Aegean odyssey: Greece's 10 best islands
With more than 200 inhabited islands, the Greek archipelago offers everything from glam beach clubs and chic boutiques to medieval ruins and rocky mountain ranges. Here are 10 of the best islands – and 10 reasons to add them to your next Mediterranean itinerary.
1 FOR HISTORY: Rhodes
Rhodes’s World Heritage-listed old town evokes the days of crusading knights and mighty castles. Imposing gates and ramparts lead to an enchanting medieval town enclosed within massive fortress walls, including the famous Palace of the Grand Masters. Inevitably touristy, the old town also has many cultural attractions and art galleries, boutique hotels and good restaurants. One of the bigger islands in Greece, Rhodes takes time to explore. The pretty seaside village of Lindos offers a more traditional island experience, with great swimming and rustic tavernas. Perched on a rise overlooking the harbour is the Acropolis of Lindos, Rhodes’s most significant ancient site. Away from the crowded resorts, you can find quiet beaches and enjoy scenic drives through the island’s mountainous interior.
Other contenders Corfu’s old town.
2 FOR A HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Kastellorizo
Over the last century, someone from virtually every island in Greece ended up migrating to Australia, and many then returned to either settle in their birthplace or turn ancestral property into holiday homes or businesses. The Greek-Australian presence is most pronounced on tiny, far-flung Kastellorizo, the most remote Greek island, less than 3km from the Turkish coast. The attractive little horseshoe-shaped harbour, lined with restored neoclassical houses, often echoes with Australian accents and is arguably one of the most social café strips in Greece (given its size you can’t help but trip over fellow travellers and get to know the locals). Living in such a microcosm will either drive you stir-crazy or make you never want to leave.
Other contenders Kythira, south of the Peloponnese, is traditional and low-key (in low season).
3 FOR GETTING STRANDED: Gavdos
The danger with Gavdos’s strong winds and infrequent ferry services is that you may well find yourself stranded, but there are worse things to wish for. Europe’s southernmost island – on the Libyan sea 65km south of Crete – still doesn’t have constant electricity, and a resident population of less than 50 is inflated in the peak of summer by a stream of campers, nudists and free-spirited souls seeking a total escape. Gavdos has stunning unspoilt beaches, including the naturist paradise Ayios Ioannis, and is dotted with sand dunes, cedar trees and abandoned villages. There are three small settlements, a handful of tavernas and a couple of shops selling basic supplies, as well as a restored lighthouse with a café. There are budget and mid-range accommodation options, but most people camp out on the beaches. There isn’t much point in making the trek unless you have the time to ease into the island’s peculiar rhythm.
Other contenders Greece’s dissidents were once banished to remote Ayios Efstratios – not a bad place for self-imposed exile.
4 FOR GOURMET TRADITION: Lesvos
Tourism takes a refreshing back seat on Lesvos, where locals are kept busy producing the bulk of Greece’s ouzo and extracting some of the finest olive oil from its millions of olive trees. But the island also offers an abundance of natural, cultural and culinary attractions and a laid-back beach life. Lesvos’s long coastline has fine beaches and hot springs, and the fertile interior is popular for hiking, while the west has one of the only petrified forests in the world, caused by a major prehistoric volcanic eruption. Taste varieties of Greece’s famous tipple with endless meze in the bustling ouzeries of the capital, Mytilini. Dominated by an imposing Byzantine fortress, Mytilini has several museums, including the outstanding Teriade art museum.
Other contenders Crete’s rich culinary tradition makes it a popular food-lovers’ destination.
5 FOR PARTYING: Mykonos
Impossibly fashionable Mykonos lives up to its party-animal reputation. The famous hedonistic meccas of Paradise and Super Paradise beaches have a party atmosphere all day. At night, the action moves to Mykonos Town’s small bars and clubs, while its lively gay bars and drag shows add to the festive spirit. Hardcore clubbers head to after-hours venues at massive seaside and open-air clubs where international DJs have the crowds dancing past sunrise. Mykonos is certainly the place for crazy days and nights, but there is also a quieter side to the island, a world away from the clubbing scene. The pristinely preserved Cycladic old town is a delightful maze of cafés, boutiques, upscale restaurants, hip hotels and bars, particularly in the Little Venice quarter. Avoid peak season (July through August) if you’re not keen on crowds.
Other contenders Younger, budget-conscious revellers head to more laid-back Ios.
