“How to Travel to the Greek Islands” by Eleni N. Gage. This article was originally published by travelandleisure.com. It is reprinted here with permission. Link to the original article on travelandleisure.com
How to Travel to the Greek Islands
First-timers often describe their trip to “the Greek Islands,” as if they were one monolithic entity, easily popped into and out of and in between, like boutiques in a mall. It’s only once a visitor gets to know the country that the magnitude and diversity of the archipelagos becomes clear. The truth is that there are over 200 inhabited islands in Greece—and over 6,000 isles of varying sizes all together. Of the islands with residents, each has its own character, from the whitewashed cave homes of the Cyclades to the lush, green Italianate Ionians, to the Dodecanese capped with Crusader castles.
For the most part, the islands are divided into six main island groups, plus a significant stand-alone, Crete. It’s easier to travel between islands within one group than to archipelago-hop, although that can be done. (For example, if you want to go between Mykonos and Santorini in the Cyclades, there are multiple ferry and hydrofoil options in high season, but to get from Santorini to Corfu, in the Ionian, you’ll need to fly or sail into Athens, then fly to Corfu.) See our handy tip sheet below to find the island(s) that sound best for your next vacation.
Getting Around Greece
By Air: Twenty-five islands have their own airports, all served from Athens by Olympic Airways and Aegean Airways, two domestic carriers that have merged. Eight are international airports that are also served by charters and European carriers such as British Airways, Air France, and EasyJet in summer. Although many of the islands have several flights a day in high season, the planes fill up quickly; aim to book four months ahead. Every single domestic flight is under an hour from Athens (keep in mind that the land mass of Greece is slightly smaller in size to the state of Alabama).
By Sea: All large islands, and many small ones, are served by ferries, both of the slow and fast variety, from multiple lines included Blue Star, Aegean Speed Lines and Minoan. Find tickets to your chosen island at aggregate sites such as greekferries.gr or a travel agency such as Dolphin Hellas. Ferries don’t fill up as quickly as the flights do; you can often get a ticket the day before, but it’s always a good idea to book as soon as you know your itinerary, especially during peak times like Easter or August. A faster option for sea travel is a hydrofoil or catamaran—companies include Hellenic Seaways and Hellas Speed Cat. (Summer schedules aren’t released until spring.) While it’s always smart to secure tickets once you know when you’re traveling, it’s not necessary to book too far ahead unless you’re traveling at peak times or in a large group.
By Car: The major car agencies operate out of Eleftherios Venizelos in Athens and most island airports. It is possible to “drive” to an island by taking a car ferry, and since some islands are not frequently served by ferries leaving from Athens, you may have to, for example, arrive in the Athens airport, drive a rental car to the town of Volos port of Agios Konstantinos in central Greece, and sail to the islands of the Sporades. As in the rest of Europe, most car rentals are manual shift; automatics are more expensive and rare and must be booked well in advance. Here’s a work-around: if you’re just one or two people traveling together, a Smart car is inherently automatic, easy to find, affordable, and costs less to take on a ferry because of its teeny size.
Best Time to Vacation in Greece
June or September are ideal for nicer weather and lower crowds. In high season (mid-June to mid-Sept, roughly, although on more remote islands, it’s really just August that gets busy), you’ll have more ferry routes and open restaurants and beach bars to choose from, but more visitors to compete with and higher prices to pay. Each island group has its own weather to look into—Crete is warmest year-round, so a great choice for late fall or winter—and while some islands, such as Hydra, are full of locals and see tourists year-round, others, such as Santorini, get very quiet come winter. Culturally speaking, Orthodox Easter is a fascinating time to visit Greece; each island, town, and village celebrates in its own way with religious parades, firecrackers, and revelry. Dates can vary from early April to early May—the later Easter falls, the better the weather.
For a pupu platter of Greek islands, a cruise is an introductory option that can give you an idea of where you like to go next (we like Sea Dream, Seabourn, Wind Star, and Star Clippers. If you want a more in-depth look at the country, but like the idea of someone else doing all the planning, consider a location-specific travel agency such as True Greece.
