//Love letters to the Greek islands

Love letters to the Greek islands

We invited some of our regular contributors to write about the Greek islands they are missing the most, from Paxos, with its Venetian architecture, to peaceful Hydra and the pink sands of Crete.

Crete
By Heidi Fuller-Love 

Stretching from the pastel-coloured Venetian buildings clustered around Chania’s pretty port, to the stepped streets and traditional tavernas of little-known eastern resort Sitia, Greece’s Megalonisi (big island) is a favourite with Greeks themselves – not only because of the fabulous food, buzzing nightlife and stunning beaches, but because Cretans are renowned for their hospitality.

The best place to sample that filoxenia (love of the stranger) is to spend a few hours sipping raki and supping meze snacks (such as wild herbs horta and ntakos, rusks dotted with tomato and feta) in a local kafeneion in one of the mountain villages. 

Down on the coast there are plenty of places to fill up on good food, too: head for Kritiko Spiti in Sitia, where local delights, such as courgette fritter kolokithokeftedes or stifado pork in a red wine sauce, are served to the rousing tunes of Crete’s traditional music; or make a beeline for the Ferryman – opposite Spinalonga, the leper island of Victoria Hislop’s bestselling novel – where celebrity chef Yannis Baxevanis dishes up the best kleftiko parchment-baked lamb in town.

Home of the legendary Minotaur and birthplace of king of the gods Zeus, Crete also has plenty of well-organised museums and world-class archaeological sites – and then of course there are those beaches: known locally as the “Cretan Caribbean”, the shell-strewn sands and shallow waters of Balos beach are great for toddlers, while the mirror-clear seas and pink sands of Elafonissi are perfect for families. 

Who’s it for? Like a bite-sized taste of everything Greece does best, this magical island has something for everyone.

Getting there: Most of the major airlines, including EasyJet, British Airways, Aegean and Ryanair, fly direct to Crete’s Heraklion or Chania airports from London’s Gatwick and Stansted airports.

(Credit: Region of Attica)

Hydra
By Sam Ballard

When it comes to Greece’s island paradises, a general rule that I’ve found is this: the more effort it takes to get there, the greater the reward. Hydra is the perfect example. The island isn’t easy to get to – there is no airport, so visitors must board a 90-minute ferry from Piraeus – which keeps the crowds of Santorini and Mikonos at bay. However, there is another reason why Hydra’s peaceful nature has reached almost mythological heights: the island has outlawed motor vehicles. In fact, the only way to get around is either on foot, by water taxi or on the back of a donkey. Visitors who make the journey will not be disappointed. Take a slow walk down the narrow, winding lanes (where no car could fit anyway), jump into the sea and dry off on the rocks at Hydronetta Beach or go and seek out Leonard Cohen’s house. The music legend bought a villa here in the 1960s and kept it until his death. Hydra is the perfect place to while away the day – or longer if you are looking for absolute relaxation. The beautiful harbour is full of seafood restaurants while the tavernas are set in the avenues a little farther back. The shopping is surprisingly luxurious – a testament to the island’s glitzy past, when the likes of Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Jackie O used to holiday there. Hydra is the perfect Greek island: beautiful, peaceful and with a touch of class.

Who’s it for? Hydra is perfect for couples or groups of friends wanting a day of eating, drinking and shopping. Families with young children might want to head elsewhere though – the island’s sandy beach is only accessible via water taxi.

Getting there: There are daily ferries
from Piraeus.

Milos
By Helen Iatrou

Up until recently, the volcanic island of Milos remained a well-kept secret among Greek couples who flocked there for its 40-plus beaches, considered to be among the country’s best. 

Mined for minerals since ancient times, the island’s rich geological wealth is what makes its beaches so diverse. At Insta-magnet Sarakiniko beach, named for the Saracen pirates who took shelter there, you might assume you’ve landed on the moon, were it not for a jade-hued Aegean Sea that has sculpted the rocky landscape for eons. 

Rust-coloured cliffs frame Paleochori beach and vibrantly painted boat houses – known as syrmata – dot the shore of seaside village Klima. Book a sailing trip to the Kleftiko and Sykia sea caves, where you can snorkel. Some tours encompass a swim in the turquoise waters off Polyegos islet.

Miloterranean Geo Experience offers free online maps with walking routes that cover island highlights including an abandoned sulphur mine and early Christian catacombs. 

Milos has seen a significant uptick in visitors in the past few years, which resulted in a much-needed revamp of accommodation options; however, it still retains that sleepy Cycladic island vibe. I tend to stay in the peaceful fishing village of Pollonia, which has some excellent, reasonably priced tavernas, among them Armira. At Kivotos ton Gefseon (Ark of Flavours), I stock up on local goodies such as sundried tomato paste spread and savour a slice of watermelon pie. Adamas, the small but lively harbour town, is brimming with boutiques, waterfront cafés and cosy bars, such as elegant, candle-lit Akri. 

Who’s it for? Milos is best suited to tranquility-seeking, beach-hunting couples of all ages who are happy to hire a car and spend a good week or even ten days scouring as much of the island as possible. 

