The Cyclades: sail like a modern Odysseus

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In the third instalment of our four-part series on Greek Islands, produced in association with Lonely Planet, Des Hannigan explores a scattered Aegean archipelago

The Cycladic islands are scattered like fragments of a mosaic across the heart of the Aegean Sea: sun-drenched outposts of hills and limestone cliffs dotted by villages of snow-white cube-shaped buildings. Ferry-hopping is the key to getting the best from the Cyclades. You can while away a week or two on the glittering party venues of Mykonos and Santorini, but the essence of the Cyclades lies in the dozen or so other islands of the archipelago that lie, always just in sight, amid the golden haze of the Aegean. Prepare to sail like a modern Odysseus.

The name Cyclades is taken from the Greek word for circle, kyklos, a reflection of the archipelago's notional encirclement of the sacred island of Delos, where the archaeological riches of the Cyclades begin. Once Delos was a shrine to Apollo and later became the classical Wall Street of the Mediterranean, where the Delian League of merchants and bankers stored their gold.

Just across the sea from Delos is Mykonos, the jewel in the Cycladic crown, relentlessly fashionable and exciting and with some of the best, if busiest, beaches in the Aegean.

North of Mykonos lie the more subdued Tinos and Andros, old-style Greece in the relaxed pace of their small resorts and in their compelling landscapes of tawny hills and cypresses. Also worth visiting is Syros, a few miles west of Mykonos. The island's main settlement of Ermoupoli, capital of the Cyclades, is one of the most attractive small cities in Greece.

To the south lies the pivotal Cycladic duo of Paros and Naxos. Both are meeting points of the major ferry routes. Paros is all smooth hills and wandering coastline while Naxos is an absorbing world of landlocked villages and fertile plateaux. Both have main towns that are blessed with the Venetian architectural legacy.

Directly south of Naxos are Iraklia, Schinoussa and Koufonisia, a magical procession of tiny islands leading to the most easterly of the Cyclades, the dragon-backed Amorgos, an island of singular beauty and serenity.

The southern loop of the eastern Cyclades includes Ios, fast acquiring a more subdued image than that of frenzied partying. South again is fabled Santorini, or Thira, its Greek name. It wasn't the Atlantis of myth, but it was a thriving community until the 16th century BC when an eruption that tore the core from an island the size of the Isle of Wight. Today, its spectacular multi-coloured cliffs are capped by snow-white buildings.

From Santorini, the Cyclades veer west to a chain of less-visited islands, starting with the most southerly, the enchanting Folegandros, with its lovely main village of linked and leafy plateias (town squares). Sailing north-west takes the traveller to Milos, once home to the 4th-century BC Venus de Milo and an island whose sculpted coastline reflects its volcanic origins. North from Milos are the hugely rewarding islands of Sifnos and Serifos, both unscarred by tourism and enhanced by superb walks.

The Cycladic circle is closed in the north by Kythnos and Kea, both close to the Attica mainland and a touch out of the mainstream. Both are worth visiting for their unforced beauty, with Kea easily reached from the mainland port of Lavrio and blessed with yet another atmospheric old town and a network of walking routes.

An excellent way to experience four of the Cyclades in some depth is on the two-week Greek Island Walking Holiday offered in September by Explore (0845 291 4541; explore.co.uk), costing £1,226 including flights, ferries and accommodation with breakfast. It takes in Syros, Paros, Santorini and Naxos – where you can choose to walk up Mount Zeus, the highest peak in the Cyclades.

Tour operators offering hotel or villa and flight packages to various Cycladic islands include Hidden Greece (020-8568 8330; hidden-greece.co.uk), Greek Sun (01732 740317; greeksun.co.uk) and Olympic Holidays (020-8492 6868; olympicholidays.com).

Where to stay

On a lovely hilltop setting overlooking the sea outside Naxos town are the luxurious and stylish suites and villas of the art hotel Naxian Collection, above (00 30 22 85 02 4300; naxiancollection.com). Prices start at €180. Charming owners enhance the sense of exclusiveness and serenity.

Caldera views are the rage on Santorini, but at a cost, whereas the delightful Aroma Suites (00 30 22 8602 4112; aromasuites.gr) with double rooms starting at €70, at the quieter end of the caldera, has terrific views. Added advantages are its ease of access and its friendly, attentive owners.

Tucked away on one of the Cyclades' quieter islands, Kea, is the Red Tractor Farm (00 30 22880 21346; redtractorfarm.com) with double rooms starting at €70. Rooms and studios are stylish and secluded and are surrounded by organic vineyards and olive groves, accented by unexpected art works.

