It’s official. I have fallen under the spell of the sirens’ song. Ever since my visit to the Greek islands last year, I have been plotting to return. As I sit at a traffic light, iconic island images flash across my mind: rustic windmills, ancient temples, and gleaming white villages etched against cobalt skies. Lately these daydreams have been popping up with increasing frequency, and I’m beginning to think the only cure is to go back again.
The Greek islands have enchanted travelers for many thousands of years, so it’s no wonder I find myself under their spell. It’s as if there’s a collective attachment to these islands, strewn like jewels across the sea. Maybe it’s because Greece serves as the backdrop for many of the world’s oldest myths and legends. The stories of Hercules, Achilles, and the beautiful Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships—these echo in our consciousness and, like a magnet, pull us to the islands’ rocky shores.
Choosing which Greek islands to visit can be daunting, however. Six thousand of them—remnants of volcanic eruptions that shook the region eons ago—spread across the Ionian, Aegean, and south Mediterranean seas. For our first trip there, my husband and I opt to spend our time exploring Greece’s lesser-known islands.
During our nine-day trip we choose to island hop, which requires us to think logistically about which islands will be most convenient to visit, given ferry schedules and our time constraints. One solution is to take a one-day cruise that visits three islands in the Saronic Gulf, giving us a taste of each before heading to three of the lesser known Cyclades islands for a more leisurely stay. We discover island hopping is easy and fun—the perfect way to tune into the different personalities of the islands.
A one-day cruise from the port of Piraeus is a carefree way to get a taste of the islands and gives Peter and me the chance to recover from jet lag in a relaxed setting. After spending the night at the luxurious Sofitel Athens Airport, we take an easy bus ride to the port, our luggage in tow. Light rain is forecast, but as we walk along the terminals looking for our ship, the morning sun casts a magical glow upon the colorful boats and the islands scattered n the horizon.
Olympic Cruises offers an affordable package tour, which includes lunch, entertainment, and stops at the islands of Hydra, Poros, and Aegina. Only a handful of other guests are on board, but John Balok, the manager, tells us tours are booked solid during the summer months. Peter and I are happy we’re here in the off season and, as we pull away from the shore, pretend we’re Greek shipping magnates, taking our private ship out for a morning spin.
The first island, Hydra, is postcard pretty. Almost like an amphitheater, the town encircles the port, where colorful fishing boats bob in the calm, blue water. On shore we explore the village and discover no vehicles are allowed. Instead donkeys provide the only mode of transportation. We stop in the history museum and learn about Hydra’s maritime past, including its important role in Greece’s War of Independence in 1820 when 2000 ships protected Hydra, saving it from the Ottomans. Boat models, paintings, costumes, and artifacts provide a unique glimpse into island life centuries ago.
En route to Poros we enjoy a shipboard lunch of delicious dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice in a lemony sauce), Greek salad, and chicken with garlic and paprika. On Poros, we only have time for quick hike up to a clock tower, where a spectacular view awaits. At the top, an old Greek woman sits on a rock enjoying the breeze. We greet each other with the Greek word for hello: “Yassus” and share the beauty of the moment.
On the last island Aegina we take a taxi with another couple and head up to a temple called the Sanctuary of Aphaia. She was a fertility deity who, according to legend, hid on the island to escape the amorous advances of Minos. Worship on the site dates to 1300 BC, and the ruins of three temples have been discovered. The surviving temple was built in 500 BC and sits on a hill with a sweeping view of the nearby mainland.
Sunsets in the Greek islands are extraordinary, and as the cruise ship prepares to depart to return to Piraeus, I am entranced by the colors all around me. I walk around the port taking photos of the town, mirrored in the silvery water. Then I turn to photograph the wooden boats painted in primary colors that seem to glow in the warmth of the setting sun. Finally I point my camera to the sunset itself framed by a nearby island. Peter’s whistle interrupts my hunt for the perfect sunset photo, and I hurry back to the ship as our first day in the Greek islands winds down.
We stay in the busy port city of Piraeus at the Hotel Savoy that night and, after a great breakfast, board the Blue Star ferry for our journey through the Cyclades. The four-hour ferry ride passes pleasantly and, besides playing a few cards and munching on some snacks we picked up in Piraeus, Peter and I are content to sit and watch the islands pass by. As an English major, I have to confess that I am thrilled to be cruising the same waters as Odysseus and Agamemnon.
As we approach Paros, I remember John telling us it’s always better to arrive to the Greek islands by boat. “Too many people fly to an island and miss the experience of approaching by boat,” he said. It is exciting to watch Paroika, the capital of Paros, draw nearer and before we know it we are on land, just a few steps away from the Oasis Hotel, our home for the next two nights, where we drop off our bags and commence sightseeing.
One of Paros’ most-visited sites is the Holy Shrine of Ekatontapiliani, or the Church of the Hundred Doors. Located right next to the elementary school in Paroika, the church was restored in the 1960s and is an architectural marvel, incorporating components dating back to the 4th century, like an ancient baptismal font. Nearby the Paros Archaeological Museum is a treasure trove of ancient Greek art and artifacts. In the courtyard we admire a mosaic of Hercules performing his labors and inside a Cycladic sculpture called the Fat Lady, said to the first sculpted human figure, dating to 5000 BC. A winged creature, she clutches a snake in her left hand and looks frightening. Our guide, Babis, admits he used to have nightmares about this creature when he was a boy.
