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The best way yet to mix it in Greece > part I July 29, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands, Greece Islands Aegean, Greece Islands Ionian, Greece Mainland.

Which island > Pick your spot carefully for the ideal holiday, Greek island villages and mainland resorts may look much the same in the brochures, but on the ground there is a lot of variety.

For family peace and quiet, Skiathos in the Sporades offers some of Greece’s best soft sandy beaches, short transfer times from the airport, and a good choice of villa and self-catering accommodation as well as hotels. It also has lots of watersports and, for day trips, is within easy reach of other nearby islands such as Skopelos and Alonissos and the Pelion peninsula. Lesvos, in the north-east Aegean, has warm, shallow waters and sandy beaches at Kalloni Bay on its south coast, one of the Aegean’s most picturesque villages at Methoni in the north, and a hinterland that is good for exploring on foot or by car.

Cephalonia in the Ionian islands, with quiet, pretty villages, has some excellent villas and hotels and some dazzling beaches, also has good watersports, there are speedboats for hire at most resorts. Scheduled flights make Corfu more attractive this year, but steer clear of the main resorts and head for a villa with a pool in the Nissaki area, in northern Corfu, if you want upscale tranquillity. Corfu’s tiny neighbour, Paxos, is even quiter and more peaceful, but it also offers good water sports, including windsurfing and water-skiing, for active families.

Mainland Greece > For those with itchy feet, the mainland is a better bet than the islands, because you can be spontaneous and rent a car or hop on a bus to explore the tantalizing hinterland. On the islands, you’re at the mercy of ferry schedules. The Western Peloponnese, reached also by charter flights to Kalamata, is a great area for exploring, with Medieval castles and Venetaian fortresses, ancient temples at Olympia, wild mountain scenery and some stunning beaches around Navarino. Still on the Peloponnese, the Stoupa and Kardamyli are good bases for exploring the craggy scenery of the Mani and its tiny castles, or the rugged mountains of the Taigetos range. Visitors to the Halkikidiki peninsula in northern Greece get much further than the sandy beaches of Kassandra and Sithonia, or a day cruise round the isolate Monasteries of Mt Athos. But beyond the resorts lies the hinterland of eastern Macedonia and Thrace. This is a great region for eco-travellers, with pelican-haunted coastal wetlands and the thick woodland of the Rhodope mountains sheltering Greece’s only wild bears.

Island hopping > If you’re planning an island-hopping trip, forget battling your way across Athens to its main port, Piraeus, thanks to the new Athens public transport system. Instead, hop in a taxi to Rafina, the smaller and much pleasanter harbour only 20 minutes from the Athens’ airport, for ferries and hydrofoils to most of the Cyclades and the north-east Aegean. You may skip Athens and fly straight to the islands such as Mykonos, Santorini, Naxos, Paros, Rhodes, Kos and Samos are all good places to start an island-hopping journey. 

Sightseeing > Hedonists who need to assuage the vaguely guilt feeling of going to Greece just for sea and sand can have the best of both worlds by choosing a resort within shouting distance of some of the wonders of ancient Greece. On Crete, the luxury resort of Elounda is less than an hour away from ancient Knossos, with Crete’s other Minoan and Hellenistic relics not much faurther away. Rhodes has the largest surviving Medieval city in Europe, a World Heritage Site in its own right, and a parcel of even more ancient ruins.

Sacred Delos, with its avenues of columns, is a day -trip from the fleshpots of Mykonos. For the best of Athenian sightseeing from an island base, you could choose a holiday on Andros, Kea, Poros, Spetses or Hydra, each within day-trip distance of the capital. On the mainland, Nafplio, the first capital of the Greek state, is one of Greece’s prettiest towns in its own right, though it is short on beaches, so pick a hotel with a pool, and has ancient Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns and Epidavros more or less on its doorstep, with ancient Corinth only a little further away. The sandy beaches of the Halkidiki region make a good base for exploring the ruins of Macedonia, from Roman Philippi to Pella, Vergina, Dion at the foot of Olympus, and the not-to-be-missed Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki.

Food and drink > Dining in Greece has moved on in recent years. You can find and there are restaurants that are, as they say, worth the detour, though they are still outnumbered by cheap and cheerful tavernas. Starting with the islands, devout foodies will find a handful of really good restaurants in Chania and Rethymnon in Crete and in the Old Town in Rhodes, but the most target-rich environment is Mykonos Town, where the options range from sushi and Mediterranean fusion to classic French and Italian. For the best restaurants, though, you need to head for the cities, Athens for the newest trends in modern Greek, Thessaloniki for a distinctive kitchen influenced by the climate and terrain of the north and the culinary traditions of Byzantine eras’ Constantinople.

If you can read a bit of Greek, or get a Greek acquaintance to translate for you, the annual Alpha Guide (Desmi Editions, €10) is the Greek foodie’s bible, listing great places to eat all over the country.

Ultimate boltholes > Sometimes, like Huck Finn, you just need to light out for the territory, and find somewhere that doesn’t show up on the main holiday map. Greece still has places that have escaped the holiday empire-builders. Getting to them can be a challenge, and may involve an overnight stay on a larger island with an airport open to  charters, but www.gtp.gr is an open-sesame for ferry, fast catamaran and hydrofoil connections. 

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