In the ancient world ‘Greece’ meant Athens; for the modern traveler it usually means the 2,000 or so islands that fill the seas around the mainland. Athens gave democracy, including the very word, to the western world, along with philosophy, mathematics, drama, architecture … and the Olympic Games. The Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Temple of Zeus are still-standing reminders of this past. But Athens has always been a maritime city, with the Piraeus as its harbour, and today’s visitors are more likely to be bound for the Aegean or Ionian seas and their archipelagoes and islands. Crete is by far the largest, followed by Rhodes and Corfu but today’s sea and sun seekers have an immense choice from the chic and sophisticated to the remote and simple. Naxos and Paxos, Cephalonia and Mykonos, Santorini and Samos … and the many sparsely inhabited spots, really only reachable by island-hopping sailors emulating Odysseus or Jason.
Dedicated to Athena, the Parthenon remains Perikles’ most distinctive legacy. Nearly 2,500 years on and despite having lost its Elgin Marbles, it continues to dominate the city from its perch on the Acropolis. Knowledgeable guides are worth their weight in drachmas: they’ll sort your pilasters from your porticos, Ionic from your Doric and bring Greek mythology to life. Who else could point out marks in the ground said to have been left by Poseidon’s trident? Down in the town, must-sees include the Archaeological Museum, must-dos the nightlife in the Plaka and Thission districts. Beyond the obligatory bout of plate smashing between mezedes and Metaxas, seek out chic tavernas serving fine wines from Attica and fish freshly netted from Piraeus.
The Ionian isle of Corfu was one of the first Greek islands to tap into tourism. As a result, you may have to travel further to find unspoilt stretches of beach. Mountainous and green inland, rocky and spectacular to the north and west, Corfu nevertheless has more than its fair share of beauty spots. This was where Odysseus found shelter in Homer’s epic tale. Where Empress Elizabeth of Austria built a folly in honour of Achilles. You’ll find old fashioned harbours festooned with fishing boats and dotted with tavernas, idyllic villages like Palaiokastritsa (easier to enjoy than to pronounce) soaking up magical sunsets, and places open until dawn where you can dance the sand out of your hair.
For an interactive Corfu guide, try the 360corfuguide.com website
The largest of the Greek islands carries its own distinctive archaeological DNA. A few miles out of the main town, Heraklion, lies the Palace of Knossos, once the HQ of the Minoan civilization. British archaeologist Arthur Evans started a life’s work restoring the labyrinthine complex that dates back to 2000BC. Further afield, the central mountains and natural wonder of the Samaria Gorge will reward hardy trekkers. The north shore of the island is the most heavily developed with miles of beaches offering every expected distraction. But to tap the soul of Crete and its people, head south or west to pretty little villages where Turkish and Venetian-style houses huddle and locals indulge in age-old dances like the syrtos and the sousta.
The largest of the Ionian Islands, Kefalonia offers glorious beaches, mountains, beaches, caves, beaches, forests … oh and did we mention the beaches? (In fact, the wondrous Myrtos beach has been voted ‘best in Greece’ no fewer than 12 times). The likely basis for the legendary Ulysses’ kingdom of Ithaca, the island was the real life setting and film location for “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. If you can get off the beach, you are rewarded by hill meadows of poppies and majestic cypress trees, and a visit to the magical cavern lake of Melissani is a must. (PS - there is even a beach for loggerhead turtles.)
At only 6 miles from tip to toe, you are never far from anywhere on Paxos, a true gem among the Ionian Islands. There is no airport here so the only way to arrive is by boat or, for the more well heeled, a new sea-plane service from the mainland. Although only a short hydrofoil ride away from Corfu to the north, Paxos is in another world. Life here is enjoyed at a slower, gentler pace than its larger neighbour. Instead of large resorts and tourist crowds you will only find pretty fishing villages, sleepy hillside hamlets, sheltered coves and the frequent chance to have one of the island’s beaches all to yourself - best reached by hiring your own motor boat. If you hanker after something even smaller and quieter than Paxos, take the short ferry ride from the island’s capital Gaios to the islet of Anti Paxos. With just 4 tavernas, valleys of vineyards and some of the most stunning beaches in Greece you may just want to stay for ever.
Modern resorts and miles of beaches entice revellers of all ages, while there is masses to entertain those who like to explore. Picture book whitewashed villages in the hills, valleys like Petaloudes, all a flutter with colourful butterflies, and ancient Hellenistic temples and amphitheatres at one with their surroundings all wait to be explored and appreciated. Budding archaeologists will be drawn to the sites at Kamiros and Ialysos. There’s a huge legacy of Byzantine riches, reminders of the Crusades, even splendid examples of fascist Italian Thirties architecture to hunt down. All these themes seem to come together at the northern tip of the island where the Old Town of Rhodes welcomes today’s invaders behind the imposing medieval walls built by the Knights of St John.
‘Santorini’ is actually an island group at the tip of the Cyclades and - further south than Mykonos and Naxos. Originally a single volcanic island, an immense eruption caused the bowl (‘caldera’) to collapse to create one large and a number of smaller islands, like a Pacific or Indian Ocean atoll. Part of the ancient Minoan civilisation, it is now above all a tourist destination – including both cruise passengers and stay-over visitors. (Be warned - if the two coincide, popular areas can be crowded.) Picture-postcard white and blue buildings tumble down the steep slopes of coastal villages and in Fira the main town. (2nd warning – the hill streets can be extremely steep.) The still-active volcano emits fumes that help create world-famous sunsets across the sea-filled caldera, while the lava has melded into unusual beach sands – many black, one ‘Red Beach’, one ‘White Beach’.
Zakynthos, aka Zante, is one of the larger Ionian islands, reached from the Greek mainland by air (now, some direct from Europe) or by ferry, including from neighbouring Kefalonia. Homer mentions it in the Odyssey and it has been inhabited for thousands of years. It is now an attractive combination of natural beauty with a lively holiday atmosphere and one of the most popular destinations in the region – though more solitude is available if you travel out of the main towns/resorts. There are memories of an earthquake in 1953 and some recent tremors, but seismologists insist the area is not due anything major for many years. The relative solitude of Kalamaki Bay within the Marine Park of Zakynthos encourages the endangered loggerhead turtle to breed on the island. For the rest there are superb beaches and excellent diving facilities – as well as the turtles there are Moray eels, monk seals and countless tropical fish.