6 FOR ROMANCE: Santorini
Santorini has long been a magnet for honeymooners, with its whitewashed villages perched on the rim of a massive sea-filled volcano. Dramatic views and mesmerising sunsets draw hordes of travellers, but where else in the world can you stroll through shops, sip cocktails and dine in such a spectacular setting? Santorini is ideal for romantic short stays, especially in the upmarket village of Oia, dotted with chic boutique hotels, many built into the rockface and boasting cliff-edge pools with caldera vistas. Narrow alleyways reveal fine restaurants, trendy boutiques, intimate bars, galleries and jewellery stores. Now an archipelago, Santorini was a single island until a massive eruption 3500 years ago destroyed it and much of the surrounding Minoan civilisation (the remains of an ancient city can be seen in the south at Akrotiri). There are places to stay near the island’s unique red and black volcanic beaches, but the magic of Santorini lies high in the clifftops.
Other contenders Exquisite Amorgos’s dramatic landscape and enchanting Cycladic villages offer a quieter romantic destination.
7 FOR A HOLY PILGRIMAGE: Patmos
The Byzantine monastery of St John towers over the small Dodecanese island of Patmos, dubbed the Jerusalem of the Aegean. Renowned as the island where the exiled John the Divine penned the Book of Revelation while holed up in a grotto, Patmos has long drawn Christian pilgrims seeking their own enlightenment. The spirituality here is almost palpable. Beneath the 11th-century Monastery of St John, fortified to ward off pirates, the sprawling white Monastery of the Apocalypse is built around the famous cave where St John lived. The monasteries are World Heritage-listed along with the picturesque town of Hora, a labyrinth of white box-like houses and winding narrow streets tucked below the monasteries. Apart from its holy credentials, the island offers tamarisk-lined beaches, traditional fishing and farming villages and low-key nightlife. You can see most of Patmos in a day (it’s only 35 square kilometres), but it’s worth a longer stay.
Other contenders The alleged healing powers of Tinos’s sacred icon of the Virgin Mary attract thousands of pilgrims, many of whom crawl up to the church (one of 750 on the island) on their knees on the feast day of 15 August.
8 FOR A QUICK ISLAND HOP: Hydra
Despite its proximity to Athens (an hour and a half by catamaran), charming Hydra lands you in another world, not least because of the blissful absence of cars, scooters and motorbikes. Donkeys and mules line up to meet ferries docking in the small amphitheatrical port town, where the neoclassical mansions of shipping merchants have been beautifully restored. The harbour is lined with lively cafés, tavernas and smart yachts, while the town’s winding cobblestone streets reveal boutiques, galleries and boutique hotels. Hydra is popular with Athenians for weekends away, but its integrity has probably been saved by the absence of large hotels and beaches. Small coves can be reached on foot, but excursion boats and water taxis can ferry you to beaches further afield. Hydra is undeniably one of the prettiest, classiest and most convenient Greek islands.
Other contenders Aegina is an easy day trip from Athens: take a swim and enjoy fresh seafood meze and ouzo in the little fish market before heading back to the capital.
9 FOR A NATURAL WONDERLAND: Samothrace
The lack of an airport and poor transport connections are in many ways blessings for remote Samothrace, in the north-eastern Aegean. Popular with eco-sensitive travellers, the small island offers great hiking opportunities through largely unexplored lush hinterland, as well as isolated beaches, waterfalls spilling into icy pools, therapeutic hot springs and a wild and rugged mountain range dominated by Mt Fengari. In ancient times, Samothrace was the place of secret cult worship and home to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, now a sprawling archaeological site with a small museum. The quaint inland capital, Hora, flanked by clifftops, has plenty of cafés and tavernas from which to enjoy the sweeping sea views. Camping grounds and modest hotels and studios are the only places to stay. The easiest way to get there is via the northern mainland city of Alexandroupolis.
Other contenders Obscure Tilos is a haven for bird watchers, with verdant hiking trails and quiet beaches.
10 FOR CULTURE AND VARIETY: Crete
Greece’s largest island is also its most diverse, with unrivalled natural beauty, remarkable history and hospitable locals proud of their distinctive culture and cuisine. History buffs will be entranced by the famous Palace of Knossos and many other vestiges of Minoan and ancient civilisations. Romantics can stay in historic hotels in the evocative Venetian port towns of Hania and Rethymno or pamper themselves in the luxury resorts of Elounda and Ayios Nikolaos. Nature-lovers can trek the Samaria Gorge or the coastal trails. Culture vultures will lap up the many museums, archaeological sites, caves and monasteries, while the kids will delight in the aquarium and water parks. Crete is an island of contrasts. Away from the north coast package tourism resorts, you will find traditional pastoral mountain villages en route to family-friendly southern resort towns and superb beaches. The wilder west leads the way in eco-adventures and restored traditional settlements, while throughout the island foodies can explore wineries, agricultural cooperatives and organic farms. You need a car and at least a week to scratch the surface of what Crete has to offer.
Other contenders None that can offer the diversity that Crete can.
WORDS VICTORIA KYRIAKOPOULOS PHOTOGRAPHY ADAM CROWLEY
This article is from the January 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.