‘Each island attracts a very different crowd’
John Donne was right: “No man is an island entire of itself.” But each of the Greek islands is its own universe, from far-flung retreats to cosmopolitan resorts. Back in the day when Greece’s ferries were as delightfully cheap as they were agonisingly slow, islandhopping around the Aegean was a rite of passage for travellers. Now, with catamarans, charter flights, a ferry route connecting the Ionian islands for the first time this summer, and a fleet of seaplanes scheduled to launch in 2019, even the most remote islands are (relatively) easy to reach.
Finding the perfect one for you is more of a challenge. There are 6,000 Greek islands, broadly divided into six geographical groups, plus Crete. The best-known are the Cyclades, with their chalk-white villages, blue-domed chapels and seaside tavernas strung with garlands of sun-dried octopus.
The Dodecanese bear the hallmarks of the country’s chequered history. A trading post between Europe and the Orient, they have attracted marauders and merchants since antiquity, leaving a potpourri of medieval castles, Ottoman minarets and art deco architecture in their wake.
The rugged Northern Aegean islands are almost impossible to categorise. Chios, with its fortified medieval villages, Byzantine monasteries, and country estates lush with citrus orchards, is magnificent; Lesvos has welcomed waves of refugees with extraordinary humanity and hospitality; and Ikaria is known for its raucous religious festivals and nocturnal locals.
The Ionian islands have more of an Italianate influence (they were under Venetian occupation for 400 years). Gentle and fertile, they have a softer light and quieter climate than the windswept Cyclades.
The pine-fringed Sporades are out on a limb, a sleepy archipelago off the eastern coast of mainland Greece. Only four of the 24 islands are inhabited. Apart from Skiathos, which has an international airport, the other three (Skopelos, Alonissos, and Skyros) are natural beauties whose charms are largely undiscovered.
Only an hour or two from Athens, the Saronic islands are the most accessible. But each attracts a very different crowd: bohemian artists on car-free Hydra, shipowners on glamorous Spetses, epicureans on Aegina, famous for its pistachio farms.
Each of the Greek islands, even the most popular ones, harbour secrets – if you know where to look. Despite its stunning beaches and lush landscapes, southern Corfu has escaped mass tourism. Surrounded by 70 acres of forest, the Roumanades Estate has belonged to the Trivolis family since the 17th century. Spiros and Loukia Trivolis welcome guests at their russet-red manor house. The kitchen in the two-bedroom apartment is stocked with home-made jam, fresh eggs, and olive oil from the estate. Go flamingo spotting in the wetlands of Alikes Lefkimmis, swim at Gardenos beach, or head further south to the sandy bay of Arkoudilas. A 17th-century monastery is hidden among the pine trees.
Roumanades Estate (0030 6944 276 555; roumanades.com); from €910 (£805) per week, B&B. With two million visitors a year, Santorini is hardly a secret. But you can escape the honeymooners and cruise-ship day-trippers if you head inland to Pyrgos, the island’s bestpreserved village, and sign up for a cooking lesson at Selene restaurant. Or try wines from all 19 of Santorini’s wineries at Oia Vineyart, a mellow wine bar hidden in Oia’s back alleys. Occasionally, you’ll be serenaded by a bouzouki player.
Stay at Voreina Suites (voreina suites.gr); doubles from €360. It took Odysseus years to return home to Ithaca. Getting here still requires some effort, but you’re rewarded with limpid green bays and splendid hikes (like the trek to the church of Anogi – ask for the key at the village coffee shop). The Chapel is ideal for a couple looking to fall in love again. A yoga deck with a cushioned chill-out area overlooks a private beach, where day beds under the pine trees encourage indolence. For gentle activity, go paddleboarding; the motionless sea makes it seem like you’re flying.
The Chapel (0208 422 4885; fivestargreece.com); from £7,000 per week for two people, including breakfast, a boat trip with picnic, water sports and beach drinks.
Antiparos Escape Villas (antiparosescapevillas. com) has the best selection of stylish properties with personality on Antiparos. Large, lush Andros attracts few non-Greek tourists. And the locals like it that way. There isn’t even a sign outside Ktima Lemonies. In a valley cooled by rushing streams, hidden down a dirt track, a handful of elegant stone cottages and a plunge pool are scattered among the citrus trees. A footpath leads up to the hamlet of Lamyra, with its 19th-century mansions, tinkling marble fountains, and orchards dripping with apricots and oranges. Check out the surprising Museum of Contemporary Art.
Ktima Lemonies (0030 22820 23677; ktimalemonies.gr); from €120 for a double room, with breakfast. Along with guided tours of must-see sites such as Akrotiri on Santorini, and the palaces of Knossos and Phaistos on Crete, Andante Travels offers access to the excavations at the Cretan fishing village of Sissi – an opportunity to explore parts of this site not usually accessible to the public. A fishing boat will also transport you across the Gulf of Mirabello to the island of Mochlos, an important Minoan trading post.
Andante Travels (01722 569757; andantetravels.com) has a sevennight Crete and Santorini escorted holiday from £2,450pp, all-inclusive. Departures in September and October 2018 and April, May, September and October 2019. Abandoned after the earthquake that rocked Cephalonia in 1953, the ghostly mountain village of Palia Vlachata springs back to life for three days in August. At the Saristra Festival (Aug 3-5), video art is projected on to crumbling buildings, bands perform in the village square, yoga mats are rolled out in empty stables, and the unpaved streets fill with revellers of all ages. Near Sami is the underground Melissani Lake, where a boatman will row you around. Go at midday, when the sun hits the water at just the right angle, and the temperature inside the cave is deliciously cool.
Stay at My Little Place on the Hill (0030 69415 29959; mylittleplaceonthehill.com), a hillside inn with mountain views; from €110 for a self-catering suite. You don’t need a skipper’s licence (or deep pockets) to rent your own boat on Paxos – there are dozens of secret coves where you can cast anchor. At lunchtime you can moor your boat right below Villa Marina, overlooking Mongonissi bay, and cruise over to Antipaxos, an even smaller island with no shops, barely any roads and a few tavernas. Some 200 steps above Voutoumi Beach is Bella Vista, where grilled fish is served with staggering views. The taverna doesn’t have a landline, but guests can book with villa specialist Scott Williams.
Scott Williams (01749 812721; scottwilliams.co.uk) offers seven nights at Villa Marina from £666pp, based on 15 sharing, in May, June or September. A week this July/August costs £1,400pp. From Brice Marden to Juergen Teller, Hydra has long been a muse (and holiday haven) for artists. Every summer, Dakis Joannou, one of the world’s biggest art collectors, invites the likes of David Shrigley and Matthew Barney to create sitespecific installations in the island’s old slaughterhouse. Check out Hydra School Projects at the old Sachtoureion high school, where emerging and established artists fill the classrooms with avant-garde art.
White Key Villas (0030 210 721
A private beach on Ithaca, known for its limpid turquoise bays
Limoncello at Ktima Lemonies retreat
A meal at a Fykiada yoga retreat on Kythnos, left; Andros, right, in the Cyclades