The jewels of the Aegean
The Greek islands offer something for all tastes. Frewin Poffley goes hopping around 10 of the best
Saturday 30 April 2005
The largest island in the Cyclades, fertile Naxos has an attractive old kastro topped with a Venetian fortress, and a noted long ribbon of fine sandy beaches (popular with windsurfers) running down the coast to the south of the town. This combination is sufficient to encourage most visitors stay longer than intended. One downside is that it has also ensured that the unspoilt mountainous interior, littered with medieval watchtowers and picturesque villages (as well as the occasional ancient temple), is not explored by the majority of tourists. They miss out on one of the most attractive island landscapes in Greece.
The first island of call for many ferries sailing from Piraeus, Paros is the island hub of the Greek ferry system. As a result, this is usually the best island to head for if you want to switch to an island on a different ferry route (moving between the main ferry routes can otherwise be difficult). The island is large and has a mix of sights, beaches and towns to suit all tastes: an excellent island-hopping starting point.
This volcanic island is on everyone's hit list thanks to the largest visible caldera in the world and the associated myth of Atlantis. The dramatic sea-filled crater, its steep black walls topped with a confetti of white cubist houses, is heavily touristed. But the persistent stories of vampires, the weird black volcanic sand beaches, and the sheer number of excursions on offer (from visits to the remains of ancient Minoan town of Akrotiri to submarine and canoeing trips around the coast) make this a must-visit destination.
Twenty years ago Ios was the party island, where Europe's youth idled away the summer living out the sun, sand and sex lifestyle to the full. The good beaches and attractive hilltop town remain, but the mix of tourists is now much more balanced as baby-boomers return with families to former haunts. There isn't much in the way of sightseeing, but the island retains much of its beguiling laid-back atmosphere during the day and offers the best nightlife in the Cyclades. A good place to unwind for a few days when you've had your fill of sightseeing.
Crete is popular as a starting point and as a junction for island-hoppers moving between the Cyclades and Dodecanese chains. This has pushed it up the rankings for island-hopper visits. But although there are plenty of beaches and sightseeing on offer, Crete is too large for real island devotees who soon move on. Worth considering if you are looking for a cheap flight to Greece and want to avoid Athens.
Thanks to the most impressive port town in Cyclades, Mykonos is almost ridiculously photogenic - which is why it was chosen as the location of Shirley Valentine. It has long attracted the rich and famous. The town's warren of white cubist streets was built to confuse pirates in days past, and does an equally good job with tourists today. Visitors in July and August will find it packed to bursting, a long way removed from its relaxed low-season self. Excessive holiday home building is also damaging the skylines, but the hordes still come. The main sightseeing attraction is the island of Delos just offshore, one of the great archaeological sites in Greece.
Another popular starting point for island-hoppers, Kos is a good choice if you want to base yourself on one island and day-trip to others. The beaches, nightlife and sightseeing are the main draws (castle-dominated Kos Town is a popular package tourist destination), but the island is large enough for those looking for a more relaxed and traditional settings. Another big plus is the opportunity to take a day-trip to Turkey, with daily excursion boats running to Bodrum from Kos Town.
Rhodes is another large island with an over-popular main town and beaches coupled with an interior that remains relatively unknown. The island's reputation has been tarnished of late, thanks to persistent tourist problems at the beach resort of Faliraki. But like other party destinations in Greece it is largely self-contained, and visitors to the rest of the island will find plenty to see and do without a hint of trouble.
The jewel in the sightseeing crown is the main centre: Rhodes City is one of the best preserved medieval walled cities in Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site. The large number of tourists can detract from the atmosphere, but it is easy to escape by wandering into the maze of back streets that make up the old town. Heavy tourism has produced a very good bus system allowing access to all the major sites, but given the size of Rhodes, car hire offers the most convenient way of visiting the remoter, more scenic areas.
A small, dreamy island neighbouring Paros, Antiparos appeals to all those looking for good old-fashioned Greek island peace and quiet. Many island-hoppers come for the day and then return to stay. The main town on the northern tip of the island has beaches of varying quality (including one nudist) on three sides. At its heart is a medieval Cycladic fortress made up of whitewashed houses built to form a defensive wall. The main draw is an impressive deep cave, said to inspired the salt house in Swiss Family Robinson.
With plenty of character and not too many tourists, Serifos is sufficiently close to Athens that many of its inhabitants work in the capital and regularly commute home at weekends. This makes ferries very full on Fridays, Sundays and Mondays but is a valuable testament to the quiet, attractive nature of this island. Island-hoppers aside, tourists don't visit in great numbers as Serifos isn't close to a popular package tour island. Those who do find another of those whitewashed hilltop picture postcard towns (complete with a surfeit of windmills) overlooking the main port, and a beach that is reckoned to be one of the best in Greece. The relative lack of foreign tourists means that there is no nightlife but a succession of tavernas offering local food: a near perfect get-away-from-it-all Greek island.
Frewin Poffley is the author of 'Greek Island Hopping' (Thomas Cook)
Postcard from Mykonos
The Mykonos wallflower: a lesser-known species of Cycladic flora, with bright, gaudy petals and showy blooms. Drab in appearance and prone to wilting.
Three days after stepping onto Mykonos's shimmering sands, I was ready to leave; the living, sighing embodiment of the maxim, you're never more alone than when in a crowd. And in a crowd of near-naked, amphetamine-addled, touchy-feely friend-seekers, this was a crushing realisation. I had failed the island. Or it had failed me.
Either way, it was not something this backpacker had bargained for. Having spent the best part of three summers travelling the archipelago, seeking out its every hedonistic enclave, Mykonos seemed like a sure thing: the valedictory end of the party pilgrimage.
Like an over-anticipated blind date, the celebrations had fallen flat. I had all too eagerly fallen in with a group of physics students from a northern English university, who seemed to be approaching the island as an experiment to be observed.
We had set up camp on Paradise Beach - a glorious stretch of cappuccino-coloured sand where a parade of young nudist Europeans were having a beautifully brainless time. The scientists, overdressed in sensible swim-trunks, sat, smirked and passed dry judgement on proceedings as if behind sterilised glass.
By day three the will to party had left me. Resolving to leave on the first boat the following morning, I swam out to a spiky reef wall where I perched, saying a rather painful goodbye to the island, and watched the setting sun turn all the deeply tanned Euro-nudes Michelangelo bronze.
That's when the man with webbed feet appeared. "Look," he said, presenting an irregular-looking foot carefully on top of the reef wall like a solo synchronised swimmer. "I have webbed feet." As chat-up lines go - and it soon turned out this was one - he scored top marks for freakish audacity. Sparky was his name; and he was. And while I had no amorous intentions his party credentials shone like a mirrored disco ball.
He came armed with a group of exotic-looking cohorts with whom he shared a sprawling white rental villa. It crowned Mykonos Town's picture-perfect hilltop, offering views out to the sacred island of Delos where he used to take friends, showing them the giant marble phalluses that stand in the Sanctuary of Dionysos.
On an island where romantic encounters are brief, the last thing you would expect is a holiday romance that endures a decade. They say love finds you when you least expect it and somehow, while in search of a party, it found me. And it wasn't Delos's seductive statues or even Sparky himself, whose attentions wandered quicker than those of a stray tomcat, but one of his friends who had eyes as dark and shiny as kalamata olives, and who still gets a kick today out of telling friends that we met in Paradise.
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