With so many Greek islands to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. Sarah Barrell selects some of the standout destinations, and a few lesser-known gems
Greece’s largest, most populous island, Crete is almost a country in its own right, and its capital, Heraklion, is home to the busiest Greek airport outside Athens. Set on the edge of the Libyan Sea, its perennially sunny southern beaches are within North Africa’s climate zone, while the interior’s White Mountains see winter snow. Birthplace of Zeus and home of the Minotaur and Zorba, Crete is an island of legend, with an array of Minoan sites and myriad ancient treasures in Heraklion’s excellent Archaeological Museum. Knossos, said to be Europe’s oldest city, is the island’s most-visited archaeological site, but it’s Spinalonga that really captures the imagination. A few minutes’ boat ride from Crete’s luxury enclave, Elounda, this tiny island was used as a fortress by the Venetians before serving as a leper colony up until the 1950s. Today, visitors can walk around the atmospheric ruins and enjoy glorious views across the bay. Beyond the historical attractions, many tourists come to Crete for the talcum powder beaches and crystal waters of stellar spots like Elafonisi lagoon, palm-fringed Vai beach and Matala bay.
For some, this volcanic Cyclades destination is the Greek islands, with sugar cube villages, vineyards, blue-domed churches and cobbled streets navigated by donkeys. It doesn’t lack natural drama, either; the slopes of its smoldering caldera cooled by the Aegean, and southwestern beaches — Red, White and Black — named for their colorful cliffs. Santorini’s sharp light and contrasting colors have long attracted artists — Fira and Oia are packed with galleries. Along with round-island cruises and volcano hikes, key sights include the Minoan town of Akrotiri, preserved under lava until the 1960s.
The largest of the Dodecanese islands appeals to families, couples and groups alike, and its Diagoras airport has good air links to mainland Europe. With a broad spread of beaches, ancient sights and rural trails, plus a sprinkling of islands within easy reach, there’s plenty to pack into day-trips and extended stays. Walled Rhodes Town is one of the finest medieval settlements in the Med, while the Acropolis of Rhodes and Lindos are two atmospheric ruins, the latter offering sweeping coastal views taking in the lovely cove at Pallas.
Popular with the yacht set, and famed for its nudist beaches, and glam, gay-friendly nightlife, this island of whitewashed villages retains a Grecian charm, albeit with a coat of designer gloss. This is a glitzy Cyclades island with an international airport and attitude; a year-round destination, even in winter (when the island hosts a film festival). Besides the many secluded bays and beaches, the main town of Hora remains the quintessential Cycladic sight, cubist buildings piled down a seafront hillside. Sunset at a clifftop bar in Hora’s Little Venice is one of the islands’ must-do experiences.
The second-largest of the Ionion islands, Corfu was one of Greece’s pioneering mass tourism destinations in the ’60s. The southern package resorts such as Kavos are still popular, but this lush, green island is largely characterized by sleepy rural villages and private villa rentals. Surrounded by a string of fine, sandy beaches, this is an Easter-October island, although some airlines travel to its airport out of season, when Corfu’s lush interior is popular with hikers and its crumbling Venetian fortress is crowd-free.
The second-largest Dodecanese island has long been one of Europe’s most affordable summer destinations, thanks to frequent air access and well-developed resorts such as Kardamena, Lambi and Keflos. But these tourist hubs are largely contained, leaving much of the island to small villages and ancient sights such as Kos town’s Byzantine fortress, Hippocrates Sanatorium and the medieval Castle of the Knights. Green valleys and blankets of pine break up Kos’ rocky landscape, while its beaches range from boat-access-only bays to bar-centric stretches.
Paxos: This archipelago south of Corfu includes Paxos and Antipaxos. The former is the smallest Ionian island, just seven miles by three, but an upcoming travel hotspot, thanks to its 30 beaches and thickly wooded interior, crisscrossed by walking trails. Visitors can hike it in a day, taking in the capital Gaios — popular with yachties — and the water taxi hub for the almost Caribbean sandy beaches of nearby Antipaxos.
Lefkas: Seen as one of the Ionian Sea’s most unspoiled islands, Lekfas, or Lefkada, is in fact not really an island at all, thanks to a swing bridge connecting it to the western mainland. Outside the blustery west coast towns of Nydri and Vassiliki, with their resorts attracting watersports fanatics, this is a tranquil island of small hotels and vacation rentals set in sheltered east coast bays, around the traditional Greek villages of Sfakiotes and the pretty former capital, Karya.
Zakynthos: This rural island south of Kefalonia, also known as Zante, was dubbed the ‘flower of the east’ by the Venetians, thanks to its olive groves, vineyards and green, mountainous north west. Thanks to the airport, the island has developed rapidly, with lively resorts such as Laganas. Some of the best beaches, Gerakas among them, lie to the south in a protected marine park, while elsewhere are quiet fishing villages such as Alykanas, Bouka and Limi Keri.
Kefalonia: The 1994 novel and later acclaimed film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set in Kefalonia, led to a spike in visits to this, the largest Ionian island. The clifftop heights of the north are home to landmark Myrtos beach, the fortress of Assos and postcard-perfect fishing village of Fiscardo, while the south is dominated by towering Mount Aenos, scattered with small villages and the growing beach resort of Scala.
Samos: This large, northeastern Aegean island is one of the region’s best-known. Yet outside a handful of resorts and the bustling capital, Vathy, it remains very traditional, famed for its sweet wine and sprawling ruins of Ireon (ancient sanctuary of Hera). Samos is popular with the high-end villa rental crowd, but with more than 100 miles of coastline, there’s always a quiet stretch of sand.
Skiathos: Lush, thickly forested and somehow effortlessly elegant, this compact island boasts 50 beaches, almost all of them sandy. Skiathos Town, with its terracotta-roofed houses jumbled up against the harbor, looks unassumingly sleepy, but its tavernas and bars are lively after sundown. There are direct flights from most major European cities and fast catamaran links to the neighboring islands of Skopelos and Alonissos, making this an increasingly popular option for a twin- or multi-center beach break.
PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2014/15 EDITION OF ASTAnetwork