Greek Isles Sparkle Like Jewels in Aegean

Posted May 14, 2007

The spectacular Greek Islands -- pretty as a postcard with glittering white buildings and red tile roofs, great food, fabulous beaches and sleek yachts -- have long been playground of the wealthy.

But with wise planning, they can also be a playground for non-members of the jet set. The first decision visitors to Greece must make is how much time to spend in Athens versus the islands.

That's a vexing decision because there is much to see and experience in Athens, including the breathtaking Acropolis, the old Agora and the famous Athens Flea Market. But Athens can be a one or two-day experience, leaving more time devoted to the islands.

On recent trips, I skipped Athens altogether, concentrating on visiting new islands.

One mistake many first-timers make in visiting the Greek islands is trying to visit too many of them. After all, there are many distinctly island personalities, ranging from lazy and bucolic to those with a Miami- South Beach-kind of intensity. And some are just glitzy tourist traps.

Consider: There are 1,400 Greek Islands, 227 of which are inhabited, with just 78 inhabited by 100 or more people.

My recommendation: Spend two days in Athens, the arrival point for most tourists who aren't on cruise lines, and then sample three to five of the islands if you have a minimum of five days to spend on each.

People who try to cram too much in a whirlwind trip find that, on returning home, they cannot distinguish which photographs were taken on what island. It is a blur and, in the long run, not as deeply satisfying as lazily soaking up the ambiance and experiences of a few islands.

Most-Visited Islands

The three most heavily visited islands are Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes, with Corfu a close fourth, according to tourist records. All are attractive, but the visitor who limits herself or himself to them is like a visitor to the United States only visiting New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- never knowing New Orleans, San Francisco, Miami, the Midwest or Maine coast -- thus missing the vast geographical and historical diversity of the U.S.

Smaller islands enjoy a slower pace, are less expensive, have food that is arguably more Greek and often better, and offer more of a feel for real island life where burros still carry burdens.

The port of Piraeus, south of Athens, is embarkation point for visiting most Greek islands. Research Greece before you leave to learn a few Greek phrases, calculate the euro exchange rate and choose your destinations.

Try to book hotel rooms in advance, but on smaller islands, you can ask around and find a room and bath. If there’s a lodging crunch, hop a ferry to another island.

For tourists on tight budgets, take a bus into Athens from the airport and another bus to Piraeus. But even a taxi trip from Athens to Piraeus is not too expensive.

Sea Connections

At Piraeus, you will find ferry service or hydrofoil (flying boat) service to virtually all islands. Ferries are cheaper but generally take twice as long. But the trip can be pleasant if you don't choose an island too far away.

Some islands only a short hop from Piraeus are quite nice and bypassed by most tourists who mistakenly think islands close to Athens couldn't be exciting. Also, close-in islands don't cost much to visit. Athenians visit them because there are fewer tourists.

For example, the island of Kea is a lovely, quiet refuge, and even seasoned travelers say it offers everything. The only downside is that you must travel an hour by bus to port Lavrion to depart for Kea. Once there, you find why Kea is a secret many Athenians want to keep. It has a spectacular array of fine restaurants and beautiful scenery. Good beaches connect to a network of trails and roads popular with hikers -- something often missing on other islands.

Another nearby island is Salamina, just 10 minutes from Piraeus, although it is somewhat industrial and has fewer attributes of other islands.

Poros is an hour away from Athens and a three-minute boat ride to the Peloponnesus. Unlike Salamina, it is a very typical Greek Island, with beaches and scenery and close enough for a day trip from Athens.

The typical Greek island -- although some might argue there is no such thing -- has at least one good port and dock for ferries and flying boats. It has a number of good tavernas, gift shops, vehicle rentals, crafts shops, a few archaeological sites and beaches.

Some small islands allow only motor scooters or small motorcycles. Others, such as Mykonos, will rent cars, and there is a bus system. Most have a nightspot or two where people can dance, particularly the circular Greek dance in which all participate. Most have a few deep-water coves where boats can anchor for extended stays.

Big Three Islands

Among the big three -- Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini -- Santorini sits on the lip of a huge volcano formed in 157 B.C., with one eruption as recently as 1950.

It is such a beautiful island, in five separate chunks, many people choose it as a place to be married or as a honeymoon destination. Although touristy, Santorini’s views are breathtaking. Hotels overlooking the caldera are sought after and, therefore, expensive. Some rest on the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff. The ferry ride from Piraeus is about nine hours, about half that on the flying boat. The nightlife is intense, and if you want to see beautiful people and jet setters, this is the place.

Mykonos, about five hours from Piraeus, is described by many as a decadent, anything-goes, Studio 54 in the Aegean. Also expensive, so those on a budget might consider making their stay here short or only a day trip.

Rhodes, just 11 miles west of Turkey, derives fame from having been the site of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Turkish influence on the island can be seen in food and architecture. St. Paul brought Christianity to the island, once the exile home of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The ferryboat trip to Rhodes is 16 hours, but it is a top destination despite the distance. Many fly in from Athens.

Other Islands

If you visit Santorini, you are a short ferry trip from Naxos, a large and verdant island said to have the best beaches in all of Greece. Here resides a giant, unfinished sculpture of Apollo in a quarry dating from 600 B.C. Also, you’ll find charming fishing villages, many fine restaurants and daily connections to Mykonos, Los and Santorini. You also can make a connection to Crete and other islands in the Cyclades.

If you skip Santorini altogether, Naxos is a seven-hour ferry trip from Athens, with a stop in Paros. The hydrofoil time is three hours.

One of my favorite islands is Hydra, a jet set haven, and delightful. From here, you can also take an excursion to Mycenae, where millions of dollars in gold were found in the last century when archaeologists broke open a small dome in a sheep meadow and found it opened to a chamber filled with gold artifacts. Hiking on Hydra is not for those who are out of shape, as the trails interlacing the island are steep. One downside: no sand beaches, just pebble beaches.

My favorite island is Spetses, home to a wooden boat building industry that dates back centuries. The builders don't mind if you watch as they craft sailing boats. The food is very good, and you can rent motor scooters -- as you can on most islands -- and explore. Cars are not allowed on Spetses.

Island nightlife attracts many. Spetses, like most of the islands, tolerates nude and partially nude bathing. Technically, nude bathing is illegal throughout Greece, but rarely enforced.

The crystal clear Aegean Sea makes snorkeling and scuba diving a delight. One indication of the popularity of Spetses: many of the world's most luxurious yachts are seen anchored here frequently. Aristotle Onassis often anchored his 325-foot-long yacht, Christina, in these crystal waters when not at his home on the island of Skorpios.

  • The largest Greek island is Crete. It's fun to visit, but so huge it is almost like the mainland.
  • Corfu is a former British possession and a popular destination for British tourists. The nightlife on Corfu is good, and there is much to do and eat on this vibrant, 33-mile long island. The nightlife hot spots on Corfu are Kavos, Benitses, Gouvia and Ipsos, but there are still quiet areas offering tourists a refuge from the glitz.
  • Skopelos is known as the greenest island of all and a nature-lover's paradise. It also is known for the quality of its cuisine.
  • Kalymnos is home to a sponge fisherman fleet and is 12 hours by ferry from Piraeus.

No listing of the best Greek islands will please seasoned travelers, who have their own list of favorites. But the rich variety of destinations is part of the allure.


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