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.
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.
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.
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