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The Best Greek Islands Worth Visiting

23/06/2020
  1. Mykonos

Mykonos had gay clubs and sunrise parties long before rave culture was even invented. Its bohemian allure hasn’t faded since the 1960s, although the once naked beaches now have nail bars, personal trainers and house music pumping out all hours. The influx of supermodels and superyachts has inspired hot new hotels and restaurants. The hippest place to show off your abs is Scorpios, a louche beach bar that puts Ibiza’s finest in the shade (book a cabana to watch the sunset). After hours, it’s always Astra, where you might find Keith Richards chatting up Karolina Kurkova. The gay crowd has dwindled, but drag queens and oiled bodybuilders make a splash at Jackie O, overlooking Super Paradise bay.

If the glitzy excess gets too much, escape to Fokos taverna for superfood salads and lamb chops, or Kiki’s, an off-grid grill-shack overlooking Agios Sostis bay, where even Naomi Campbell has to queue for a table. Or cruise over to the tiny island of Delos, an archaeological sanctuary that once thronged with 30,000 sun worshippers (the temple is dedicated to Apollo, the Greek god of light).

Where to stay in Mykonos: Pale and interesting, Bill & Coo Coast on Agios Ioannis beach has dusky views across to Delos. Santa Marina resort tumbles down a private peninsula with a full-blown spa, a secret sandy beach, and a Riva to whisk you off to Nammos or Scorpios, if you can peel yourself off your canopied sunbed. If you prefer to be in the thick of it, The Belvedere is the gold standard in Chora, the glittering port capital.

Credits: RITA PLATTS

 

2. Santorini

Cooing American and Chinese honeymooners line up to take selfies as the sun sinks behind Santorini‘s caldera, the flooded volcanic crater. That view may be a romantic cliché, but it still takes your breath away. A volcanic explosion blew out Santorini’s heart 3,500 years ago, leaving black-sand beaches, vertiginous cliffs in psychedelic hues, and swirling rumours about Atlantis in its wake. The eruption also preserved the ancient city of Akrotiri under layers of ash, and created fertile ground for exceptional Assyrtiko grapes and Vinsanto wines. (Sample them at Sigalas and Vassaltis wineries, paired with delicate dishes that let the grapes sing.)

Apart from a boat trip to the smouldering crater of Nea Kameni and hot springs at Palia Kameni, there’s not much to do but gaze at the mesmerising views from your suite, dangling on the edge of the caldera. The best hotels in Santorini are concentrated in Oia, but the inland village of Pyrgos is up-and-coming. Go for a twilight Bellini at Franco’s or a cocktail at newcomer Botargo, with views that will leave you light-headed, followed by dinner at Selene, a pioneer of new Cycladic cuisine.

Where to stay in Santorini: Trendier pretenders come and go, but Perivolas is still the most stylish and peaceful place to stay. If you have cash to splash, and can’t stand the crowds, take over Perivolas Hideaway, a waterfront villa on Santorini’s undiscovered offshoot, Thirassia, or Erosantorini, a stunning clifftop estate with a tiered pool plunging 1000 feet to the sea.

Credits: Getty Images

 

3. Hydra

You know when Dakis Joannou, Greece’s foremost art collector, is on Hydra. His yacht, Guilty, is painted in gaudy ‘camouflage’ by Jeff Koons. Every summer, Joannou invites big hitters such as Matthew Barney and David Shrigley to create site-specific installations in the Greek island’s old slaughterhouse. Even the school is commandeered for exhibitions in the summer holidays. Car-free and protected by a preservation order, Hydra has always been the artists’ muse of the Greek Islands. Leonard Cohen set the scene in the 60s; now Brice Marden, Sadie Coles and Juergen Teller have homes here. Athenian artists take up residence at the School of Fine Arts, one of the vast, grey, stone mansions overlooking the horseshoe harbour.

