Mamma Mia Live?
If you like. The new film based on the songs of Abba may have the most risible storyline in Hollywood history, but the underlying proposition is robust enough: Greece's islands – great and small – provide the most romantic, alluring and serene settings in Europe.
This summer hasn't brought the best of news, from forest fires on Rhodes to the death of an Australian visitor to Mykonos, allegedly at the hands of a bouncer. Yet the long love affair between the British and the Greek islands has proved enduring. Many travellers are happy enough to fly out to one and remain there, with a flexible amount of exploring. Others try to tick off as many as they can, relying on the excellent network of ferries that connects even the smallest inhabited fragment of rock.
Arguably, the best course of action lies somewhere between – discovering the highlights of a group of islands.
This guide is highly prescriptive: it recommends three main groups of islands, and picks some of the best locations in each. For a comprehensive survey, read Greek Island Hopping (Thomas Cook, £14.99) by Frewin Poffley – the authority on travel on, and between, these rugged gems.
Where to start?
On the Greek mainland – at least, if you want merely to dip a toe in the water. The capital, Athens, is easy to reach from the UK. Its port, Piraeus, is the hub of much of the ferry system serving the Greek islands. You could easily combine a city break in the capital with a visit to a nearby island in the Saronic Gulf.
Just a handful of euros and a couple of hours by ferry from Piraeus (even less by hydrofoil), Aegina is an ideal first-time island. The local economy is based more on pistachio nuts than tourism, so visitors are not seen purely as a source of income.
You can sail to the diminutive capital, Aegina Town, which is colourful and pretty, with good, cheap restaurants and friendly bars. Cross the rolling hills in the centre of the island to take in one of Greece's greatest antiquities, the 2,500-year-old Temple of Aphaia, standing magnificently on the summit of a windswept hill (00 30 22970 32398; 8.30am-7.30pm daily from April to October; €4/£3.40). You can reach it on one of the regular buses from Aegina Town to the resort of Agia Marina, the Saronic Gulf's only attempt at mass-market tourism – and, if you're only staying the day, with ferries back to Piraeus.
More rewarding, though, is to continue down the "marine highway" on the ferries that run from Aegina to Spetses. Along the way, stop at Hydra, a dramatically beautiful island free from motor vehicles. The island that Leonard Cohen made his hideaway is almost too picturesque for its own good. The town is squeezed into a narrow ravine that doubles as a pretty harbour. The main moneyspinner is selling overpriced jewellery to day-trippers. Because it is easily accessible by hydrofoil from Piraeus, Hydra can get maddeningly crowded – with celebrities as well as ordinary people. An energetic walk is required to get away from the hordes and into the hills, though the scars of last summer's wildfires are still painfully visible.
The ideal way to enjoy Hydra is to stay over-night, experiencing the tranquillity when the day-trippers go home. Top choice for accommodation is the Hotel Miranda, set back from the port of Hydra Town. The hotel (00 30 22980 52230; www.mirandahotel.gr) is almost two centuries old, the former mansion of a sea captain. A double room costs €130 (£106), including breakfast.
"Lonely in the extreme" is how John Fowles described the island at the end of the Saronic chain, Spetses. He taught at a school here in the 1950s and used it as the setting for The Magus. He recounts the excitement on learning that "another Englishmen had landed from the Athens steamer''.
Half a century on, this is not a rare event: the menus and motorbikes are for UK consumption. But despite the ravages of forest fires (in 1990 and 2001), the scent of pine still hangs over the island. The wonderful but hard-to-reach beaches on the south-west coast of the island, where the seduction in The Magus took place, are intact.
Spetses is well placed for some reverse island-hopping. Base yourself here, for example at the handsome Villa Marina in Spetses Town (00 30 22980 72646; double €64/ £53) and you can nip across to the mainland. Porto Heli is only 10 minutes and €5 (£4.20) away. From here you can reach the ancient sites of Epidavros and Mycenae, after a marvellous drive through the mountains.
Anything closer to home?
Yes. For a superb Greek-island experience you need go no further than the Ionian islands – the group located where the Adriatic meets the Mediterranean, centred on Corfu. "Shores of glory" is how Byron eulogised the island; "If peace and quiet are your requirement, you had better go elsewhere!" was the riposte from a recent tour operator's brochure, concerning the resorts of Benitses and Perama. Happily, these are not at all typical. Corfu is an Isle of Wight-sized lump of limestone washed by the u o Ionian Sea. It is still one of Greece's loveliest islands, with superb scenery in the north and west, and much evidence of its fascinating history.
It's also easier to reach than ever, thanks to a scheduled link on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick, and plenty of charter flights. The airport is within walking distance of the island's fine capital.
Corfu is one of those places that seem to have been invaded twice a century for the last 2,000 years, and the capital bears the marks of Romans, Normans, Venetians, French, Turks, Germans and the British. Three areas of Corfu Town are particularly pleasant to wander around: the original Campiello quarter, a warren of tottering houses; the Jewish quarter, rather newer but equally charming; and the huge Esplanade, the bustling main square edged with gently crumbling Venetian palaces. The northern part of it is occupied by a rather forlorn cricket pitch.