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This archipelago is the most common first stop for American travelers in Greece, containing two of the most-visited islands: Mykonos and Santorini. A group of 24 inhabited islands (and 220 total isles), this bunch looks like all the postcards of Greece you’ve seen: white churches with blue domes and pink bougainvillea vines twining along them. But each has its own vibe. Mykonos is known for its nightlife and see-and-be-seen beaches, but it also has a gorgeous Cycladic village in its center, with windmills and winding lanes to stymie pirates. Santorini is romantic and luxurious, beloved by honeymooners who sit in their private pools at the top of the cliff overlooking the caldera and watch the sun set into the ocean. Paros is home to beautiful Naoussa, built around two bays, and some lovely interior villages (and the satellite island of Antiparos is where the jetset goes to kick back). Up-and-coming Milos has the most incredible coastline, colored and shaped by the minerals in the land, and 70 or so wildly different beaches. Tinos is the site of a famous church to the Virgin Mary that is a top spot for Orthodox pilgrims, as well as pristine villages dotting the island. Folegandros is a quieter version of Santorini, built on a cliff, with not too much to do but stare into each other’s eyes. Amorgos is where The Big Blue was filmed. The rustic Lesser Cyclades (Koufonisia, Donousa, Schinousa and Iraklia) are great for camping. And that’s just a sampling of them. There are large islands like Naxos and Syros, the archipelago’s capital, and tiny ones with very little tourism like Sikinos.
You can fly into Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Santorini, and Syros, or take ferries or hydrofoils to most of the islands from the Athenian ports of Piraeus and Rafina. Once there, it’s easy to get between the islands in summer; between mid-April and mid-Otctober, for example, there are two high-speed hydrofoils a day between Mykonos and Santorini. There are also ferry connections to the island of Crete from Ios, Paros, Mykonos and Santorini. Slower ferries also connect Crete to other islands such as Milos and Naxos.
What to Do
Swim, sail, snorkel, and wander the fortress-like capital of each island whose cobbled alleyways, once meant to confuse invaders, are now home to shops, galleries, bars and tavernas (on most islands the main town is called “Chora”; on Milos it’s “Plaka”). Hike paths along the interior between quiet villages. If you’re a night owl, hit the clubs on Mykonos, Paros, and Ios. And wherever you are, every evening at sunset, park yourself somewhere overlooking the ocean with a glass of local wine.
Where to Stay
Mykonos and Santorini both have luxury hotels from international brands such as Starwood (the Santa Marina on Mykonos and Mystique on Santorini), Grace (Grace Mykonos, Grace Santorini) and Relais & Chateaux (Myconian Ambassador Thalasso Spa, and Kirini Suites and Spa, Santorini), as well as local legends such as Perivolas on Santorini and The Belvedere on Mykonos.
Elsewhere in the Cyclades, most properties are independent boutique options like Anemi Hotel or Anemomilos Apartments on Folegandros, Milos Breeze on Milos, Coco-Mat Eco-Residence on Serifos, and the Naxian Collection Luxury Villas & Suites on Naxos. Renting a house is one way to feel like a local—Five Star Greece has an expertly curated collection of villas.
What to Eat and Drink
Seek out island specialties like capers and fava on Santorini, pitarakia cheese pies on Milos and spicy kopanisti cheese spread on Mykonos. Wine- asting is a must on Santorini (Boutari is a national powerhouse, Canava Roussos is old and family-run, and Gaia has won fame for their Assyrtiko). Local wine is wildly affordable, while seafood is expensive (because the Aegean is overfished and much Greek fish is exported). Still, it would be a sin not to try the fresh octopus or only-in-Greece barbounia (red mullet). Restaurants worth going through customs for include: Selene in Pyrgos, the highest village on Santorini; Kiki’s taverna, a lunch-only oasis resting between a monastery and the shore of Agios Sostis beach on Mykonos, Sigi Ixthios (“the silence of the fish”) in Naoussa on Paros, and Medousa in the waterfront village of Mandrakia on Milos.
Great Day Trips
On Santorini, you’ll want to sail to the hot springs and the satellite island of Thirasia (Dakoutros Bros offer fun excursions). From Mykonos, hop the ferry in the harbor to Delos, the island sacred to Apollo and one of Greece’s most stunning archaeological sites. Milos has far more than its fair share of wonders to be seen by ship including the Kleftiko sea caves, uninhabited west coast, and the colorful syrmata houses of the villages along the coast; excursion boats abound, among them the excellent Oneiro. From Paros, take the short ferry to the satellite of Antiparos to wander the town, swim the beaches and kick back at the Beach House bar; if you’re tempted to stay the night, Oliaros has lovely rooms opposite the Despotiko archaeological site.
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The largest Greek island (and the southernmost, roughly halfway between Europe and Africa), Crete could be a country unto itself, with its own customs, climate, accent, and cuisine. There are resort areas along the coast that are scarred by package tourism, but elsewhere you’ll find incredible beaches, including the unparalleled pink-sand Elafonissi; Venetian towns like Chania and Rethymnon, top-notch ruins such as the palace at Knossos, and a growing locavore scene that benefits from the exceptionally favorable climate and fertile ground. You could spend an entire vacation on Crete, or, if you’ve only got a week or so, pick a section to explore, whether it’s the remote mountains, the resort-filled Gulf of Mirabello in the east, or historic Chania in the west.
