The complete guide to the Greek Islands

To see Greece in all its glory, they say you have to go island hopping. But how do you know which ones offer you the best chance of discovering that secluded beach, the most glamorous accommodation or the most memorable meal? Mike Gerrard presents a run-down of the best that the Greek islands can give and, once you've done your dreaming, the best ways to book your trip

ARE SHORT BREAKS POSSIBLE?

In theory, yes - flying time is only about three to four hours - but in practice it wouldn't be very relaxing. The larger islands are served by dozens of charter flights every week from May to late September, but with a charter you would need to stay for at least one week.

The alternative is to take a scheduled flight, but these are not direct: you would have to go via Athens and then switch to an internal flight on one of the Greek airlines such as Olympic or Chronos. Alternatively, you could get a return to Athens for two or three nights, head straight for the port at Piraeus by taxi or using the regular bus service, and hop on a fast hydrofoil (increasingly common in Greece) to one of the closer islands, such as Aegina, Hydra or Poros.

Breakfast at Heathrow and a late lunch on Hydra is quite feasible. The problem with the islands close to Athens is that they are usually very busy, especially at weekends, when many Athenians also take a boat out to them. Accommodation can be hard to find, especially at this time of year. The islands are for relaxing, and this isn't the best way to do that.

CAN I TRAVEL INDEPENDENTLY OR DO I HAVE TO TAKE A PACKAGE?

It is very easy to travel independently. It's also a great way to see the islands, as long as you're flexible. I recently flew to Rhodes with the intention of going to Naxos, only to find that the day of the weekly ferry had changed without warning and I missed it by half a day. There might or might not be one the following week, the ticket agent told me, and there might or might not be a boat back again. I would have to go to Naxos to find that out.

This was early in the season when boats are more likely to be changed or cancelled, but at any time of year, a Greek ferry timetable is best viewed as a work of fiction. You must travel with the frame of mind that you may not get to the island you particularly wanted to, but you will get to another one that is just as interesting.

That aside, it is easy to get around. To go to Rhodes I booked the cheapest convenient charter ticket through the Internet, using the Cheap Flights Website (www.cheapflights.co.uk). I also booked my first two nights' accommodation in the same way, at the St Nikolis Hotel in the Old Town of Rhodes, using one of the many Greek travel websites, in this case one for Rhodes itself (www.rodosnet.gr/Defaultuk.htm).

Having missed my Naxos ferry, I got one to Symi instead and moved on from there. I ended up touring the Dodecanese instead of the Cyclades, but what the heck. English is spoken everywhere, so you will have no trouble getting ferry tickets, finding rooms or ordering meals. Only in the smaller islands are you likely to find that a bit of Greek is needed, and in those places it really is a bonus. Pack the Rough Guide to Greek. It is at least worth making the effort to learn the Greek alphabet, so that you can read street signs, bus destinations and so on.

If you avoid late July and August, and Easter, you should have no trouble finding rooms, at whatever price you want to budget for. Ferries are usually met by hotel owners and householders who have rooms to rent, so just hang around looking like someone who doesn't have a room. You can trust most people, and they will usually have photos of the accommodation available. Haggling is usually expected, though not always in the hotels, whose room rates are fixed by the Tourist Police and should be on display.

Taking a package is usually cheaper if you need to be sure of the dates you travel, and only want to stay on one island, or perhaps a week each on two different ones, though the extra cost of this is enormous. A good two-island combination is Symi and Tilos, with Greek specialists Laskarina Holidays (01629 822203). A week on Symi costs from pounds 365 and a week on Tilos from pounds 395, both till mid-July and based on two people sharing. Add pounds 22 for the transfer cost, a pounds 20 admin cost, and that's pounds 802 per person. Stay in the same property on Symi for the full fortnight and the cost is only pounds 440.

You don't have to have a fixed base, though. Sunvil (0181-568 4499) will arrange an island-hopping itinerary through the Cyclades for you. Expect to pay around pounds 500- pounds 600 for one week, pounds 650-pounds 800 for a fortnight.

CAN I AVOID THE CROWDS?

Easily, with a little pre-planning, and extra journey time. The busiest islands tend to be the ones with airports, such as Corfu, Rhodes and Kos. Slightly quieter are the islands one boat ride away, such as Paxos, Halki or Kalymnos respectively. If you travel two islands away from an airport, you start to find islands that are more Greek and less geared to package tourism.

In most cases you can still get there in one day from Britain, and the specialist tour operators can make it easier by chartering their own small boats that take you straight there. Both Laskarina and Sunvil (see above for contact details) offer slightly more remote islands, such as Lipsi, Leros and Lemnos - which seems to suggest that any island beginning with an `L' is OK.