Less than two hours from Athens, Hydra fills up with chic Greeks at weekends. . They come to disconnect and slow down, but also to see and be seen. Wily cats and weary donkeys patrol the back alleys, but all the action happens along the waterfront. Oh look! There’s Olivia Palermo at The Pirate Bar and Chloë Sevigny shaking her tail feather at Hydronetta beach bar. Who cares if there are barely any beaches? You can always find a slab of sun-baked rock from which to leap rock from which to dive into the clearest water in the world.

Where to stay in Hydra: Built in 1796, nine-room Orloff Boutique Hotel oozes old-world charm. If a pool is a priority, check into atmospheric Bratsera. To get in with the art crowd, stay at a leading local Artist’s Villa (like the one pictured), available through Hipaway.

Credits: OLIVER PILCHER

 

4. Crete

Greece’s largest island, the birthplace of Zeus, Crete has ancient ruins, snow-capped peaks and beaches galore. Sunshine is pretty much guaranteed year round, but spring is especially lovely for rambling and sightseeing. The Minoan palace of Knossos is glorious, despite the steady stream of coach parties (go early: it opens at 8am). The 16km-long Samariá Gorge also teems with pilgrims, but there are 50 more canyons to explore, often with only the elusive kri-kri (wild goats) for company.

With the exception of Elounda – a pocket of bling popular with oligarchs – the north-east coast is scarred by over-development. Instead head south, where you’ll find the best beaches in Crete, complete with empty sand dunes, sprinkled with simple yoga retreats such as Yoga Rocks at Triopetra and Yoga Plus at Agios Pavlos. Or take a back-to-nature break with Wild Fitness at Milia, a 17th-centruy hamlet powered entirely by solar energy. Time slows almost to a standstill in the mountain villages, where locals with formidable whiskers welcome you with shots of raki (Cretan grappa) for breakfast and celebrate saints’ days with a volley of gunshots. Even the road signs are peppered with bullet holes.

Where to stay in Crete: A 300-year-old hamlet surrounded by olive groves, Kapsaliana Village Hotel exudes peaceful authenticity. On a sandy bay just beyond Chania, Ammos Hotel smartly combines Scandi chic with a child-friendly vibe. Blue Palace Resort & Spa beats the (stiff) competition in Elounda with its spiral stone Isola Beach Club, thalassotherapy spa, and boat trips to Spinalonga island, a national monument just across Mirabello Bay.

Credits: Getty Images

 

5. Rhodes

When the writer Lawrence Durrell arrived in Rhodes after World War II, he found an island devastated by centuries of crusaders and invaders. Like the fallen Colossus, it was ‘a Rhodes dispersed into a million fragments, waiting to be built up again.’ Since then, Rhodes has reinvented itself as one of Greece’s top travel destinations. The big draw is the medieval citadel in Rhodes Town: : stroll along the battlements and you’ll spy Byzantine churches, Roman ruins, synagogues and minarets. In the maze of alleys, seek out Marco Polo, a 15th-century guest-house decorated like a pasha’s harem, with an enchanting restaurant in the garden.

Upmarket hotels are clustered around Lindos, its magnificent acropolis surrounded by slate cliffs and emerald coves. Go for the views – and the sublime octopus ragout at Mavrikos restaurant.
As you head south, high-rise resorts give way to stretches of golden sand, such as Glystra, Tsambika, and Fourni. Inland, you’ll find alpine forests (Mount Attavyros), hilltop castles (Monolithos), faded frescoes (Agios Nikolaos Foundoukli) and ancient ruins (Kamiros). Marooned on the southern tip, Prasonisi is a powdery peninsula where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean. One side is calm, the other choppy – a metaphor for this island of two halves.

Where to stay in Crete: Adults-only Casa Cook is a chic little number that breaks all the rules about package holidays (you’d never know it was created by Thomas Cook). The Marco Polo is a 15th-century mansion decorated like a pasha’s harem, with an enchanting garden restaurant. Ottoman-style suites at Melenos Lindos have hand-painted ceilings and carved platform beds.