The island has not one but two airports, a two-hour drive apart from each other, making it very easy to get to from Athens. Heraklion is closer to the resorts of the East coast, but hectic with charter flights in summer. Chania offers easier access to the West coast but is served by fewer flights. You can also arrive by nine-hour, overnight ferry from Piraeus to Heraklion, or Chania, or take a high-speed hydrofoil between Crete and Ios, Paros, Mykonos, or Santorini. Once on the island, you will want to rent a car; it takes about six hours to drive from one end of Crete to the other.
What to Do
Play in the ocean off of any number of beaches from sandy Frangokastelo, where soldiers from the Greek War for Independence are said to appear on the sand in front of the Venetian castle in the early morning mist once a year; to Elafonissi, where the pink sand is said to be stained with the blood of martyrs; to Matala, where Joni Mitchell lived among other hippies in the caves in the late ‘60s; to the shores of Elounda, which are populated not by ghosts but by honeymooners and other swank sunbathers lounging on five-star beach chairs. Hike the Samaria Gorge (which takes five to seven hours through streams and between cliffs), or walk through wildflowers along paths in the mountain villages. Visit the ruins of the Palace of Knossos, home of the Minoan empire (and the dreaded Minotaur monster), the Boutaris winery if you’re an oenophile and the home of Zorba the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis if you love literature. And if music is your thing, come for the Yakinthia cultural festival held high on mount Psiloritis in July.
Where to Stay
A hillside of olive groves sloping down to sandy beaches, the Elounda peninsula has become something of a Cretan Riviera, lined in swank resorts including Crete’s only Relais & Chateaux property, the Elounda Mare; Starwood’s Blue Palace; and the Domes of Elounda, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Outside of Heraklion is family-friendly, five-star, beachfront Amirandes, part of the national Grecotel chain (take a detour to have dinner on their farm, Agreco). Moving west, you’ll find the well-preserved Venetian town of Rethymnon, and more historic boutique options like Kapsaliana Village Hotel, a transformed 18th-century olive press, and outside the sweeping historic port of Chania, in a renovated 17th-century mansion, Casa Delfino. There are also agritourist resorts that invite guests to immerse themselves in village life, whether it’s making local moonshine at Earino outside of Heraklion or visiting a shepherd in his mitata (traditional round stone hideout) at Enagron.
What to Eat and Drink
Cretan cuisine is full of healthy superfoods (the wild mountain green stamangathi), rich specialties (staka cheese spread), simple recipes (the traditional Dakos salad), and the sinus-clearing local moonshine, raki. Meals you’ll dream about long after returning can be had at Avli in a circa-1600 Venetian mansion’s courtyard that serves local specialties including gamopilafo (“wedding rice”) a chicken-rice-pilaf delight (the complex includes a romantic boutique hotel and a shop with local herbs, honey and treats); H Sterna tou Bloumosifi (Bloumosifi’s Cistern), a traditional tavern in the historic village of Vamos; and Portes in the old town of Chania, which is nationally known for its fine dining take on Cretan specialties.
Great Day Trips
The isle of Spinalonga, off the coast of Elounda in northeastern Crete, is worth visiting for its wild beauty and tragic history—it was used as a leper colony until the middle of the last century. (Prep for the visit by reading Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island.) Sporty types and nature lovers should set aside a day to hike the Samaria Gorge, the second longest in Europe (wear a bathing suit under your clothes); the national park opens at dawn, closes at dusk, and takes five to seven hours to traverse.
Saronic Gulf Islands
The closest island group to Athens is also home to some of the prettiest. But while Hydra, Spetses, Poros, Aegina, and little Agistri are popular with Greek weekenders and European visitors, they’re less known by Americans (with the exception of Hydra, which was made famous by Leonard Cohen, who lived here for years, and is popular with an international art crowd).
The Nantucket of Greece, car-free Hydra is tiny but mighty. It’s full of gray stone captains’ homes, chic boutiques, and delicious tavernas (but without the amazing beaches of some other Greek islands—the rocky shores and crystalline water are reached by boat trips from the harbor). Spetses has green pine trees, horse and carriages trotting along the waterfronts, and yachts parked in the harbor. Family-friendly Poros, with a large, cute town dominated by a clock tower and tree-shaded beaches, is popular with sailing aficionados. Aegina, the closest island to Athens, has a large port town, four sandy beaches and its very own ruin, the temple of Athena Aphaia. And tiny Agistri is nothing but four whitewashed villages and beaches with turquoise waters (nudists welcome).
