THE BEST WAY TO EXPERIENCE THE GREEK ISLANDS
By Ian Robert Knight
It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place to spend a few weeks in the sun than the Greek Islands. With over 200 islands of all shapes and sizes, there are a lot to choose from. Each of them seem to take on a different flavour and attract particular types of travellers. There are islands best suited for adventure, for beaches, for cuisine, for parties, for honeymoons, and for families. If you can’t decide which ones to visit, here’s our guide to the best way to experience the Greek Islands.
Our favourite islands for a couple of weeks are Crete, Milos and Santorini. We visit these islands twice each year, in late spring and early autumn. They are three separate trips, but are scheduled in such a way that it can be one journey with all three combined. Each of them are unique and special in their own way, so you will truly feel like you’ve been to three very different places.
A great place to begin your Greek odyssey would be on Santorini, one of Greece’s most popular islands. It’s very often the picture postcard people think of when they imagine what the Greek Islands look like. Most of the island hotspots sit atop high cliffs on an extinct volcano (a caldera), overlooking the collapsed mouth of the volcano.
The island is not that big – about the same size as Manhattan – and it takes about 45 minutes to drive from one end to the other. Most of the towns are easy to reach by car, and some are best accessed by boat. Arriving in Santorini by air is simple, with many flights each day from Athens, and daily flights from many European gateways.
Fira and Oia
The town of Fira is the capital, is mid-island and quite often the first place people stop. The other most popular town is Oia, on the northern tip of the island. Both offer incredible views of the volcano below, and have the postcard views you’re familiar with. Each of the towns have their own advantages, but it would be impossible to say one is better than the other, since they are both wonderful.
In addition to the main towns, there are many smaller villages and beaches that should be seen. It’s a good idea to take a catamaran sail to some of the more secluded locations that are more difficult to get to by road. Sailing around the island will give you a different perspective and appreciation for the island, as well.
Visible from a distance is the island of Milos. Like Santorini, it is also a small island, with a population of about 5000 people. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty. Although it’s not as popular on the tourism track, it is one of our favourites, and ideal for photographers.
You can get to Milos by ferry from Santorini, as they are not that far apart. There really aren’t any crowds on this island, and you’ll be able to find some quiet spots for relaxing. Allow yourself 4 or 5 days in this quiet island, with quaint villas and spectacular beaches.
Milos is famous for many sculpture discoveries (remember the Venus de Milo?), and is an ideal place to spend time. Like the nearby islands, it has the same Cycladic white-washed houses, amazing beaches, and great food that bring people to Greece. But it lacks the crowds, because fewer people are aware of it. But that is slowly changing, and people are beginning to discover its beauty.
Probably the most distinct feature you’d notice in Milos are its beaches. There are dozens of sheltered coves suitable for snorkelling, or simply sun tanning on the rocky shore. Some beaches have high white cliffs, or rock walls made from lava millions of years ago. All the beaches have the clearest, deep turquoise blue water that you’ll ever see.
Crete is the largest island in Greece and the farthest south. Getting to Crete is pretty easy, with direct flights in from Athens daily. The largest city and the capital is Heraklion, and it is the economic centre. It’s definitely more modern and cosmopolitan than the other cities and villages on the island. Crete has a lot to offer, including Minoan history, snow-capped mountains, deep gorges, and world-famous beaches.
What makes Crete such a wonderful destination is that even on a short trip, you can experience a lot of Greek culture. Start by doing a deep dive into the history of the island, by visiting the ancient Minoan Palace of Knossos, not far from the capital. The Minoans ruled this part of the world about 4000 years ago, and it is guessed that the palace was built in the 19th century BC. The society was likely destroyed by the volcano of Santorini in the 14th century BC. Remnants of the civilization are quite well preserved in the palace complex, and it can be explored easily.
Outside of the capital, there are many other interesting cities to visit. Of particular note are the cities of Rethymno and Chania.
The Rethymno of today is a living museum. Originally a Minoan city, it was rebuilt as a trading post by the Venetian occupiers, and much of that influence is still visible today. The harbour looks particularly Venetian, along with the narrow cobblestone streets. Overlooking the city, is the Fortezza Rethymno, a star-shaped fortress, with impressive views — both from it and of it.
Stopping for a seafood dinner in one of the many tavernas that fill the marina, is hard to resist. Freshly caught fish and octopus are prepared in traditional Cretan ways, and make for a wonderful meal, paired with local wines and raki.
Toward the northwest end of the island, lays the city of Chania. This is the second largest city on Crete, and is a good gateway city to or from Athens. The city itself has a lot to offer, but the surrounding areas are also worth checking out.
Like Rethymno, this city has significant Venetian influences. Most people who visit Chania would remember the harbour, the narrow streets and the waterfront restaurants. Much of what you’d want to see in the city is clustered around the harbour area, so it makes for an easy day or two exploring.
Outside the city zone, there are some beautiful beaches like Elafonisi, with its pink sand. And the Samaria Gorge — Europes largest gorge — sees a lot of adventure seekers setting out to conquer its passage.
Travelling to Greece is one of those things that everyone should try to do, especially photographers. Perhaps it can be one of your Travel Resolutions. These three islands offer a great mix of styles. Even though they are not that far apart, and are all part of the same country, they won’t feel the same. Join us for Santorini, Milos, or Crete (or all three islands!) and see if you agree that this is the best way to experience the Greek Islands.