spend the bulk of my Greek vacation visiting the country’s amazing wealth of ancient sights. That’s why I’ve focused my Greece on the bustling capital of Athens and Greece’s “heartland,” the Peloponnese, where—compared to the islands— prices are much lower, tourism is less suffocating, and travelers have more exciting opportunities to peel back layers of history. Still, a visit to Greece isn’t complete without at least one island stay.

acropolis-at-sunset-4-1517645

Greece’s Island Groups

Greece’s roughly 3,000 islands and islets (227 of which are inhabited) are scattered far and wide across the eastern Mediterranean. Most are in the Aegean Sea (south and east of mainland Greece), while a few are in the Ionian Sea (west of the mainland). The islands are divided into distinct clusters:

The Ionian Islands, closer to Albania and Italy than to Athens, are Greece’s northwest gateway to the Adriatic and the rest of Europe—they’ve had more foreign invaders and rulers (from Venice, France, Britain, Russia, Austria, and so on) than anywhere else in the country. The main island is Corfu (Kerkyra in Greek), with a bustling, architecturally eclectic main town and a lush, green islandscape dotted with attractions and beaches.

The Saronic Gulf Islands (Argosaronikos), conveniently wedged between the Peloponnese and Athens, ooze lots of island charm and give you a chance to get away from it all without actually going very far. Hydra, my favorite, is in this group.

The Sporades Islands, due east of Athens, are dominated by the giant Evia island, which is attached to the mainland by a bridge. Thickly forested and less touristed by international visitors, the Sporades are a popular and handy weekend getaway for Athenians.

The Cycladic Islands (or simply Cyclades)—a bit farther south, between Athens and Crete—are the prototypical “Greek islands,” boasting chalk-white houses with colorful windowsills and doorways; rocky, sun-parched landscapes; delightful beaches; old-fashioned white windmills topped with tufts of grass like unkempt hair; and an almost overwhelming crush of international visitors. Mykonos and Santorini are the two best and most famous of the Cyclades. Near Mykonos is the archaeological site of Delos (one of the most important locales of the ancient world).

greek-ruin-20-1214578

The Dodecanese Islands, at the sunny, southeastern end of the Greek lands, are more rustic and less developed than the Cyclades. Their proximity to Turkey and historic ties to Venice give them a hybrid Turkish-Venetian flavor (though the population is mostly ethnic Greek, these islands merged with Greece only after World War II). Rhodes, with an appealing and very real-feeling old town, is the biggest of these islands.

The North Aegean Islands, relatively untrampled and remotefeeling, lie roughly between Turkey and Thessaloniki (at the northern end of mainland Greece). The southernmost of these, Samos, is a particularly handy springboard for Turkey, as it’s very close to the Turkish port city of Kusadası (near the remarkable ancient site of Ephesus).

Crete is Greece’s biggest island and practically a ministate of its own (in fact, from 1897 to 1913 it was an autonomous state within the Ottoman Empire). While many of Greece’s smaller islands merit a day or two of fun in the sun, Crete could occupy even a busy traveler for a week or more. Historically, Crete was home to the Minoans—the earliest advanced European civilization, peaking around 1950 B.C., centuries before “the ancient Greeks” of Athens. While Crete’s modern main city, Iraklio, is drab and uninviting, the rest of the island offers an engaging diversity of attractions: Minoan ruins, scenic mountains, enticing beaches, characteristic rustic villages, and dramatic caves and gorges (including the famous Samaria Gorge).

Beautiful Architecture building Exterior with santorini and greece style - Vintage light filter
Beautiful Architecture building Exterior with santorini and greece style – Vintage light filter

Choosing an Island

Hydra is my favorite, thanks to its speedy connections to Athens and the Peloponnese, its relaxing car-free ambience, its easily reached beaches, and its charming harbor that invites you to just linger. Two of the most popular Greek islands are Mykonos and Santorini; both are relatively well-connected to Athens. Mykonos is an adorable, windmill-topped fishing village slathered in white and thronged by a hard-partying international crowd, enjoying its many beaches and sidetripping to the ruins on nearby Delos. Santorini is the most geologically interesting of all the Greek islands, and arguably the most picturesque, with idyllic villages perched on the rim of a collapsed and flooded volcano crater.

While each Greek island has its own personality and claims to fame, most offer the same basic ingredients: a charming fishing village, once humble and poor, now a finely tuned machine for catering to (and collecting money from) a steady stream of tourists; a rugged interior, and rough roads connecting coastal coves; appealing beaches with rentable umbrellas and lounge chairs, presided over by tavernas and hotels; maybe a few dusty museums collecting ancient artifacts or bits and pieces of local folklore; and occasionally a good or even great ancient site to tour.