Credits: Getty Images

 

6. Skiathos

Skiathos may be the smallest of the Sporades islands, which counts among its number sleepy Alonnisos and the pretty Mamma Mia! location of Skopelos, but it’s by far the most popular, especially with families, who come for the baby powder-soft sandy beaches and laid-back vibe. The island has some of the finest beaches in Greece, with the tree-lined, turquoise-watered Koukounaries in the south the most celebrated and the busiest (forget about getting a sun lounger here in peak season). Those in the north of the island, which can only be accessed by a steep, winding drive through pine groves, are more rugged and windswept but no less idyllic – emerging onto Elia beach, with its crystal-clear sea and rickety wooden taverna, is like stepping into a little slice of paradise.

As dusk falls the town starts to liven up, with most of the action centred around Papadiamantis Street, the main shopping drag. Stroll down it on the way to dinner and browse smart boutiques selling handcrafted jewellery and knick-knacks, or pick up local delicacies from the upmarket Ergon deli, which also has outposts in Athens, Thessaloniki and Mayfair. The buzziest restaurants are clustered around the harbour, with Bourtzi, perched atop a tiny rocky island, the best spot for sundowner cocktails and The Windmill a favourite for elegant suppers. For the most charming setting, head to Sklithri and book one of the taverna’s tables right on the beach. Order an ice-cold Mythos beer, baked feta and a platter of perfectly-chargrilled and out-of-this-world delicious vegetables then watch the sun set over the Aegean, with your toes in the sand.

Where to stay in Skiathos: The island wasn’t known for its smart hotels until the Elivi opened in 2018. Sitting on a hilltop on the Punta peninsula, the hotel has tastefully decorated rooms and four of the island’s most beautiful beaches within walking distance. White Key handles some beautiful rental properties, such as Villa Orelia, which comes with its own private open-air cinema.

Credits: Getty Images

 

7. Lefkada

Lefkada is something of an anomaly. Unlike the other Ionian islands, it’s accessible from the mainland via a causeway on the northern tip. It’s also easily reached from the UK, with direct flights to Preveza, a 40-minute drive. Lefkada’s main town, flattened by an earthquake in the 1950s, won’t take your breath away, but those famous cliff-backed beaches, Egremni and Porto Katsiki, sure will. You’ll find sheltered beaches no matter which way the wind is blowing; but if you’re here for the swell, the south coast is fantastic for windsurfing (head to Vassiliki or Sivota, home to the world windsurfing championships) and Agios Ioannis bay billows with kite-surfers. At Nidri, ignore the unlovely bars and watersports centres, and hop on a boat to explore the little isles nearby. You can swim through sea caves on Kalamos; eat seared tuna with tarama at Errikos taverna on Meganisi, a favourite of reclusive billionaires; and watch the sunset with a basil-infused Mastiha and tonic at Mylos bar, a converted windmill on Kastos.

Want to cool down or escape the summer crowds? Drive through forests of chestnut and pine into Lefkada’s mountainous interior to the somnolent villages of Karya (home to an enchanting textile museum), Eglouvi (to play backgammon under plane trees) and Exanthia (to watch the setting sun from up in the clouds at Rachi restaurant). You might even see paragliders leaping off the mountain.

Where to Stay in Lefkada: Good value and family-friendly, Idilli Villas is a secluded collection of stone houses, most with private pools. It’s a 10-minute stroll to the cute seaside town (and excellent fish tavernas – try Sappho) of Agios Nikitas. Five Star Greece specialises in ultra-luxe properties, such as Lefkada JD, which comes with a gym, chef, housekeeper and a skippered RIB boat.

Credits: Getty Images

 

8. Paxos

One of the tiniest Ionian islands, Paxos packs a big punch. Not for its five-star hotels (there are hardly any) or its sandy beaches (practically none), but for its electric blue sea and three dinky harbour towns, each one so pretty it’s impossible to pick a favourite. In laid-back Loggos, on the northeast coast, star-spangled evenings are spent on the waterfront terrace of Taxidi bar, where the owner, Spiros, often jams with local musicians. You could while away days in the waterfront cafés of Lakka, watching lissom sailors hop on and off their yachts.

