Discovering the isles of Greece

A judicious mixture of flights, ferries and patience will bring the most isolated and unspoilt Greek islands within reach. Jill Crawshaw explains how
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The Independent Culture
THERE are 1,425 Greek islands, many of them uninhabited dots than even the Greeks themselves have never heard of, a few where the traditions of bouzouki and souvlaki has given way to karaoke and flambe. Others are sanctuaries, refuges, volcanic craters or just simply islands that holiday dreams are made of.

Impossible to make comparisons - can anything rival the first glimpse of Delos seen from a plunging caique, the view over the Aegean from the Monastery of St John the Divine at Patmos, Simi's perfect harbour, or a walk in the spring among the flowers that dare to carpet the ravines and gullies of Crete's barren and ravaged mountains?

That the Greek islands are "spoilt" is an opinion usually expressed by holidaymakers who have never travelled beyond the popular resorts of the larger islands. Escapists, on the other hand, value their favourites according to the degree of difficulty it takes to get there - a combination of flights, overnight stays, ferries, caiques, frustration and patience. Here we list the guide books, specialist firms and sources of practical information that can help with the planning, though with the advice should come a strict health warning: the best of Greece rarely goes according to plan. Thank heavens!

FLIGHTS

Just about the only thing the average holidaymaker doesn't want to do is to go to a travel agent or airline and buy regular, scheduled air tickets to any destination - unless they need total flexibility to change their departure dates, and return on any date of their choice.

The Greek national carrier, Olympic Air-ways, which has three flights each day, has return flights to Athens from Heathrow from pounds 211 return on midweek departure days, pounds 244 at weekends. However, special fares are offered near to departure dates, and are available from major travel agency chains such Thomas Cook, Going Places and Lunn Poly. Argo handle all Olympic's special deals - so-called "consolidations" - and are well worth a call.

Campus Travel offers several flights a week to many Greek destinations, at excellent prices. To Athens from Gatwick, for example, their student fares are only pounds 169 return, pounds 179 for non- students; from Manchester the prices are pounds 175 and pounds 185 respectively. From Gatwick to Thessaloniki, students pay pounds 185 return, non-students pounds 189; to Corfu the prices are pounds 155 and pounds 159 respectively from Gatwick, pounds 165 and pounds 175 from Manchester, while the fares from Gatwick to Mikonos are pounds 189 and pounds 199, and from Manchester pounds 199 and pounds 209. These are just a few of their destinations.

Thomson Air Fares offers a wide range of charter flights to Greece, from several departure points. From Gatwick their fares are: Athens pounds 230, Heraklion pounds 193 and Kos pounds 212.

Argo: 0171-331 7000.

Campus Travel: London, 0171-730 3402; Manchester, 0161-273 1721; Edinburgh, 0131-668 3303.

Thomson Air Fares: 0171-707 9000.

FERRIES

About 120 Greek islands are connected by regular ferry or hydrofoil services, or smaller excursions boats, with the greatest number of them operating out of Piraieus, near Athens. All services are much reduced in the low season between October and the beginning of June.

The ferries usually connect groups of islands, the Cyclades route being the most popular chain, with 26 islands (such as Mikonos, Paros and Siri) linked by ferry. Next come the Dodecanese with 17 (including Kos, Simi, Rhodes). Travel between different groups of islands can be frustrating, often involving returning to the hub of Piraieus, or a long wait for the occasional connection.

Tickets can be bought at agencies in Greece, at the quayside or even on board - there's no point in buying them in Britain, as this restricts you to the particular service which is ticketed. There are usually three classes, the first being so-called luxury, and the third "deck class", with second somewhere in between. As a rough guide, you could expect to pay about pounds 12 first class, pounds 7-pounds 8 second class and pounds 6 deck class for the five-hour journey from Piraieus to Paros, with port taxes and eight per cent VAT added to these prices.

Two valuable sources of information: the pamphlet Sea Domestic Scheduled Routes and Fares from the National Tourist Organisation of Greece (send a large sae); and The Thomas Cook Guide to Greek Island Hopping (pounds 10.95), the most comprehensive and practical guide for independent holidaymakers, with information on routes, prices, accommodation, beaches, historic sites and maps. Available from main bookshops, Thomas Cook branches or from Thomas Cook Publications, PO Box 227, Peterborough PE3 8BQ, adding pounds 1.15 for p&p.

National Tourist Organisation of Greece: 4 Conduit Street, London W1R ODJ (0171-734 5997).

ACCOMMODATION

Hotels are graded into six classes by the Greek tourist authorities from "L" (luxury) to "E" class, and priced accordingly. A typical B-class hotel double room will cost pounds 40 with breakfast per room per night. Pensions are graded A-C.

Rooms in private houses form the bulk of the accommodation used by independent island- hoppers; the owners tend to meet the ferries and strike bargains by the quayside - allow pounds 10 per room per night, b&b. These are less regulated, though officially inspected ones carry a tourism board plaque. Most islands have campsites, and unauthorised camping is forbidden.

