Telegraph presents the 19 best Greek islands, whether you’re looking for sandy beaches, unspoiled island life or history and culture:
Best for beaches – Zakynthos
The Ionian Islands can’t be beaten for sandy beaches backed by dramatic coastlines. Myrtos Beach on Kefalonia and Porto Katsiki on Lefkada are among the most photogenic, but Shipwreck Bay on Zakythos, only accessible by boat, trumps them both – even if it does get a bit crowded. “Visitors to Zakynthos should avoid the boozy corners of the south coast and stick to the beautiful, unspoilt north and mountainous west of the island,” says Telegraph Travel’s Joanna Symons. “Or base yourself on the pine-forested Vasilikos peninsula in the south-east, most of which has been protected from large-scale development because of the loggerhead turtles that breed on Gerakas beach.” Gerakas itself is “a perfect curve of golden sand”, she adds. “Those turtles know how to pick a good spot.”
Best for families – Corfu
“If I could give a child a gift, I’d give him my childhood,” said Gerald Durrell, the author and conservationist, shortly before his death in 1995 – a ringing endorsement for Corfu , where the Durrells spent four years from 1935-39. Much has changed since then, but away from the excesses of Kavos in the south, you’ll still find idyllic, sleepy spots. “Tourist development is quarantined on certain coastal patches, and once inland you really seem to be on another island, even another era,” says Marc Dubin, our Corfu expert.
Best for history and culture – Delos
The birthplace of Apollo, according to mythology, Delos boasts some of the most extensive remains from the golden Hellenistic age (and earlier) of classical Greece. The entire island – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – consists of ruins, which have been systematically unearthed since 1872, including temples, statues, mosaics and a theatre. It is not possible to stay on the island, visitors arrive by boat from nearby Mykonos.
Best for hotels – Mykonos
Greek hotels have a reputation for being rustic – not so on trendy Mykonos , which has some of the most stylish boutique properties around. Marc Dubin, our Greece expert, recommends Cavo Tagoo , near Hóra. “Built atop an abandoned quarry in 1985 by owner-architect Paris Liakos, then renovated thoroughly in 2007, this ‘barefoot chic’ complex set the standard for all the cutting-edge lodging that followed,” he says.
Best for food – Crete
Crete’s southerly location gives it the longest growing season in Greece. It produces a surfeit of edible goods – you’ll even find avocados and bananas. Marc Dubin says: “Crete has figured prominently in the revival in Greek cuisine, drawing on such local ingredients as flavoured rusks, fresh or cured meats, wild edible weeds and of course rakí or tsikoudiá, the famous local distilled clear spirits made from grape pressings in October.”
Best for wine – Kefalonia
There’s wonderful wine to be quaffed in Crete and Santorini, but we’re plumping for Kefalonia , whose Robola winery is responsible for the tipple of choice of drunken Father Arsenios in Louis de Bernières’ classic novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Best for peace and quiet – Koufonissia
Jane Foster’s pick is hidden away between the larger Cycladic islands of Naxos and Amorgos. “Koufonissia (plural) is made up of two tiny islets, Ano Koufonissi (Upper Koufonissi) and Kato Koufonissi (Lower Koufonissi), which are separated by a 200-metre sea channel,” she says. “While Kato Koufonissi remains uninhabited, Ano Koufonissi, with its whitewashed Cycladic cottages, has a buzzing little community of 366. Locals live mainly from fishing – it is claimed that there are more boats than residents – there are no real roads and hardly any cars, so everyone either walks or cycles. Before 1980, there was no electricity either, and it is only over the last decade that Koufonissi has become a popular escape with Athenians in search of an unpretentious and inexpensive summer holiday. It’s much loved by yachters too, who moor up their sailing boats along the seafront, to unwind after visiting the noisier and glitzier islands of Santorini and Mykonos.”
Best for eco-warriors – Hydra
Hydra, which shot to fame in 1957 as location for Boy on a Dolphin, starring Sophia Loren, “remains endearingly time-warped,” says Marc Dubin. “As a listed architectural reserve, all new construction is (theoretically) banned, and it’s blissfully free of motor vehicles except for a few miniature rubbish trucks – photogenic donkeys (or mules) do most of the haulage. The clip-clop of the beasts’ hooves on marble pavement and their drovers’ cries are very much part of the soundtrack here.”
Best for hiking – Andros
There are wonderful walks all over mountainous Andros, the most northerly of the Cyclades. John Gimlette, a regular contributer to Telegraph Travel, recalls a trip back in 2000 : “We marched along ancient pavements bounded by massive stone-panelled walls. We stumbled into orange groves or splashed along streams colonised by terrapins and operatic frogs. Then we climbed into great, crackle-dry valleys, home only to pine martens. Finally, we clambered up through almond groves and mulberry forests to the Panachrantos monastery. Once, 300 monks had lived here, but only two remained, living in a state of blissful decrepitude. They collected our donations in a Roman centurion’s skull, but never thrilled to our presence.”
