Island getaway: where to find peace and quiet in the Med

The Mediterranean can be outrageously crowded in high summer. In his new book, Charles Arnold reveals the best islands to make your escape

Sunday 13 April 2008 00:00 BST
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There are more than 200 islands in the Mediterranean which offer accommodation to holidaymakers, but to me the remarkable fact is that 90 per cent of all visitors stay on just 10 per cent of the islands. In other words, there are simply masses of islands that you can have almost to yourself.

In my new book, Mediterranean Islands, I have rated 16 of the islands – such as Malta and Capri – as "very crowded" (crowdfactor 1,000+). At the other end of the scale there are 73 "very uncrowded" islands, with a crowdfactor of 40 or below. This rating is calculated simply by counting the number of visitors plus residents per square kilometre.

Let's start with one of my absolute favourites: Alibey in Turkey (crowdfactor 147), the largest of an archipelago of 20 islands accessed by bridge from Ayvalik. Alibey is thick with pine trees and is equally well endowed with beaches. The main town of Cunda is attractive, with winding cobbled streets and superb fish restaurants.

Another "fairly crowded" favourite is Sant'Antioco (crowdfactor 126) off the south-west coast of Sardinia. Volcanic in origin, this hilly island has fine, cliff-backed beaches and is famed for its strong wine.

A good one for bikers and walkers is Porquerolles (crowdfactor 102), off the coast of Provence. The largest and liveliest of the Iles d'Hyères allows no cars but can be explored by a series of paths that take you across to its steep southern reaches, passing plenty of secluded bathing places.

If you want to get away from the central Med entirely, try Vis (crowdfactor 74), an hour and a half from Split (Croatia) by hydrofoil. Wild and mountainous, with fine views, Vis is known for producing good wine and is an easy base from which to visit the beautiful blue sea cave on the neighbouring island of Bisevo. Another easy half-hour hop from Split is Solta (crowdfactor 55), a wooded island with many fine beaches, famous for its honey, mulberries, olives and rosemary.

If you can't face long boat transfers, then try Chios (crowdfactor 65) a large, distinguished and independent island which can be reached by air from Athens. The north coast beyond Kardamyla is mountainous and green, and has good beaches, while south of the capital are fine Genoese country houses with citrus orchards. The 11th-century Nea Moni is an elegant Byzantine building with a suitably picture-perfect setting. A trip to the top of the island is rewarded by wonderful sweeping views across the Aegean.

Staying in Greece, which has the lion's share of the Mediterranean islands, a great base for wildlife watching is Alonissos (crowdfactor 64), in the Sporades. It's the hub for visiting the outlying Sporades islets, many within the Sporades Marine Park, which helps protect the monk seal (permits required). Alonissos, with its secluded, boat-accessed beaches, is 20 minutes by hydrofoil from Skopelos and less than an hour from Skiathos, which has an airport.

Lesbos (cover photograph), with a crowdfactor of 59, is the third-largest Greek island and another favourite with wildlife enthusiasts, thanks to its birdlife. It is heavily wooded in the east, agricultural in the centre and rather bare in the west. A car is essential for exploring this large island – just remember to take it easy on the local ouzo, for which this island is famed. There are flights from Athens and a few from the UK.

Evvoia (crowdfactor 56) may be the second-largest island in Greece (linked to the mainland by a bridge), but it is little visited. The villages of the north-east are surrounded by pine forests, and chestnut forests skirt Mount Ochi. The newly excavated 10th- to 8th-century BC finds at Lefkandi should be on the list of any self-respecting archaeology aficionado.

Tinos (crowdfactor 56) is best known for the miracle healing reputation of its Panagia Evangelistria shrine. The old village of Pyrgos in the north has several marble-sculptors' workshops and a charming little square in the middle. Tinos is just three hours from Athens by ferry or half an hour from Mykonos.

Working down the crowdfactor list to the quiet islands, we return to Croatia. Sipan is by far the most peaceful of the Elafiti islands, with a crowdfactor of just 46, with walks through hills clad in pine and cypress, and plains growing oranges, vines and olives. Sipan's quiet beaches are just an hour from Dubrovnik by ferry.

Lemnos has a low crowdfactor (41) but isn't lacking in sights, with numerous superb beaches and a history dating back to Poliochni, a town some 5,000 years old, thought to pre-date Troy. The capital Myrina has a magnificent Venetian fortress with views across the island and out to sacred Mount Athos. Lemnos also attracts a huge variety of bird species, and the island is accessible by direct flights from the UK.

Another large and well-known isle is Corsica (crowdfactor 36), by far the least crowded of the big Mediterranean islands and a strong contender for the region's most beautiful destination, thanks largely to the breathtaking Gulf of Porto and the white limestone peninsula that is crowned with the Italianate town of Bonifacio. The regional nature park covers more than 40 per cent of the island and Napoleon looms large here as the Corsican town of Ajaccio was his birthplace.

Foodies make haste to Andros (crowdfactor 30), just two hours by ferry from Rafina (east of Athens). The island's proximity to the Greek capital means it's a bolthole for Athenians which in turn spells excellent restaurants with very good wine lists. As an Athenian holiday destination you'd think Andros would be crowded, but Batsi is the only place touched by tourism. Elsewhere expect lovely old villages, quiet country walks and largely deserted beaches.

Another local favourite is Kythnos (crowdfactor 26) a mostly barren island usually overlooked by foreign tourists but popular due to its thermal waters. Kythnos has two villages and some 33 beaches (many remote, so hire-car essential). It's just three hours by ferry from Piraeus.

While Greece gets the most entries, we return to Croatia to find the quietest islands in the Med. Mljet (crowdfactor 24) is a beautifully forested place, the west end of which is a national park, a hub for bikers and walkers. It's famed for its great fish, cheese and wine but wild mongooses have also put this small island on the map – they were originally introduced to reduce the large resident snake population. Mljet is 90 minutes from Dubrovnik by hydrofoil.

Sveti Klement (crowdfactor 11) is perfect for families, a green island with a hotel resort and a marina. There are no cars here but plenty of water sports including fishing and diving. The food is delicious, especially shellfish and fresh vegetables that are grown on the island. Sveti Klement has magnificent botanical gardens and many beaches and coves, and it's only 20 minutes from the popular central Dalmatian island of Hvar by boat.

The award for the quietest island in the Mediterranean goes to Scedro (crowdfactor 1), half an hour by boat from Hvar. This island has an area of just eight square kilometres and has just one place to stay: a rental house (it sleeps 10) in a tiny settlement that encompasses the remains of a Dominican monastery. There's not much to do here, but that's entirely the point. Take a wander through the island's wild landscape, vineyards or olive groves and you'll be about ready to hit the beach.

Reader offer

'Mediterranean Islands' by Charles Arnold is published by Mediterranean Islands, price £20. To order this book at the discounted price of £18 (free p&p in UK) contact Independent Books Direct (0870 079 8897; www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk)

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