Hello Greece, where the islands make up a world apart that has been attracting visitors since the gods of legend. Sun-kissed and scattered all around the Greek coast, there are more than 1,000 but only 200 are inhabited and less than 100 people live on many of those. If you can't find the perfect getaway from it all, you are not really trying.
The small caïque chugs across the deepest indigo of the Aegean, white-capped wavelets lapping against the side of the boat as we cut through the water. Ahead of us lies a jagged black mass giving off wisps of smoke and the acrid smell of sulfur begins to mingle with the fumes belching from our vessel. Behind us are cliffs with sheer drops of more than 300 meters, thin strata of compressed pumice, basalt and dacite lay one on top of each other, stretching from the sea to the white cubic houses of Fira, the capital of Santorini, or Thera as she is also known.
As our boat slowly reaches Nea Kameni – the ‘new burnt one’ – one of two volcanic islands that sit in the middle of Santorini’s sunken caldera, we are jolted from the prehistoric sight ahead of us by the whitewashed walls of a small chapel, topped with a traditional Mediterranean blue roof. If it is there to protect locals from the wrath of the gods, there is a good reason. Nea Kameni and her smaller sister islet Palaia Kameni (‘old burnt one’) were formed from lava spewed from Santorini’s still active volcano 120km below us.
Some 3,000 years ago, this was the site of the world’s largest volcanic eruption as the African and European tectonic plates began a geological battle for supremacy. The resulting explosion was so huge it caused the center of the island to collapse in on itself, creating the caldera on which we are now sailing. Plumes of magma are thought to have shot 30km into the sky, blocking out the sun’s rays with a burning ferocity. The tsunami it caused – a 150-meter high wall of seawater – rushed to Crete, sweeping Minoan civilization into the history books. Some historians even credit the wave with causing the plagues that drove the biblical Exodus from Egypt.
As we disembark on Nea Kameni, there are nervous looks on our faces – the last eruption in Santorini was just over 60 years ago when locals woke up to find the island on which we are standing was slightly larger than the night before. And today, some geologists believe she is ready to blow again thanks to a lava build up beneath the water. “The ground on which you’re standing is as volatile as the Greek economy,” jokes our captain, George.
Thousands of tourists crammed onto the hundreds of ferries
I first came here in the summer of 1984. Brought up in Greece, it was my first holiday with friends and without family. We’d risen at a stupidly early time for late-teen boys and bussed our way to Athens’ port of Piraeus from where most of the island-bound ferries depart. Our destination was the Cyclades, Greece’s main group of tourist-friendly islands, nestled in the center of the Aegean. Then as now, the port pulsated with action as the early morning haze rose above Athens. Ticket offices thronged with people looking for last-minute tickets and thousands of tourists laden with backpacks and cases crammed onto the hundreds of ferries.
Transport was via huge, creaking boats on which deck tickets cost just a few hundred drachmas (around $2 then). At the time it seemed like a king’s ransom, but the value became more apparent the further we got from Athens. Paros (the ferry hub of the central Aegean), windsurfers’ paradise Naxos and the party island of Ios all passed us by during our sailing. At each the ferry doors would slowly swing open, spewing people, mopeds and cars onto the docks and sucking more back in, like a huge whale gathering krill.
Some 15 hours later our boat hulked its way in the gap between the sparsely inhabited island of Thirasia on the opposite side of Santorini’s caldera and Santorini herself. We were windswept, sizzled from the sun and sozzled from a diet of lukewarm cheese pies and cheap cans of warm beer, but we’d arrived.
A bus, creakier even than the ferry, took us up the winding road from the port of Athinios, and each switchback had us holding our breath as the rear swung out over the cliffs, passing donkeys taking cruise-ship passengers from the port to Fira. We didn’t stop to see the maze of alleys of Fira itself but headed straight to the bus station to travel to the opposite end of the island and the campsite at the village of Perissa.
The sand on each beach has a different colour
Thanks to Santorini’s volcanic nature, the sand on each of its beaches has a different colour. In Vlychada it’s a pale yellow, Akrotiri is a deep red but in Perissa the grains are darkest black, absorbing the sun’s rays and throwing back a blast of heat like a furnace. We stayed for three weeks, two at the campsite and one – when we ran out of cash – sleeping rough on the beach.
By contrast – my journey now is much easier. While Piraeus remains a chaotic hub, the ferries have changed. Gone are the wooden decks seeped with salt that looked like ice and felt just as slippy – replaced by supersleek: airline style seats, TV lounges, bars and restaurants that sell food that’s actually edible and hydrodynamic shapes that cut through the water at speed. Fellow passengers are no longer scruffy youngsters but cool, chic and sophisticated travellers with huge Rayban glasses and Louis Vuitton cases that belie Greece’s financial troubles. Greek island hopping has grown up.
