Travelling between the islands of Kalymnos and Samos a few years ago, I met an American backpacker who couldn’t believe how big the Aegean Sea was. “I’ve been on this boat for more than a week now,” he pointed out. Turned out that when he’d bought his ticket for Samos in Piraeus the agent had neglected to point out that while the boat he’d be travelling on did indeed go to Samos, it went the long way round, by way of Mykonos, Crete, Rhodes, Kos and more than a dozen other islands. Which just goes to show that when you set off on a Greek island odyssey, planning is everything. If you think island-hopping still involves sleeping in a beat-up old rust-bucket, think again.
These days, you can travel in air-conditioned comfort aboard a high-speed catamaran, hydrofoil, or a fast modern car ferry.
BA (through its subsidiary GB Airways) has new scheduled flights to Mykonos and Santorini so it’s easier now to fly into one island and home from another island or mainland airport.
Charter airlines also sell one-way flight-only tickets to most islands, so to be flexible combine an outbound charter with a scheduled homebound flight
Top island hops
Route Mykonos to Athens
Duration One week
Stop 1 Mykonos: 3 nights
Mykonos is the quintessential Greek island, with a dazzlingly pretty island capital (all whitewashed lanes and blue-domed churches), some of the best sandy beaches in the Cyclades, and camped-up nightlife. Boats leave every morning for the nearby ancient temple ruins of Delos, and return in time for lunch and an afternoon on the beach.
Stop 2 Tinos: 2-3 nights
Everybody has to visit Mykonos once but to see a different side of island life head north to Tinos, Mykonos’s quieter neighbour. Orthodox pilgrims come here in hope of a miracle cure from one of Greece’s most famous icons, housed in the cathedral. There’s good walking country inland along cobbled mule-tracks dotted ith whitewashed villages and stone dovecots, and there are uncrowded pebbly beaches.
Stop 3 Rafina: 1 night
Spend the last night of your trip in Rafina, the cheerful ferry port nearest to Athens airport (a 30-minute bus ride). There are great fish restaurants round the harbour (Athenians drive out from the city to eat here) and a slightly scruffy beach for a last-minute swim before heading for the plane.
Route Athens to Santorini – fly into Athens, hop south to Santorini (for a longer trip, you could carry on south from Santorini to Crete and fly home from Heraklion).
Duration Two weeks
Stop 1 Athens: 2 nights
You need at least a two-night stay to make the most of Athens. See the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum, take the funicular to the top of Mt Lycabettos for a sunset view of the city, and hang out after dark in the trendy nightspots of the Psirri district or louche and lively Exarchia. Then take the metro to Piraeus for ferries to the islands.
Stop 2 Paros: 3 nights
Paros is one of the busiest ferry ports in the Aegean, with boats coming and going round the clock. The main village, Parikia, is cheerfully commercial, with lots of places to stay and eat at budget prices, and some good party spots. For top beaches, take the shuttle ferry over to tiny Antiparos.
Stop 3 Naxos: 3 nights
Naxos is the biggest of the Cyclades – great for walking in fertile valleys and chilling on uncrowded beaches. There’s almost no package tourism here, but if you want facilities such as wind-surfing and other water sports the place to stay is the amiable small resort of Agia Anna.
Stop 4 Ios: 1-3 nights
You either love or hate Greece’s legendary party island. People have been caning it here every summer for more than 40 years, and if you want to dance all night and sleep on the beach all day, there is no better lump of rock in the Aegean. These days, one night here is about all my kidneys can take, but some people stay for weeks.
Stop 5 Santorini: 1-3 nights
The climax of this trip is Santorini, where multi-coloured cliffs rise from a sea-filled caldera. For the full impact find a ferry that arrives around sunset. Party animals stay in Thira, the island capital, beach lovers head for the black sands of Kamari or Perissa on the east coast, but those in the know stay in pretty Oia on the northern tip of the island, which has the best sunset views in Greece.
Last summer I finally made it to this rocky speck ? miles from its nearest neighbour, Rhodes, but only a mile from the Turkish mainland) and I wasn’t disappointed. This may be the prettiest island village in Greece. No beaches, but the deep blue fjord of a harbour is dazzlingly clean and you can sunbathe and swim from the bathing deck of the Hotel Megisti, even if you’re not a resident.
Getting there Flights ? mins), catamaran ƒ.5 hrs) or ferry ?.5 hrs) from Rhodes.
“Welcome to Fourni, Island of the Corsairs” reads the sign as you sail into a perfect hidden harbour that was a pirates’ lair until the 19th century. With deep bays and small sandy beaches, this island offers the best of both worlds – it feels remote but is easy to get to. There are plenty of waterfront tavernas in its only village (and the best seafood in the Aegean), and there’s a cheerful outdoor disco-bar tucked away out of earshot of the villagers).
Getting there Charter flight to Samos, then ferry ? hrs).
South of Samos is a an archipelago of tiny islands that are perfect if all you want to do is eat fish, drink retsina and swim. Ferries to most of these are haphazard, but Lipsi is easy to get to and well worth the journey – the sole village is built round an aquarium-clear harbour, tiny blue domed churches are dotted around the hills, and there are plenty of beaches.
Getting there Charter flight to Kos, then ferry or hydrofoil ?.5 hrs).
Tips for island hopping
• Every island harbour has a gaggle of competing ticket agencies. Shop around – they all have deals with different companies, and they won’t tell you about rival services.
• You must buy a ferry ticket before boarding. To be on the safe side, book at least one day before you travel. In a pinch, last-minute tickets are usually sold at the pierhead – look for the guy with the briefcase and the folding table and chair.
• For up-to-date ferry schedules and online bookings, see the Greek Travel Pages website www.gtp.gr.
• Don’t try island hopping during the mid-August Asomatos (Assumption) holiday weekend, when half of Greece is on the move and tickets are sold out weeks in advance.
• Finding somewhere to stay is easy – people with guesthouse rooms to rent meet every arriving ferry.
• Travelling by hydrofoil or catamaran cuts journey times in half but costs about twice as much as going by standard ferry.
Greece’s second city
Thessaloniki has great sightseeing and nightlife and is far less a tourist town than Athens.
Don’t miss the gold and silvertreasures from the tombs of ancient Macedon in the Archaeological Museum, or the amazing icons in the Byzantine Museum. There’s also a great market area in the centre of town. It’s a big university town, so there are lots of lively cafés and bars strung out along the waterfront and even more packed into Ladadika, a tarted-up former warehouse district which also houses several big club venues.
Combine a few days here with a stay on the beaches of the Kassandra or Sidonia peninsulas, less than an hour away by bus. Or, if you’re feeling energetic, take a bus south for Litohoro and climb Mt Olympus, at 2912m it’s Greece’s highest peak.
Getting there BA or Olympic Airways fly from Gatwick, and there are numerous charter flights. For the Mt Olympus trip, allow three days, including two nights in one of the walkers’ dorms on the mountain.