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It would take a lifetime of island-hopping to really get to know the more than 160 permanently inhabited Greek islands, let alone the countless smaller gull-roosts which dot the Aegean and Ionian seas. At the right time of year or day, they conform remarkably well to their fantastic travel-poster image; any tourist board would give their eyeteeth for the commonplace vision of purple-shadowed island silhouettes floating on a cobalt-and-rose horizon.
Closer to hand, island beaches come in all shapes, sizes and consistencies, from discrete crescents framed by tree-fringed cliffs straight out of a Japanese screen painting, to deserted, mile-long gifts deposited by small streams, where you could imagine enacting Crusoe scenarios among the dunes. But inland there is always civilization, whether the tiny cubist villages of the remoter outposts, or burgeoning resorts as cosmopolitan - and brazen - as any in the Mediterranean.
What amazes most first-time visitors is how, despite the strenuous efforts of developers and arsonists, this environment has not yet been utterly destroyed. If you're used to the murky waters of the open Mediterranean as sampled in Spain, Israel or southern France, then the Aegean will come as a revelation, with thirty-to-forty-foot visibility the norm. This relative lack of pollution is proclaimed at certain beachfronts by tourist-board signs bestowing "Golden Starfish" or EU-ratified "Blue Flag" awards on the place: patently self-congratulatory, but with basis in fact at many coves, where live starfish or octopi curl up to avoid you, and dover sole, cuttlefish or rays skitter off across the bottom.
The sea is also a water-sports paradise: the joys of snorkelling and kayaking are on offer to the untrained, and some of the best windsurfing areas in the world beckon. Yacht charter, whether bare-boat or skippered, is big business, particularly out of Rhodes, Klymnos, Lefkdha, Pros and Piraeus; indeed,the Greek islands are rated on a par with the Caribbean for quality sailing itineraries. And during the months when the sea is too cold or the weather too blustery, many islands - not necessarily the largest ones - offer superb hiking on surviving mule-trails between hill villages, or up the highest summits.
Although more protected than the Greek mainland from invasions, the various island groups have been subjected to a staggering variety of foreign influences. Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, crusading Knights of Saint John, Genoese, Venetians, French, English, Italians and Ottomans have all controlled various islands since the time of Alexander the Great. The high tide of empire has left behind countless monuments: frescoed Byzantine churches and monasteries, the fortified Venetian towns of the Cyclades and the Ionians, the more conventional castles of the Genoese and Knights in the northeast Aegean and Dodecanese, Ottoman bridges and mosques, and the Art Deco or mock-Renaissance edifices of the Italian Fascist administration.
Constructions from many of these eras are often juxtaposed with - or even superimposed on - the cities and temples of ancient Greece, which provide the foundation in all senses for claims of an enduring Hellenic cultural identity down the centuries; museums, particularly on Crete, Smos, Rhodes and Lmnos, amply document the archeological evidence. But it was medieval Greek peasants, fisherman and shepherds, working without a local ruling class or formal Renaissance to impose models of taste or patronize the arts, who most tangibly and recently contributed to our idea of Greekness with their songs and dances, costumes, weaving and vernacular architecture, some unconsciously drawing on ancient antecedents. Much of this has vanished in recent decades, replaced by an avalanche of bouzouki cassettes, "genuine museum copies" and bawdy postcards in tacky souvenir shops, but enough remains in isolated pockets for visitors to marvel at its combination of form and function.
Of course, most Greek-island visits are devoted to more hedonistic pursuits: always going lightly dressed, swimming in balmy waters at dusk, talking and drinking under the stars until 3am. Such pleasures more than compensate for certain enduring weaknesses in the Greek tourism "product": don't arrive expecting orthopedic mattresses, state-of-the-art plumbing, Cordon-Bleu cuisine or obsequious service. Except at a slowly growing number of upmarket facilities in new or restored buildings, hotel and pension rooms can be box-like, campsites tend to be of the rough-and-ready sort, and the food at its best is fresh and simply presented.
