Thousands of islands, 227 inhabited, a history so rich and complex it’s impossible to overstate or fully understand, democracy, philosophy and drama all originating here; yep, we’re talking about Greece. But where to start in a country of such intrigue? While mainland Greece is undeniably an attractive place to visit, for many the real draw is on the country’s islands. Indeed, whether with a crewed sailing holiday or on a solo adventure island hopping, being adrift in the Aegean Sea with little on the agenda but intrepid exploration is a tempting prospect for anyone. To help you best navigate your route and pen your itinerary, here are our 5 IDEAL tips for your Greek island hopping holiday.
FOCUS ON AN ISLAND GROUP
In a country of such varied and vivid past, having the foresight to narrow down your trip into one manageable theme and focus can be daunting. You want to experience all the diversity Greece has to offer, but at the same time not be bogged down in bureaucracy and endless bouncing between A and B. The answer? Determine which group of islands you want to explore, and make the most of that grouping, rather than cram in too much.
The Greeks islands are broadly grouped into six geographical clusters (plus Crete) and all have something in common, but equally are so very different. It’s highly advisable not to spread yourself too thinly when island hopping if you’re to get the most out of the country.
The Cyclades (close to Athens) with their chalk white villages and blue domed cathedrals are perhaps the most popular while the Argo-Saronic Islands, hugging the coast between Piraeus, the port of Athens, and the Peloponnese, the stunning southern mainland of Greece, are the most accessible.
If you want to go a little further afield, The Ionian (near Albania) has a uniquely Italian influence. Or the North Aegean Islands, close to Turkey, and perhaps the most unspoilt grouping, could be for you? Whichever area you chose, a steely focus in the planning stage is required unless you want to be in transit for the duration of your trip.
TO FERRY OR NOT?
This one comes with an advanced warning; trying to negotiate ferry routes and schedules can be more painful than encountering the Brazen Bull of ancient Greek folklore. In part, this is down to the sheer number of ferry companies, possible itterations of journey and of course, all those 227 destinations. The paradox of choice can grip you, vice like, in such circumstances.
As a rule, ferries are most abundant between June and September (the high season). In low season, some routes are simply not do-able. There are no ferries between Crete and Santorini, Santorini and Mykonos, or between Crete and Mykonos between late November and early March. Athens is, of course, the hub and the easiest place to be based; flights can also be made between the capital and some of the islands.
Equally, there are some occasions in life when you need to pamper yourself, and island hopping in Greece could be the ideal occasion to splash out a little. Consider renting a private yacht, such as from the guys over at Vernicos Yachts, negating the headache of ferry timetables and turning travel into a pleasure, not a chore.
EXPLORE EACH ISLAND BY SCOOTER OR QUAD BIKE
After all the toing and froing, hopping and bopping, you’ll want travel autonomy to be in your hands once on terra firma. The sooner you can get mobile, the better, as there’s so much to take in. The best way to keep things loose and leisurely is by renting out a scooter or quad bike at the disembarking point of each destination; easily the best way to get around and take in the spectacular views.
ENJOY THE LOCAL SPECIALITIES OF EACH ISLAND
One of the most rewarding aspects of an island hopping adventure is the amazing diversity of food on offer, with each place specialising in a different plate, utterly unique to their surrounds. Though the terroir may be similar, the taste is not. And that means a journey of culinary discovery awaits.
Crete, the largest island in the Aegean sea, is home to some fine, in-house produced cheese; graviera, anthotiro and ksigalo to name but a few. The island of Sifnos, where legendary Greek chef Nicholaos Tselementes hailed from, calls the splendid lamb and red wine stew Mastela its own. And everyone’s dream destination Santorini boasts a variety of cherry tomato only grown on the island. Some of the best dishes found here harness this local ingredient’s great power; tomatokeftedes, a kind of tomato fritter, and the island’s very own tomato paste, which is mixed with olive oil, capers and basil and served alongside freshly baked bread, to name but two. Heaven.
It’s important to be aware that Greeks eat late, typically between 8 and 10 pm, and many tavernas and restaurants aren’t open before 7pm. You should get your head around the different type of eateries popular in Greece so you know what you’re getting yourself into before you booking a table. The most typical set for dinner is the taverna, which serves up home-style baked dishes like moussaka and souvlaki (spit-roasted meat). In the summer months, one of the most popular mezedes is octopus, which you’ll see drying in the sun outside tavernas everywhere. A second very popular style of eating is Mezedopoleio, where small plates of mezes (tapas-style portions of food) are shared in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, conducive to getting a little merry. Some even serve a round of ouzu with every round of plates. Chin chin! If you’re after something that won’t give you a hangover, Greece has a fantastic coffee culture too.
EMBRACE THE SIGA-SIGA LIFESTYLE
We’ve taken ‘hgyye’ to heart, fallen for ‘fika’ and been seduced by ‘siesta’. So it’s about time that us Brits embraced Siga Siga, too, meaning slowly slowly. When Greek Island hopping, resetting your watch to a slower pace of life is a must. No rushing allowed, with the country operating under ‘Greek time’; a casual and laid back interpretation of the very concept of the clock. There’s no grab’n’go culture here, no fighting against life’s merciless tick-tocking, just an appreciation of a gentler pace to life and the benefits it brings. Bliss.