Even Lesbos, the third-largest Greek island and one which has some busy resorts, also has the delightful village of Sigri, at the extreme western corner, which is too small to attract the mainstream operators. Direct Greece (0181-785 4000) currently goes there; a fortnight in early July costs from pounds 359, based on two sharing a small villa. If you want to really escape the crowds then you will either have to make your own way to one of the more distant islands or get a copy of the Hidden Greece brochure (0181-766 7868).

Where some operators promise you hidden Greece, and then list the same destinations as everyone else, Hidden Greece really goes there. It includes tiny specks of islands such as one-village Donousa in the Cyclades, Agathonisi in the Dodecanese, Fourni and Ikaria in the north-east Aegean, and even - if you believe it - the island of Dyspepsia in the Dolmades, best reached by five hours on a pedalo. Prices are very reasonable, too: pounds 386 for two weeks on Agathonisi in high season.

CAN I AFFORD IT?

Greece is still one of the cheapest countries in Europe, and you can have a good meal for pounds 10 a head. A decent en suite hotel room can cost less than pounds 20 a night, out of high season. If you are on a very limited budget, you can do it for much, much less by staying in more basic hotels or renting a room in someone's house, and eating more simply.

If you are past the days of slumming it, but still have a limited budget, then look to the mass-market operators that offer Greece in their brochures. You have to be prepared to enter into package-holiday land, but if you have a family then that's probably what you want and, among the brochures, there are pleasant places to stay.

Lassi on Kefalonia features in many brochures. It is built-up, but not overwhelmingly so, and is very convenient for exploring the interesting Kefallonian capital, Argostoli. One week's b&b at the Hotel Lassi before 22 July costs pounds 449 per adult, pounds 315 for a child, in Unijet's (08705 336336) brochure.

If you consider that you could pay up to pounds 200 for a flight alone at that time of year, then the package is a good deal (see also the details for Sigri under "Can I Avoid the Crowds?").

WHERE ARE THE BEST BEACHES?

The bigger islands tend to have the best beaches, so if that's what you're after, consider Crete, Rhodes or Kos. Skiathos has lots of decent beaches, and Santorini the spectacular black sand ones, though these can get unbearably hot in midsummer. The larger Ionian islands are all good: Corfu, Kefallonia, Lefkas and Zakynthos.

Not all resorts are equally appealing, though, so read the brochure carefully combined with a good guidebook. There are plenty of stone, pebble and even rocky areas in the islands which are described as beaches, and which regulars are used to, but which would probably disappoint a first-time visitor (see also the "Five of the Best Beaches").

CAN I COMBINE A BEACH WITH SOME SIGHTSEEING?

You can if you choose a large island as, generally speaking, the smaller islands are not well off for historical remains or museums. An exception is Delos, one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. The whole island is protected and visits are only allowed from neighbouring Mykonos. Crete, the largest island, also has plenty to offer, from Knossos and Phaestos to golden beaches and the Samaria Gorge.

The bigger the island, the more variety you will have, so choose somewhere like Rhodes, Lesbos or Euboea (which, despite being the second largest island, is not listed in some guidebooks as it is connected to the mainland by a bridge).

Another suggestion would be to stay on Poros, one of the Argo-Saronic islands near Athens. Not only could you take a day trip to Athens to see the Acropolis and other sights, the island is only a five-minute boat ride from the Greek mainland, and visits to Epidavros, Mycenae and Tiryns can be made from there.

CAN I EAT WELL?

You can eat well and you can eat badly in the Greek islands, but Greek cuisine is rather more limited than that of most other Mediterranean countries. Having said that, you won't find a better place to sit and eat fresh fish, simply grilled over charcoal, than at a waterfront taverna on one of the Greek islands.

Under a recent law, Greek menus are obliged to say whether the fish they serve is fresh or frozen. Popular dishes such as squid or swordfish are made available all the time by buying in frozen supplies, but you will see how fresh the fish is by going into the kitchen or by having the waiter bring the fish to your table for you to choose one. Bear in mind that the price on the menu is per kilo, so ask for a fish to be weighed and priced before you commit yourself to having it: fish is expensive.

Greek kitchens tend to do the bulk of their cooking in the morning, keeping things hot till they are served. In some places this can mean lukewarm food, but this is the way Greeks like it so you either accept it or order something freshly cooked, such as fish or souvlaki.

Vegetarians are being increasingly catered for, but dishes such as stuffed peppers or stuffed tomatoes may have meat in them, so check first.

Look for a place that serves more imaginative dishes than the usual list of moussaka, souvlaki, dolmades and stuffed tomatoes. There are such places, like my own favourite, the Mantalena in Alikanas on Zakynthos, where family recipes are beautifully cooked with the best local ingredients. As the owner, Tasos, told me one time when I commented on another restaurant's offering of a complete Greek meal, including wine, for 2500 drachmas (a fiver): "You pretend to pay them and they pretend to feed you."

