A Greek Odyssey

According to Greek mythology, Helios, the handsome young sun god, drove his flaming horse chariot west across the sky, bequeathing daily sunlight to the land.

Thousands of years later, the Greek archipelago remains a sun-worshipper’s paradise, sparkling like a glorious halo in the Mediterranean. As divine today as when the ancients reigned, Greece’s islands are a shimmering mosaic of contradictions, each with its own unique personalities.

For the Hedonist | Cyclades

Mykonos is a haven for the glitterati, which flocks here for its beauty and nightlife. Originally planned to disorient pirate marauders, Mykonos’s Chora (main town) has retained its labyrinthine maze of cobblestone streets dotted with spotlessly white buildings with blue shutters. If you get lost, all roads lead to Matoyianni Street.

For poolside perfection, the cool (and secluded) Belvedere Hotel is where the international It crowd hangs. Here, find alfresco dining at restaurants by celebrity chefs, such as Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa and George Calombaris.

The quaint 18th-century waterfront of Little Venice, with a view of Mykonos’s famous windmills, sits on the eastern side of the harbour, transforming into a night-time bar scene with Caprice of Mykonos holding fort as one of the best spots for cocktails. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Aegean, mega-club Cavo Paradiso doesn’t get started until 2am and has hosted international DJs such as Carl Cox and David Guetta.

Nurse a hangover at Nammos beach club on golden Psarou Beach, south-east of Chora. Dine on lobster and fresh oysters while mingling with the beautiful people, before visiting nearby Luisa Beach boutique where fashionistas can pick up designer pieces from brands such as Balmain.

A glamorous wardrobe is de rigueur for sunny Santorini - the jewel in the Cycladic crown - once believed to be the lost city of Atlantis. A series of ancient volcanic eruptions created the island’s dramatic crescent-shaped caldera, where whitewashed caves meet terraces hanging off plunging rock faces. The dazzling, sun-drenched capital of Fira is a hive of activity. Visit atmospheric Franco’s Bar for cocktails and the best panoramic views over the caldera.

Santorini caters to a sophisticated, moneyed crowd, with an assortment of chic lounges and luxe shopping. Located 300 metres above the caldera in the town of Imerovigli is the award-winning Grace Santorini Hotel and its boutique restaurant, which serves top-notch fusion food with a view fronting Skaros Rock and its Venetian castle ruins.

Further north is the enchanting cliff-top town of Oia with its whitewashed houses trellised in fuchsia bougainvillea. Oia boasts many alfresco tavernas, from where you can watch the legendary sunset over the crystal Aegean basin while tucking into a meal of fresh seafood and meze. Or splurge at the luxe Mystique hotel’s indulgent Secret Wine Cave.

Less than a two-hour ferry-ride away is Ios - the epicentre of Cycladic revelry. Hedonistic Dionysus, the god of ritual madness and ecstasy, is alive and well here. Most of the nocturnal action occurs in the Old Town, continuing through to the daytime beach bars along the beautiful one-kilometre stretch of Mylopotas Beach.

For the Culturalist | Saronic Islands

Only two hours by hydrofoil from Athens’s main port of Piraeus, affluent Spetses boasts a long naval history. It has overcome a tumultuous past of occupations and invasions to become one of the most beautiful and hospitable in the Argo-Saronic Gulf. It’s revered for its contribution to the 1821 War of Independence and locals commemorate Armata during September with a fabulous celebration. Honorary landmarks of the Greek victory over the Ottoman fleet include the War Memorial of the Spetses Navy, the Mexis Mansion and the house of Bouboulina (the island’s maritime heroine), which has been converted into a museum.

This is a haven for aristocrats and royals such as Princess Diana. Generations of privileged Europeans and international tourists have sought refuge in the island’s 18th-century neoclassical villas and mansions lining the shore between Palio Limani (Old Harbour) and Dapia (New Harbour). Frequented by the rich and famous, the iconic Poseidonion Grand Hotel was restored in 2009, re-emerging as the island’s cliquey five-star spot.