A hydrofoil from the port of Piraeus ferries you from Athens to each of these; if you’re coming from the Peloponnese, you’ll find passenger ferries in Metohi, which make the 25-minute sail to Hydra; buy tickets on board or book from Hydra Direct. Multiple fishing boats and ferries sail from Kosta and Portoheli on the Peloponnese to Spetses, just opposite, and Poros, 20 minutes away. It’s easy to hop a hydrofoil between islands, with especially frequent connections between Spetses and Hydra, and Aegina and Agistri.
What to Do
Dodge cats and donkeys (but no vehicles) while wandering the cobbled alleyways of Hydra, popping in and out of shops (jeweler Elena Votsi is a must-visit), museums (the Historic Archives give you a sense of the island’s strategic role in the Greek War of Independence and the Ecclesiastical Museum is as interesting for its architecture as its artifacts), and galleries. Careen along Spetses’ waterfront in a horse and carriage, then stop in to Bouboulina’s Museum, the home of Greece’s beloved female freedom fighter, to see a Spetsiot mansion and brush up on your history. Visit the impressive ruins of the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina or the not-as-well-preserved Temple to Poseidon on Poros. Take in the annual contemporary art exhibit of this summer’s Hydra School Project. Swim off of pine tree-lined shores (notably “Love Bay” on Poros, Chalikiada, and Aponissos on Agistri), scuba dive and hike on any of the islands, cycle on Spetses, Aegina, or Poros. Hit a festival: The Armata on Spetses in early September and the Miaoulia on Hydra in late June celebrate Greek naval victories with fireworks, ship burning, and revelry on the harbor.
Where to Stay
Hydra and Spetses are brimming with converted captain’s homes (we like the Cotommatae on Hydra Orloff Resort on Spetses), and on Poros, Sto Roloi is a collection of traditional island houses turned into holiday villas, while Sirene Blue Resort offers a more modern take. Private villa rental is also an option, especially on Aegina where weekend homes outshine the hotels. The only hotel in Hydra town with a pool is the Bratsera, in a renovated sponge factory in a privileged location right in town. And the jewel in the crown of the Saronic Gulf is Spetses’ harborfront Poseidonion Grand Hotel, established in 1914, which lives up to its name. At the other end of the spectrum, on Angistri, accommodations are simple, and best exemplified by the cult favorite Rosy’s Little Village.
What to Eat and Drink
Sunset drinks are a competitive sport at Hydronetta, where you sit on the edge of the island, sipping cocktails as the brave dive off the cliffs into the ocean below. It’s a great stop before continuing along the path to the hamlet of Kaminia for sea urchin salad and fresh pites (savory pies) at Kondylenias taverna. Or, if you’re feeling lazier, turn back toward town for a more upscale take on classics like grilled halloumi salad at Omilos. On Spetses, grab an ouzo at To Byzantino on the harbor in Dappia before trying some freshly caught fish at landmark Patralis or Tarsanas. And don’t leave Spetses without picking up a box of amygdalota, the island’s signature almond cookie, covered in powdered sugar. In Aegina, the great seafood can be found at the tavernas surrounding the lively fish market, and on Poros, Aspros Gatos (white cat) just outside of town is ideal for seafood meze.
Great Day Trips
Aside from jaunts between one island and the next (highly recommended), the day trip scene is all about the Peloponnese. Take a hydrofoil, fishing boat, or speedboat over to see the spectacular ancient amphitheater at Epidavros, the cursed house of Atreus at Mycenae, the lovely neoclassical town of Nauplion, which was the first capital of modern Greece and more. When the Epidaurus Festival is on during the summer, extra ferries are added to allow visitors on the island to hit the ancient theater for plays and concerts.
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The Ionian Islands
Lush and green, the Ionian Islands (also known as the “seven islands” or “Eptanissia”) were never under Turkish rule. They’ve been their own country but were also governed by the British, the French, and, most significantly, the Venetians. The mix of influences led to the development of unique local culture, music, art, cuisine, and architecture, which is most visible in the Old Town of Corfu, with its Italianate buildings, smattering of palaces, narrow alleyways hung with laundry, and grand squares built around imposing Orthodox and Catholic churches. Near Corfu, tiny Paxos is covered in olive trees, with three charming bays and a satellite island, AntiParos, known for its transparent waters. Kefalonia, the largest island in size has wild horses running around Mount Aenos in its center, a vast cave (Dragonata), an underwater lake (Melissani), and a tragic recent history made famous in Louis de Berniere’s novel, Corelli’s Violin. Zakynthos is home to Shipwreck Beach, accessible only by sea, which you’ve undoubtedly seen on posters and travel guides. Lefkada, connected to the mainland by a bridge, has woodland villages in the middle and some of Greece’s best beaches along its shores. Small Ithaka, arguably the home of Ulysses, is still relatively undiscovered, except by the immigrants who have returned to their picturesque home. And Kythera is the outlier—it looks more Cycladic than Ionian and is more easily reached from the Peloponnese than from its fellow Ionians—but its wild beauty makes it worth the trip. On the larger islands, you’ll want to avoid the package-tourist-filled all-inclusives that cater to British tourists in some coastal towns (which is easy to do) and try not to come in August when all of Italy and much of France crowds the beaches.