Tasos also echoed one of my own feelings about eating in the Greek islands: be wary of eating at a place that employs someone to stand outside and try to persuade you to come in. "You would never do that to a Greek," Tasos told me, "so why do it to a tourist?" If a place is good, it is busy because of its reputation.

Greek wines have also been improving enormously in recent years, even winning prizes in international competitions, but you can still opt for cheep and cheerful table wines, or Greece's own resinated wine, retsina, which is an acquired taste that not everyone thinks worth acquiring (see also the "Five of the Best Restaurants").

JOURNEY TO THE SOURCE: KALAMATA OLIVES

LOVE THEM or loath them, with its ample sunshine quota and well- suited soil conditions, you'd be hard-pressed to avoid olives on a trip to Greece. Despite the fact that these small - or not so small, since some plump varieties grow up to an inch and a half in length - oily fruit are today cultivated across the globe from Mexico to the Mediterranean, they are naturally native to Greece.

Apparently the country is home to more than 137 million olive trees, most of which clamber skywards from the precious earth of small family plots. The olives' piquant taste and tonal differences depend very much on when the fruit is picked. Those that remain green have usually been plucked from the tree when still underripe whereas those that turn brown, plum or black have been left to ripen on the branch. Once ready for harvesting, the fruits are then dutifully hand-picked and stacked for collection by the canning companies that then send them on for sale in luxury deli counters abroad.

Of the many types of olive that can be bought in the country, Kalamata olives are some of the most prized. These enormous, jet-black berries are shiny and almond-shaped and are unique to the area around Kalamata in the southern Pelopponese region. Though the city which gives the variety their name may have little to place it on any usual tourist itinerary - especially since a catastrophic earth- quake shook it to bits in 1986 - the nearby beach at Finikounda and the old Venetian towns of neighbouring Koroni and Methoni are another story.

In these places you can get away from the normal vision of package-holiday Greece and spend your days ambling through historic towns, looking out across the Messinian gulf to the mountains beyond or pottering down to the sea for an afternoon dip in the surf.

En route to the sea, though, make sure that you stop off at a local shop to pick up a Greek- inspired picnic. A kilo of olives is probably more than the most spartan of stomachs could normally fit in in an afternoon, but since it will typically set you back a mere 750 drachmas (pounds 1.50) or so, there's no reason not to indulge.

Back in the UK, half a kilo of good quality Sifonios Kalamata olives (below) would cost you pounds 4.90 from the Athenian Grocery, 16a Moscow Road, London W2 (0171-229 6280). So offer the friends you've left behind a proverbial olive branch, and buy up 17 kilos of Kalamatas to flog back to them when you get home. That way you could spend the profits on a flight back to Athens and have a summer in the sun.

You can fly to the city from Heathrow or Gatwick on British Airways (0345 222111) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747); from Heathrow on Cronus Air (0171-580 3500) and Olympic Airways (0171-409 3400); but the lowest fare we have been able to find for travel in the next few weeks is on easyJet (0870 6 000 000) from Luton for pounds 141.90.

Rhiannon Batten

THE FIVE BEST BEACHES

MIRTIOTISSA ON CORFU

Lawrence Durrell described this as perhaps the most beautiful beach in the world, in Prospero's Cell. Writers are prone to exaggeration, of course, but it is probably the most beautiful on Corfu.

MYRTOS BAY, CEPHALONIA

The archetypal Greek beach, a long crescent of sand, often featured in the country's promotional tourist literature.

PORTO KATSIKI, LEFKAS

The Ionians are top heavy with classic beaches, and here's another. A walkway leads you down to a sandy bay with a dramatic cliff behind.

ELAFONISI, CRETE

With pink-tinged sand, rock pools, offshore islets you can wade out to, brilliantly clear water, a few tavernas and a fairly remote setting on the island's south-west. Idyllic.

KOUKOUNARIES, SKIATHOS

One of the best on an island noted for its beaches, this 1,000-metre stretch of sand has a sweep of pine trees behind it that offer some shade.

FIVE BEST RESTAURANTS

THE MANTALENA, ALIKANAS, ZAKYNTHOS

A family-run place that makes its own wine, serves complimentary ouzo, and produces exemplary food.

GIORGIO'S, CHORA, SYMI

A unique institution which seems to run on chaos, but produces fine food. In high season you'll have to queue for a table.

PALIA ISTORIA, MITROPOLEOS 108, RHODES TOWN

Combining Greek tradition with Mediterranean invention, this is one of the best restaurants in the Dodecanese, yet few tourists make it to this part of town.

REX, KAPODISTRIOU 66, CORFU TOWN

Visiting dignitaries are taken here to dine. It serves some of the best food on Corfu, with many local specialities and good wines.

VASSILI'S, LOGGOS, PAXOS

The elderly Vassili still oversees his family restaurant. Right on the harbour, it provides sophisticated versions of Greek classics, and fresh fish.

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