Protected from the wind but with a lively social scene, the main port of Gaios is characterised by Venetian architecture and a high quota of stylish Italians, who own pale stone villas hidden in the wooded interior or on the crest of the limestone cliffs along the western shoreline. All roads lead to Ben’s Bar, a happy-go-lucky hangout on Monodendri beach, where you can laze under the olive trees with French toast and Piña Coladas. Make sure to rent a motor boat to putter along the coast to pebble coves or across to Antipaxos, an even smaller island rimmed by teal-blue ocean. Paths through vineyards and orchards trickle down to bays with sea so clear it looks retouched.

Where to Stay in Paxos: There are hardly any smart hotels on Paxos, but dozens of very desirable villas to choose from. Scott Williams specialises in scene-stealers designed for big group getaways, which often come with their own boat and beach. Alternatively, you can charter their teak ketch, Circe, for day trips or overnight adventures. For intimate hideaways where nobody will ever find you, check out The Thinking Traveller’s portfolio. Their well-connected reps can arrange restaurant reservations, private chefs and picnics on secret beaches.

Credits: Getty Images

 

9. Milos

Everyone knows the Venus de Milo (which has stood in the Louvre since the 19th century). Until recently, very few had heard of Milos, the volcanic island where Aphrodite’s graceful likeness was discovered. Those in the know jealously guard their treasured island, and especially its 70 (or more) beaches — surely the most diverse and dramatic coastline of all the Greek Islands.

Little by little, though, Milos is being discovered. Instagram is saturated with no-filter shots of the undulating cliffs at Sarakiniko, the bottle-green swimming hole at Papafragas, and colourful, rickety syrmata, tiny boat houses wedged between rock and sea. (You’ll find the best photo opportunities at Klima and Mandrakia). This painterly landscape was shaped by the minerals that have long been a source of wealth – obsidian, alum, barite and sulphur, which still bubbles up in the island’s many hot springs. As the 11,000-year-old mining industry is gradually giving way to tourism, several chic hotels have made an appearance. Go now, before the trickle of visitors turns into a tide.

Where to stay on Milos: With a wooden deck and sunbeds shaded by billowing sails, Salt is like staying on a boat floating above the Bay of Pollonia. For a serene retreat, check into Skinopi Lodge , three discreet villas on a hillside estate facing the horizon.

Credits: Getty Images

 

10. Cephalonia/Kefalonia

Casting Penélope Cruz as a Greek peasant is improbable. Shooting a World War II film on an island flattened by an earthquake in 1953 sounds even crazier. And yet Captain Corelli’s Mandolin put under-the-radar Kefalonia (Cephalonia) in the spotlight in 2001. The dramatic scenery still lives up to the hype: milky-white Myrtos beach, the island’s pin-up; pine-fringed Horgota beach; and the giddying heights of Mount Ainos, a national park where deer and wild horses roam. Outdoor Kefalonia organises four-wheel-drive safaris, if you can’t face the hairpin bends. Surprisingly, the two prettiest seaside villages – Assos and Fiskardo – didn’t make the cut. But the yachting set has discovered their photogenic charm. Everyone from John Galliano to Jon Bon Jovi has jumped ashore to taste the seafood pasta at Tassia in Fiskardo, washed down with local Robola and Muscat wines. (We recommend the organic muscat from the 19th century Haritatos Estate in Lixouri, also an enchanting setting for wine tasting.) The rocky coastline around Fiskardo is deliciously pristine: go snorkelling at tiny Dafnoudi or Emblissi, flanked by slabs of limestone that turn the water electric blue.

