Most adventures in the Greek Islands begin at the busy port of Piraeus. One of the Mediterranean’s busiest ports since classical times, it was linked with Athens by defensive walls. Now the two have melded and most people go to Piraeus just to catch a ferry or hydrofoil.
Usually, after visiting the must-see places of Athens, people are ready for some water and sun and head to one of the 169 inhabited islands amongst the 1400 sprinkled in the sea. There are islands for everyone those wanting to escape, those wanting to explore the remains of old civilizations and those just wanting to enjoy the sand, sea, tavernas and Greek food while revelling in some of the 300 sunny days a year.
Thanks to the Greece and Mediterranean Travel Centre, you can arrange your itinerary before leaving Australia. Their island-hopping pass makes it easy. Just turn up and board your ferry. An eight-night pass includes accommodation, breakfast and your choice of three islands.
Getaway’s first stop was Mykonos in the Cyclades group. It’s perhaps the best known and most expensive of the islands, with pretty villages and traditional Greek culture. Once a peaceful fishing port, it became popular almost overnight after a visit by Aristotle and Jackie Onassis.
Mykonos’ best known church, Panagia Paraportiani, is actually four little churches forming one beautiful, white, asymmetrical building. Its multifaceted structure is a magnet for photographers and a wonderful place for great views of the sunset.
The island has five museums. The archaeological museum has pottery from Delos and some grave stelae (upright slabs bearing inscriptions) and jewellery from Delos necropolis. There is a Trojan war scene in relief and a statue of Heracles.
The Aegean Maritime Museum has a marvellous collection of nautical paraphernalia from all over the Aegean, including models of ancient vessels. Lena’s House is a 19th-century, middle-class Mykonian house, complete with furnishings. The folklore museum is in an 18th-century sea captain’s house, featuring a large collection of memorabilia, and there is also a windmill museum.
Next stop Naxos, the largest and most fertile of the Cycladic islands lying almost at the centre of the Aegean. Legend has it that Ariadne was abandoned there by Theseus, but she was soon in the arms of Dionysos, the god of wine and ecstasy. Ever since, Naxian wine has been recommended as the cure for a broken heart. Meadows run down to vast beaches, cliffs sink into the sea and there are rocky mountains, fertile valleys and many springs and streams. The coastline is abrupt on the south side and sheltered to the west, with many inlets and sandy beaches.
Due to its abundance of fresh water, Naxos is self-sufficient and produces premium quality fruit and vegetables. Their olives, grapes, figs, citrus, corn and potatoes make their way to tables across the world.
The important Byzantine centre boasts around 500 churches and monasteries, many with interesting frescoes. Some of the early Christian basilicas were originally ancient temples.
Hora, the main port, stands on a natural amphitheatre on a hillside. As you walk to the Venetian castle, the beauty of the narrow winding lanes and old stone houses is striking. North of the port is the unfinished Temple of Apollo, the handsome god of light and beauty. It is the island’s most famous landmark. Construction began in 522BC and its beautiful marble doorway proudly stands six metres high and three and a half metres wide. Building stopped when war broke out between Naxos and Samos and was never resumed.
Windsurfing is an extremely popular water sport and Flisvos Sport Club at Aghios Georgios is one of the most popular operators. The Alkyoni Beach Hotel has 40 units, beautiful gardens and is a few steps from the beach. It is in the traditional style of Cycladic architecture and guests enjoy cocktails around the pool. The taverna serves good, home made meals.
Residents of the tiny mountain village of Apiranthos are descendants of refugees who fled Crete to escape Turkish repression. The enchanting place has held tightly to its traditions and its buildings, streets and domestic walls are built of brilliant white Naxos marble. Taverna Lefteris features good Greek cooking and homemade sweets.
Santorini is the southernmost island of the Cycladic group and is regarded by many as the most spectacular of all. It was the site of the world’s biggest volcanic eruption, leaving a crater, or caldera, with high cliffs which is one of the world’s most dramatic geological sights. Archaeologists believe it was responsible for wiping out the entire Minoan civilisation. It has also been an inspiration to painters, writers, poets and mystics. Sparkling white houses with blue window shutters line the crater.
Santorini has a 3500-year tradition of vineyard cultivation and around 850 growers tend vines which cover around one third of the island. At SantoWines you can taste wines with biscuits and cheese and olives while taking in a spectacular sunset.
The best way to get around the islands is by moped, or scooter. They are available for hire everywhere, but always check the brakes before you take off and be extra careful, as the roads aren’t very well maintained.