“The islands have changed beyond recognition,” says my friend and serial island-hopper Christos Kontos as he sips from his ice-cold coffee frappé in one of the cafés in the village of Oia – said to be home to the most beautiful sunsets in the world. “It used to take 15 hours to get here, now it takes half the time. Unless you’re really young, no one stays in campsites any more and some of them have even become hotels – and there are so many good hotels to stay in. Plus competition keeps them relatively cheap.”
What does remain the same is the lure of the islands themselves: the first dive into the chilly Aegean that leaves the taste of salt on the lips as you bake under a hot sun, the unmatched freshness of a ripe tomato drowned in fragrant olive oil, the hidden villages tucked away in the hills untouched by time and the deep, aniseed smells of ouzo – clouding over as a measure of the spirit hits ice in a glass.
As the sun in Oia begins to dip behind the Kameni sisters, Thirassia is tinged with myriad shades of red, the skies ripped with scarlet, blues and burnt orange. Behind us ring "oohs" and "aahs" from the gaping mouths of tourists. The incessant click of camera shutters matches the chirp of cicadas sprung from their sun-drunken afternoon slumber by the cooler early evening air.
Santorini is the king of the Greek islands
Chris is a modern European Greek – a smart guy and the sharpest dresser I know. He spends his life in a passion for photography, searching old record stores for vintage vinyl or with his head buried in fashion blogs looking for his latest look... and yet despite a whole world to explore and the financial means to do so, he returns to the islands and Santorini, year after year. “I try and mix the islands I go to – but Santorini is a constant,” he says. “It is simply the most ‘high’ of all the islands,” he adds using the Grenglish description for cool.
If Santorini is the king of the Greek islands, it’s a hard-fought crown. Depending on your definition of an island, Greece has anywhere between 1,200 and 6,000 of them, although only a little more than 200 are inhabited and many of those have less than 100 full-time residents. They are arranged in chains or groups with evocative names like the Sporades or Dodecanese, their topography carved by how far north or south they are; their architecture defined by those who’ve passed through. Island hopping stretches way beyond the first ferries and planes providing more access in the 1970s. Over the years, Greece’s islands have variously been invaded by Persians, Venetians, Phoenicians, Ottomans, World War II Italians and Germans and, since the 1950s, holidaymakers from far and wide – and all have left their mark on the landscape and the locals.
Head to the Ionian and you’ll find the verdant islands of Corfu, Paxos, Kefalonia and Ithaka – mythical home to Homer’s Ulysses – tinged with a Venetian flavour that is more reminiscent of Capri than the islands on the Aegean side of Greece. Travel south-east from Santorini and you’ll find the Dodecanese – 12 islands surrounding Rhodes and close to the Turkish coast where there are more Ottoman touches and the winding streets of thick-walled towns built by the Crusaders.
“Each of them offers something different but they all have a lot in common,” says Yiannis Sigalas, a Santorini-born ground agent for the UK travel company Thomas Cook in Fira. “There are so many of them that they just open themselves up to be explored – why go to one island, when you can easily see several of them on the same trip?” It’s a simple theory from which the island-hopping phenomenon was born. People can set out from a handful of major port cities on the mainland and choose the destination of their choice. Patra on the Peloponnese is where you depart for the Ionian; Agios Konstantinos, north of Athens, will take you to the Mama Mia islands of the Sporades.
Greece’s gay-friendly party isle.
But to truly island hop, you need to head to Piraeus. From the port of Athens, ferry routes spread out like a spider’s web around the southern Aegean, you can zip to the nearby Saronic islands by hydrofoil in less than an hour or take overnight ferries as far as Crete, 400km away. You can embark on a religious pilgrimage to Tinos and stay in Spartan pension-style accommodation and jump on a ferry a couple of days later and the next stop on the same route is hedonistic Mykonos – Greece’s gay-friendly party isle.
The main draw though – just as when I made my first trip in 1984 – remains the classic Paros-Naxos-Ios-Santorini route that runs through the central Cyclades. The islands here have a barren beauty – or at least they did until mass tourism set in – long, windswept beaches, rocky coves and villages built with high walls in concentric circles in the days of the Venetians to keep pirates at bay. Despite their collective charms though, people’s feelings about the Greek islands run deeper than just somewhere pretty to holiday. Unlike, say, the Caribbean or the islands of Thailand, Greece has the kind of real history that puts your own life into perspective.
“I love Greece more than any other country,” Eva Huineman, a Dutch woman who has been visiting the islands since 1953 tells me. “They have something special – a link between the east, the south and the west. Greece is a changing society that wants to be more westernized but there remains a strong eastern mentality. That makes it very interesting. Then there are the Greek people – they are very lively and friendly and remain true to the past. You can still see people who look like Socrates walking the street. Sit on a beach on one of the islands and look out to sea – you’re in the same place where the ancients trod thousands of years ago – and little has changed in the view.”