Travel Essentials

The options for flying non-stop are limited, with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) offering flights from Gatwick and Manchester to both Mykonos and Santorini. You can also find a budget flight to Athens and take a ferry – either from Piraeus or the more convenient Rafina. Both are accessible by bus from Athens airport.

Ferries to the main islands from Piraeus include Blue Star Ferries (00 30 21 0891 9800; www .bluestarferries.gr) and Anek Lines (00 30 21041 97470; www.anek.gr). Fast ferries include Hellenic Seaways (00 30 21 0419 9000; www.hellenicseaways.gr) and Sea Jets (00 30 21 0412 1001; seajets.gr). Aegean Speedlines (00 33 21 0969 0950; aegeanspeedlines.gr) and Cyclades Ferries (00 30 21041 00211; cycladesferries.gr) serve the western isles.

Ferries run from Rafina to Andros, Tinos, Syros and Mykonos with: Blue Star, Hellenic Seaways, Sea Jets, Agoudimos Lines (00 33 21041 41300; www.agoudimos-lines.com), Golden Star Ferries (00 30 801 222 4000; goldenstarferries.gr) and Fast Ferries (00 30 21 0418 2163; fastferries.com.gr). Nel Lines (00 30 21 0411 5015; www.nel.gr) runs to Kea, Kythnos and Syros from Lavrio (90 mins from Athens).

For the Little Cyclades and Amorgos use Express Scopelitis (00 30 22850 71256) from Naxos to Iraklia, Koufinisia, Donousa, Schinoussa, and Amorgos (Mon-Sat). For ferry planning see Open Seas (openseas.gr), Paleologos (paleologos.gr) and Greek Travel Pages (gtp.gr).

Art of the Cyclades

The ancient art of the Cyclades is sustained today on many of the islands. Andros hosts the outstanding small gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art (00 30 22 8202 2444; moca-andros .gr). The museum stages annual exhibitions that have included loaned originals by Picasso, Braque, Miró and others. This year's summer exhibition is Depicting Transcendence from Byzantine Tradition to Contemporary Art and features luminous works by distinguished Greek artists.

The Naxos-based husband-and-wife team of potter Katharina Bolesch and artist-designer Alexander Reichardt has gained international acclaim for their outstanding ceramics and jewellery that celebrate the eternal Mediterranean motifs of fish and olive. The couple's Fish & Olive Gallery, above (00 30 22 8503 1771; fish-olive-creations.com) and their shop, L'Olivier, are located in the historic village of Halki at the heart of the Naxian mountains.

Ancient Aegean

The Cyclades have a wealth of ancient sites and artefacts (odysseus .culture.gr) starting with Delos (00 30 22 8902 2259; closed Mondays; entry €5; the ferry from Mykonos is extra, approx €17). On Santorini, the haunting Minoan site of Akrotiri, above (00 30 22860 81366; closed Mondays; €5) was buried like Pompeii by the fallout from a massive volcanic eruption, but has at last reopened after several years of stabilisation work. Among the smaller, recently restored Cycladic sites is the exhilarating hilltop Acropolis of Agios Andreas (00 30 22 8403 1488; free) on Sifnos, and the Bronze Age settlement of Skarkos (00 30 22 8609 1236; closed Mondays; free) on Ios.

Eat, drink and be Mediterranean

Many of the islands grow their own produce, and cuisine benefits from the delights of wild herbs and natural flavourings at hand. Schinoussa is graced by the modestly named Deli Restaurant and Sweet Bar (00 30 22 8507 4278; delirestaurant.gr; mains from €7), an outstanding restaurant run by young locals who bring Cretan and international influences to such superb dishes as fish carpaccio marinated in lemon. Santorini is celebrated for its small tomatoes. One of its finest eateries is Selene, above, (00 30 22 8602 2249; selene.gr; mains from €28) in the hilltop village of Pyrgos, where dishes include Aegean cod with Jerusalem artichoke velouté.

Tucked away on the beach at Platys Gialos, on the south-east coast of Sifnos, is Ariadne Restaurant (00 30 22 8407 1277; mains from €6) where treats such as wild caper salad precede lamb in red wine sauce or fish soup.

Island ambles

Most of the bigger Cycladic Islands offer a wealth of easy walks and longer hikes through wooded valleys, dramatic mountain landscapes and along lonely coastlines. There are plenty of local walking guidebooks, while the excellent Anavasi Topo series of maps (anavasi.gr) include mapped walks with clear directions for many of the islands.

On Amorgos, the long-established Special Interest Holidays (01865 600727; walkingin greece.com) organises guided and self-guided walks and other activities such as classes in cookery, photography and watercolour painting.

Des Hannigan is a Lonely Planet author. Lonely Planet's Greece guide is available from lonelyplanet.com, priced £16.99

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?