Where to stay in Cephalonia: Overlooking Fiskardo, Emelisse is a resort hotel with a great little Elemis spa. For mind-blowing views and ultra-chic interiors, check into Villa Althea, available through Beyond Spaces. Blissfully isolated, Fiskardo Cottages are a pair of stone houses brimming with art and antiques. Footpaths through the woods lead to quiet bays. For fancier villas, try Five Star Greece.

Credits: JULIEN CAPMEIL

 

11. Corfu

Corfu is the It Girl of the Ionian islands. The cosmopolitan capital is a charming clash of Venetian, British and French colonial influences. Evenings kick off with cocktails on the Liston (a colonnade modelled on Paris’s rue de Rivoli), followed by dinner at Corfu Sailing Club, overlooking a floodlit fortress.

With its pastel villages, rolling olive groves and grand manor houses, the rest of the island recalls Tuscany – but with some of the best beaches in Europe. The smart set stay on Corfu’s north-east coast (nicknamed Kensington-on-Sea) where the Rothschilds like to unwind. It’s wall-to-wall Sloanes and speedboats at Agni, a tiny fishing village with three rival tavernas (Toula’s is the best). From here, you can rent a boat and putter to your own cove: perhaps Nissaki, Agios Stefanos or Kerasia. These idyllic bays still resemble the ‘delectable landscape’ that Lawrence Durrell fell for in the 1930s — now back in vogue thanks to the ITV series, The Durrells. Or venture inland to Ambelonas, an enchanting winery, restaurant and cooking school that specialises in Corfiot dishes, such as squid with chickpea and turmeric mousse and rose petal jelly. Steer clear of the south, especially Kavos. Unless you happen to like wet T-shirt contests.

Where to stay in Corfu: Rou Estate a hilltop hamlet transformed into a five-star retreat with an excellent spa. CV Villas has cornered the market in covetable villas on the north-east coast of Corfu. If you’d rather go all-inclusive, check into the smart Ikos Dassia, which opened in May 2018 in Dassia, a favourite haunt of The Durrells cast and crew. Guest perks include a Mini Cooper for cruising around the island.

Credits: STEFANO AZARIO

 

12. Zakynthos/Zante

Zakynthos, or Zante, has shrugged off its reputation as a destination for lads on tour (as long as you avoid Lagana and the built-up south coast) by rebranding itself as Greece’s greenest island. It’s not just the emerald hills sliding into the electric blue Ionian: much of the south coast is a nature reserve where endangered loggerhead turtles hatch in the sand. The turtle beaches are off limits, but there are countless coves in every hue of green and blue. Favourites are tiny Xigia, with its bubbling underwater springs, and craggy Porto Limnionas, with sunbeds wedged between the rocks and palm-frond umbrellas positioned between the pine trees. Skinari is the starting point for boat trips to the most famous landmarks, the Blue Caves and Shipwreck Beach, where a rusting liner leans into the chalky cliffs. From Keri, you can cast away for Marathonisi island, another turtle sanctuary.

The mountainous interior, all sleepy stone villages poking out of pine forests, is great for hikes and bikes. (Eco Zante can arrange outdoor activities guided by insiders.) Askos Stone Park is a wildlife sanctuary inhabited by deer, chinchilla, and dozens of other species. After exploring the Venetian castle high above the harbour, treat the kids to thin-crust pizzas (with grown-up toppings like bresaola, aubergine, and gorgonzola) at Alesta on cute St Mark’s Square.

Where to stay in Zante: Porto Zante, eight villas with five-star facilities, set above a pristine bay of finely raked sand, is kitted out for kids of all ages: there’s a playground, mini-golf, and every water-sport under the sun. The sociable Peligoni Club is especially good for toddlers and teens: the crèche is run by qualified nannies and over-13s have their own bar, serving milkshakes and mocktails. Zante Maris Suites, as well as the new Olea All Suite Hotel just next door, are both squarely aimed at adults, with a haute hippie vibe. Kids over 12 are welcome.