Greek hospitality is legendary – as I sit on the porch of our hotel in the village of Imerovigli, overlooking Fira and sipping a Greek coffee that is thick and black as molasses, the owner, Lambros joins me with a plate of shriveled black olives, salty kefalotyri cheese and a bottle of wine made from Santorini’s unique assyrtiko grapes. He insists I swap my coffee for a glass or three, despite the early hour. It’s a far cry from the rough and ready retsina for which Greece is famed – its smoky yet crisp flavor a result of vines growing in ash-rich soil.
Things have been difficult these past years
The air is pungent with the smell of herbs from his small garden – wild oregano, mint, basil and dill – and a scrawny cat picks at fish bones around our feet. In the distance, a bell from one of Santorini’s hundreds of churches rings out – and like anywhere in Greece, talk of the country’s financial plight is never far away. “Things have been difficult these past years,” he sighs, his heavy, grey moustache trembling. “But I would rather people come here and enjoy themselves and me not make any money rather than have an empty hotel. They would at least then go away and tell others about what a good time they had. If people don’t go home with a smile on their face, I haven't done my job properly.”
Wise words perhaps, but most of my Athenian friends, including Christos, can be disdainful of those who don’t come from the capital believing them to be less sophisticated – a more closed society, one in which its harder to get to really know people. Eva agrees: “On the islands people are very hospitable – but even if you come from Athens and are Greek, you are considered a foreigner. You have to be there a long time before you are accepted. There is a strict hierarchy of importance. There’s a circle of family and they will do everything to protect that. Then comes their village, followed by their island, then comes the rest of Greece and then – maybe – comes the rest of the world.”
Whatever their true thoughts on visitors, the islanders are obviously doing something right. Visitor numbers to Greece continue to rise – partly thanks to the government’s reaction to the financial crisis. Competition on ferry routes has been encouraged and taxes on hotels have been lowered making the cost of an island-hopping trip as cheap as ever – but the growing numbers of visitors have also lead to accusations that the islands are losing their unique flavour.
“People always look back with a romantic attitude and think things were better in the past. But it’s not always the case,” Yiannis tells me back in Fira. “My father had a hotel in the 1970s and there was no electricity, so he had to buy his own generators. There was no water, so he had to dig a well. It was tougher for people living here and tougher for people visiting. Things are more organized now, the services are better than what they were, people can get here quicker, the accommodation is better quality. Pictures of Santorini hotels are on the covers of magazines the world over. And almost every hotel on the island now offers free and fast wifi. I don’t see that elsewhere. We cannot stop progress – why should we? If people want to see what they call the ‘real’ islands, just come in June or September when there are less tourists.”
One of Greece’s only nudist beaches
The alternative is to eschew the more developed isles and head instead to somewhere less famed such Schinousa, Irakleia, Koufonisi or our next destination, Antiparos. A 20-minute boat ride from Paros, it has one small village and miles of sand – including one of Greece’s only nudist beaches. Its raw beauty has attracted the like of Tom Hanks, Madonna and a host of Greek shipping magnates who have homes here but there are no large hotel groups, no all-inclusives, just a smattering of bars and just one nightclub – it’s as close to ideal as you can get.
We hire a car and drive to the other side of the island, to the secluded beach of Aghios Georgios, home to a few houses and the famed Captain Pipinos taverna, right on the sand. We dive straight into the water, its sharpness taking our breath as we wash off the dust thrown up by the dirt road approach. Then it is straight to a table covered with a disposable paper table cloth, held in place by a long piece of elastic and a couple of well-placed oil and vinegar bottles.
Octopus and red mullet, caught this morning, hang to dry in the sun. Plate upon plate arrives: huge chunks of white feta cheese, shallow-fried whitebait, mountain greens with lemon just plucked from the tree and slabs of rough-hewn homemade bread. Service is at a leisurely pace and Pipinos himself, with his peaked black cap and face lined like the cliffs of Santorini, looks every inch the old seadog as he rocks back on the heels of his chair and gives his worry beads a satisfying twirl.
Later, Chris and I sit with an ice-cold Mythos beer in the town square of the ruined Venetian castle at the heart of the village. A large oak and deep scarlet bougainvillea shade us and the clink of backgammon dice is the only sound. Americans are often derided for not having passports – yet outsiders forget the huge distances they have to travel just to explore their own country. I wonder if the Greeks’ own lack of adventurous travel is because they also have so much space of their own to explore.
“It’s true,” Chris says. “We don’t travel that much. Greeks might go to a European capital – London or Paris – for weekend shopping but we don’t go to many other places. I can flee Athens whenever I want and be on a beach in a matter of hours. I can come for a night or for the weekend – or I can make my summer holidays here. I can see one, two or ten islands over the course of a few weeks. Why would I want to go anywhere else when I live in the most beautiful place in the world?”