Which is the best Greek island to visit? There are about 2,000 islands altogether and around 200 of those are inhabited. They range from Crete, which is 250 kilometres (155 miles) in length and almost like a country on its own, to tiny spots where sometimes fewer than a hundred people live year-round. But big islands have quiet areas and small islands can be like Blackpool in high season.
All the islands do retain their Greekness, however, even those that are swamped by visitors. You’ll still find old ladies dressed in black, the village priest, the bakery and old kafenion where the old men congregate to talk politics over a coffee while clicking their worry-beads. And if you do want a glimpse of sporting action, at any time of year, just head for the nearest Greek café or taverna. Here, even a regular soccer or basketball match turns into a noisy drama. Well, the ancient Greeks did invent drama as well.
There’s no sight in Greece that can compare with arriving on the ferry from Rhodes and sailing into the harbour at Symi (Σύμη), which has been justifiably called the most beautiful of all Greek islands. Especially if you arrive on the evening ferry, which most visitors do, when the ferry sails in towards the lights that twinkle around on the hills on all three sides of the island.
Though it’s only small, Symi has become quite sophisticated, popular with day-trippers from Rhodes – and even more popular with those who stay for at least a week. Its beaches aren’t great, admittedly, but it more than makes up for this by being one of the friendliest places you’ll ever find, with some exceptionally good restaurants, cafés and bars. It’s a rare visitor who will find one visit to Symi enough.
As the largest Greek island, Crete really does have something for everyone. It’s not far from North Africa either, making it a magnet for sunworshippers. The north coast is where you’ll mainly find the party towns, like Malia and Hersonissos, which wake up just as everyone else is going to sleep.
Inland, Crete has spectacular mountain scenery, and on the south coast, the Samaria Gorge. This is the longest gorge in Europe and a challenging day out if you fancy tackling its 11 miles. You start in the mountains in the early morning and end up by the sea in the late afternoon – not one to tackle if you’re nursing a hangover.
On the east and south coasts you’ll find some of the quieter resorts, while the north coast around Elounda and Aghios Nikolaos has some of the swishest hotels in the Aegean. Whatever you do, find time to explore this island, whether by taking an organised tour or hiring a car and heading for the hills. The Cretans are wonderfully hospitable people, so get out and meet them.
The literary traveller will know that Ithaca was the home of King Odysseus, who went to fight in the Trojan Wars and whose ten-year return journey is told in mythical tale The Odyssey. One of the least developed and arguably the most beautiful island in the group, this island has sites that are allegedly mentioned in the ancient Greek stories, but you don’t need to be a culture vulture to enjoy Ithaca’s charms. You do need to like getting away from it all, though, and it’s the perfect place for a romantic escape.
Strict conservation laws controlling development, as well as a lack of long sandy beaches, have kept mass tourism at bay. But discerning tourists seeking an escape from the mid-summer holiday hordes will love this green and tranquil island, with its idyllic pine forests, cypresses, olive groves and vineyards. There are no big towns, just lazy little villages and out-of-theway villas, quiet coves, pretty pebble beaches, friendly tavernas and a green, hilly interior – you might never want to leave. You have been warned!
Zakynthos is the most southerly of the Ionian Islands, and close to the western Peloponnese where ancient Olympia is located. It should be an easy day trip, and one well worth making, as the little town of Olympia is hosting special events this summer, while the town’s fascinating Olympic Museum has also been spruced up.
But Zakynthos has plenty of its own attractions, not least some of the best beaches in the Ionians, like the one at Laganas Bay. The beach here is so long and so smooth that it attracts the Mediterranean’s rare loggerhead turtles, which come ashore at night to lay their eggs. Special sections of the beach are now fenced off so the turtles can hatch undisturbed, and you can take boat rides out into the bay to look for the adult turtles, making this a favourite place for families. There’s plenty of nightlife, too, and hilly green scenery for those who like walking, cycling or driving around.
Lesvos has always been more popular with Greek visitors than Brits, which suggests that the Greeks know something we don’t. It’s the third largest island so rewards those who like exploring, and it also has some terrific beaches which are naturally not as crowded as on busier islands.
There are sophisticated places like Molyvos, with vine-covered cobbled streets, and hill towns like Ayiasos where only bolder tourists venture. Then on the far west coast is one of Greece’s little gems, Sigri. This tiny harbour town is a good 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the island capital Mytilene, on the east coast, and is a dream destination for those who really want to get away from it all. By your second day you’ll recognise most of the locals, and will have fallen in love with the place. Guaranteed.