x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The top ten Greek islands

Robin Gauldie picks the 10 best Greek islands and finds that there is something for everyone, from history to hiking, for families or the lone traveller.

The island of Santorini is known for its beautiful sunsets out over the dramatic caldera. Sylvain Sonnet / Corbis
The island of Santorini is known for its beautiful sunsets out over the dramatic caldera. Sylvain Sonnet / Corbis

1. Santorini, Cyclades: For couples

Oia, on the northern tip of Santorini, is the most ridiculously romantic spot in Greece. Perched on the rim of a vast, sea-filled volcanic crater created by a cataclysmic explosion some 3,600 years ago, this former ghost village is the image of everyone's island dream. Choosing the best of its portfolio of delicious boutique hotels is tough, but Katikies, with its clutch of white cottages on terraces carved out of the hillside and an infinity pool that gazes out into the blue, is outstanding. The setting is matched by great food and immaculate service, and the sunsets over the caldera are unforgettable. Make time to walk down the dozens of steps to the tiny harbour to eat fresh fish at a quayside table, and take a boat trip to Kameni island to swim in water warmed by undersea springs.

A double room at Katikies costs from €455 (Dh2,138) per night, including breakfast (www.katikies.com). Aegean Airlines flights from Athens cost from €72 (Dh338) and take 45 minutes (www.aegeanair.com).

2. Hydra: For singles

Catch the hydrofoil to join the Athenians who escape to peaceful Hydra whenever they can. This blessedly traffic-free island was once a prosperous merchant port, and its horseshoe-shaped harbour is lined with the dignified stone mansions built by the wealthy owners of its schooner fleet. There are no milling crowds or raucous dance clubs here - mass tourism has passed Hydra by, leaving it for a more discerning audience. It's easy to fall into conversation in the chic quayside cafe-bars, but if you'd rather be left in peace, you will be. There are small pebble beaches less than a 10-minute walk from the island's only village (also called Hydra), and a small watersports centre at Mandraki, about three kilometres away. The best place to stay is the Bratsera, a stylish boutique hotel with a secluded courtyard pool and a cool restaurant and bar. A double room at Bratsera costs from €160 (Dh752) per night, including breakfast (www.bratserahotel.com). Hydrofoils from Piraeus take 95 minutes (www.gtp.gr).

3. Kalymnos: For families with teenagers

Rocky Kalymnos has become the Aegean's island of adventure, thanks to the formidable basalt cliffs that loom over its coasts and hinterland, offering world-class climbing. Underwater, there is great scuba diving around undersea walls, caves and wrecks in near-perfect visibility. Top climbers will gather here this autumn for the second North Face Kalymnos Climbing Festival, but Kalymnos welcomes novices too, with summer courses for beginners as well as for experienced climbers who want to extend their skills. Based at the family-friendly Hotel Elies, Kalymnos Diving offers packages and Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) training for beginners. Less demanding activities include mountain biking, and the island's beaches offer windsurfing and other watersports.

Double rooms at Hotel Elies cost from €35 (Dh165) per night, including breakfast, and a 10 per cent discount with a diving package (www.hotelelies.gr). Discover Scuba and Scuba Diver courses for participants 10 years old and older cost €80 (Dh376) and €300 (Dh1,410) respectively (www.kalymnosdiving.gr). A nine-day climbing course costs €400 (Dh1,880) and includes all safety equipment (www.climbkalymnos.com). Flights from Athens take one hour and cost from €108 (Dh507) with Olympic Air (www.olympicair.com).

4. Skiathos, Sporades: For families with tots

Most Greek island beaches are pebbly and a bit unfriendly to tiny toes, so they're not ideal for families with small children. The sugar-soft, pale yellow sand of Koukounaries, on pine-covered Skiathos, is exceptional. More than a kilometre long, and lapped by shallow, warm water, this is the most toddler-friendly beach in the Greek archipelago. A buggy-accessible boardwalk lined with summer cafes and ice-cream stands runs the length of the beach, and for slightly older kids there are kayaks and windsurfers. Just inland from the beach is a riding stable with horses, donkeys and a petting zoo full of goats and bunnies. A short walk from the beach and located in leafy gardens, the Mandraki Village Boutique Hotel has family suites with child-friendly terraces, a play area for kids, and baby-sitting on request.

Deluxe family suites at Mandraki Village Boutique Hotel cost from €130 (Dh611) per night, including breakfast (www.mandraki-skiathos.gr). Olympic Air flights from Athens cost €87 (Dh408) and take 45 minutes (www.olympicair.com).

5. Kos, Dodecanese: For watersports

Kos has gone upmarket recently, with the opening of several boutique-style hotels and luxury resorts around its shores. The island is dotted with Roman and medieval ruins, but it's the beaches that bring most people here. Serious windsurfers rate Marmari, midway along the north coast, among the best waters in the Med for its reliable breezes - a week of steady 18-knot winds is not unusual. Marmari Windsurfing rents the latest kit and runs summer clinics and camps where you can sharpen up your board skills. Stay at the palatial Palazzo de Mare, a luxury complex just 50 metres from the beach, but with a huge outdoor pool in its palm-shaded gardens, a heated indoor pool and, for those with deep pockets, 10 executive suites with private pools. The hotel has half a dozen restaurants and cafe bars on site, so this luxury cocoon offers the best of all worlds for watersports fanatics and their partners.

A double room costs from €130 (Dh611) per night, including breakfast (www.bluelagoongroup.com) and five-day windsurfing clinics cost from €240 (Dh1,145) at www.marmari-windsurfing.com. Aegean Airlines flights from Athens take 50 minutes and cost from €87 (Dh409) at www.aegeanair.com.