What to Do
Wander the streets of Corfu’s Old Town, which is protected by UNESCO. Visit the miraculous churches of St. Spyridon on Corfu, St. Dionysios and St. Andreas on Zakynthos, and St. Gerasimos on Kefalonia, plus the islands’ monastery-museums (Lefkada’s is the Fortress of St. Mavra). Check out the Achilleion, the summer palace of Kaiser Wilhelm and the Empress Sissy of Austria, on Corfu, and see if you recognize it as James Bond’s stomping ground in For Your Eyes Only. Swim the Blue Caves on Zakynthos, the cliff-lined, white-sand beaches of Porto Katsiki in Lefkada, Myrtos on Kefalonia, and the sparkling shores of Antiparos. Climb around the fortress castles on Corfu and Kythera, seek out the waterfalls and caves on Kefalonia and Kythera, watch for monk seals and loggerhead turtles on Zakynthos.
Corfu, Kefalonia, Zakynthos and Kythera all have airports, which receive domestic flights from Athens as well as international charters and airlines. A few times a week, Sky Express operates direct inter-island flights between Corfu, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, and Preveza on the mainland, which is a short drive to Lefkada. Overnight ferries from Brindisi, Venice, Bari, Trieste, and Ancona stop daily on Corfu, and there are several domestic ferries from Corfu each day to Igoumenitsa on the mainland, Patras on the Peloponnese, and a few hydrofoils to Paxos. Kefalonia’s ferries come from Patras and Kyllini on the Peloponnese and Astakos on the mainland, and there is one per week from Brindisi, Italy, as well. To get to Lefkada you can fly into the nearby Preveza/Aktion airport on the mainland and drive over the bridge, or simply drive from Athens, and to Zakynthos, take a ferry from Kyllini on the Peloponnese. Ferries for Kythera depart from Neapolis and Gythio on the Peloponnese and, in summer, from the island of Crete. There are ferry connections between the islands of Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Lefkada and Ithaka, and between Corfu and Paxos, but if you want to get from Corfu to any of the other islands by boat, you’ll have to take a ferry to Patras and connect from there, or a ferry to Igoumenitsa, then drive to Lefkada to make the next ferry. To see all the islands in one trip, consider chartering a boat.
Where to Stay
On Corfu, options range from modern luxury seaside resorts like the Grecotel Corfu Imperial to historic 18th-century estates in the Tuscan-like interior such as the Pelecas Country Club. But the landmark Old Town is Corfu’s soul, with two Crusader fortresses, a cricket ground, and stunning sights from every corner. In town, the Corfu Palace has rooms with unforgettable views and an incredible pool area ringed by the Crusader-built city walls, and the Siorra Vittoria is an atmospheric boutique option. On Kefalonia, there’s ultra-modern Tesoro Blu in Skala, and the Emelisse Art Hotel is a gem outside the picture-perfect town of Fiscardo, which was untouched by the 1953 earthquake. Its sister property on Ithaka, the Perantzada, is a contemporary hotel within a 19th-century mansion in a prime location on the harbor in Vathy. Little Paxos is all villa rentals and rooms to rent except for two hotels, Paxos Beach and Paxos Club. The verdant village of Katounia on Lefkada is home to the Pavezzo Country Retreat, and above the beach of Makris Gialos is San Nicolas Resort. On Zakynthos, Porto Zante resort is a swanky oasis on the busy eastern coast, and in the quiet north of the island, near the blue caves, Nobelos is a four-suite, family-run hotel beloved for its organic restaurant. You’ll want a car to get to the beaches, waterfalls, fortress, and villages of Kythera—and to stay in the center of the island in the atmospheric Xenonas Fos ke Choros (Inn of Light and Space).
