The complete guide to Aegean island hopping

Holidays for bounders? Frewin Poffley covers everything you need to know about this increasingly popular activity


IS ISLAND HOPPING POPULAR AND WHO IS DOING IT?

IS ISLAND HOPPING POPULAR AND WHO IS DOING IT?

It is increasingly difficult to categorise the "typical" island hopper. The activity has moved on from the days of the stereotypical unwashed backpacker. There is a noticeable upmarket trend as the quality of the boats, accommodation and range of activities in the islands improves. Island hopping is also increasingly popular among families with older children seeking something more engaging than a basic beach holiday. It is also ideal for traditional package-holidaymakers looking for an easy introduction to the "just buy the flight and then do your own thing" sort of holiday.

IS THERE A COHERENT FERRY NETWORK?

The Aegean has a well-established network of ferry routes radiating out from the system's hub at Athens. Over a quarter of Greeks live in the capital, including many migrants from the islands, so the system is geared to moving the locals to and from Athens. The islands fall neatly into chains along which ferry traffic moves. Island hopping up and down chains is thus very easy: islands are usually only an hour apart, and there are daily boats in both directions. Moving between chains is often more difficult, and you might have to wait a day or two for a connection.

ARE TICKETS EXPENSIVE?

Fares are regulated by the Greek government, and although rising, remain low compared with Western European levels. Pricing policy is now used to encourage operators to upgrade older ferries: boats under 10 years old are able to charge higher prices, and tickets on the popular high-speed vessels cost up to double the regular "slow" ferry fare. Using the cheapest tickets you can expect to pay around £14 for the long hop from Athens or Crete to the islands, and thereafter £5-£7 for the short hops to the next island along the line.

Tickets are bought from quayside ticket agencies. It pays to book seats on the fast boats at least a day or two in advance, but it is usually possible to buy a ticket at the last moment for the slower boats.

HOW DO I FIND OUT WHEN FERRIES SAIL?

Outside Greece the only serious options are websites. However they rarely contain last-minute updates and these can be significant - even Athens' branches of the Greek National Tourism Organisation are unwilling to issue tourists with printed timetables showing local ferry departures for more than a week in advance. The best site belongs to a publication called the Greek Travel Pages ( www.gtpnet.com). It offers the most comprehensive English language listing of ferry departures. The Hellas Flying Dolphins ferry company site ( www.dolphins.gr) is also worth a look, given the large number of boats operated by this, the largest Greek ferry company.

On the ground there is usually less information to hand. There are no printed timetables as islanders are mainly interested only in the times of boats to and from Athens. For them, word of mouth or a quick phone call will establish this. Ticket agents post up (in English and Greek) times for the boats belonging to companies they sell tickets for, but they rarely represent them all, so you usually have to check several to get a complete picture of the available options.

Some people prefer to island hop using excursion vessels - frequently, boats or hydrofoils are used for day-trips aimed at package holidays. You end up paying a premium for doing this since you buy the round trip yet only travel one way, but this can often be preferable to waiting around for a ferry that arrives in the small hours, or having to wait a day to make a connection. In some cases, such as between Greece's Aegean islands and mainland Turkey, an excursion vessel is the only possibility.

ARE FERRIES SAFE?

This has become a frequent question since 2000, when Express Samina, an Aegean ferry, hit rocks off Paros and sank with the loss of 80 lives. This event heralded improved safety standards and the arrival of a large number of new boats. Reliability and safety have improved considerably. Things were never that bad: Greece has enjoyed low levels of passenger fatalities in the last 25 years. Statistically, you are several times more likely to die in an earthquake than in a ferry incident. That said, boats still break down at times. The most common problems are engine failures or engine room fires on older ferries; these are usually tackled long before passenger safety becomes compromised.

CAN I CHARTER A YACHT INSTEAD?

Not at short notice: as a rule yachting holidays are geared to enjoying the sailing experience rather than to facilitate intensive island hopping. Several companies offer "flotilla holidays" that visit several islands; a leading example being Sunsail (0870 777 0313; www.sunsail.com).

The small Northern Sporades islands of Skiathos and Skopelos are popular bases.

If you have the appropriate Master's ticket, you can hire a yacht and do your own thing. Try Alpha Yachting: 00 30 210 968 0486; www.alphayachting.com.

WHAT IS A GOOD STRATEGY FOR ISLAND HOPPING?

The first is to simply move to the next island up or down the chain before taking a longer hop back to your starting point and flight home. This is the cheapest way of getting around, but it does mean that you have to spend time finding accommodation on each island, to say nothing of moving your luggage every second or third day. The most popular (and least demanding) route is straight down the centre of the Cyclades, visiting Paros, Naxos, Ios and Santorini.

Another option is to use one of the popular islands midway down a chain as a longer-stay base, and then make day-trips to neighbouring islands via ferries and excursion boats. You pay extra for return fares, but spend less time bed-hunting. This strategy works well on islands such as Paros in the Cyclades from where you can take day-trips to Antiparos, Naxos, Ios, Santorini, Delos and Mykonos; and Kos in the Dodecanese, with its excursions to Rhodes, Nissiros, Pserimos, Kalimnos and Patmos.

WHAT ARE THE BEST (AND WORST) STARTING POINTS?

