In Greece, an island retreat is not necessarily a secluded resort. Its numerous islands offer everything from farm holidays and historic old towns to wild raves and, of course, beautiful beaches.
1. Crete – Nature’s Bounty
Rugged, mountainous Crete is Greece’s largest island, with more than 1,000km of coastline and a south coast that basks in more hours of sunshine a year than anywhere else in Europe. While its dramatic mountains have been inhabited by hardy wild goats since time unknown, the fertile lowlands gave birth to one of the earliest recorded European civilisations, the Minoans. The splendid remains of Knossos, a 4,000-year-old Minoan palace built around a vast central courtyard, can be found a short drive inland from Crete’s capital Heraklion.
Back on Crete’s meandering coast are several superb beaches. On the extreme north-west lies Balos, with its emerald lagoon across which you can wade to the rocky islet of Gramvoussa. On the isolated east coast, Vai is a gently curving beach with a dense grove of towering palms.
Meanwhile, in the mountains of the interior lie rural villages where time has stood still. To experience Crete as the locals know it, stay at an agritourism centre like Milia or Eleonas. These are working farms in rural locations that also offer rustic accommodation and authentic local meals made from homegrown produce.
On the north coast, the port towns of Chania and Rethymno are warrens of cobblestone alleys lined with pastel-coloured mansions from the Venetian era. Many house boho-chic bars, eateries and boutique hotels. One of the nicest is Avli– two 16th-century buildings in Rethymno housing seven stylish colour-themed apartments.
2. Santorini – Romance and Luxury
Near dusk, crowds gather in the village of Oia overlooking the caldera on Santorini’s west coast, eager to find the best spot to photograph the lauded sunset. The caldera is a geographical depression filled with seawater that was formed when a volcano exploded about 3,600 years ago. In its centre, two tiny volcanic islets still bubble with thermal mud springs.
Fira and Oia are two picture-postcard villages sitting atop black cliffs overlooking the caldera, made up of whitewashed houses and blue-domed churches. Many of the houses have been converted into boutique hotels that are popular among honeymooners and couples, such as the ultra-luxurious Perivolas.
Another quintessential Santorini experience is having sundown cocktails at Franco’s Bar. But while the original Franco’s in Fira has a splendid caldera-view terrace furnished with chaise longues, its famous founder Franco Colombo has moved to Franco’s Cafe in the medieval hilltop village of Pyrgos. The panoramic terrace there affords views across the island, while the menu includes its hallmark Bellini cocktails.
Beyond Fira and Oia, the island falls away into a haze of vineyards and black-sand beaches. Santorini’s volcanic soil produces some of Greece’s best white wines as well as a fortified dessert wine called Vinsanto, which has been described as having an aroma of creme brulee, chocolate and dried apricot.
3. Rhodes – Medieval Architecture
In the 14th century, the Knights of St John, a religious military order affiliated to the Crusaders, built a splendid medieval fortress city on Rhodes – its 4km-long defensive wall protects a castle known as the Palace of the Grand Masters, and numerous churches in Gothic and Renaissance styles. Two centuries later, when Ottoman Turks captured the island, they too left their mark with the elegant minarets of their mosques and hammams (public baths).
Today, the pedestrian-only old town (above) is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular port of call for cruise ships sailing the east Mediterranean. But to experience the medieval spirit of its cobbled streets, one should visit at night and stay within the fortifications. Several historic buildings there have been turned into small hotels, such as the homely six-room Spirit of the Knights Boutique Hotel, where 14th-century knights once lived.
South of the town, about 50km down the coast is Lindos, possibly the island’s prettiest village. A medieval fortress erected by the Knights of St John sits atop a cluster of whitewashed 16th-century houses built into a hillside, with the sandy beach of Pallas below completing the dazzling scene.
It’s a popular day trip from the big resorts but, if you stay the night, you’ll have the place almost all to yourself once the last tour bus has departed. Check in to the sumptuous Melenos hotel, a 17th-century mansion with 12 divine suites decorated in Byzantine, Arabic and Ottoman styles.
4. Lefkada – Water Sports
In the late afternoon, on Lefkada’s south coast, the deep-blue bay in Vassiliki village is speckled with water-sport enthusiasts skimming and swooping across the surface of the water. This is Greece’s top windsurfing destination, thanks to the local topography that produces a gentle onshore breeze in the morning, which is ideal for beginners; and a strong thermal wind in the afternoon that creates choppy waters – a challenge for more advanced surfers. For novices who’d like to have a go, Club Vass offers surfing lessons and board rentals.
Meanwhile, on Lefkada’s remote south-west coast are some of Greece’s most amazing beaches. The most-photographed of these is probably Porto Katsiki, a beautiful pebble beach that can be approached by a steep flight of about 100 steps. But if you’re looking for a total escape, head for Egremni. To reach it, you have to hike down about 350 steps, which culminate in a rickety wooden staircase. But it’s worth getting to this unspoilt spot with only a makeshift beach bar and a few dozen parasols.
Lefkada’s beaches may be alluring, but the island itself is relatively undeveloped, except for a string of tourist villages along the east coast. Lefkada town, in the northern part of the island, was levelled by an earthquake in 1953 and is now filled with low-rise buildings that look like temporary shacks. But it has its appeal – a 620-berth marina where several yacht charter companies keep their boats.
After a day on the beach, stop for dinner at Rachi in the pine-scented hilltop village of Exanthia. There’s a large stone terrace with amazing views of the sea. Here, enjoy good, inexpensive local food, such as roast pork with walnuts and cinnamon, or lamb with garlic and fresh herbs. Excellent homemade wine is also available. If you’re lucky, you may spot paragliders jumping from a hill close to the restaurant – an impressive sunset spectacle.
5. Mykonos – Nightlife and Celebrities
With its hedonistic nightlife and open-minded attitude, Mykonos has long been a magnet for celebrities – recent guests include Lady Gaga and John Travolta. Most visitors spend long afternoons on the golden-white sands of Paradise, Super Paradise or Elia beach. Some then head to Little Venice in the early evening for a sunset aperitif from waterside cocktail bars near four white windmills.
However, the biggest dance clubs are back on Paradise Beach – notably Paradise Club, which has seen celebrity DJs such as Boy George and Moby, and Cavo Paradiso, where the party continues till well after sunrise, and superstar DJs such as David Morales and Erick Morillo spin tunes.
But everyone has to sleep eventually and you can lay your head at luxurious hideaways such as Kivotos, a boutique hotel that has hosted the likes of Shakira and George Michael; and Belvedere, where celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa has a restaurant serving his renowned Japanese-Peruvian cuisine.
But Mykonos is not only about modern extravagance. From the harbour, excursion boats leave for the islet of Delos, which has an archaeological site centred on the Temple of Apollo, and a sanctuary dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry.
This article originally appeared in Silverkris.