Greek odyssey - The Greek islands
It was one of the most perfect days I can remember. We were staying in the little resort of Fiskardo on the northern tip of Kefalonia, largest of the Ionian Islands but little visited.We drove down to Assos for lunch – a sleepy little village overlooked by a Venetian fortress dating from 1590.We thought of climbing it but didn’t bother. Lunch was slow in arriving, but by now we had realised no-one is in a hurry in Kefalonia.
We drove back in late afternoon and down a steep track to the beach at Myrtos, possibly the most beautiful in Greece and probably the most photographed.We were back in Fiskardo in time for sunset, which we watched over dinner on the terrace of an arty hotel.
By my standards we had seen virtually nothing, but relaxed a great deal.We wanted to see Myrtos beachbecause it’s in the film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and films are one of the reasons us Brits have fallen in love with the Greek islands.
Shirley Valentine (made in 1989) is probably the bestknown, the tale of a bored housewife (Pauline Collins) who falls in love with taverna owner Costas (the roguish Tom Conti) on a holiday fling in Mykonos. More recently, we’ve had the film version of Mamma Mia! which was shot in Skopelos and Skiathos.
There have been notable TV series too including The Lotus Eaters and Who Pays the Ferryman?, both set in Crete.Whether it’s Kefalonia or Mykonos, Skopelos or Santorini, the appeal of the Greek islands is essentially the same.
You’ll have a laid-back holiday in the sun far from the cares of the world, dragging yourself just a fewyards away from the beach to enjoy freshly caught fish washed down with local wine at a taverna, while the son of Costas (and Shirley?) serenades you with a bouzouki. Let’s hope he leaves the signature tune from Zorba the Greek until the end, when you’ll be too drunk to dance.
That appeal is as strong today as ever, but the smile on the waiter’s face might just be more of a grimace.
The average Greek has lost 30% of his or her income since the country was engulfed by financial crisis, and the tourism industry was already suffering as holidaymakers decamped to Turkey or Egypt to avoid high prices in the eurozone.
But tour operators report that prices are down this year as Greece tries to be more competitive, and youcan also expect meals, drinks and other holiday expenses to be a little less. The Post Office Holiday CostsBarometer for 2009 found that a “basket” of typical holiday purchases cost £63.42 in Greece compared to £75.21 in Turkey, and Greece might come out even better this year.
Hotels and other businesses are functioning normally, but there is a risk of sudden strikes affecting transport. Visitors should otherwise be unaffected by the crisis, and if you’re sympathetic you might leave a larger tip.
You can now fly direct to a dozen Greek islands, but only a few of these are served by low-cost airlines. Tour operators control most flights so it could be more costeffective to buy a package holiday rather than organise it yourself, especially in high season.
The Greek islands have mainly changed for the better, but in some cases for the worse. Many islands nowhave a good choice of boutique and luxury hotels, as an alternative to tourist-class hotels and cheap apartments. You can still find clean but simple accommodation in tavernas and village houses, but be prepared to sleep on the beach if you don’t pre-book.
Roads and airports are generally better too, but some islands have spoiled the image of Greece by encouraging binge drinking by young British clubbers – sometimes with tragic consequences.
Faliraki in Rhodes might have cleaned up its act, but Malia in Crete and Laganas in Zante – plus some resorts in Corfu and Kos – are still infamous.You really would not want to go there in high season if you’re over 25 (maybe 21!), or you could end up in jail like the stag party dressed up as nuns in Malia last year.
the main island groups
This group lies to the west of the Greek mainland, and the flying time is around three hours compared with about four hours to islands in the east.
These islands are generally green and easy on the eye, with great beaches. The most popular is Corfu, especially for families as it has plenty of good-value accommodation. Sidari, Dassia, Roda and Benitsesare the main family resorts, while Glyfada and Gouvia appeal mainly to couples. Kavos is a major clubbing resort, but hasn’t achieved the same notoriety as resorts in Crete or Zante. Corfu Town has some Italianate architecture including Mon Repos, now a museum and birthplace of Britain’s Prince Philip.
Zante, also known as Zakynthos, has become a lot more popular mainly because the resort of Laganas is a top spot for clubbing. Kalamaki, Argassi and Tsilivi are better choices for families. The island is well worth exploring with turtles nesting on its many small coves.
Kefalonia is one of the least-developed islands with no high-rise buildings allowed. Lassi and Skala have the best beaches and appeal mainly to couples. The less visited north has only small, traditional resorts, such as Fiskardo.
Lefkas (also known as Lefkada) is linked by bridge to the mainland, making it a good base for exploring the mountainous north-west of Greece. Nidri is the main resort, but the island is better known for sailing than beach holidays. The tiny private island of Skorpios, just off Lefkas, was where tycoon Aristotle Onassis married the former Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968.
