Scattered like pearls across the shimmering Aegean and Ionian seas, the Greek islands have lured many with their charms. From the times of Jason and his adventuring Argonauts and the Frankish Crusaders to incursions by Mamma Mia film crews, myth and enchantment enfold the islands much like their ribbons of sugar-soft sand. There’s nothing quite like spotting the shoreline from a sun-drenched ferry deck and sailing into a port. And, in Greece, getting there is an essential part of the adventure. There are reckoned to be 227 inhabited islands to choose from (and countless more specks in the sea), so read on to wise up on the fine art of island-hopping, and discover which of the seven main island groups beckons you most…
The visitor appeal of the Cyclades is undeniable: be prepared to share, especially in high season. Of all the island groups, the Cyclades most closely match what the world thinks of as the ‘Greek island look’: a minimalist, often stark landscape, with dazzlingly white houses and azure sea echoing the colours of the national flag. From Piraeus, hop on a ferry to Mykonos, most glamorous of Greek islands, overlooked by its iconic windmills. Keep an eye out for celebrity visitors as you explore flower-filled lanes, boutique shops and cafés. Away from its main town, the island is quieter, with twisting lanes ripe to explore by bike or on foot. Day-trip to the tiny island of Delos with its sun-bleached ruins, a site of great spiritual importance to the ancient Greeks – the Cyclades were so named because they encircle Delos. Carry on to Naxos, the biggest of the Cyclades, with a walled seaside capital surrounding a hilltop castle. A quick hop west lands you on Paros, source of much of the finest marble in history. The pretty bayside town of Naoussa feels like Mykonos turned down a notch. Even further south, you’ll reach Santorini with its legendary sunsets, black-sand beaches, vineyards and incredible excavated town dating back to the ancient Minoan civilisation. Complete the loop after a stop in laid-back Milos, with dozens of beaches and charming villages to explore.
In the Dodecanese, you’ll see and taste the historical influences of the parade of cultures that have passed through, from Romans and crusading medieval knights to Byzantine and Ottoman rulers. Think plenty of pasta, sugary baklava, stunning minarets, walled cities and crumbling mountaintop castles. The catamaran service that regularly connects the islands makes hopping among them simple. Begin by catching a flight to Rhodes, which abounds in sandy beaches, ancient history and a buzzing city life. The bars in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town only really get going around midnight. Highlights outside the capital include the radiant whitewashed town of Lindos beneath its rock-perched ancient citadel, and remote Cape Prasonisi – a big draw for windsurfers. Elsewhere in the island chain, visit volcanic Nisyros to hike through its forests and into its steaming caldera, and Karpathos for its timeless hilltop village of Olymbos. Kalymnos will call divers and climbers with its undersea wrecks and limestone cliffs, while Patmos has an ethereal quality, where life is in tune with the monastery bells, and St John experienced his Revelations. If you’re visiting around Orthodox Easter, Patmos is the place to be. Loop back to popular Kos for its long strip of brown-sugar sand, nightlife, easily cycleable roads, and an airport with regular flights to Athens.
North Aegean Islands:
The most spread-out of the archipelago’s sub-groups runs along the northeast edge of the Aegean, and includes four of Greece’s 10 biggest islands. Although it is possible to jump between them with some careful scrutiny of ferry timetables, a trip to this corner is more about picking one island and getting to know it well. The largest is Lesvos. Its varied offerings include birdwatching, hot springs, a petrified forest, top-quality olive oil and about half the world’s production of ouzo, best sampled in ouzeries around the main port of Mytilini. Chios to the south is home to an even more unusual kind of agriculture: its mastic trees produce a gum prized in the region for centuries. The proceeds helped spur architectural styles unlike any other in the Aegean, such as the black-and-white decoration around the village of Pyrgi. At the northern end of the chain are Thasos and Samothraki, both among the greenest of Greek islands. While Thasos is a favourite with families on a budget, solitary Samothraki offers hiking, mountain biking and plunging into pools beneath mountain waterfalls. The southernmost of the islands, Ikaria, is also largely untamed, and has attracted much curiosity thanks to the famed longevity of its inhabitants. It’s not all peace and serenity here though: the rave-like village festivals, known as panigyria, show that the spirit of the wine god Dionysos lives on.