What to Eat and Drink
On Corfu, local specialties like pastitsada (spicy chicken, rooster or beef over noodles), bourdeto (cod fish stew), and sofrito (beef in a garlic wine sauce) can be hand at down-home tavernas like Elisavet’s in the village of Doukades and refined waterfront restaurants such as Toula’s Taverna in Agni bay and the Corfu Sailing Club at the base of the Old Fortress in Corfu town—stroll to the last after a sunset drink overlooking the red-tiled roofs and church steeples from the rooftop bar of the Cavalieri hotel. On Kefalonia it’s fresh seafood and chocolate soufflé on the water in Agia Efimia at Paradise Beach Restaurant (which all the locals call Dendrinos Taverna, should you need to ask for directions) and more fish, caught that morning, under the reed pergola at laid-back Spiaggia tavern on the beach at Vatsa bay. On Zakynthos, don’t miss Ta Arekia in the main town, where local wine and homey meals like rabbit stew are served to the accompaniment of the owners and staff singing cantades, rhyming couplets. On Ithaki, follow Lord Byron’s lead and have a drink and dinner served with a side of panoramic views at Hani, the old travelers’ stop halfway up the mountain from Vathi. Wash down feta in phyllo with honey with local wine at Pirofani tavern smack on the sand in the middle of Dessimi beach on Lefkada.
From Corfu take a hydrofoil or day cruise to Saranda in Albania to get another stamp on your passport and see the impressive ruins of the Byzantine city of Butrint, now a national park and World Heritage Site; there are also day cruises to Paxos and Antipaxos. From Zakynthos, the ferry to Kyllini brings you an hour’s ride from the breathtaking archaeological complex of ancient Olympia. Day-cruises leave from Agia Efymia in Kefalonia to go to Ithaki or to Lefkada and two of its satellite islands, Meganissi and Scorpios, which was once the private retreat of Aristotle Onassis (and where Jackie was photographed sunbathing topless by aggressive paparazzi). Boats from Lefkada’s port of Nidri make a similar island tour, also stopping in the vast Papanikolis cave on Meganissi, named for the submarine that used to hang out there during World War II. And no trip to Paxos would be complete without a day spent on one of Antipaxos’s two beaches, marveling at the clear water and relaxing at the on-site tavernas. Boats make the trip several times a day from Gaios harbor.
There are 24 of these green islands off of the northeastern coast of mainland Greece, but only four are inhabited—and if you’ve seen Mamma Mia, you know what they look like. Dark green pine treese, white churches, lots of sand and rocks, and singing. Buzzy Skiathos is famous for its gold sand beaches and nightlife, while low-key Skopelos is a natural paradise of white pebble coves, oak forests, monasteries, traditional villages, and lots of shipwrecks off the coast in the National Marine Park. Did we mention a National Marine Park? Alonissos is at the center of it, a great base for fishing, bird-watching, and spotting the protected Mediterranean monk seal. Its claim to fame (aside from the marine park and wealth of flora and fauna) is the local cheese pie. Skyros’s claims to fame, on the other hand, are its ceramics, handicrafts, churches, and gorgeous Chora, the mountaintop capital crowned by a Venetian castle.
There are direct flights from Athens to Skiathos and Skyros. Ferries and hydrofoils leave for Skiathos, Skopelos, and Alonissos from the city of Volos on the stunning Pelion peninsula. There are also routes from Mantoudi on the island of Evia to Skiathos and Skopelos and from the port of Kimi on Evia for Skyros. Skiathos is also served by a ferry from Thessaloniki. In summer, hydrofoils sail to all four islands from the port of Agios Konstantinos on the mainland and additional ferry routes may be added from Thessaloniki to the other islands beyond Skiathos. Each of the Sporades connects to the other by ferry or boat.
What to do
Sea kayak, mountain bike, or rent a sailing boat on any of the islands. Hit the beaches—Skiathos’s swank Ambelakia to see and be seen, Skyros’s Kalamitsa for wind-surfing, Skopelos’s Hovolo for pine-scented breezes. Hike to Evangelistria monastery, or the Byzantine churches in the ruined medieval town of Kastro on Skiathos; Agios Ioannis (a.k.a. the Mamma Mia church) on Skopelos; and the Kastania gorge on Alonissos. Shop for ceramics, embroidery and other handicrafts in Skyros’s lovely Chora. And above all, do not miss sailing, swimming, or scuba diving in the National Marine Archaeological Park.
Where to Stay
There are villas to rent all over the islands (like the Villa Elissaois on Skopelos, the four lovely options with private pools run by Poikilma Villas in Alonissos and the five traditional homes above Gyrismata beach on Skyros rented through Villa Mantalena. For a more full-service hotel try the family-run Atrium hotel above Agia Paraskevi beach (and in walking distance of town) in Skiathos or the Adrina Resort (complete with spa) on the beach in Skopelos.