Architectural preservation mandates have also left an indelible mark on Hydra’s landscape, as grand Venetian mansions commissioned by influential Greek families during the island’s economic boom of the late 18th century remain standing. With motorised transport banned, hundreds of donkeys trawl the quiet, cobbled streets where locals flick kompoloi (worry beads) and play backgammon.

What Hydra lacks in beaches, it makes up for in culture. Behind the façade of traditional manors, avant-garde spaces such as the Hydra Workshop and School of Fine Arts blossom. Billionaire collector Dakis Joannou’s Slaughterhouse hosts mixed-media exhibitions, while the innovative Hydra School Projects’s annual show exhibits works by photographers such as Juergen Teller alongside those by emerging artists. Opening-night parties always draw the hipster A-listers, but the island manages to retain its marvellous bohemian charm.

Aegina is one of the closest islands to Athens and makes for a great day trip. Once the temporary capital of Greece, it is packed with historical attractions. The Aphea Temple is one of the best-preserved monuments in Greece and was built to form a perfect geoglyph triangle with the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.

Also a favourite among foodies, Aegina is known as the pistachio capital of the world, with pistachios being cultivated here since 1860. Head south from town and go nuts over the orchards behind the coastal roads. Relax in the small fishing village of Perdika, famous for its fish tavernas and pretty bay. While you’re there, visit the uninhabited islet of Moni - Aegina’s best-kept secret. Take a short water taxi ride to Moni to spend a day submerged in its surrounding glassy waters, mingling with a rare breed of wild local goats or drinking at the island’s solitary bar. 

For the Adventurer | Ionian Islands

These are a collection of seven islands located in the Ionian Sea, west of the mainland. Popular among nature lovers, Lefkada is accessible by car from the mainland near the town of Preveza.

With its vast terrain and exquisite stretches of crystalline waters nestled between fertile horseshoe cliffs, Lefkada boasts thermal winds ideal for water sports. Pebbly Vassiliki Beach is a heaven for windsurfers and offers PADI-accredited diving courses. A boat ride away is Porto Katsiki Beach. It’s a big climb down to the sun-drenched shore at the base of the ivory rock face, but its warm waters and phenomenal landscape are worth every trekking second.

An adrenalin junkie’s paradise, the east-coast resort of Nidri offers jet-skiing, kite-surfing and parasailing. It’s also the launch pad for the Southern Ionian Regatta - one of the Mediterranean’s most popular yachting events. From here, board a boat to the beautiful Papanikolis Sea Cave cut into a mammoth limestone cliff. Nidri has unparalleled views across to Skorpios - the mysterious private island of late shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and his family.

With 250 kilometres of rugged coastline, Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian islands and best explored by motorbike. Hikers will love fir-covered Mount Ainos National Park with its spectacular landscape of woodland and roaming horses.

Accessible from the village of Sami on the east coast of the island are Kefalonia’s extraordinary caves. Visit the 150-million-year-old stalactite- and stalagmite-filled Drogarati cave, as well as the magical, subterranean Melissani with its double-chambered cavern of cerulean waters.

The Ionians’ furthest island, Corfu, is easily accessible due to its international airport, which has frequent flights from Europe (London is only three hours away). With its history of Venetian, French and British rule, it has a distinctly cosmopolitan variety of sport activities. While in Corfu, hope on a bicycle - there’s an excellent road network leading past scenic coves, golden beaches and awe-inspiring mountain peaks.

Golf enthusiasts need only travel 20 minutes drive from Corfu’s town centre to find the beautiful 18-hole golf course at Corfu Golf Club in the fertile Ropa Valley. Corfu also has a long cricketing heritage and the gentleman’s game is extremely popular here. There are five pitches on the island, with facilities for both social play and international tournaments.

Nicknamed ‘The Walking Island’ for its variety of hiking paths, Corfu’s main hiking track is the Corfu Trail, a signposted stretch running 220 kilometres from the north of the island to the south. Non-athletes need not worry, as there are many alternative routes of varying difficulty and terrain, which will take you across majestic sandstone plateaus and past olive-blanketed hills, to traditional rural villages, juniper dunes and stretches of aqua waters.

Words by Carli Philips - Published in Voyeur May 2012
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 3 700 000
Time Zone UTC +1
Languages Greek
Currency Euro €
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