Go Greek - In the Isles

Go Greek - In the Isles

by DeeDee Doke
Stripes Europe

The Greek Isles have it all: sun, sea, sand, mouth-watering food, succulent wine and culture for the ages. And with 227 inhabited islands out of Greece’s 6,000 islands and inlets in the Aegean and Ionian seas, visitors could pick a different one to explore at every vacation — and still probably never see them all!

Corfu, Crete, Mykonos, Rhodes and, in recent years, Kefalonia and Zakynthos tend to be the hot spot islands for tourists who want a dose of the Greek good life to remedy the aches and ills of lives lived in colder, darker climates.

Be adventurous. Visit islands that are a little less well known but still offer the tantalizing Greek combination of glorious natural beauty, great weather and gorgeous food and drink, with ruins and other cultural stand-outs to relish in a forever memorable holiday. Keep in mind there will be tourists — just not as many! Still — each suggestion below has good infrastructure and no lack of creature comforts. That means a variety of accommodations, ranging from simple to five-star, will be ready to welcome you on your personal Greek odyssey!

Many first-time visitors to Chios, in the northeastern Aegean Sea, discover this lesser known but delightful island by taking a short boat excursion across from the Turkish resort of Cesme. Then a return is a must.

Tour guides extol the island’s value to the world at large through its exports of mastic, a resin harvested from the mastic tree, which is indigenous to Chios. Mastic is used in chewing gum, and in preparing foods from ice cream to sauces and vegetable preserves, but also in varnishes, traditional folk medicines and as a substitute thickener for cornstarch and gelatin in desserts.

But Chios’ truly unique gems are two unusually picturesque villages. Mesta is a medieval castle village in which the stone houses were all built together with no space in between, and today, no cars are allowed to enter the village walls or drive down the narrow streets. Bringing to mind caves with front doors, the village is a real wonder and purposely constructed as a maze! An option for a stay of an overnight or more is the Medieval Castle Suites hotel, offering medieval stone suites with modern amenities for couples or families.

Visit the village of Pyrgi to experience another kind of awe. Also a castle or fortress village, Pyrgi has houses whitewashed a grayish color and adorned with distinctive geometric patterns, called xysta. The houses’ windows and doors face only inward to the village streets. The ambiance here feels more open air than in Mesta, and there’s an inviting Mediterranean breeziness about the place. Have a meal or a coffee or cold drink at a taverna or café around the town center where a friendly local may want to start up a conversation.

Also making a trip to Greece’s fifth largest island worthwhile are Chios’ beaches and points of interest such as the 11th century Nea Moni, or new monastery (recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the 200,000-year-old Olympoi Cave with its stalactites, and the remains of Greek and Genoese merchants’ mansions in Chios Town’s Kambos district.     

What do mathematics and wine have in common? The laid-back island of Samos. It was the birthplace of 6th century B.C. mathematics scientist and philosopher Pythagoras (remember the Pythagorean theorem?). It is also the home of a thriving wine industry best known for beautifully sweet varieties of muscat wine. There’s an August wine festival to celebrate this golden nectar, but the fruits of the vineyards can be enjoyed all year.

Sights to see include:

• The Tunnel of Eupalinos, a 4,000-foot-long tunnel cut into a mountain from either side, of which the two lengths ultimately met in the middle. The tunnel served as an aquaduct to bring water to the island’s citizens. Visitors today can only travel through part of the length, but it’s a memorable stop.

• The Temple of Hera, dedicated to the goddess of marriage and women. The temple originally had 155 columns, of which only one original column stands today. The tiles and backdrop of the sea are stunning; wear a big hat and slather yourself in SPF.

• Waterfalls near Potami Beach. Beautiful,
and a refreshing way to cool off in the heat.

• The Samos Wine Museum in Malagari, Samos Town.

Skiathos and Skopelos
Regular ferry transport between these two islands means that visitors to one can easily spend time on the other. Skiathos is the only Sporades island to have an international airport, so the quickest route for travelers to Skopelos is to fly to Skiathos, and then take a ferry to Skopelos.

Skopelos is said to be Greece’s greenest island, but Skiathos also has its share of green, pine trees and woodland. And both offered dramatic background settings for the 2008 box office smash film “Mamma Mia.”

Skiathos is more buzzy and cosmopolitan, especially in Skiathos Town, where visitors will find antique and jewelry shops, elegant boutiques and night life. At the same time, with as many as 70 beaches to entice swimmers and sunners, the island is hardly overrun with development.

Countryside hikes are popular pastimes on Skopelos, through pine forests and olive groves along the walking trails. At lower altitudes, hidden coves and bays await the water lover. Ceramics and locally grown plums and almonds are among the most popular items to buy in Skopelos Town. Don’t miss a Skopelos specialty dinner such as sea bass and fennel at one of the island’s superb tavernas.

Other sights to see in a Sporades holiday: the national marine conservation areas off the coasts, home to at least two different varieties of dolphin; and on Skiathos, the now deserted remains of the 14th century Kastro, or fortification, on a steep cliff is an interesting destination.

Other possibilities for Greek island idylls
Lesbos, especially the cobbled village of Molyvos, reminiscent of a less developed Carmel in California; Folegandros, reputed to have the most beautiful hilltop village in Greece, and cash machines but no bank; and Kea, in the Cyclades, where the beaches are lovely, activities limited mainly to watersports, the local sausages especially memorable and the opportunity to properly chill — all yours.

When to visit a Greek island
Skip winters in the Greek islands. But experienced visitors say that spring, not summer, is the optimum time to enjoy the islands’ very best. Temperatures will be in the upper 70s as opposed to the blistering upper 80s and 90s of July and August. The exuberant color burst of wild flowers decorating the islands’ countryside occurs in April, May and June, creating beautiful scenery scented by fresh herbs. You’ll also pay less to travel in spring because prices typically go up in July and August to capitalize on European school holidays. A spring trip could include an Easter visit, and Easter is the ultimate celebration on the islands with fireworks, special foods, pageantry and rituals.

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