There are some 6,000 Greek islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas, only 227 of them inhabited. Each and every one is worth your while, although some are more difficult to get to than others. Don’t know where to start? Well, the answer depends on what you are looking for. Greece is a synonym for idyllic beaches, whitewashed villages and ancient ruins, and you are bound to find these just about anywhere. But if it’s adventure you want, look no further than the Greek islands.
To get the most out of Greek hospitality in between island hopping, opt for an all-inclusive holiday. I personally recommend spring or fall, when nature is booming and puts on a mesmerizing show, and it’s not as crowded as in summer. Oh, and make sure you do your homework and read The Iliad or The Odyssey before venturing off, or at least bring them along.
Sailing the Cyclades
According to Greek mythology, Poseidon, god of the sea, was furious at the Cyclade nymphs and turned them into islands. Their name now refers to the circle they form in the South Aegean Sea. There are about 220 islands in the Cyclades, from Andros to the north, with its naval tradition, Mykonos, Santorini, Naxos and Paros, the most popular of the group, all the way to the lesser-known oak forests of Kea, thermal springs of Kythnos, Milos with its volcanic landscape, and the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis on Delos, all drenched in mythology. What better way to explore their rugged coasts, gulfs, remote beaches and crystal-blue waters than by sailing them?
Most of the Cyclades can easily be reached by ferry from Athens‘ port, Piraeus. Set sail from Paros or Mykonos in the center of the group, and work your way around the islands.
Mountain biking in Crete
Mountain biking can be practiced just about anywhere in Greece, as the scenery never lacks spectacular views. Yet one of the most popular biking destination in the country happens to be an island. Crete, home of the gods, is the second largest island in the eastern Mediterranean.
With its mountainous landscape and countless historical sites, home of the once mighty Minoan civilization, offers everything you might dream of encountering — a welcoming Mediterranean climate, pine forests, tranquil fishing villages and excellent views of the sea against the backdrop of the towering Mount Ida (2,456 m/8,057 ft), the highest on the island. Rethymo region alone has 22 bike routes and counting. Road cyclists too will be delighted to find that the old coastal roads are now almost car free, thanks to the recently inaugurated highways.
The Cyclades, with their secret beaches, hidden caves, water-washed rocky coastline and remote islets are among the world’s top sea kayaking destinations. Start from Naxos, with its sea caves on the southern coast, or Milos, with its unique volcanic coastline. From here, you can paddle your way from one island to the other for days in a row, snorkeling, swimming, visiting ancient ruins and getting a nice tan in between sessions.
Kefalonia, the largest of the Ionian islands, is a great starting point for kayaking these waters. Paddle along the remote coasts covered in cypress trees and pay a visit to the legendary Ithaca island, homeland of mythological Odysseus.
While we’re at it, it’s worth mentioning Melissani Cave on the eastern coast of Kefalonia, also known as Cave of the Nymphs, a lacustrine cave that can be visited by rowboat or kayak. Inside the large underground chamber, the collapsed roof sends sun rays down the surface of the shimmering blue-green water of the lagoon.
Rock climbing in Kalymnos
The island of Kalymnos, part of the Dodecanese chain in the heart of the Aegean, is one of the world’s best rock climbing spots, with high-quality limestone home to three-dimensional routes. With orange-colored crags and caves as far as the eye can see, some 2,000 sport routes and counting, the island seems as if on fire each time the sun sets over the neighboring islets. In a laid-back atmosphere, surrounded by sheer Mediterranean beauty, with excellent weather all year round, there is something for all tastes and levels, from short, powerful routes to incredibly long, pumping ones, from slabs to fiercely overhanging lines.
It’s a no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway. Greece is a scuba diving paradise. The crystal-clear waters of the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas are filled with rare species of fish, shipwrecks, underwater cities and relics, with Santorini, Naxos, Paros, Mykonos, Crete, Corfu, Zakynthos as world-class diving hotspots.
With such variety, there’s always something new to be found and done. Take Crete for example, with its remarkable visibility of up to 40 meters (130 feet). Some of the highlights: the underwater El Greco Cave, with stunning stalagmites and stalactites and even an air-filled chamber, the wreck of the WWII German fighter plane Messerschmitt, with its cockpit, wings and fuselage still intact, and of course the underwater valleys of Daedalos with their colorful marine wildlife.
Windsurfing the waters of Naxos
Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades, and it is right in the middle of them, which makes it an excellent location, the Meletemi wind striking in summer months. One of the most popular spots is Laguna Beach Park, its shallow water just perfect for beginners. Seasoned windsurfers can venture deeper into the lagoon for more challenging currents.
Other spectacular spots are Prossoniss, on the southwest tip of Rhodos Island. Paros island hosted several Professional Windsurfing Association World Cups, which pretty much says it all.
Canyoning on Samothraki Island
Canyoning is a relatively new sport, but it is gaining ground rapidly thanks to the various and complex adrenaline-pumping activities it involves. It can be practiced just about anywhere there’s a canyon, steep river course or gorge. Thanks to its varied landscape, Greece has what it takes to become one of the world’s premiere canyoning destinations, the small and lesser-known Samothraki island being a rocky paradise that hardly ever sees any crowds.
Waterfalls diving straight into the Aegean, long and thrilling canyons ending straight on the beach, tall cascades, long slides, deep pools, and spectacular rappels, most of the island is reserved for experienced canyoneers only. But there are some beginner-friendly ones too, and a few schools on the island that can show you the basics. The highlights: Gria Vathra is the longest slide, falling into a large natural pool, the Fonias River ends with a rappel down a waterfall down into a lake, while Kremastos is a 210-meter (700 feet) cascade falling right into the sea.
Laid-back walking tours
Greek islands pretty much showcase the same scenery — ancient trails passing along olive groves, quiet villages, vineyards, orchards and ruins. And each of these routes has its unique charm. Samos Island, birthplace of mathematician Pythagoras, is best explored by foot, as its highest points offer splendid views of the mountainous Turkish shores and the Dodecanese chain in the distance, passing by medieval monasteries and remote mountain villages. A hike up Vigla (1,433 m/4,701 ft), the highest peak in the Kerkis Mountains, with its Cave of Pythagoras, should not be missed.
Mount Zeus (3,290 m/1,003 ft) on Naxos island is the highest peak in the Cyclades, an excellent opportunity to reconnect with mythology and, who knows, maybe even shake hands with Zeus himself up on the top.
If it’s laid-back walking tours you want, it can’t get any better than Santorini, the quintessential Greek island, known for its volcano which buried the island’s Minoan culture in the second millennium BC, an event that might have inspired the legend of Atlantis. Its whitewashed houses perched above the blue Aegean offer some of the most spectacular sunsets you’ve ever seen. For all you helpless romantics out there, the maze-like alleys of the blue-domed village of Oia, Greece’s iconic image, will undoubtedly put a spell on you. Near Pyrgos, the former capital of the island, you can hike Profitis Ilias (567 m/1,860 ft).
It’s easy to relax on the Greek islands. After all, that’s what most tourists are looking for when they come here. Yet embarking on an epic adventure in these lands is easier than you might believe. After all, isn’t this were legendary kind of Ithaca Odysseus wandered for ten years after the Trojan War, encountering all sorts of magical realms and creatures? These stories will forever remain engraved in these islands. Whether they are mere legends or the people’s way of explaining things, we can’t help but wonder what powers and events might have given birth to such a diverse and bewitching landscape.