Island-hopping in Greece to get away from it all
Greece is one of the world’s great tourist magnets. Its imposing history, its countless sun-kissed islands and azure waters, not to mention its East-meets-West cuisine, come together to make this ancient land a very attractive holiday destination. So attractive in fact, that many of the country’s best-known cities and towns are flooded by tourists pretty much year-round – something that deters those seeking to experience Greece in its most raw form. That is, a Greece more akin to Meryl Streep’s home in the 2008 musical Mamma Mia: whitewashed buildings, fishermen, tavernas, the whole works.
Well, there is no better way to experience this Mamma Mia-esque Greece than to jump aboard a ferry and sail off on a laissez-faire island-hopping adventure. But for this you must wave goodbye to your Santorini, Corfu, Ios, Mykonos, Naxos, Kos, and Rhodes, and say hello to Greek seclusion in islands such as Schinoussa, Folegandros, and Hydra.
Where and how to start my Greek island-hopping adventure?
With hundreds of inhabited islands, and thousands more uninhabited ones peppering the eastern Mediterranean, visitors are truly spoilt for choice; something which makes deciding on where to go a genuine challenge. The best way to approach an island-hopping trip to Greece is to narrow your choice to one of the main island groupings; namely, the Cyclades, Saronic, Ionian, Sporades, Dodecanese, Aegean, or Cretan island groups. Each of these will have a regional airport and port from where to commence your voyage. But in this post we’ll be focusing exclusively on island-hopping from Athens.
From Athens’ Piraeus Port there are ferries to virtually every corner of Greece’s islands. This makes it an ideal point of departure, especially as there is little else to do than turn up at the port and book your ferry – although it’s advisable to acquaint yourself with the ferry schedules online beforehand, as these can be quite messy and departures subject to change at short notice. So allow for these delays and changes when setting off. And crucially, don’t despair, embrace any delays and chaos as an integral part of Greek laisses-faire island-hopping.
Island-hop in the Cyclades
Bobbing in the middle of the Aegean, the Cyclades are host to the most typical of Greek islands, with their ‘sugar cube’ houses, blue roofs, barren landscapes and pristine beaches. Home to the famed islands of Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos and Ios, the Cyclades are extremely popular. But there are ample crowd-free alternatives. To escape the madding crowds and find blissful seclusion try hopping to:
Serifos – with a population just shy of 1,500, Serifos is an ideal first stop in your search for authentic Greek island life. With its small fishing village, a solitary whitewashed town perched atop a hill, and barren terrain stretching over an area of 75km2, you’ll be able to experience the same seclusion felt by Roman criminals who were often banished at Serifos. Above all, Serifos offers secluded beaches aplenty, of which, Agios Sostis beach (7km East of Chora) and Lia beach (7km South East of Chora) are must-visits.
Folegandros – travel south to the island of Folegandros which, with its nearly one thousand inhabitants, offers plenty of space to truly unwind. What’s more, the main town (Chora) clings to the top of a cliff-face, meaning here you’ll have the Santorini experience sans tourists. In the Chora, pop into ‘To Goupi’ for some delicious authentic Greek dishes. Or visit ‘O Psaromiligkas’ on Agkali beach, for the ultimate beach taverna experience, serving fresh fish and other Greek delicacies. Perhaps you could be tempted to walk a few minutes westward along the footpath and plunge au naturel into the crystal-clear waters of the tiny Galifos nudist beach. Katergo Beach (easiest to get there by boat) and Agali Beach (can get a little crowded in the summer given its proximity to Chora) are also recommendable.
Schinoussa – for ultimate seclusion you should head to the island of Schinoussa, which has no more than a few hundred residents; nearly all of whom rely on fishing as their trade. This island is ideal for those travellers seeking isolated walks and secluded beaches to genuinely get away from it all. You’ll also be able to catch a glimpse of Greece’s famed windmills on the island – without the masses of tourists you get in Mykonos.
***If you do get in the mood for some human activity, you can always take a ferry to the island of Ermoupoli. While the island is more densely populated than its neighbours, it doesn’t attract the volumes of tourism that Santorini or Mykonos do.***
How about island-hopping in the Argo-Saronic islands
Just a short ferry trip from Athens, the Argo-Saronic islands are extremely accessible, and ideal for those susceptible to sea sickness. Proximity to Athens however is by no means a compromise. These islands are as authentic, secluded, and mystical as those of the Cyclades, and thus perfect for island-hopping in Greece.
Agistri – at just an hour’s ferry ride from Athens, the island of Agistri is a true gem. Not the biggest of islands, with an area of just 13km2, the island can easily be traversed on foot. Which, thanks to its coat of pine trees and marked footpaths, is pleasant to do even in the warm summer months. It is well worth following these paths, as they will grant you sneak peeks at some idyllic rocky coves. Take a few minutes (or hours) in a quiet cove to gaze at the glistening waters of the Saronic Gulf and listen to the chorus of its waves gently lap against the coast.
Hydra – the island of Hydra sits between the Saronic and Argolic gulfs and is less than two hours from Athens. The crescent-shaped harbour which is caressed by a small town of stone buildings and red-tiled roofs, is as memorable an arrival as you can get. In fact, arriving at the island’s enchanting marina is reason enough to make Hydra a not-to-be-missed island-hopping destination. Despite the island’s size, almost the entire population resides in this quaint harbour town. So little are people expecting to travel within the island, that cars have been banned! Meaning that if you wish to explore some of the many beautiful beaches Hydra has to offer, you are left with the options of donkeys, bicycles, or your very own two feet.
Spetses – on the same ferry line that serves Hydra from Athens, you can get to Spetses, which lies further out into the Argolic Gulf. Less a rural outpost than a playground for Athens’ affluent elite, this island offers a different experience to the above listed islands. Sailing into Spetses you’ll find a view of the town’s dazzling seafront with its exquisite assortment of classical villas and mansions. A stroll down the promenade, replete with art galleries and the like, will leave you in no doubt as to the island’s role as the summer base for wealthy Athenians. But that’s about all you’ll meet; foreign tourists are few and far between. The island does host a fair few sights, such as Bekiri Cave, and its beaches are also worth exploring. However, it is for some gastronomical indulgence that you might be convinced to add Spetses to your Greece island-hopping adventure. There are plenty of eateries to cater to all your cravings, but the fine dishes of ‘On the Verandah’, and the traditional barbecued Greek meats at ‘Souvlucky’, are unmissable. Oh, and like Hydra, private cars are banned!
Make your Greece island-hopping adventure come true
***Are you into backpacking? Check out this post on backpacking friendly hotels in Bangkok***
Words: Jeremy Sacramento