Credits: Getty Images

 

13. Naxos

Naxiots once made considerable fortunes exporting potatoes, cheese, marble and emery. Locals bequeathed undesirable seaside plots – useless for farming – to their laziest offspring. When tourists cottoned on to the island’s scores of fabulous beaches, these wastrels found themselves sitting on gold mines. The west coast of Naxos is fringed with mile upon mile of powdery sands. Agios Prokopios and Agia Anna delight toddlers and teenagers alike with their shallow waters and beach bars. As you head south, the beaches get wilder: Plaka, where you can gallop across the dunes on horseback, Mikri Vigla for windsurfing and kitesurfing, and crystal-clear Kastraki.

Should you tire of frolicking on the shore, three supersized kouros statues are hidden in the hills and there are dozens of drowsy villages to explore. Try kitron, the local citron liqueur, at the Vallindras distillery in Halki or sample homemade wine and arseniko cheese under the plane trees in Ano Potamia village. No wonder Herodotus described Naxos as ‘the happiest of islands’.

Where to stay in Naxos: Corona Borealis is a seven-suite retreat with a pool poised for sunset and a private cove where you can have supper under the stars. Kavos is a low-key complex of boxy white villas, set among bright bursts of bougainvillea, geraniums, and roses, above Agios Prokopios beach.

Credits: Getty Images

 

14. Sifnos

Sifnos owes its foodie reputation to its most famous descendant, Nicholas Tselementes, who wrote the first Greek cookbook in 1910. Forget souvlaki and moussaka: here, chickpea croquettes and stewed capers are taverna staples. The island is peppered with potteries that produce the earthenware casseroles used for revitháda (baked chickpeas) and mastello (lamb with red wine and dill). Traditional dishes are slow-roasted in a wood-fired oven at To Meraki tou Manoli, a local institution on sheltered Vathy bay. (While you’re there, invest in some timeless tableware from Atsonios pottery, in business since 1870.)

In postcard-pretty Artemonas, all roads lead to Theodorou, purveyors of nougat wafers and almond sweets since 1933. You can eat in your bikini at Omega 3, where locally foraged and fished ingredients are given an exotic twist: baby-calamari tempura, smoked eel in chilled melon soup with wasabi, and chickpea sorbet with wild apricot jam and pine nuts. Lobsters are plucked straight from the sea at Heronissos, then served with spaghetti on the jetty. It’s just the right balance of low-key luxury and unspoiled authenticity. Rather like Sifnos itself.

Where to stay in Sifnos: With its cliff-top infinity pool and soft-focus sunsets, Verina Astra is effortlessly sexy. Verina Suites on Platis Gialos beach is more family-friendly. Kamaroti is an effortless crowd-pleaser with its green lap pool shaded by olive trees, mid-century modern touches, and deliciously unpretentious Greco-Spanish menu.

Credits: Getty Images

 

15. Symi

Little Symi has the prettiest port in Greece. As you round the headland, neoclassical mansions in every shade of apricot and peach rise like a mirage from the sea. Built by 19th-century sponge and spice merchants, the whole town is now a national monument. You need strong legs to explore – it’s about 500 steps up to the crumbling acropolis – but you won’t need a car. The only proper road peters out at Panormitis monastery, a major pilgrimage site. Ravishing beaches such as Ayios Yorgos Disalonas (backed by monumental cliffs) and Marathounda (where goats will try to filch your picnic) are only accessible by boat or on foot. In the rugged hinterland, more than 100 monasteries are hidden among the pine and cypress forests.

With its laid-back glamour, luminous sea and almost tropical microclimate, Symi is a hit with French and Italian yachties. You’ll find them eating flash-fried baby shrimp, a local specialty, at Tholos, a sensational taverna where the harbour views almost steal the show.

Where to stay in Symi: The Old Markets is the only smart hotel, but there are just ten rooms so be quick and book one. Its simpler sister hotel, Emporio, also has just five rooms and a stand-alone cottage, dangling above the drowsy pebble bay of Nimborio, a one-taverna kind of town.

Credits: Getty Images

 

From Condé Nast Traveller

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