A brief history of Greek island hopping

The ferries are highly unreliable, and all routes lead to Athens - but you'll experience a taste of pure freedom. So keep your itinerary flexible, pack a picnic lunch, lie back in the sunshine and relish the awe-inspiring views. That's what island hopping is all about
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The Independent Travel

Modern island hopping has its origins in the mid-1960s, when Greece became popular as a destination for the up-market jet-set heading for islands such as Mykonos and Santorini, and for budget travellers seeking the equally hedonistic, hippy-cum-beach destinations such as Ios and Matala on the south coast of Crete. Both groups discovered the local ferry system; at the time it was heavily subsidised in order to enable the relatively poor islanders to keep in touch with the large number of relations who had migrated to Athens (presently home to two out of five Greeks). The arrival of cheap, charter-flight travel in the Seventies and the growth in popularity of trans-European rail travel, coupled with a growing base of budget accommodation on the islands, brought backpackers en masse.

Modern island hopping has its origins in the mid-1960s, when Greece became popular as a destination for the up-market jet-set heading for islands such as Mykonos and Santorini, and for budget travellers seeking the equally hedonistic, hippy-cum-beach destinations such as Ios and Matala on the south coast of Crete. Both groups discovered the local ferry system; at the time it was heavily subsidised in order to enable the relatively poor islanders to keep in touch with the large number of relations who had migrated to Athens (presently home to two out of five Greeks). The arrival of cheap, charter-flight travel in the Seventies and the growth in popularity of trans-European rail travel, coupled with a growing base of budget accommodation on the islands, brought backpackers en masse.

The islands have never looked back. Tourism has become the mainstay of almost every island economy, and the number of people hopping is slowly rising. Despite the abiding backpacker image, the market is changing: most of the growth these days is made up of a mix of the top end of the market and families (often with teenage offspring) seeking more adventurous holidays that offer something for everyone.

Does anyone do it for fun these days? With the exception of package tourists using ferries for transfers to islands without airports, most island hoppers are hopping in pursuit of fun of one kind or another. The next island up or down the line is rarely more than a couple of hours away, and sitting on a sundeck as the Aegean rolls gently by is hardly the most stressful way of travelling. In fact, provided you're not addicted to precise time-keeping or a minutely predetermined itinerary, island hopping is fun and relaxing. It brings with it a very real sense of freedom too: there is a lot to be said for any holiday where you can wake up each morning and have the option of heading for the nearest beach, or, over a waterside breakfast, mulling over the question "which island shall we move on to today?".

Is there something that could be described as a network? Traditionally, there has been a clearly defined network - though to the uninitiated it often isn't apparent on the ground. The trick is to appreciate that the ferry system is geared to the needs of the locals, not tourists. Most islanders are only interested in one thing - travelling to and from Athens. As a result, the ferry system has evolved into something approaching a "hub-and-spoke" structure. Athens (with its ports at Piraeus, Rafina and Lavrion) is the hub, while the islands, which line in reasonably neat chains, provide the spokes.

Ferries thus run from Athens - usually Piraeus - to the islands down a chain (usually on a 24 or 48-hour return trip). This system has, however, become more complicated in the last couple of years with the arrival of new, high-speed ferries and catamarans. The latest high-speed ferries now run to Crete in just under six hours, with catamaran journey times to Paros and Mykonos half that. This year is also going to see a significant switch in ferry activity away from Piraeus in favour of Rafina and Lavrion.

There is a growing tendency to run fast boats to islands nearest Athens, with slower ferries proceeding directly to islands at the bottom end of each chain. The net result is a shortening of journey times between Athens and all the islands. Crossing on to different chains without returning to Athens has always been tricky, and remains so.

How seasonal are sailings? As the system is geared to the needs of the islanders, it remains in place throughout the year. Extra sailings are put on at Easter (when many ex-islanders choose to return home), and during the summer. High season runs from June to September, with ferry links doubling in number. Ferry operators are given licences to run individual boats on specified routes. The trade-off for being allowed to make a small fortune during the summer is that they are expected to make twice-weekly calls at loss-making islands during the rest of the year.

To reach greece from Britain, must you first find a slow boat to Piraeus? Definitely not. Although you could still get a ferry from Italy, fares on easyJet (0870 6 000 000, www.easyJet.com) from Luton to Athens are so low as to render surface transport to Greece uneconomical.

Athens has a new international airport opening in March. Located outside the city at Spata, it is inconveniently placed for Piraeus, but very close to Rafina. The government has encouraged Rafina and Lavrion to take more traffic, by offering ferry companies licences to operate out of these ports, but the municipal authorities at both are kicking up a fuss over the prospect of more people passing through. The port authorities at Rafina even closed the port down for half a day last summer in a strike over the lack of government investment in the port's infrastructure.

There are international airports on a number of islands, so you don't have to visit Athens at all. Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Santorini, Mykonos, and Skiathos are all viable starting points for an island-hopping holiday, with charter flights from a wide range of UK airports.

How do you find out what's sailing where and when? The smart answer is "with difficulty". Greece has yet to acquire a full-blown, printed ferry timetable. The nearest to it is a monthly publication, Greek Travel Pages. Most ticket agents in Greece have a copy that you can ask to consult.

