TRAVEL: THE BEST RESORTS IN Greece

A Greek holiday away from the crowds can still be had despite mass marketing by the travel giants. Jill Crawshaw lifts the lid on her favourite places

he Greek mainland has endless miles of deeply indented, mostly mountainous coast, and there are nearly 1,500 islands, some colonised by the karaoke crowd, others remote sanctuaries for dreamers and escapists. Just about the only thing they have in common is that they are all different, and every Graecophile has his or her own favourite. Here are mine.

LIPSI

Dodecanese

When you arrive at Lipsi harbour, you are in traditional Greece - blue- domed churches rise above cube-shaped whitewashed houses linked by Heath Robinson wiring. Caiques bob at anchor, fishing nets and ropes are waiting to trip the unwary on the quayside.

It may also look as if the 6sq m island is shut. But that's because Lipsi is so laid-back; explore a bit behind the harbour and you'll find a pretty village square and the odd shop that may be open, though the museum is almost guaranteed to be closed.

Sooner or later, a minibus will turn up to bounce you over the potholes to the beaches - until recently you had to take a boat or walk for about 40 minutes across dusty fields (Lipsi is primarily a farming island) to get to Plati Yialos, the finest of the sandy bays.

An island for lazy days and quiet nights. But if you really want to immerse yourself in things Greek, you can always join a "Learn Greek in Greece" holiday, organised by Hidden Greece, the company which specialises in "hidden" islands such as Fourni and Ikaria, Arki and Marathi. There will be plenty of time to practise what you have learnt - there's very little English spoken on the island.

Hidden Greece offers a week staying in self-catering studios from pounds 305 to pounds 340 per person, two weeks from pounds 353 to pounds 410, including flights. The "Learn Greek in Greece" holidays run from 16-30 September.

THE PELION

Central Greece

The Pelion Coast is the favourite destination of Dudley der Parthog, who spends 10 weeks a year finding resorts for Sunvil, the independent company that aims to be several steps ahead of the mass operators.

Its architecturally unique mountain villages overlooking the sea are among the most beautiful in Greece - the ancient gods, after all, reputedly chose them as the location for their weddings - and the lush green coastline, forested with pine, oak, chestnut and apple orchards, hides a number of secluded beaches shelving into almost Caribbean-blue water.

Criss-crossed by mule tracks, the Pelion is a walker's delight, but it's not for those who need organised tourism. If you want to stay in a resort, Agios Ioannis is popular with the Greeks and a few German tourists, with a lively seafront, tavernas, watersport and even a few discos. But if you want to be away from it all, cottages in the mountain villages have been built and converted in traditional style for holidaymakers' use.

Sunvil Travel offers a week's b&b accommodation at the Captain George Hotel in Agios Ioannis from pounds 430 to pounds 466 per person, two weeks from pounds 503 to pounds 564, including flights.

KIPARISSI

Peloponnese

Until recently, Greece specialist Filoxenia described this resort only as "Aghios Anonymous", to prevent it being spoiled and to ensure that only holidaymakers who would appreciate its charms went there.

Rumbled last year, the firm has finally had to come clean and name Kiparissi, but warn that it is "remote, remote": four hours by road from Kalamata and an even longer but spectacular seven-hour drive from Athens, though there is a hydrofoil three times a week, in the summer.

When you finally arrive, there is little to see. Just a genuine pink and white Greek village (little English is spoken), set against a beautiful mountain backdrop. For some, a week may be enough - but you can team it with another resort or a fly-drive itinerary.

Filoxenia offers a week room-only at the Pension Maria, 100 yards from the beach, from pounds 310 to pounds 450 a week per person, pounds 430 to pounds 510 for two weeks, including flights. Car hire costs between pounds 150 and pounds 200 a week.

LOUTRO

Crete

Oozing with heart and character, Crete is brimful of holiday potential, particularly in the less-developed west. But Loutro is the stuff that dreams are made of - for escapists who want to be marooned in a resort with less than 100 inhabitants and one bar, the remnants of a castle, a mini-market, small hotel and smattering of good tavernas catering for the largely Greek weekend day-trippers. Hidden by the rugged spine of mountains of the south coast, you can only reach it by a long hike or short boat ride from Sfakion. There's little to do - except walk amid mountain and gorge scenery, and take canoe and boat trips to the nearest beaches (Loutro's is pebbly) and other small islets where you can play Crusoe for a day.

Sunvil Travel offers a week's b&b at the Porto Loutro Hotel for pounds 388 to pounds 414 per person. Self-catering apartments are also available.

OLYMBIADHA

Halkidiki

With its sandy beaches, short transfers from the airport, low-key, low- budget resorts, the three-pronged Halkidiki Peninsula is Greece's top family holiday territory, but the big tour operators moved in en masse some years ago.

They haven't reached Olymbiadha yet. It is still a small, haphazard, old-fashioned village - like Tolon was 30 years ago, say Graecophiles, with a fine array of sandy beaches, a few holiday apartments and a hotel right on the village beach.