Best for couples – Symi
Santorini is a strong contender, but Symi gets our vote. It has one of the most picturesque harbours in the country, crowded with pastel-coloured houses, bars, tavernas and chic boutiques, and dozens of tiny beaches accessible only by boat. Francesca Syz calls it a “rugged gem with a harbour of crumbling neoclassical mansions. It offers a wonderful local experience and some of the best food on the Greek islands.”
Best for alternatives – Skyros
Skyros, the most remote and undeveloped of the Sporades Islands, is a hotspot for holistic holidays. Telegraph Travel’s Sophie Butler recommends Atsitsa Bay, which offers yoga, sailing, life-coaching, music, sketching, painting, singing, dancing and various drop-in activities.
Best for traditional island life – Karpathos
“Karpathos – midway between Rhodes and Crete – has been in and out of the holiday brochures for years and never quite hit the big-time,” explains Robin Gauldie. “As a result, it’s a haven for peace-seekers, with pretty beaches and coves (some accessible only by boat), good walking in dramatic scenery, and quirky villages.”
Best for villas (and monasteries) – Skopelos
On a Greek island holiday, cool, stone-floored villas are infinitely preferable to hotels. Skopelos, the setting for the film adaptation of Mamma Mia!, has some wonderful options. Telegraph Travel’s Oliver Smith suggests Villa Aetoma, a 10-minute drive from Skopelos Town, and bookable through Ionian & Aegean Island Holidays . Skopelos is also known for its monasteries. There are dozens scattered around the island, including perhaps 10 on Mount Palouki, on the south-east corner of the island. They make for a perfect ecclesiastical crawl — what more innocent, life-affirming activity could there be?
Best for views – Santorini
Kastellorizo, Greece’s easternmost island, is utterly gorgeous, but it’s hard to look beyond Santorini . “It’s best approached by sea,” says Marc Dubin. “As your arriving craft manoeuvres over the impossibly midnight blue waters of the caldera, the sheer lava cliffs of the caldera lip, layered in varicoloured rock, loom overhead, with white houses on top like a dusting of snow. It’s one of the spectacles of the Med, as is the reverse practice of staring out over the caldera waters from up top – something not lost on the strangely assorted clientele of honeymooners, cruise-ship patrons and backpackers.”
Best for Bond fans – Nisyros
Several Greek islands have found fame thanks to film – including Skopelos (Mamma Mia!) and Amorgos (The Big Blue). James Bond fans should head for Nisyros, however, whose spectacular volcano appeared in Moonraker.
Best for gay travellers – Lesbos
The word lesbian is derived from the birthplace of the poet Sappho, noted for the expressed affection for women in her work. Subsequently the island, and the town of Eresos, where she was born, are popular with gay travellers. The island has an abundance of good beaches and restaurants, says Marc Dubin. “The best of the former, on the south-facing coast, are Skala Eressou (which is a full-on resort) and Vaterá, which is much quieter,” he says. “Good restaurants are scattered across the island; some of my favourites are Ouzeri Ermis, in the Epano Skala district of the main town, Mytilini; Baluhanas, in Perama, on the Gulf of Gera; the central taverna in Petri hamlet, near Molyvos; and the long-running Captain’s Table, in Molyvos itself.” Mykonos has also long been one of the premier Mediterranean resorts for gay travellers.
Best for nightlife – Rhodes
Kos, Corfu and Mykonos all stand out in this regard, but we’ll plump for Rhodes . The resort of Faliraki has a bad reputation, but things are infinitely more refined in Rhodes Town. “Head to the fast-changing old-quarter bars around Platía Aríonos and along Miltiádou”, suggests Marc Dubin.
Best for watersports – Lefkada
Large bays and consistently blustery winds attract droves of sailors and windsurfers to Lefkada, with the coastal towns of Vassiliki and Nydri popular spots for hiring boats and boards. The island has plenty more to recommend it, from its glorious beaches to its sleepy interior – the gorgeous former capital of Karya is a particular highlight.
Best for religious history – Patmos
“Tradition (and Friedrich Hölderlin’s famous 1802 poem “Patmos”) asserts that St John the Evangelist (O Theologos in Greek) penned the New Testament’s Book of Revelations on Pátmos just after 95AD,” says Marc Dubin. “Though lately scholars reckon he was a completely different individual than the author of one of the four Gospels. A millennium later, the monk Khristodoulos founded the imposing fortified monastery of the saint on the island’s summit.” This monastery is the main attraction on the island, and lends it a “palpably spiritual atmosphere”, but there are also excellent beaches, arty boutiques and wonderful views to lure holidaymakers.
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