Imagine a dream holiday hopping from island to island in maritime Greece. But with more than 2,000 atolls and larger land masses to choose from, where do you start? Here are just a few highlights from the Hellenic Republic to explore.
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The largest of the Ionian islands, Zakynthos has many stunning beaches, but there is one secluded beach in Navagio Bay that not only has achingly silky smooth sand and serene, cerulean waters, but also a naughty nautical tale. Shipwreck Beach, also referred to as Smuggler’s Cove, which is only accessible by boat, earned its namesake from the MV Panagiotis that was marooned on the beach in 1980 while allegedly transporting contraband cigarettes.
The alleged story is that the ship was sailing from Turkey to Greece with the illicit cargo and the local authorities suspected the crew, so the Greek Navy pursued the MV Panagiotis. But due to stormy weather, the ship was beached in a shallow cove on the west coast, where the crew abandoned her to evade capture. The shipwrecked vessel is still a draw for visitors, adding an air of mystery and allure to the already stunning aquamarine waters in this sheltered alcove.
A gem amid the Argo-Saronic Islands, Hydra is in a class of its own as the only Greek island free of motor vehicles. They are forbidden. No cars, no scooters, just donkeys, bicycles and your feet to get you around the narrow and steep, cobbled lanes that all lead to the Hydra harbour.
One of the smallest inhabited islands, with a population of less than 2,000, Hydra is a relaxed reminder of what life used to be like. It’s also one of the quickest and easiest to get to from Athens. If you have limited time and want to experience the island calm, Hydra is a quick ferry ride from the capital.
The ancient Greek sculpture of Aphrodite, Venus de Milo, currently on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris, may be the island’s most famous export, but Milos is a stunning island of colours due to its volcanic origins. The colour of the Aegean Sea around this Cycladic island ranges from cobalt blue to emerald green and the rocks transition from pink to red to violet.
Among the unique landscapes and many beaches, Tsigrado beach is a small sandy cove with crystal waters that is particularly tricky to access by land. To reach this paradise you have to navigate your way through a rocky passage down to the snow white shores. The climb down is difficult, but the way back is even trickier. However, the challenge deters the crowds and you could find yourself on a romantic beach for two.
4. Skopelos and Skiathos
Remember that scene in Mama Mia (the film adapted from the West End musical featuring the ABBA soundtrack) when everyone is struggling to climb the ever-winding steps up to the hilltop church for the wedding? Well, that tiny whitewashed chapel, sitting atop a rocky outcrop jutting into the sea, is on the island of Skopelos.
Packed with scented pine trees, archaeological ruins and, of course, beautiful beaches, the island is a draw for fans of the musical, as well as travellers looking for a rugged island with fantastic hiking options. Neighbouring Skiathos has a similar unspoilt landscape with virgin pine forests to get lost in, before hitting the stunning Koukounaries beach – regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean.
According to Greek mythology, Mykonos was formed from the petrified bodies of giants killed by Hercules. Maybe that’s one reason why it’s one of the most popular Greek Islands, but the more obvious one is that Mykonos is all about the party scene with an upscale crowd that thrives on stylish nightlife. This is where people come to see and be seen – including celebrities and international VIP guests.
Stroll through the scenic 18th-century district of Alefkantra, climb up to one of the iconic windmills on the hillside or soak up the atmosphere along the lively waterfront, where you may come across the official mascot of Mykonos – Petros the pelican! Then get yourself to Plati Yialos or Psarou Beach where you can jet-ski, windsurf, parasail or just save up your energy before heading to hotspots to party with the jet-set into the wee hours.
Steeped in history, this large Greek island was home to Odysseus, the legendary King hailed in Homer’s Odyssey. A more modern epic tale set and filmed here is Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But you can enjoy an odyssey of your own by exploring the enchanting Drogarati caves or marvel at the ancient relics in Argostoli, Cephalonia’s main town. Then retreat to the dazzling Myrtos beach – two kilometres of silky, white marble pebbles lying between the feet of two mountains – often described as one of the most dramatic beaches in Greece.
Santorini embodies that classic Greek island ambiance – hillside clusters of candy-coloured houses and blue dome-roofed buildings reaching up from golden beaches that spill into the sapphire sea. Something you might not know is that crescent-shaped Santorini is actually a group of islands and the whole complex is an active volcano – the only volcano in the world whose crater is in the sea. The beaches have white, red and black sand or volcanic pebbles creating a lunar-like landscape. Beautiful Oia is world famous for its sunsets, which seemingly blend every hue on an artist’s palette. In fact, most of the island looks heavily Photoshopped, but the reality is that these are Mother Nature’s unspoilt beaches and Photoshop was created to make other beaches look like these stunning islands!
It’s called the Island of the Knights and whether you want to relax, discover ancient ruins or kick up the action factor on your holiday, Rhodes doesn’t disappoint. Its strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean made it an important seafaring and trading port coveted by the Romans, Ottomans and Italians over the centuries. Today, you can wander through the Gate of Freedom to the Old Town where the medieval architecture will transport you back in time. For the watersport enthusiasts, the beaches are prime for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Prassonissi is the southernmost part of the island where the experts are challenged by the high surf, but Theologos, Ixia and Paradisi are also windsurfing hotspots.
The largest of the Greek islands, Crete is full of contrasts, from the pink sands of Elafonisi Beach to the White Mountains. You can trek through Europe’s longest gorge, cycle among orchards on the Lasithi Plateau or hike to the cave where Zeus was born (according to Greek mythology). And then tuck into the local cuisine featuring distinctive herbs and greens gathered from the hillsides, cheeses made fresh with unique village recipes, homemade olive oil and fresh caught seafood. The Cretan diet is among the healthiest in the world.
Located in the heart of the Aegean Sea, Paros is great for families, not just for the beautiful beaches but the traditional villages. While the Parian traditional villages, particularly Naoussa, Parikia and Lefkes, are perfect examples of Cycladic architecture, with whitewashed sugar houses, paved streets and blue-domed churches. On the ferry ride to the island you’ll see the cartwheeling turbines, indicating why Paros is also famous with windsurfing thrill seekers, but don’t underestimate the restaurants and nightlife – which won’t break the bank like Mykonos.
Mairead Walsh is a published author and a regular contributor to Gulf News.