Many islands have a main town, which is sometimes named for the island itself, or might be called Chora or Hora, which literally means “village.” This is generally the hub for transportation, both to other islands (port for passenger ferries and cruise ships) and within the island (bus station and taxi stand). Some islands— such as Rhodes, Corfu, and Crete—have sizeable cities as their capitals.

an-iconic-blue-dome-church-in-santorini-greece-1360264

Getting Around the Greek Islands

Many passenger boats crisscross the Aegean Sea, making it quick and fairly easy to reach your island getaway. Be warned, however, that gathering ferry information takes some work, as routes can be covered by multiple companies and schedules can change. Prior to your trip, look up schedules online, then confirm the details on arrival in Greece at any travel agency (or two or three, as you may get slightly different information from different agencies). Keep in mind that sailings can be cancelled because of bad weather (more likely in the off-season).

To save time, consider flying. Compared to boats, flights are less likely to get delayed or cancelled, tend to offer more frequent connections, and are much faster — but often more expensive. Two major Greek carriers offer daily flights from Athens to many Greek islands are Olympic Airlines and Aegean Airlines. Also consider Astra Airlines and Sky Express. If you’re headed to far-flung islands such as Mykonos or Santorini— which have small airports—check flights on these airlines, which can be surprisingly affordable (and save you the long boat journey). By shopping online at least a few weeks in advance, you may be able to snare a deal.

The Greek islands are made-to-order for cruising and a major destination for cruise ships. If you’re coming on a cruise, your challenge is to beat the hordes: You’ll arrive in town at precisely the same time as 2,000 other visitors, all hoping to fit the maximum amount of sightseeing, shopping, or beach time in a single day. Get as early a start as possible, and explore the back lanes and beaches when the main drag gets too congested.

If you’re not cruising, it’s smart to be aware of when ships are scheduled to show up. If you’re planning to visit outlying sights or beaches, do it when the ships are in port—by the time you return to town in the afternoon, the cruise-ship passengers will be loading up to leave again.

Island Accommodations

Greek-island accommodations range from rustic dhomatia to chic designer hotels with spectacular views. Even out-of-the-way islands get heavy tourist traffic in the summer, so options abound. Some travelers just show up on the boat and are greeted at the dock by locals offering cheap beds; this can be a decent way to find accommodations if you’re not too picky (be very clear on the location before you agree to take a room).

Beautiful Architecture building Exterior with santorini and greece style - Vintage light filter
Beautiful Architecture building Exterior with santorini and greece style – Vintage light filter

At the busiest times (July–September, peaking in August), visitors can outnumber beds; to get your choice of accommodations, book ahead. Expect to pay (sometimes wildly) inflated prices in high season—in the most popular destinations, such as Mykonos and Santorini, prices for even budget hotels can more than double. Prices for other services—such as car rentals and restaurant meals—also increase when demand is high. For the best combination of still-good weather, fewer crowds, and more reasonable prices, visit just before or after these busy times.

Whenever you visit, enjoy your time here and simply give yourself over to the Greek islands.

Text by Silvia Danaie

Share this story, choose your platform!

About the author:

Leave a Comment

A Guide to the Factors Influencing the Perspective of NBA Teams in 2024

Just like the basketball players themselves, NBA teams need to remain focused on their performance in the future. To accomplish this, essential responsibilities include managing the competition, the professional league, player recruitment and development, media and broadcasting, revenue generation, and worldwide expansion. Importantly, a few factors affect how they view a wide range of topics.

Read More »

Essential Guide to Visiting Macao

Nestled on the southern coast of China, Macao is a unique and utterly fascinating destination. A rare jewel, with its fusion of Eastern and Western cultures and traditions, this former Portuguese colony has become known as “the Las Vegas of the East”. It’s much more than just an entertainment paradise, though.  A trip to Macao is

Read More »

Vietnamese athletes in the Olympics 2024

As 2023 came to an end, Vietnamese sports fans celebrated three remarkable athletes who clinched the official berth for the Paris Olympics 2024 in France. The Vietnam sports authority is hoping to take 12-15 athletes to represent their nation at the Olympic Games in France, but only five have qualified so far. That puts them

Read More »

Momentous Sporting Events in Vietnam

Vietnam has always been known for its resiliency, history, and culture. These qualities are only further exemplified in the sporting events that they hold in the country. This Southeast Asian has been the stage for many milestone moments for the country and the region as a whole. It doesn’t look like Vietnam is about to

Read More »

THAIFEX- HOREC Asia 2024

Shaping the Future of HoReCa Bangkok, Thailand – The Department of International Trade Promotion, the Thai Chamber of Commerce, and Koelnmesse are thrilled to announce the upcoming THAIFEX – HOREC ASIA 2024. Scheduled from March 6th to 8th at IMPACT, Muang Thong Thani, this premier event is poised to redefine the HoReCa (hotel, restaurant, and

Read More »

Adventure Travel in Uganda: Rafting, Hiking, and Wildlife Safaris

Uganda, often called the Pearl of Africa, is a hidden gem for adventure seekers. With its diverse landscapes, ranging from dense forests and snow-capped mountains to vast savannas and majestic rivers, Uganda offers a wide array of thrilling activities for those looking to explore the wild side of Africa. From adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting on the

Read More »