Wander south to Mon Repos, an elegant villa built in 1831 for the British High Commissioner. After the old empire left, the Greeks took it over; the Duke of Edinburgh was born here.
Corfu has two beaches called Agios Stefanos. The east-coast one is middling, while the one at the extreme north-west, just above Agios Georgios bay, is enchanting. A deep V-shaped strand is encroached upon only mildly by development, and is relatively uncrowded.
Somewhere a little less busy?
Corfu also provides easy access to smaller, simpler islands. Airsea Lines (00 30 26621 99316; www.airsea lines.com) hops across from Corfu to Paxos in around 12 minutes; ferries to Paxos, operated by Petrakis Lines (00 30 26610 38 690; www.ionian-cruises.com) take slightly longer.
With neat ports, tiny villages and hidden beaches, Paxos provides an excellent escape. It is also where you will start to meet the endearing stereotypes, such as wizened old men manipulating worry beads for no greater stresses than the rate of growth of the olives, or the chance of drawing a duff domino.
More extensive island-hopping?
Head for the eastern side of the Greek mainland. Most of the 169 populated islands are located here in the Aegean Sea, and the Cyclades group provides a classic Greek island-hopping experience. Three decades ago, these islands were the stuff of travellers' legends, involving Japanese motorbikes, Lebanese drugs, Milanese women and the occasional goat. But forget Honda 50s shrieking their destructive way between jerry-built hotels, inhabited by the uninhibited youth of Europe – they're all in Thailand now. Instead, these islands are enjoying a 21st-century renaissance, with designer style adding to natural good looks.
Paros is the place to start since it is larger than most Greek islands and acts as the hub of the Cyclades ferry system. The capital, Parikia, has a constant bustle of boats. Beyond it you can visit a butterfly garden, seek a gentle beach or eat excellent seafood overlooking the preposterously pretty port of Naoussa – perhaps the most picturesque place in all Greece. Hotel Stella (00 30 22840 51317; www.hotelstella.gr) is a good place to base yourself, with simple, stylish rooms and a well-kept garden. A double room costs €65 (£51), including breakfast.
Paros is notable for its fine white marble, used in antiquity to build Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, and for the Venus de Milo.
Antiparos provides an antidote to the crowds across the water on its alter-ego, though recent infrastructure improvements mean that it feels increasingly on the tourist circuit. A new road runs south from the scruffy quayside through desolate scrubland to a huge and ancient cave. A day trip can be rewarding, but since Antiparos became trendy, with a lot of holiday-home development, hardline recluses should look elsewhere.
Mykonos, another island with new direct flights from Gatwick with easyJet, is the obvious Cycladic target. Quaint and tiny streets criss-cross the old town, and the decaying old waterside quarter resembles a particularly delicious corner of Venice. The rest of the island ranges from smooth to rugged like a carelessly crumpled duvet. It has some superlative beaches, in name as well as appearance: Paradise and Super Paradise, for example, which are predominantly the territory of gay men (the former being the location of the aforementioned nightclub attack).
An alternative, south of Paxos, is Ios. While the pretty, whitewashed capital gets lively after dark, during the day it's quiet and elegant. The island has some fine crescents of beach, and is reputedly the final resting place of Homer.
Time to think?
Try the largest island in the Cyclades, Naxos. It has towering landscapes framed by long, empty beaches, and is one of the few places where filoxenia – traditional Greek hospitality towards strangers – is alive and well. It appeals to those who find hiking more rewarding than lazing. The ideal companion is Naxos and the Small Cyclades, by Christian Ucke and Dieter Graf, in their growing Walking the Greek Islands guidebook series (€14.30/£11.35, on sale locally), as it features precise directions for a selection of walks. In the wilds of inland Naxos, such accuracy is to be commended.
The perfect island?
Hellenophiles will argue for hours about this, but in terms of beauty and history it has to be Santorini – even though stories about it being the lost city of Atlantis are nonsense. At some fateful instant, the always abrasive plate tectonics of the eastern Mediterranean climaxed in a catastrophic eruption that tore the core from an island the size of (you guessed it) the Isle of Wight. It wasn't the Atlantis of myth, but it was a thriving community. New research suggests that the eruption took place in around 15,000 BC; previously, the widely held view was that the eruption took place around 1500-1650 BC, and the resulting tsunami led to the collapse of Minoan civilisation on nearby Crete.
In Greece, there is clearly no such concept as seismic blight; even though little remained of Santorini beyond a semicircle resembling a half-submerged Olympic ring, man settled on the largest surviving fragment of the island.
An eruption around 3,500 years ago, though, led to the destruction of Akrotiri – a town on Santorini where up to 5,000 people lived. It suffered the same volcanic smothering as Pompeii, but was twice as old and has been preserved even more perfectly. The walls of two- and three-storey buildings bear witness to advanced engineering, and vibrant wall paintings and elaborate pottery depict a sophisticated society. Unfortunately, a roof collapse three years ago led to the site's closure; it is unlikely to reopen before 2010 (some say 2011 is more likely). Agreement has still yet to be reached on any design changes to the roof, and it is estimated that there will be at least 18 months' on-site work before visitors are again allowed in.