What to eat and drink
Seafood dishes reign here from the familiar (lobster macaroni) to the obscure (agalipokeftedes, fried balls made of sea anemones), but the produce is something to write home about as well (just try the kydonopasto or quince paste). In Skiathos, order gavros to kick off lunch at the taverna on Kechria beach (also known as “Little Paradise beach”), or stop on the way to Evanglistria to try the kalapodia (pies made of local greens) at Agnantio. Sip local wine while watching the sun set into the ocean, then dig into the slow-cooked pork shoulder with local prunes at Agnanti on Glossa beach in Skopelos, or, in the old town, try the smoked salmon carpaccio in the garden at Anna’s restaurant (she smokes the fish herself). Sample the organic fava and award-winning lamb in lemon sauce at Mouries Taverna on the way to Kalamitsa beach on Skyros, next to the owners’ farm, which is a conservation site devoted to protecting the rare, small breed of Skyrian horses. On Leftos Gialos beach in Alonissos, order the local tuna, homemade cheese pies, and wine from the owners’ vineyards at Eleonas taverna.
It’s all about the National Marine Park. Spend the day sea kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, or sailing. Skyros is also home to Skyros Tours, an alternative tourism company that organizes yoga, writing, and art retreats.
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The Northeast Aegean Islands
This collection of 13 islands (with five notable biggies—Ikaria, Samos, Limnos, Lesvos, and Chios) are the area of Greece that is closest to the peninsula of Asia Minor, which is now Turkey, but used to part of the Byzantine empire. They’re also the islands most affected by the current refugee crisis—which means your visit here will help shore up the economy and support the locals and refugees. Not to mention you’ll be richly rewarded by incredible beaches and natural wonders (a petrified forest on Lesvos, volcanic rocks and sand dunes on Limnos, the only-on-the-island mastic trees on Chios, thermal springs on Ikaria), medieval fortress villages (chief among them Mesta on Chios), and amazing food and wine (Samian wine was praised by Lord Byron, and the local cuisine may be one reason Ikaria is a Blue Zone, a site where locals live healthy lives to age 100 and beyond).
Limnos, Lesvos (a.k.a. Mytilene), and Samos all have international airports, and Chios and Ikaria have domestic ones, making these the major hubs for the archipelago. There are several ferries weekly from the port of Pireaus in Athens to Chios and Lesvos, and one a week from Pireaus to Samos, as well as ferries to Thassos from Kavala on the mainland. Ferries sail between the Northeast Aegean Islands, both large and small, and from some of them to a few of the Dodecanese islands south of the archipelago. International ferries go between Chios and Cesme, Turkey, and between Samos and Kusadasi, Turkey.
What to Do
Visit the archaeological sites of the Temple of Hera on Samos, the acropolis on Thasos, the ancient city of Ifestia on Limnos, and the magnificent castle atop Lesvos. Go birding in Samos’s Alyki lagoon and around the gulf of Kaloni on Lesvos. Tour the mastic villages, medieval settlement of Mesta, and the monastery of Nea Moni on Chios. Swim the sandy Seitani coves on Samos, Kipos beach on Samothrace, white-sand Seychelles on Ikaria and gorgeous Vatera on Lesvos. Kite- or windsurf at one of the best locations for the sports in Europe, on Keros Beach, Limnos. Relax at the hot springs in Ikaria and Lesvos/Mytilene. Hit the Frikaria music festival on Ikaria in late July or early August or take a summer cooking class on the island with chef Diane Kochilias.
Where to Stay
Time-travel back to when Genovese nobility ruled Chios at the majestic Argentikon, in a 16th-century estate. Sleep above popular Tsamadou beach at the Armonia Bay Hotel on Samos, overlooking the sea at Toxotis Villas in the village of Armenisti on Ikaria, or on the beach in a luxury safari tent through Surf Club Limnos. On Lesvos, your best bet is a villa rental. The descriptively named Villa Molivos Views, near the hillside town, has views of the sea and the castle of Mythimna from the swimming pool.
What to Eat and Drink
After trying local pork, housemade cheese, and vegetables grown by the owners at Koutsi taverna on Samos, treat yourself to a glass of the Samian wine Lord Byron raved about. You’ll also find excellent wine (Limnia Gi is wonderful) plus Kalathaki Limnou cheese everywhere on Limons, including at Meraklis tavern on the square in the village of Tsimandria, where the owner is famous for his spit-roasted chicken and lyre-playing. Mastelo cheese and mastiha liqueur are what all the fuss is about on Chios, and there’s no better place to try them than at Hotzas taverna, the island’s oldest restaurant. Eat Blue Zone cuisine on site at Theas taverna above Nas beach (known for the sanctuary to Artemis and the nudists who sunbathe on the shore) in Ikaria. Lesvos is famous for its ouzo (try Dimino) and sardines—two great tastes that taste great together. Taste them at Soulatso in the hippie paradise beach town of Skala Eressos or at Akrotiri Fish tavern in Agios Fokas bay.