Getting there: There are daily flights from Athens and ferries from Piraeus.

Rhodes
By Stuart Forster

Greece’s fourth-largest island has a pleasant climate and multifaceted history, making it a rewarding destination for holidays peppered with day trips. I’ve stayed at luxury resorts and self-catering apartments at Lindos, a compact coastal town about an hour’s drive south of the island’s international airport. 

Long before tourists began flying to Rhodes for sunshine and summer relaxation, pilgrims headed to the Temple of Athena up on the acropolis of Lindos, which today offers outstanding views over the town’s narrow lanes and houses built by wealthy sea captains in bygone centuries. One, known simply as The Captain’s House, has a café-bar in its courtyard and welcomes guests to look around or spend time sipping drinks. Dinner is served on several Lindian rooftops, delivering traditional Greek cuisine and hospitality, plus views of the illuminated acropolis.

Rhodes’ medieval core makes a great place to stroll, pause for coffee and people-watch. The city’s imposing walls and Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes hint at the island’s strategic importance during crusading times. The fountain on Hippocrates Square and Islamic architecture of the Suleiman Mosque is a legacy of nearly four centuries of Ottoman rule. History lovers might like to squeeze in a visit to Rhodes’ impressive archaeological museum, but boot-shaped glasses of cold beer served at bars in town may exert greater appeal after a day of sightseeing. 

Who’s it for? Heritage and sun-loving couples seeking a quiet break.

Getting there: There are flights four times a week from London Gatwick to Rhodes Airport. There are also four flights a week from Manchester in summer and two each week from Newcastle.

Symi 
By Karl Cushing

As the first Greek Island I holidayed upon, I reserve a special place for Symi. The steep, rocky island in the Dodecanese has me in its thrall from the moment I approach the harbour, a symphony of bobbing boats in the crystal water with grand neoclassical mansions spilling out from the sides. Symi’s calm, pebble-bottomed waters make for excellent swimming, and long, languid days are spent at its basic beach clubs, padding between sea, lounger and taverna. Some days we merely drag ourselves the short distance from our apartment to Nos, Symi town’s main beach. In more adventurous moments we take water taxis to sheltered coves such as Yiala. One exception is our strolls up the old Kali Strata steps to Chorio, the upper town. Home to most of the locals, its terraced tavernas offer lovely vantage points to enjoy scenic meals or sundowners looking out over the island. Back by the harbour, a clutch of old tableclothed restaurants serve up Symi’s famous shrimp and other seafood specialities. Here, we shop for lunches and dinners, the town’s cosy tavernas taking care of the hours after the sun dips for another day. 

Who’s it for? Symi is a great option for those who crave authenticity and like to mix with locals, the island having forsaken resort-style bells and whistles for old world charm. Most accommodation is provided in apartments and villas with the occasional small hotel such as Nireus, featured by the likes of Sunvil and Olympic Holidays.

Getting there: You can reach Symi on a scheduled service from Rhodes with Dodekanisos Seaways or Blue Star Ferries. Various other Rhodian operators cater
to daytrippers.

Paxos
By Anthony Pearce

Paxos, the smallest of the seven principal Ionian Islands, is a 90-minute ferry boat ride from Corfu, but couldn’t feel farther away. While it may share some of the tourist hotspot’s coastal beauty, as well as the Venetian architecture and cuisine of Corfu Town, far fewer travellers make the extra journey to Paxos, meaning it’s far quieter, and although still geared around tourism, relatively unspoilt. There are three main villages on Paxos, all on the east coast: Gaios, the capital; Lakka; and Loggos, each packed with bars and tavernas. The beautiful natural port of Gaios, created by the St Nicolas islet, resembles a fjord, while the town itself is centred around a pretty town square that overlooks a busy harbour. On our most recent visit we stayed inland in a spacious villa with a swimming pool and gardens that overlooked the town. Hidden down a winding, dusty road, it was only accessible by car, or, when the sun wasn’t too punishing, by walking up a steep nature trail; given we were there at the end of the season, and there were few people around, our retreat felt like the most peaceful place in the world. 

Finding great food in Paxos is also easy. As in Corfu, you will find food distinct to the region such as pastitsada, a traditional Sunday dinner, which is beef stewed with pasta, tomatoes and paprika, as well as bourdeto, fish cooked in tomato sauce with onion, garlic and pepper.

Most beaches on Paxos are small and pebbly, but its tiny sister island, Antipaxos, which is also only accessible ferry, offers some of the Ionian’s most pristine and peaceful backdrops. It’s only 4km long and there are no shops, no real roads, only a couple of tavernas and just a few houses.

Who’s it for? Given it’s not easy to get to, is expensive (by Greek standards at least) and isn’t known for its beaches, it generally suits those looking for an authentic Greek experience, fine food
and a little peace and quiet. 

Getting there: There are regular ferry boats, capable of carrying a few hundred people, that run from Corfu to Paxos, although they are less frequent towards the end of the season.