Babis, who grew up on Paros, also describes climbing on the ancient sarcophagi which lie under the trees outside the museum. We marvel at these marble monuments inscribed with Greek writing and historic scenes. Another important site on Paros is the Ancient Marble Quarry, where we meet a wonderful man named Tassos, who lives nearby. He’s putting the finishing touches on a wooden donkey saddle and happily leaves his task to show us the quarry and his modest homestead. He doesn’t speak any English, but Babis translates, and we get a glimpse of what life is like for the islanders.
Paros marble is known for its translucent quality, giving it an ethereal glow. Famous statues like Venus of Milos and temples on the nearby island of Delos are made with this special marble. As we leave, Tassos gives me a lovely round piece of marble about the size of a quarter as well as some tasty dried figs. His gesture of kindness doesn’t need words.
Of course, the Greek islands are known for their beaches, and Paros has countless stretches of shoreline for sun worshippers, as well as secluded bays. Babis tells us that Paros is a Mecca for wind-surfers and kite-surfers. Fishing, hiking, biking, and horseback riding are among the other activities the island offers.
On our last night, we join Babis at a local club to hear rebetika, a style of folk music using traditional instruments like the bouzouki. It reminds me of the Portuguese fado style of music with a bit of Turkish influence. Apparently rebetika is quite popular as the café is packed with happy faces.
Naxos, the next island we visit, is a short ferry ride away. It’s the largest of the Cyclades, but the Chora or Old Town, located at the port, is cozy and quaint. We drop our bags at the Hotel Xenia and start exploring. As we stand in front of a tourist sign, a man on a moped pulls up and asks if we need help. Turns out Demitris works for the Naxos tourism department and asks us if we need a guide. How perfect!
Unlike many of the smaller Cycladic islands, Naxos has a thriving economy thanks to its size, climate, and fertile soil. The island produces everything from olive oil to potatoes renowned for their flavor, as well as livestock. Tourism is also an important part of the island economy, and Naxos has a number of ancient sites and beautiful beaches.
Demitris takes us to the Temple of Dionysus in Yria, which is actually the site of four temples, each built on the ruins of the previous one. Not much remains of the last temple, only a few foundation stones, but a small museum at the site offers a glimpse of the temple’s former glory. Further inland in Sangri, we visit the Temple of Demeter in a beautiful valley surrounded by farms and mountains. Partially restored in the 1990s, this temple dates to the 6th century BC and seems a fitting tribute to the island’s fertile lands.
Naxos is also known for its kouros, or larger-than-life stone figures, which also date to the 6th century BC. Some say these kouros were created to honor Dionysus. We pay homage to one in a lush grove of trees, who looks as if he’s sleeping. Demitris shows us an ancient olive press and then its modern counterpart, an olive oil factory where the employees, who are on break, pull up extra chairs and hand us pieces of bread to dip in their golden elixir, freshly pressed in the huge modern press nearby. So delicious—like liquid sunshine.
Eating Greek food is one of the best parts of traveling to the Greek islands. Peter and I find a waterfront restaurant in Naxos we like so much we eat there twice, ordering the same dish both times because it’s so good: grilled lamb kebabs and fries with a large Greek salad on the side and an extra portion of garlicky tzatziki. Prices are affordable here, and you can’t beat the view of Paros across the narrow strait that separates the islands.
Our last day we visit the Venetian castle in the center of the Old Town and meet the owner, whose ancestry traces back to a period when the Cyclades were under Venetian rule. Nikkos, the owner showed us around the 800-year-old castle, which is now a museum. In summer concerts are held on an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea or, when storms threaten, in a room that once held prisoners, where amazing acoustics ensure a memorable musical experience.
But my favorite memory of Naxos is our evening treks to the Temple of Apollo, which sits by the harbor. It’s also called Apollo’s Window because the part that’s left standing looks like a window. If you visit in summer, you can watch the sun set right through the window, but Peter and I are happy to watch the sun set wherever it wants from this magical spot on Naxos.
CONNECTED TO HISTORY
Ios, the third island we visit, is known for its tremendous views, but as luck would have it our visit is marred by wind and rain. So instead we focus on the archaeological offerings on Ios, such as Skarkos, a prehistoric site currently being excavated. Set on the crown of a hill, the site is circular in shape—its name means escargot—and dates to the 2nd-century BC. A museum in the nearby village displays some of the artifacts from Skarkos, including figurines, clay vases, and jewelry.
After we explore Skarkos, Billy, our guide, takes us to a breathtaking overlook, where a beautiful stage fans out below. Modeled after ancient Greek amphitheaters, the open-air theater hosts plays and concerts in the summer months. The picturesque chora, or old town, of Ios wraps around a nearby mountain, its buildings painted white as snow. Here restaurants and shops sit side by side with homes and businesses. Billy says in the summer months, the town is packed, but during our visit it’s quiet and peaceful.
Billy takes us down a long winding road on the north side of the island to one more must-see site on Ios: Homer’s grave. While conclusive evidence has yet to prove that the famed poet is actually buried here, legend has it that Homer’s tomb is here on the island of his mother’s birth. It’s a remote windy spot, and to get to the burial site, we walk down a dirt path past scrubby bushes. As we approach the site, cairns, or small piles of stones, dot the landscape, left no doubt by pilgrims honoring the ancient Greek poet whose epic poems continue to influence writers and artists to this day.
I think that’s what makes the Greek islands so alluring, especially the lesser-known ones. In these places, the past and present intermingle, like the land and the sea. Far away from the commercial world of big box stores and fast-food restaurants, surrounded by some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, it’s easy to appreciate the allure of nature, the beauty of a sunset, the taste of delicious food. I think the Greek islands offer us a chance to be in the moment and at the same time connected to history, to what is and what has been.
But I must warn you. Once you visit the Greek islands, you will fall under their spell and want to return. I’m counting the days.