The island groups and mainland
Greece’s islands are strewn over two very different seas; the Aegean and the Ionian, and are grouped into “families” that share similar looks, culture, history and climate.
Whether you are planning a cruise or a villa holiday, it is well worth researching the island groups – choosing the right island is one of the most important decisions you will make. For details on individual islands, see our Island Portraits, as well as our general information.
Mykonos, Tinos, Sifnos, Syros, Serifos, Paros, Antiparos, Santorini, Kea, Andros, Koufonisia, Milos, Naxos, Amorgos (Ios, Folegandros and others)
These are the classic Greek islands of countless posters, films and postcards: White-washed villages, sugar-cube houses, blue domed churches, these islands are often the repositories of most of Greece’s best preserved island traditions and deserve their iconic status. Treeless, mountainous, barren, usually very windy in high summer, they enjoy reliable sunny weather early and late in the season. The “meltemi”, which is the prevailing north wind in high summer, can get very strong indeed. It is known as the island doctor for its bracing and cleansing effect, and it comes in three strengths: the Kapelata – blows your hat off, the Kareklata – blows chairs over, and the Trapezata – blows tables over. Not for those who don’t like rough seas, but great for keeping temperatures down and flies and mosquitoes away! There is often a main port, and then a mountain-top capital called the Chora, where picturesque old houses line cobbled, flower-filled lanes. Beaches are usually sandy, the light dazzling, the colours vibrant, and the food is good.
Mykonos and Santorini are the King and Queen of these islands. Photogenic, hip and picturesque. Late and early season are great here as the weather is calmer and there is enough life until late in the season for things to be open.
Mykonos – prices are steep, and beachfront properties there are at a premium. Mykonos is wild and parties like mad, fantastic beaches, crowds especially in August and July, great shops, bars, clubs and restaurants. Can be hard to get a deckchair or umbrella on the beach in the afternoon, or a table at a good restaurant.
Santorini – unique. Its extraordinary red crater and cliffs set in dark, deep water are the setting for dazzling white houses. Well organized to offer visitors plenty to see and do – museums, cruising, water sports, volcano tours. Small children are not usually welcomed in hotels, and there are steps everywhere. The beaches shelve deeply and do get crowded in August. Clubs, hotels and dining to suit the most sophisticated of visitors.
Antiparos – is quiet and secluded, with a cute town, some very nice beaches but not an awful lot goes on there. An island of private villas and no good hotels. Ideal for quiet, laid-back island life.
Paros – is good for sports, lots of fun villages, great sandy beaches and moderate night life etc. It is a very popular island but has retained its character.
Andros – is mountainous, windy, untouristy, and has lovely landscape and beaches.
Tinos – is quiet, devout, traditional, with Greece’s most beautiful villages and the famous intricately carved dovecotes.
Kea – is an unspoilt island with a more fertile landscape than the other Cyclades, and a lively yachting scene.
Santorini – is beautiful and has some of the best hotels in Greece – very crowded from July to September. Not for those with weak knees or mobility problems as there are steep steps everywhere and little car access! Beach life is less of a feature than the other islands, but shopping, dining and sightseeing are unrivalled.
Syros – has a famously beautiful neo-classical port with gracious buildings and interesting bars and clubs.
Sifnos – is a class act with excellent food, awareness of its heritage, pretty, tidy villages, unspoilt landscape and some good beaches.
Serifos – is very picturesque and unspoilt – not for clubbers or shoppers though!
Amorgos – is the very traditional and conservative home to the wonderful Hozoviotissa Church, extraordinary rugged and cliff-girt landscapes, and beautiful villages.
Naxos – prides itself on its thriving rural and agricultural life, supported by its fertile and mountainous landscape. The lively beach and night life happens down south close to the airport.
Koufonissia – a miniature island with a perfect blue lagoon and very good food.
PELION & MITZELLA
The Pelion is a mountainous and unspoiled peninsular on the North-west coast. Its chestnut forests and gushing mountain streams were home to the Centaurs, and Achilles was brought up on its wonderful peasant food, clear air and hard, snowy winters. Beautiful walks, picturesque villages with characteristic mountain architecture, orchards and trees, and wonderful views down the steep mountain flanks to pristine sandy beaches. Cooler nights and a shorter summer season than the islands.
Ever since Patrick Leigh Fermor made his home here in Kardamyli, pilgrims following his tracks have been rewarded with fascinating villages, unspoilt coastline and the warm welcome of the fiercely honourable and traditional locals.
DODECANESE AND SAMOS
Patmos, Samos, (Kos, Tilos, Symi, Rhodes, Kalymnos, Leros, Chios et al.)
Closer to Turkey than Greece, these islands have a long and rich history, with traces from classical Greek times through Byzantium, the Crusaders, Venetians and Ottomans. These islands lie outside the main path of the “meltemi” wind, but still enjoy some stiff breezes.
Patmos and Samos are islands where we have houses. Patmos is very atmospheric and elegant, and of course is the island of St John the Evangelist and the monastery where he received the Revelations. The mountain top Chora , is the chic place to be, with the monastery crowning it, divine views and medieval cobbled lanes, but those wanting pool and easy beach access can now find houses down on the water too.
Samos is a large and varied island with some wonderful mountain villages and lots to see. It has an airport and Ephesus is just a day trip away.
Corfu, Paxos, Levkada, Ithaca, Kefalonia, Zakinthos, (Kythira)
Gentle, fertile, mountainous and beautiful islands on the west coast of Greece facing Sicily, in the Ionian Sea, the forgotten side of Greece.
Wetter off-season than the Aegean islands, and a shorter summer season – hence the greenery!