Various sub-groups make up the Aegean Islands, which tend to be dry and barren with much of their character defined by traditional whitewashed houses contrasting with the blue of sky and sea.
The Cyclades are especially barren, but no less beautiful because of it. Mykonos has been popular with the wealthy and trendy since the 1960s, and was the first “out” – gay – island in Greece. It appeals mainly to well-off younger visitors but also to people interested in art. Nightlife is renowned but not vulgar, and it has some excellent sandy beaches.
Another island appealing unashamedly to the young, beautiful and rich (but not exclusively) is Santorini. This was the site of a massive volcanic eruption around 1500 BC with the sea filling the crater and leaving a barren island where vines grow in the ash. Beaches are mainly of pebbles or dark volcanic shingle with Kamari and Perissa being the main resorts. Visitors head for the fashionable resort of Oia to enjoy the sunset.
Also in the Cyclades are many small islands reachable only by sea, and generally undeveloped. Naxos is the largest island in this group, with over 60 miles of beaches. Paros also has great beaches and appeals to windsurfers.
The Sporades islands in the northern Aegean include Skiathos, a surprisingly green and fertile island with lots of sandy beaches. Limited flight capacity has saved it from over-development, and the same applies to nearby Skopelos which is reached by sea. Mountainous Samos is increasingly popular but still has a genuine island feel, as does Lemnos.
This group is in the south of the Aegean, and has a distinct character with the main islands being more cosmopolitan than the Cyclades.You can make day trips to nearby Turkey from some islands despite the often strained relationship between the two countries.
Rhodes is a fairly small island but long established for upmarket tourism, a reputation it is keen to boost with four new luxury hotels opening this year. It has recovered well from the shock headlines of a few years ago coming out of the clubbing resort of Faliraki, which led some hotels to claim they were not in Faliraki but in Kalithea just up the coast.
Faliraki and Kalithea have the best beaches but you can also stretch out at Ixia, Lindos and Pefkos; Lindos being very picturesque because of its hilltop fortress. Rhodes Town has a medieval feel with sturdy walls and the 14th century fortress built by the Knights of St John.
Kos is a fertile island where all-inclusive hotels are being developed. Kardamena is the busiest resort and popular with clubbers, while Kos Town also has beaches and nightlife. Kefalos and Tingaki are more peaceful resorts appealing to couples.
Crete is sometimes described as a country in its own right because of its size and diversity. The largest and farthest south of the Greek islands, it is more diverse than any other island, being popular with walkers and history lovers as well as the “fly and flop” brigade.
The north coast has been developed for mass tourism with some of the largest hotels in Greece, some offering all-inclusive holidays. If you don’t venture beyond your hotel then you really are missing something, as Crete offers intriguing landscapes and plenty of sightseeing with a mountainous interior and many traditional villages. Samaria Gorge is claimed to be the deepest in Europe with walls over 1,000 feet high.
The big resorts are along the north coast and include Malia (now Greece’s biggest clubbing destination), Rethymnon, Hersonissos and Aghios Nikolaos. The capital, Heraklion, is an attractive small port city.
Western Crete (including the former capital and large harbour of Chania) has a distinct atmosphere and strong Venetian influence, with Aghia Marina and Platanias being the main resorts nearby. The southwest
coast is very remote with some villages reachable only by boat.
greek island facts
when to go
Direct flights operate only between May and October, and most resort hotels are closed for the rest of the year.
Direct low-cost or charter flights operate to Crete (Heraklion and Chania), Rhodes, Kos, Mykonos, Santorini, Skiathos, Samos, Lemnos, Corfu, Zante, Kefalonia and Preveza (for Lefkas). Main low-cost airlines are easyJet (www.easyjet.com) and Monarch (www.monarch.co.uk). These and other Islands can also be reached yearround on scheduled flights viaAthens, by Olympic (www.olympicair.com) or Aegean Airlines (http://en.aegeanair.com). Several cruise lines have itineraries taking in the Greek islands, including MSC Cruises.
A number of specialist tour operators feature holidays in the Greek Islands. Ionian Island Holidays specialises in Kefalonia, with seven nights at the Karteri Apartments costing from £620 (020 8459 0777, www.ionianislandholidays.com). Planet Holidays’ offerings include the Thalassa Sea Side Resort & Suites in Kamari, Santorini, from £666 (0871 871 2234, www.planet-holidays.co.uk).A seven-night holiday at the Amathus Beach Hotel in Rhodes costs £649 with Olympic Holidays (0800 093 3322, www.olympicholidays.com). Hydra is offered by
Sunvil (020 8758 4758, www.sunvil.co.uk) with seven nights from £808. Major operators include direct-sell Monarch Holidays (www.monarch.co.uk/holidays) and Cosmos (www.cosmos-holidays.co.uk), which sells through travel agents.
Greek National Tourism Organisation: tel 020 7495 9300, www.gnto.co.uk.
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to the Greek Islands.