From hush to hedonism, Greek islands have it all
Recommending a Greek island is like talking up a favourite restaurant. You love the food and atmosphere, but will they suit other people’s taste?
While the islands share a chilled pace, abudance of fresh, tasty fare, rich history and a glorious sense of joie de vivre, they differ enormously in look and feel.
The Ionians, for example, are so green they almost feel more Italian than Greek. Great, say those who flock to Corfu, Cephalonia, et al. “Not Greek enough”, squeal others who prefer the barren landscapes of the Cyclades, dotted with sugar-cube houses, windmills and blue-domed churches.
Those who love the Dodecanese for easy island-hopping and shopping trips to Turkey would find the farther-flung islands of the Aegean too isolated — the very reason aficionados seek out Ikaria. Likewise, those who embrace the peace of Spetses would find the party resorts of Kos and Crete anathema.
Island-hopping is difficult between groups, so the popular and beautiful Cyclades, from where the odd boat nips off to the Dodecanese, is a good bet for first-time visitors, since it offers both pastoral tranquility and festive nightlife.
Not for nothing is Santorini, with its black sand beaches and picturesque white villages built into dramatic cliffs, the most visited island in the archipelago. Oia in the north west is home to some of the world’s most romantic hotels, especially good to hole up in on days when cruise ships disgorge passengers onto the charming little village.
Santorini’s Perivolas has set the standard with its cool, womb-like rooms which tumble down the cliff. This hotel’s infinity pool, below which is a spa, has first-class service and a small verandah restaurant makes it possible to never have to leave the premises.
Mystique, its new next-door neighbour, is trying to go one better with modern, minimal decor, 24-hour room service, in-room Jacuzzis and private gyms for exercise junkies who will have no problem with the large number of steps just to reach reception.
Although you need to walk up the last 200 yards — or leap on a donkey — to reach Zannos Melathron, it is well worth considering this elegant yet well-priced hotel atop the tiny hill village of Pyrgos. Highest point on the island, you can see the vineyards which, like the black-sand beaches to which the hotel can arrange excursions, make southern Santorini every bit as seductive as Oia — and without the day-trippers.
Mykonos, second most visited of the Cyclades, is the place for hedonists. The eponymous port town, with its lovely crescent of a waterfront, has the sophisticated buzz only a wealth of fabulous jewellery shops, fine restaurants and well-heeled visitors can bring.
Dining in a beautiful garden at Chez Maria or at a table spilling on to the street at Katrin, then choosing a bauble at midnight at Voulgaris on the waterfront (a more original jeweller than the famous Lalounis), is half the pleasure of a Mykonos holiday, although nights in town are too bright and noisy to enjoy continuously.
The perfect counterfoil to the metropolis — where the windmills and famous Paraportiani church in the Little Venice area are not to be missed in daylight — is Ornos, just a hop away with a range of chilled-out beach restaurants. Here on a hill lies Kivotos, a sublimely pretty hotel with lovely pool and private rocky beach. It is pricey, but there are also pleasant, low-rise apartments separated from the beach by just a goat-filled field.
For those who must have a spa, the Royal Myconian complex offers the works, including delightful open-air thalassotherapy. Some 20 minutes from town (but with a free shuttle bus) it enjoys a less windy beach — wind being to Mykonos what steps are to Santorini.
Naxos, sitting between its two more famous sisters, is less commercialised and best for village life. The delightfully laid-back hamlet of Halki is a shopper’s destination, thanks to the fine pottery and olive-wood to be found at L’Olivier, and don’t miss its citron liqueur distillery.
But time should be saved for Apiranthos, a gorgeous village straddling a mountain ridge whose streets are paved wth marble. A fine lunch of Greek salads in a rocky niche high above the street and a shopping attack in the bronze emporium was topped only by a sea-side iced coffee at beautiful, blue-awninged Apollon and a drive back to Naxos Town along a stunning corniche.
Lively Naxos Town has a prom studded with bars and restaurants and many fine jewellerers in the twisting alleys of the Old Market. Atop it sits the charming Chateau Zevgoli, a pretty, well-priced hotel. The real glory of near-perfect Naxos, however, is the superb beach extending nearly 20 miles from the town cente.
Kalymnos in the Dodecanese is the best-kept-secret island — barely known but deeply authentic and utterly delightful. Youcould linger in a simple apartment in Myrties (less frenetic than the main resort of Massouri) overlooking lapping waves and stunning sunsets, shop for sponges in the harbour town of Pothia or swim in the lovely cove at Vlychadia, where diver Stavros Valsimades’s collection of maritime treasures is a jewel.
Not to be missed is the astonishingly fertile valley of Vathi, scythed into a fjord within a secret niche of this otherwise barren island. Enjoy a harbourside lunch, buy the famous local honey and revel in discovering a great island which hardly registers in the guidebooks.
The left fork of Halkidiki, the beautiful three-armed peninsula of northern Greece, is technically an island thanks to a river running through it and best for those not sure if Greece is really for them. Its Sani Resort Hotel has become a dining destination, thanks to an annual gastronomic festival, plus Tomata, a once Santorini-based bistro serving fantastic Greek fare with a twist.
The resort offers international as well as Greek fare and superb breakfasts in its five-star and more moderately-priced family accommodation. It also has a great spa and a summer-long music festival. No sugar-cube architecture or authentic island zen, but a taste that may convince that Greek food, music and jewellery are hard to beat, and that there is nowhere better to enjoy them than your own special island.