As we took our last ferry back to the Greek mainland, a few general impressions of the Greek Islands came to mind. Overall, the people were genuine, helpful and friendly – a traditional Greek nod of the head to the right lights up even the most stoic face.
Memories abound from the islands we visited: the astounding beauty of Santorini; the beautiful beaches, main towns and party atmosphere of Ios and Mykonos; the wide-open beaches and sprawling old town of Naxos; the quaintness of Paros and Antiparos; the hillside villages, dovecoves and religious enthusiasm of the Greek people revealed in Tinos; and the wonderful island of Crete that has it all.
Rich in historical significance, these Greek Islands are collectively known as the Cyclades (with the exception of Crete) and are some of the most popular. The sun-drenched towns are filled with winding stone streets and trellis-covered tavernas.
Visiting from mid-May to mid-June is a great time: Although the ocean water hasn't completely warmed up, the weather is nice and the crowds aren’t here yet. In July and August, these islands are packed – prices double, and you’re lucky to get a room or a spot on the beach.
Water is drinkable on the islands, and Greek food is delicious and healthy, prepared largely with olive oil. The lamb and beef dishes are wonderful. A gyro sandwich is a nice budget alternative. Given the large amount of tourism, service is generally good.
Known for beaches, old towns, and tourist revelry in the summertime, these islands also have hundreds of small churches dotting the hillsides. Residents, serious about their Orthodox faith, are mostly traditional. Also, astoundingly, the hillsides are largely terraced with miles of even stonewalls. The labor of the ancients is apparent. You can find ancient ruins built by various cultures one to two thousand years ago that would be difficult for us to construct today.
Traveling was less difficult than we’d anticipated. English is spoken almost everywhere here. Because airfare to the Greek Islands has dropped significantly lately, we flew from Athens direct to Santorini and then used ferries between the islands. The ferries are comfortable, efficient, on time and clean.
Traveling without a schedule made our Greek Island venture more of an adventure. With some travel guidebook research (I recommend Greek Island Hopping), we developed a strategy that was best for us – we decided where to stay on each island, then looked for hotel owners on the dock with signs for that area.
With a bit of negotiation and after sorting out our options, we found nice budget accommodations (about $40-50/night) close to the best areas (usually best beaches for us) and bus stops to take us to other areas (like historic main towns for dinner and wandering). ATV and car rentals for a day allowed us to access the more remote areas with minimal driving (the islands are not too large).
For those who desire a little less “adventure” in their travels, there are plenty of travel agents who specialize in providing organized tours and cruises (schedules and preplanned transportation and lodging). We met a lot of people enjoying traveling the Greek Islands this way, although we still recommend doing some research; off-the-beaten-path explorations will enhance your experience of the islands.
One wonders what these islands will be like in 20 years. Now you can sleep in a modern apartment with internet access, yet still be woken up by a rooster or donkey in the morning. Goats still cross the roads. The harbors, fishing villages and beaches are in transition, not knowing what they want to be. The past fishing influence is still visible, with small fishing boats lining the harbors next to new pleasure boats and yachts. Fishing nets can be found on the sidewalks near modern restaurants and bars. The tourists are coming in increasing numbers, so visiting soon should be considered.
My wife, Pat, and I came here 23 years ago on our honeymoon on a large cruise ship. Spending just the day on several Greek Islands left us wanting to come back someday. And now, after spending a month on seven islands, we left with a little sorrow – still wanting to come back again.
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