Olymbiadha may be simple, but it can boast something of a pedigree - on the right of the village, the site of Ancient Stagira was the birthplace of Aristotle, with Alexander the Great another son of the province. The nearby monastic republic of Athos is still home to 20 or so Greek Orthodox monasteries, barred to all females, including cows and hens. Boats take you around the peninsula to view the monasteries from the water.

Filoxenia offers a week self-catering at the Mijies Apartments from pounds 301 to pounds 382 per person, based on four sharing, two weeks from pounds 438 to pounds 542. A week's b&b at the Hotel Akrogiali costs pounds 407 to pounds 507 per person, based on two sharing, pounds 648 to pounds 792 for two weeks.

CEPHALONIA

Ionian Islands

The largest of the Ionian islands looks like it may be mobbed this summer as the success of Louis de Berniere's novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, seems set to run and run. So, if you're looking for your own bolthole, steer well clear of the resorts offered by big tour operators.

Strike off the most commercialised - Argostoli, Lassi and Lixouri. Skala is for beach babes who want reasonable peace and quiet. Assos is unbelievably quaint, and Fiskardo chic, the picture-postcard resort overlooking Odysseus's birthplace, the island of Ithaca, much in favour with the flotilla set.

Main ports, such as Sami are dull - like most of Cephalonia's classical villages devastated by the 1953 earthquake chronicled in "the book". Some of the best holidays can be found in unbelievably beautiful corners away from the resorts and offered by smaller operators.

Greek Islands Club offers villas in the pine copses above Makris Yalos, with private access to a sandy beach. A week's holiday at the Villa Natasha costs from pounds 430 to pounds 628 per person, based on six sharing, two weeks from pounds 475 to pounds 813. Tapestry Holidays offers villas and studios in Assos, 10 minutes' drive from Myrtos, one of the best beaches on the island. One week costs from pounds 350 to pounds 600 per person, two weeks from pounds 440 to pounds 800, including flights and car hire.

SYMI

Dodecanese

On the beat of day-trippers from Rhodes and featuring in several specialist tour operators' brochures, Symi can hardly claim to be "undiscovered" - but once you've seen it, if only from the deck of a ferry, you'll be determined to go back.

To start with, it has probably the most stunningly pretty harbour in Greece. Up on the hill, a row of windmills stand sentinel above the huddled old capital of Khorio, its houses tumbling down to the harbour at Yialos, their balustrades and pediments reminders that Symi was once a wealthy island of boat-builders and sponge-divers, with a population of 30,000 (larger even than that of Rhodes, despite its diminutive 35 square miles).

Evenings are the busiest time in Yialos; there seem to be more restaurants than people, yet somehow they all gradually fill up with hungry customers. During the day, holidaymakers leave in caiques for sandy bays, or take the local bus which hurtles round bends and through Khorio to Pedi, a lazy, pleasant ramshackle resort, the only one on the island.

There is also plenty of exploring to be done; 63 churches and countless chapels are situated in the most idyllic spots. The Great Monastery of St Michael at Panoramitis even has its own ferry stop.

Laskarina Holidays offers a week in a self-catering studio from pounds 310 to pounds 495 per person, based on two sharing, two weeks from pounds 365 to pounds 485, including flights.

SAMOTHRACE

North-east Aegean

You won't get more off the beaten track than this mysterious, desolate little island, whose 5,000ft Mount Fengari remains snow-capped for nine months of the year. Even the Greeks find this place inaccessible, the forbidding coastline providing no natural harbour, so that ferry-crossings are very susceptible to the strong winds.

Forget picture-postcard Greek islands - Samothrace is sombre, windy and bleak in parts, yet it used to attract more ancient visitors than all the other islands put together. They came to visit the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, the fascinating ruins which still stretch over a lovely hidden valley where secret rites of initiation were performed.

Philip II of Macedon met his wife at the sanctuary - their son being Alexander the Great. Homer reckoned that Poseidon watched the siege of Troy from Mount Fengari. You can prove it by climbing up to the peak yourself - if you've got the energy and about six hours to spare, though the going is far from easy. Get as far as Samothrace, and you can claim to be a true Graecophile.

The island is unpackaged; the Kavala ferry from Athens sails once or twice weekly. From Alexandhroupoli, ferries leave daily in summer, less often out of season.

TOUR OPERATORS

Best of Greece

(tel: 01784 492492)

Filoxenia

(tel: 01422 375999)

Greek Islands Club

(tel: 0181-232 9780)

Hidden Greece

(tel: 0181-766 7868

Laskarina Holidays

(tel: 01629 822203)

Pure Crete

(tel: 0181-760 0879)

Simply Travel

(tel: 0181-987 6119)

Sunvil Travel

(tel: 0181-568 4499)

Tapestry Holidays

(tel: 0181-235 7788)

Travel a la carte

(tel: 01635 201140)

Voyage Ilena

(tel: 0171-924 4440)

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