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Where and when to go
There is no such thing as a typical Greek island; each has its distinctive personality, history, architecture, flora - even a unique tourist clientele. Landscapes vary from the lush cypress-and-olive-swathed Ionians to the bare, minimalist ridges of the Cyclades and Dodecanese, by way of subtle gradations between these extremes in the Sporades and northeast Aegean. Setting aside the scars from a few unfortunate man-made developments, it would be difficult to single out an irredeemably ugly island; all have their adherents and individual appeal, described in the chapter or section introductions.
Most islands and their inhabitants are far more agreeable, and resolutely Greek, outside the busiest period of early July to late August, when crowds of foreigners or locals, soaring temperatures and the effects of the infamous meltmi can detract considerably from enjoyment. The meltmi is a cool, fair-weather wind which originates in high-pressure systems over the far north Aegean, gathering steam as it travels southwards and assuming near-gale magnitude by the time it reaches Crete. North-facing coasts there, and throughout the Cyclades and Dodecanese, bear the full brunt; its howling is less pronounced in the north or east Aegean, where continental landmasses provide some shelter for
the islands just offshore.
You won't miss out on warm weather if you come between late May and mid-June - when a wide variety of garden produce and fish is still available - or September, when the sea is warmest for swimming, though at these times you'll find little activity on the northernmost islands of Thssos and Samothrki. During October you will probably hit a week's stormy spell anywhere, but for much of that month the "little summer of yios Dhimtrios", the Greek equivalent of Indian summer, prevails. While the choice of restaurants and nightlife in autumn can be limited, the light is softer, and going out at midday becomes a pleasure rather than an ordeal. The most reliable venues for late autumn or early winter breaks are Rhodes and relatively balmy southeastern Crete, where swimming in December is not unheard of.
December to March are the coldest and least comfortable months, particularly on the Ionian islands, simply the rainiest patch in Greece from November onwards. The high peaks of northerly or lofty islands wear a brief mantle of snow around the turn of the year, with Crete's mountainous spine staying partly covered into April. Between January and April the glorious lowland wildflowers begin to bloom, beginning in the southeast Aegean. Early arrivals should keep in mind that travelling a few islands north or south often means the difference between tourist facilities open or still shut, as well as blossoms gone or yet to bloom. April weather is notoriously unreliable, though the air is crystal-clear and the landscape green - a photographer's dream. May is more settled, though the sea is still a bit cool for prolonged dips.
Other factors that affect the timing of a Greek island visit have to do with the level of tourism and the related amenities provided. Service standards, particularly in tavernas, invariably slip under peak-season pressures, and room rates are at their highest from July to September. If you can only visit during mid-summer, reserve a package well in advance, or plan an itinerary off the beaten track, gravitating towards islands with sparser ferry connections and/or no airport. Between November and April, you have to contend with pared-back ferry schedules (and almost nonexistent hydrofoil departures), plus skeletal facilities when you arrive. However, you will find fairly adequate services to the more populated islands, and at least one hotel and taverna open in the port or main town of all but the tiniest isles.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
Part One The Basics
Getting there from Britain
Getting there from Ireland
Getting there from North America
Getting there from Australia and New Zealand
Departure points: Athens, Pires and main ports
Travellers with disabilities
Visas and red tape
Costs, money and banks
Information and maps
Eating and drinking
Opening hours and public holidays
Festivals and cultural events
Sports and outdoor pursuits
Police and trouble
Part Two The Guide
Chapter 1 The Argo-Saronic
Chapter 2 The Cyclades
Pros and Andparos
Chapter 3 Crete
The Samarian Gorge
Chapter 4 The Dodecanese
Chapter 5 The East and North Aegean
Chapter 6 The Sporades and vvia
Alnissos and minor islets
Chapter 7 The Ionian Islands
Pax and Andpaxi
Part Three The Contexts