Spend a day in Turkey! From Samos sail to Kusadasi and back to see the incredible Ancient Greek ruins of Ephesus. From Lesvos, excursions go to the Turkish port of Ayvalik for shopping in the bazaar or a bus ride to the 4th-century Greek theater at Pergamum. Day trippers also go from Chios to see the city of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) in Turkey or to Chios’s satellite island of Oinousses, whose fishing villages were home to many prominent ship captains. From Ikaria day trips sail to the island of Patmos in Greece’s Dodecanese to see the monastery of St. John and the cave where he wrote the Book of Revelation, as well as to the caves and beaches of the Fournoi islets.
This archipelago gets its name from the Greek number twelve (dodeca) because it contains—you guessed it—12 main islands and multiple smaller ones. Rhodes and Kos are the two largest islands while smaller ones are largely undiscovered. As elsewhere in Greece, these islands were shaped by eons of history; in the town of Lindos on Rhodes, for example, there’s an ancient Greek acropolis at the top of the hill, a medieval village in the middle, and a modern town on the beach at the bottom. Rhodes is known for its beautifully preserved medieval walled city with Crusader castles and ancient synagogue, Kos is distinguished by its 4th-century Asclipion complex, Patmos is famous for the still-working Monastery of St. John the Divine and the nearby cave in which he had the vision which inspired the Book of Revelation, and every sizable island has its own castle.
Rhodes and Kos have international airports (making them popular with charter flights from England and Germany), and Astypalaia, Kalymnos, and Karpathos receive domestic flights. All 12 main islands are served by ferries from Piraeus. Kos, Karpathos, and Rhodes all connect to the Cyclades through Santorini, while Patmos, Kos, Leros and Rhodes link to the Cyclades through Syros and Amorgos. The Dodecanese are connected to each other by ferry and hydrofoil. Ferries sail to ports in Turkey from Kos, Rhodes, and Symi.
What to Do
Bike Kos’s extensive cycling routes, then sit under the 2,500-year-old plane tree where Hippocrates did rounds with his medical students. Attend the International Climbing Festival on Kalymnos in May, or the dance, music, and art-filled Symi festival in summer. Visit the Grand Master’s Palace in Rhodes town, the villages of Karpathos which cling to traditional customs (and sometimes costumes), the mansions of Kassos, the brightly painted houses of Kastelorizo, the 11th-century Monastery of St. John and the Cave of the Revelation on Patmos, and the hilltop Hora of Asypalea, one of the prettiest fortified villages in all of Greece. Hike or windsurf on Karpathos, bird-watch on Lipsi, scuba dive amid the World War II wrecks on Leros, and swim off of any of these shores.
Where to Stay
On Rhodes, soak in the atmosphere at Melenos Lindos, a 17th-century building with a pebbled mosaic roof deck offering sea views, set into the hill just under the Acropolis in the town Lindos; or at The Spirit of the Knights, in a 15th-century complex in the Old Town. All of Symi’s amphitheatrical port is a protected national monument; stay inside it at the Old Markets, a collection of restored buildings that now have a swimming pool and champagne breakfasts every day until noon. Astypalaia’s breathtaking Chora is both the inspiration for, and the location of, Pylaia Hotel, which has a pool, spa, and ocean views from the Plori restaurant at its peak. Overlooking the sea (and the famous Kalikatsou rock), luxe Petra Hotel and Suites on Patmos is equally convenient to the beach and the Monastery of St. John. Small, simple, and stunning, end-of-the-world Kastellorizo has a bed-and-breakfast to match its vibe: Mediterraneo, whose terrace doubles as a diving board.
What to Eat and Drink
Refuel before after hiking up to the acropolis and crusader castle at Kali Kardia, one of the two (both great) tavernas in Megalo Horio, tiny Tilos’s historic capital. Try the house-cured salmon rolls and bruschetta with botarga (the local fish roe, made from gray mullets) at elegant Benetos on the seashore in Sapsila on Patmos. Symi is famous for its small shrimp; eat them and fresh-caught fish on Toli beach at Dafnes taverna.
On Rhodes, stay old-school at Nireas, in a shady courtyard in the Jewish Quarter of the Old Town, which is known for its seafood, or go nouveau at Kerasma where chef Antonis Moschonas gives classic Greek food a fusion spin in dishes like the “acid octopus” prepared in a honey-vinegar sauce and served over fava puree.
Most of the large islands offer boat excursions that take in a few of the smaller isles (from Kos to Platti, Kalymnos, and Pserimos and back in a day, for example), or to another big name to see the sights (from Kos to Patmos to hit the monastery of St. John). Then there are the day trips to Turkey; you can get to the Turkish resort of Bodrum from Kos and Rhodes, and to beaches of Fethiye or the bazaar of Marmaris from Rhodes.