Encyclopedia of Islands

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Discovering the Greek Islands

At first glance, the hundreds of islands scattered in the seas around Greece may seem similar, with landscapes of terraced fields, olive groves, vineyards and barren goat pastures, but each is distinct in character even from its nearest neighbour. From party resorts and sybaritic hotels to artists’ retreats, temples and hillsides ablaze with wild flowers, these glorious, gold-fringed islands offer holidays in all guises.

Divided into six groups, plus Crete, the largest of all, this section introduces the main groups, highlighting their top attractions.

THE IONIAN ISLANDS

THE IONIAN ISLANDS

  • Majestic island scenery
  • Buzzing resorts and nightlife
  • Corfu’s Venetian architecture

With golden sands, greenshadowed mountainsides and bright blue water, it is no wonder these film-set islands attract attention. Relive the myth hiking Odysseus’ rugged island, Ithaca , take a boat ride around Zákynthos’ striking Blue Grotto or get underground in the subterrannean caves of mountainous Kefalloniá, the island famous for its star-turn in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

Corfu, the largest and perhaps most scenic of the Ionians, throngs in peak season but has wide beaches, lively nightlife and elegant cafés amid Venetian architecture in Corfu Town.

THE ARGO-SARONIC ISLANDS

  • Chic harbour towns
  • Kýthira’s deserted beauty
  • Daytrips to Athens

The rocky Argo-Saronics once contained some of the wealthiest seaports in Greek waters and the harbours of Aìgina, Póros and car-free Ydra, are still lined with dignified Neo-Classical mansions – picturesque reminders of that era.

Kýthira, lies far to the south, just off the tip of the Peloponnese. Its deserted beaches, rugged coastline and sleepy hilltop villages offer welcome respite from the summer crowds of its noisier siblings.

Just a short hop from the mainland, frequent ferry routes mean the Acropolis and other fabled sights of Athens are only hours away.

THE SPORADES AND EVVOIA

THE SPORADES AND EVVOIA

  • First-class beachlife
  • Island tradition on Skýros
  • Unspoilt hinterland of Evvoia

The popular islands of Skiáthos and Skópelos attract many visitors with their endless sparkling bays, crystal water and colourful harbours filled with glossy yachts. Watersports, boat hire, plus a vast choice of tavernas and bars do a roaring trade here.

Lonely Skýros is an artists’ retreat offering traditional island culture in costumes, oldfashioned villages and herds of wild ponies, while Evvoia is an unsung hero of deserted coastline and wild, mountainous space.

THE NORTHEAST AEGEAN ISLANDS

THE NORTHEAST AEGEAN ISLANDS

  • Uncrowded beaches
  • Ancient and medieval sites
  • Eastern flavour of Lésvos

Surprisingly untouched by tourism, this dispersed cluster of islands is rich with ancient sites, natural charms and some superb beaches for the crowd-weary.

Take your pick from mastic villages and the Byzantine monastery, Néa Moní, on Chíos, ancient temples, woods and waterfalls on Samothráki, Ikaría’s rocky coastline and lush valleys, or pretty villages on Thásos and wine-tasting on Sámos.

Lésvos with its Ottoman domes and lively bazaar has an eastern feel. Be sure to take a plunge in a natural thermal spa.

THE DODECANESE

  • Ideal for island-hopping
  • Monastery of St-John
  • Rhodes’ sun, sand and sights

The sizzling Dodecanese, the hottest of all the islands, are perfect, in their variety and mutual proximity, for a combination holiday. Hop by ferry or hydrofoil from the large island of Kos to Pátmos, the “Jeruselem of the Aegean”, and the 11thcentury Monastery of St John. Then on to the utter tranquillity of dots on the map like Lipsí, Symi and Tílos. There is even a bubbling semi-active volcanic crater on Nísyros.

Rhodes rewards a longer visit for its world-class sights including the hilltop acropolis at Líndos and the fortified Palace of the Masters in Rhodes Old Town. Happily for some, history comes combined with fabulous beaches, raucous nightlife and 300 sunny days a year.

THE CYCLADES

THE CYCLADES

  • Pretty hilltop villages
  • Chic bars and nightclubs
  • Ancient temples on Delos

The Cyclades, a volcanic archipelago of wide horizons and whitewashed villages, pretty with windmills and blue-domed churches, typify the Greek Islands ideal – and their variety. Sophisticated hedonists flock to the stylish hotels and cosmopolitan nightclubs of Mýkonos, Amorgós and Santoríni, with its sea-filled volcanic caldera, while nature-lovers will find excellent hiking on Naxos and snorkling on Páros.

Central to them all, minute Delos (see pp218–19) is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece and one huge outdoor museum.

CRETE

  • Spring flowers and wildlife
  • Minoan palaces
  • Hiking the Samariá Gorge

Sprawling Crete, Greece’s largest island, attracts return visitors for its wealth of beaches, natural beauty – in spring, the hillsides burst with wild flowers and birdsong – and excellent facilities. Relics such as the Minoan palaces of Knosós and Phaestos wait to be explored as do busy port towns and museums.

CRETE

The Samariá Gorge is one of Crete’s top sights. Hikers will relish the tortuous 18-km (11-mile) route and the reward of glorious mountain scenery.