In the meantime, a worthwhile substitute is the "Wall-Paintings of Thera Exhibition" at the rim-side Petros M Nomikos Center in Fira Town (www.therafoundation.org). This features computer-generated 3D reproductions of the Akrotiri frescos that are indistinguishable from the originals: it's the only place where you can see them all in one go. Open daily 10am-8pm, admission €4 (£3.40).
Santorini's main town, Fira, embraces all the values of an idyllic Cycladic settlement: a mix of delicate white cottages on the crest of the caldera, laced with narrow lanes that resonate with church bells. Every field of vision is picturesque, from the whitewashed town to the austere slopes of the volcano.
The Porto Fira Suites (00 30 22860 22849; www.portofira.gr), which has been luxuriously upgraded over the years, is a fine place to stay on the island. A double room now costs €297 (£248), including breakfast. It provides an excellent platform for watching the sun set from the ridge of the crater – a natural wonder of the world.
The best of the rest?
The islands described here provide just a taste of the insular feast that Greece provides. The Dodecanese archipelago, for example, could keep you busy for weeks. This group of 23 (not 12) islands stretches down the west coast of Turkey, and indeed reverted to Greek control only 60 years ago. The largest is Rhodes, the popular holiday island sadly ravaged by wildfires this summer. More appealing is the tranquil, adorable isle of Kos, where the ruins of Asklepion comprise an ancient health farm. Aficionados of simplicity whisper of the attractions of Halki, one of the many islands where relative inaccessibility has preserved intact a gentle way of life.
Further west, the Sporades are more accessible for a casual visitor from the mainland. Lovely Skopelos does not appear to have been harmed by the making of the film Mamma Mia, while neighbouring Skiathos is superficially brash yet possessed of much deeper dimensions – and the most exciting airport of any Greek island, with planes passing right over sunbathers on the beach.
Evia is part of the same group, though given its proximity to the mainland – you can reach it by bridge – few visitors realise that it is a distinct island, let alone the second largest in Greece.
Biggest and arguably best is Crete, which is large enough to combine sandy beaches, lively resorts, wild mountains and historic towns such as Chania with formidable ruins – notably the Minoan palace at Knossos, a few miles from the capital Heraklion. Long before mainland Greeks learnt to scratch a few letters, Minoans were building grand buildings – as you discover here, at the far end of Europe.
How to avoid a long journey home
A web of ferry and hydrofoil services operated by competing companies links the islands with each other and the mainland. Each has its own agents, which is why if you ask at a port you can expect to be given conflicting advice on the next or best boat out. You may be assured by one agent, for example, that the only boat from Naxos to Paros is at 11am, when in fact there are several sailings that day. Ask a number of agents before handing over cash.
Bear in mind that places often have two very different names, and that transliterations between Greek and English add an extra dimension to the confusion. So when seeking a boat to Santorini, you should be on the lookout for Thira (another name for the island), Thera or even Fira, the name of its main town – even though ferries arrive some miles south at Athinios.
Be prepared for your itinerary to fall apart. The departure time on your ticket is merely an indication of when, in an ideal world, the vessel might set sail. Boats can be up to an hour late for no apparent reason, or be cancelled altogether. Patience and flexibility are essential – and if you are heading away from the main islands you should allow a day or two's leeway.
Take extra care when planning the last leg of your journey, and buy your final hop tickets back to your starting point well in advance. The majority of boats on the popular routes are now high-speed vessels that do not have the passenger capacity of the disappearing older, slower boats. Many get booked solid in high season, particularly on departures to and from Athens. Attempting to buy tickets on the day could result in you missing your flight home.
The island-hopper's ideal island-hop
By Frewin Poffley
The perfect island-hopping itinerary requires three basic ingredients: a convenient starting point, a good mix of island-hopping destinations, and a reassuringly easy means of getting back to your flight home.
The starting point is important, as you will have to get back there. Athens is the safest choice, as the majority of ferries operate out of its three ports. Getting back from most islands is thus easy. The downside is that you have a longish trip to your first port of call. For most novice hoppers this is Paros, the island at the top of the popular chain that includes Naxos, Ios and Santorini. Visit any of these four islands and you won't be lost for ferry connections or links further afield. Journey times are so short that day-tripping is possible between all of them. It all adds up to very safe island-hopping – particularly given the high number of boats heading back to Athens (this is a major boon, as there is nothing better calculated to spoil a carefree wandering holiday than worrying about how you are going to wrap it up).
Using an island as a starting point (the best being Mykonos (above), Santorini and Kos) makes it easier to get hopping, but this option does require extra planning – connections between islands are limited (Mykonos, for example, has only one regular boat a day connecting it with islands on the Paros chain). With links such as this, the trick is to make sure that the penultimate hop is to a neighbouring island with better connections, so that you can be sure of making the final jump safely.
Moving between island groups is more difficult and time-consuming, though hoppers flying in and out of Athens always have the option of day-tripping to nearby Poros, Hydra and Spetses, while waiting for a flight home.
Frewin Poffley is author of Greek Island Hopping (Thomas Cook, £14.99)