This depends how long you have to island hop. The shorter your holiday the more you are constrained by the need to get back to your starting point in order to connect with your flight home. This makes Athens the most popular starting point: the frequency of connections enables those on two-week trips to visit the maximum number of islands; four or five hops is the average. Some islands - Rhodes, Kos, Crete, Santorini and Mykonos - also have direct international flights and will be a better bet this summer with all the activity surrounding the Olympics. However, you should avoid flying to Karpathos, Skiathos and Lesbos as these are poorly connected to the rest of the network, and require plenty of time to get back to.

ARE THERE SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ISLANDS?

All the islands share a common "Greekness", but after that pretty much anything goes. The variety and contrasts are often very surprising between neighbouring islands, and exploring these is one of the great attractions of island hopping.

Two basic rules of thumb:

1. Islands lying north of an east-west line drawn through Athens have far more tree cover than those to the south. If sandy beaches backed by pinewoods are near the top of your hit list, head north.

2. Islands fringing the coastlines of the Aegean (notably the Argo-Saronic chain south of Athens and the Dodecanese islands off the Turkish Coast) are hotter and more humid during the summer than the central Aegean islands which enjoy the cooling Meltemi wind.

HOW EASY IS IT TO FIND ACCOMMODATION?

Finding a bed is absurdly easy right across the Aegean. Apart from a couple of black-spots (the islands of Chalki and Sifnos) there are plenty of hotels and islanders offering hotel-standard rooms. For those on low budgets, many islands also have campsites linked to the port by a bus service. You are more likely to be irritated by the constant offers of accommodation (particularly when disembarking from ferries) than be lost for somewhere to stay.

The only thing that some might find intimidating is the time-honoured practice of haggling. It pays to arrive early in the day: islanders don't relish standing around at the port for most of the day trying to sell accommodation, and often will settle early on for less. Your bargaining strength improves if you are prepared to stay longer, or arrive in a group.

You can expect to pay £25-£35 for a double room in the summer. If you prefer to book in advance, it is always possible to do so by sticking to hotels and phoning ahead. A useful site with hotel listings is www.greekislands.com.

DO THE FERRIES STOP OUTSIDE HIGH SEASON?

One of the more surprising features of the Greek ferry system is the amount of activity out of the tourist high season (late June to early September). Although the number of high-speed services declines significantly, the bulk of regular ferry links remain in place, reflecting the fact that the system is geared to moving the locals. If you are tackling a tricky itinerary, you may end up doing a lot of backtracking and/or waiting around, but in many ways travelling out of the high season is more attractive: you can escape the crowds, enjoy cheaper accommodation and flights, and still have the sun and sand.

THE AEGEAN WATERSPORTS BOOM

Over the last few years the watersports scene has grown considerably as many holidaymakers arrive seeking activities more taxing than a day on a taverna-backed beach. There are now a wide variety of outlets offering a range of activities (check gogreece.about. com/cs/watersports). Almost all cater for beginners and offer introductory courses that include equipment and tuition. Tempting though these sometimes are, it can't be emphasised enough that your first question should not be "How much?" but "Does my travel insurance cover me if I'm injured doing this?" In many cases it will not, so if the watersport idea appeals, check this aspect of your policy before you go on holiday, and if necessary take out additional cover.

A second precaution is to stick to larger islands with airports when attempting watersports: most islands have populations too small to enjoy substantial medical facilities, so if you do hit trouble, an airlift to Athens is likely to be a strong possibility.

Windsurfing is certainly the most visible watersport, though it is restricted to half a dozen Aegean islands. The straits separating Paros and Naxos are the centre of this activity. There is also some windsurfing on the southern coast of Kos, Rhodes and Kalimnos, though not of the same calibre. Smaller children need smaller boards and sails and require you to visit one of the bigger clubs: a good bet is the Sun Wind Surf Club on Paros (00 30 22840 42900, www.sunwind.gr/surf_club.htm), which offers complete windsurfing holiday packages and an all-important rescue boat should you get into difficulties.

Diving is far less dependent on local weather conditions, and diving schools are scattered much more widely around the Aegean. Given the potentially dangerous nature of the activity, there is a lot to be said for signing up with one of the larger concerns as they are likely to have better equipment, and a wider range of diving courses aimed at different experience levels (see www.kosdivers.com).

Unfortunately you can banish visions of swimming between barnacle-encrusted columns of sunken temples: the Greek government isn't keen on any diving near archaeological sites, so most activity seems to centre on fish-filled rocky outcrops and 20th-century wrecks.

Prices vary considerably: at the low end beginners sessions start at £14, but these can rise as high as £200 for wreck diving. Check exactly what you are paying for: equipment and rescue diver support can sometimes result in hefty increases on the headline charges.

Other watersport activities - waterskiing, banana boats and tubes - tend to be more about water than sport. They can be found on the main tourist beaches on all the islands with large package-tourist contingents (usually with inflated prices to match). Canoeing remains rare in the Aegean, though one enterprising taverna on the south coast of volcanic Santorini was offering canoe tours last year.

Frewin Poffley is the author of 'Greek Island Hopping 2004' (Thomas Cook Publishing, £12.99) Check updates at www.greekislandhopping.com

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