These are the islands to go to if you don’t like the wind. The calm water and sensational swimming attract the yachters. Some sandy beaches, mostly clear, pebbly coves and limestone cliffs and grottoes. Italianate villages with tiled roofs and pastel coloured houses framed with cypresses, olive groves and pine trees. These islands were part of the Venetian empire for 400 years and have an Italianate charm that is unlike the rest of Greece.
Greek Purists do not consider these to be true Greece, as they have a definite character of their own which is not the image of sugar-cube houses and windmills that the Greek Tourist Office promotes, but they still love to come and enjoy the greenness and the fabulous swimming in crystal clear, translucent water.
The islands here are less geared to wealthy Athenians, so tavernas and shopping are rather unsophisticated.
Corfu is a large and rich island with a huge amount to see and do, especially the fabulous old Corfu Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), with its Venetian architecture , churches and fine museums, but parts of the coastline have been developed intensely. This is the most sophisticated of the Ionian islands, with some great restaurants and boutiques.
Paxos is small and chic, with beautifully preserved pastel fishing villages, and home to some very jet setting families who live a simple, low-key summer existence here. Wonderful west-coast cliffs, grottoes and beaches, and Antipaxos like a peacock blue teardrop hanging below it. Frequent access from Corfu.
Zakinthos has Greece’s most famous beach “Shipwreck Bay” and blue grottoes in the beautiful and unspoiled north of the island. The south has been definitively spoiled by airport -fuelled downmarket tourism. Luckily the two areas are completely distinct!
Kefalonia has some famously beautiful beaches, plenty to see and do, and the port of Fiscardo, considered one of Greece’s most picturesque villages.
Lefkada is emerging as a new destination as people discover its amazing kilometre long sandy beaches on the west coast with turquoise water, the pretty coves and bays of the east coast, the island archipelago (includes SKorpios), and the beauty of its rugged mountainous terrain. Architecture here is not very distinguished, but it does enjoy easy road access from the mainland and Prevesa airport.
Ithaca is harder to get to and is definitely “off” the track. Expect goat bells, mountain herbs, fishing boats in the early morning, donkeys and dogs, and some very picturesque little villages. Ithaca is sublimely beautiful and the summer-home to low key super-wealthy connoisseurs, but not for those wanting fine dining outside the house, night-life and shopping!
Kithera, closer to Crete than to the other Ionian islands, is a hybrid of Aegean and Ionian in its landscape and villages which embrace both white, cubic style and Italianate. Wonderful waters and plenty of beaches, an airport has made access here a lot easier.
ARGO-SARONIC & PORTO HELI
Hydra, Spetses, Poros, Aegina, Porto Heli, Kilada
Hydra and Spetses are hot, calm islands, historically wealthy and interesting. Lovely mansions built by 18th and 19th century merchants and sea captains cluster together on steep hillsides and water fronts, and are now weekend or summer homes to elegant Athenians and artistic foreigners. Easy access from Athens (3 hours by car and then water taxi, or 2-3 hours by frequent hydrofoil from Piraeus).
Water taxis take visitors for glorious bathing in coves and bays, but not so great for beaches. All these places are well situated for sightseeing on the mainland, such as Epidauros, Mycenae, Corinth, Nauplion, and for ease of access to Athens.
Spetses – is known as the Hamptons of Athens – easy to get to, greener and gentler than Hydra, it has always been a popular island for summer houses – relaxed but with a rather elegant social life. The island has a wonderful historical car-free town with beautiful mansions, good shopping and dining. Take advantage of the calm waters and pretty swimming coves by going on boat trips, thus avoiding the beaches which aren’t great.
Hydra – is a picture postcard, car-free island with an artist colony, (Leonard Cohen lived here) and a fine, historical town. Dominated by a great, rather barren mountain, it has very limited beach life, but residents find the easy boating, charm, beauty and style of the island more than makes up for this.
Porto Heli & Kilada – is a 6 minute water taxi ride away on the coast opposite. Not a beautiful town, but a very upmarket resort with some of the highest property values in Greece, where wealthy families have summer homes and the King of Greece vacations, so bring your jewellery and charter a yacht to go with the house! Shipping magnates congregate here with their yachts and hop between friend’s villas in Spetses and Porto Heli. Ideally placed for sightseeing on the mainland and well served for water sports.
Evia is a large, fertile, mountainous and beautiful island close to Athens and connected by a bridge as well as ferries, so great for those needing to be in touch with a city. It has a wild and windy east coast with cliffs and roller-pounded sandy beaches that are uncrowded even in August. The west coast is the calm and pebbly inland sea between Evia and Athens. The villages are pretty well post-war 1950’s onwards, and get crowded with local tourism, but prices are low and the food is excellent.
Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnissos & Skyros
Islands here are calm, green, with white houses with tiled roofs and wooden balconies. This is where Mamma Mia was filmed.
Skiathos – which has an airport, is the island here where we have houses. It is a well established tourist island with some of the finest beaches in Greece and famous pine forests as well. Rather crowded in summer, with a rather built-up coastline, fun for teenagers and people wanting a bit more zip and life than on the sleepier islands. It has a mountainous and unspoilt interior, and on the coast it buzzes all summer. Rather more genteel than Mykonos! The other islands are beautiful and unspoilt with lush forests, great beaches and pretty villages – great for cruising around as the sea is usually calm and the coast lines are tremendous.
Crete is almost a country in itself with a wealth of historical towns, archaeological sites, traditional villages, gorges, mountains and beaches. Be prepared to drive long distances to see it all. An island for luxury hotels rather than villas, we have the only sensational villa there, near Elounda Bay and wonderful Spinalonga. Visits to Knossos can be combined with a stay on Santorini, which is well connected to Crete by air and boat.