Tourists can also obtain Greek Travel Routes, a derivative publication that has summer timetable information and is distributed free by the National Tourist Organisation of Greece (London office: 020-7734 5997). Unfortunately, it is compiled so early in the season that by July its schedules have often been superseded. An online version is available at www.gtpnet.com. Local branches of the NTOG also provide photocopied lists of the current week's departures. The best of these are available from the Athens offices (and the airport) and cover departures from Piraeus and Rafina.

In the islands, information is even more scant. Ticket agents will (between them) have posted up all departures for their island, but obtaining information regarding other islands remains difficult (the assumption remains that everyone is travelling to Athens). The trick to moving around is to know the system and, armed with this knowledge, to take a very relaxed attitude to hopping around. In the summer, this is easy enough, as boats are plentiful between the popular islands.

What are the on-board class divides? Regular ferries usually have three classes - luxury, tourist and deck. Most people travel on a "deck" ticket, and this is what you will be sold unless you request otherwise (reckon paying £6 for a typical hop to the next island down the line). Tourist-class fares are roughly double the "deck" fare.

Ticket prices are controlled by the government, so competitive pricing isn't a significant factor within the Greek ferry system. One ongoing concern with deck tickets is the tendency of a number of ferry crews to discriminate against non-Greek passengers. This is particularly true on overnight trips, when saloon seats are at a premium. Members of the crew are put on saloon doors to regulate access, and non-Greeks are ushered on to the open upper decks until the saloon seating has been occupied by locals. Fortunately, this isn't too common - but it doesn't hurt to walk on board with a Greek newspaper visible under your arm. If this doesn't work, then loud arguing often does the trick.

A more attractive way around the problem is to buy tickets on high-speed ferries or catamarans. The absence of sundecks on these boats ensures you will have a numbered saloon seat. Tickets on these boats cost double the deck-class fare on regular ferries.

What if i want to travel with a package holiday? Group island hopping is a concept that rather goes against the "freedom" ethic that makes island hopping so attractive. Organised island hopping remains thin on the ground. The inherent unpredictability of individual ferry links makes the logistics of putting together such packages difficult. Add to this the fact that English is widely spoken in the islands, that good, cheap accommodation is easy to find, and that ferry links on the main routes are frequent, and there is little tour operators can offer except pricey and largely unnecessary reassurance for first-time hoppers. One operator that does put together packages on an individual basis is Island Wandering Holidays (01580 860733 and www.islandwandering.com). Prices range from £66 for one basic week up to £746 for a luxury fortnight (excluding flights).

Talk us through a week's worth of hopping Even if you only have a week at your disposal, it is possible to do some serious island hopping. When time is limited, there's a lot to be said for taking an overnight flight to Athens in order to take advantage of an early morning ferry. EasyJet currently gets you in at around 5am. A tried and tested itinerary runs as follows:

Day One: 8am high-speed ferry from Piraeus to Paros (arriving at 11am and leaving the rest of the day free to explore).

Day Two: Short day-trip to neighbouring Antiparos to see the famous cave and sample some lunch, and check out the popular nudist beach.

Day Three: Take a mid-morning catamaran on to the beach island of Ios (one hour to the south), find rooms and then explore.

Day Four: The beach on Ios.

Day Five: Take an early morning ferry to nearby Santorini for a long day-trip.

Day Six: Spend a final day on the beach before taking the overnight ferry to Athens.

Day Seven: Before taking a night-flight home you can spend a day in the capital doing the regular sights, or if you prefer, take one of the frequent hydrofoils to nearby Aegina and spend the day on the island.

The pace might sound hectic, but in practice it is all fairly relaxed. By day-tripping to neighbouring islands, and confining your itinerary to popular destinations that enable you to take ferries at will, you can achieve a lot with very little effort.

And a month's worth? With a month to hand, then the vistas really do open up. Freed from the constraint of an imminent return to your starting point for your return flight, you can wander off around the Aegean, taking in the smaller and remoter islands.

Crucially, you can enjoy your time on them without worrying. If there isn't a ferry for a couple of days then it isn't a problem, it just becomes part of the adventure. Without setting too many goals, you will have ample time to wander through the Cyclades down to Crete, and then up into the Dodecanese. An average of an island every two or three days is probably the ideal target.

Do you have to restrict your travels to Greek waters? No - provided you are island hopping near Greece's international borders. It is possible to take organised day trips to Turkey from most of the islands in the Dodecanese as well as Samos, Chios and Lesbos. Most of these excursions take advantage of the twice-daily ferry links that operate from these latter islands and from Kos and Rhodes.

Rhodes also has weekly ferries to Cyprus and Israel - if you've the time to take advantage of them. In the Adriatic, Corfu has daily links to Italy, and until the recent troubles, offered day excursions to Albania.

However, there are two disincentives to international hopping: fares are much higher because of international taxes, and many island hoppers arrive with charter-flight tickets and these usually have a requirement among their conditions of use that the owner not spend a night out of the country.

Frewin Poffley is author of 'Greek Island Hopping 2001', published yesterday by Thomas Cook, £12.99. He operates the associated website, www.greekislandhopping.com

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