A leaflet published by the National Tourist Organisation of Greece, called Traditional Settlements, provides a list of guesthouse accommodation for holidaymakers in village houses, old mansions, towers, converted forts and historic buildings restored by the Greek Government. Standards vary considerably, but you can expect to pay between pounds 10 and pounds 30 a night for a double room with breakfast with breakfast. For further information send a large sae to the National Tourist Organisation of Greece (see above for address).

ARCHAEOLOGY

That 41-year-old British institution and specialist in archeological and historic holidays, Swan Hellenic, organises 18 special cruises each year covering from BC to Byzantium, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, all in the Orpheus, a former Irish cattle ferry, now converted and much loved by its passengers, many of whom have notched up 20 or more voyages.

Guests professors, bishops, marine biologists, military historians, astronomers and other experts give talks each day on borad and at sites ashore. A typical two-week September cruise, "Lands of Gods and Heroes", starts in Turkey with Homer's Troy, and then sails for Ephesus, Kos, Crete, Delos, Corinth, Perachora, Delphi, Ithaka, Olympia, Zakynthos and Corfu. The cost is pounds 1,710-pounds 3,690 per person; all meals are included in the price, as well as most excursions and entrance fees, and unlike most cruises, there is no tipping.

The holidays are definitely not for people whose idea of a cruise is non-stop entertainment. These are "voyages" rather than "cruises" and the ship is homely rather than luxurious. But if body comforts are fairly modest, the spirit is admirably nurtured.

Swan Hellenic: 0171-800 2200.

Other firms offering archaeological, architectural or historical holidays in their general programmes include: British Museums Tours (0171-323 8895); Filoxenia (01422 375999); Martin Randall Travel (0181-742 3355); Prospect Tours (0181-995 2163).

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

The Practice Place, a purpose-built holiday centre at Ayios Pavlos in southern Crete, offers a number of health-orientated courses to help people cope with increasingly stressful lives, focusing on yoga. The programme also includes courses in holistic massage, T'ai Chi, theatre, dance and ceramics. There is no obligatory participation, or, as Derek Ireland and Radha Warrell, who are Vinyasa Yoga instructors, put it, "no forced hugs".

The centre takes 36 holidaymakers, mostly British. Many go there on their own but must be prepared to share a room with a stranger. There is, however, taverna accommodation nearby for those who prefer their own room. The two-week full-board holiday (with vegetarian food), excluding flights, costs pounds 450-pounds 5l5.

The Skyros Institute also runs personal development and holistic holidays at its centres at Atitsa and Skyros Village. These cost from pounds 545-pounds 698 for full-board; fares are not included. The Practice Place: 01273 687071.

The Skyros Institute: 0171-284 3065.

SPECIALIST FIRMS

Companies with holidays in Greece include: Best of Greece: de luxe and unusual properties with pools in Paros, Paxos, Mikonos and Aegina, and traditional houses in Sifnos, Corfu and Santorini. One-bedroom luxury apartment in Mikonos in high season: pounds 1,109 per person for one week, including flights.

CV Travel: luxury and traditional villas and cottages in Corfu and Paros, with yachts, motorboats and speedboats available for rent. The White House in Kalami in Corfu, which Law-rence Durrell wrote about in Prospero's Cell, sleeps up to eight and costs between pounds 410-pounds 475 per person per week in peak season (July and August), including flights.

Corfu a la Carte: studio villas and apartments, also painting, walking and learning Greek in Paxos, Corfu and Simi. Two weeks self-catering in a traditional Simi mansion costs from pounds 449-pounds 400 each, flights included.

Greek Island Club: comfortable villas close to the sea, and traditional country houses in the Ionian and Sporades islands. Hilltop House on Ithaca, converted from a traditional family home, sleeps up to six people; two weeks costs pounds 555 per person, including flights.

Hidden Greece: simple rooms, pensions, hotels and apartments in the Cyclades and Dodecanese, including lesser-known islands such as Folegandros, Iraklia and Skhinoussa. A room only on Naxos costs pounds 240-pounds 298 per person for one week, including flights.

Ilios Island Holidays: villas, village houses apartments and small hotels, on the islands of the Cyclades, Sporades and in the Ionian group. Two weeks on the Ionian island of Meganisi costs pounds 349-pounds 499 per person, including flights.

Laskarina Holidays: mainly Saronic, Sporades and Dodecanese, with some remote, laid-back islands. Studios in Lipsi (Dodecan-ese) cost pounds 379-pounds 439 for two weeks, including flights; studios in Alonnisos (Sporades) are pounds 349-pounds 379 for two weeks, including flights.

Simply Crete: special-interest holidays such as flowers, walking and painting. Houses of character in villages and country cost pounds 301-pounds 580 per person per week, with car hire and flights.

Sunvil Holidays: lesser-known resorts in Crete and village houses that have been restored as part of a conservation scheme to encourage visitors to join local life. One week costs between pounds 432-pounds 459 each, including car hire and flights.

Best of Greece: 0171-255 2320.

CV Travel: 0171-581 0851.

Corfu a la Carte: 01635 201140.

Greek Island Club: 01932 220477.

Hidden Greece: 0171-636 7133.

Ilios Island Holidays: 01403 259788.

Laskarina Holidays: 01629 822203.

Simply Crete: 0181-994 4462.

Sunvil Holidays: 0181-568 4499.

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