6.Rhodes, Dodecanese: For history buffs

Ancient Greeks and Romans, medieval knights and Ottoman sultans have all left their mark on Rhodes, making it the perfect isle for history lovers. Landmarks in the labyrinthine Old Town, Europe's best-preserved medieval city, include the opulent Palace of the Grand Master, Ottoman mosques, an authentic hammam and a fascinating archaeological museum.

You'll find some outstanding restaurants in the Old Town, along with shopping for artisan jewellery and leisure wear. It's a 10-minute walk to the excellent town beach, complete with sun loungers and juice bars. Nightlife ranges from a grand casino to lively clubs and easy-going shisha cafes. Out of town, there are ancient temple ruins at Lindos, the remains of 2,000-year-old cities at Ialyssos and Kamiros and a ghostly medieval castle at Monolithos.

A private pool suite at Amathus Elite Suites at Ixia, 10 minutes from town, costs from €158 (Dh755) half board (www.amathus-hotels.com). Aegean Airlines flights from Athens cost from €62 (Dh283) and take one hour.

7. Chania, Crete: For foodies

Natives of Crete boast that the "Cretan diet" - rich in wild greens, pulses, fruit, olive oil and fresh vegetables, low on saturated fats and red meat - helps them live longer than anyone else in Europe. A stay near Chania, in western Crete, should quickly convince you that there's much more to local food than moussaka and kalamari. Visit the big covered market to take your pick of fresh herbs, juicy fruit and vegetables, cold-pressed oil and a dozen kinds of olive, and fish so fresh that they're still twitching, then take them home to your villa for dinner. Local tavernas serve traditional dishes made with home-grown, often organic produce, while upscale restaurants such as Avli in Rethymno serve superbly presented Cretan cuisine with a modern twist.

GIC The Villa Collection offers the Villa Georgia, 40 minutes from Hania, from £439 per person (Dh2,473) for one week, based on four sharing (www.gicthevillacollection.com). A local cook can be provided on request. Aegean Airlines flights from Athens to Chania take one hour and cost from €124 (Dh591) at www.aegeanair.com.

8. Mykonos, Cyclades: For hedonists

Since the 1960s, Mykonos has been the acme of island luxury. The narrow, whitewashed lanes of the most stylish harbour village in the Aegean are full of chic cafes, cigar bars, upscale silversmiths and gourmet restaurants. Competition among the island's upscale hotels to offer the most fabulous pools, luxurious accommodation, dining options and spas is intense, but Mykonos Blu stands out, featuring suites with indoor or outdoor pools or whirlpools on private terraces. The Elixir spa offers aromatherapy and massage, or you can opt for an 80-minute body treatment in your suite. A sushi bar complements the gourmet restaurant (private à la carte dining is also available), and the hotel has its own exclusive stretch of beach. For luxury sightseeing, book a yacht for a day sailing to nearby Delos, where ancient stone lions guard ruined temples.

Suites at Mykonos Blu cost from €405 (Dh1,900), including breakfast (www.mykonosblu.com). Aegean Airlines flights from Athens cost from €73 (Dh341) and take 35 minutes.

9. Amorgos, Cyclades: For walkers

Amorgos takes you back to the days before tourism overran the Aegean. There are super beaches and charming villages here, but no big hotels. Most of all, it's a great island for walking on old donkey trails that wind their way across rocky slopes where tiny blue-domed churches and the stone towers of old windmills stand among terraced fields. The best base is Aigiali, a lively harbour village next to a fine sandy beach. From here, you can trek the 14km trail along the spinal ridge of the island to the cliffside monastery of Hozoviotissa and the island's tiny main village, Hora. There are plenty more easy walks and challenging hikes in the hills above Aigiali. To add a challenge to your wanderings, geocaching has recently been introduced to the island.

Doubles at Lakki Village, right on the beach, start at €55 (Dh285) per night, including breakfast (www.lakkivillage.gr). For walking and geocaching tips, visit www.amorgos-island-magazine.com. Ferries from Piraeus take five hours 30 minutes (www.gtp.gr).

10. Kastellorizo, Dodecanese: For castaways

If you want to drop completely off the map, idyllic Kastellorizo is for you. This rocky dot in the blue is farther from Athens than any other island, and only a couple of kilometres from the Turkish coast. Its only village is a parade of old Ottoman-style houses painted in ice-cream colours - pistachio, lemon, rose and lavender - around a deep blue harbour where you can watch rainbow-coloured fish swimming as if in an aquarium. Some of the local sealife ends up on ice outside the harbour restaurants, and there are plenty of them. To work up an appetite, and for a great view, hike the steep trail to the tiny chapel high above the harbour, and for an adventure, take a boat trip to Kastellorizo's blue grotto or across the water to Turkey. Stay at Mediterraneo, a waterfront mansion transformed into a gorgeous hotel by its owner. No pool, but there are divans for lounging in the sun and a bathing ladder for cooling dips.

A double room at Mediterraneo costs from €60 (Dh282) per night, including breakfast (www.mediterraneo-megisti.com). Olympic Air flights from Rhodes (the nearest large island) take 40 minutes and cost from €44 (Dh210). Ferries from Rhodes take three hours 40 minutes (www.gtp.gr).


The flight

Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies to Athens in five hours from Dh3,255, return. If you have to stay overnight between flights, Sofitel Athens Airport (www.sofitel.com) is right next to the terminal, with double rooms from €85 (Dh400)

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