A holiday in Greece conjures up images of idyllic islands, long sandy beaches, sun-bleached ruins and turquoise blue sea. But with miles and miles of mainland coastline and over 1,000 islands (no one is really sure how many there are – even those numbers vary), of which 227 are inhabited, how do you find the ideal holiday destination?
First, the islands. The Argo-Saronic archipelago, including most people’s favourite, tiny Hydra, with its chic boutique hotels occupying restored neo-classical mansions, and Aegina, with its pistachio orchards, lies the closest to Athens. The Cyclades, of which the most popular are Santorini and Mykonos, tend to be rocky and arid, and are known for their iconic whitewashed cubic buildings. Santorini and Mykonos are Greece’s most commercial and expensive islands, and also home to the highest concentration of five-star hotels, attracting international travellers in search of glitz and luxury, while smaller islands such as Antiparos and Koufonissi are more off-beat and restful.
On the far side of the Aegean, close to Turkey, the Dodecanese are scattered around Rhodes, with its hauntingly beautiful medieval old town, and diminutive Patmos, with its timeless monasteries, while the low-key pine-scented Sporades include Skiathos.
The lesser-visited Northeast Aegean islands centre on Mytilini (aka Lesbos), where anise-flavoured ouzo comes from, and Chios, with its medieval villages and mastic trees. The biggest Greek island, Crete, stands on its own, rising proudly from the Libyan Sea and facing towards North Africa. Its main entry points are Heraklion and Chania.
The only islands that are not accessible by boat from Piraeus are the lush green Ionian islands, with most people’s favourite being Corfu. The Ionians tend to be favoured by British holiday makers (and Italians in August), and cover a broad spectrum from the budget to the luxury markets. They also have some outstanding beaches.
Back on the mainland, the Peloponnese is all about rugged mountains, fertile valleys and several outstanding archaeological sites, such as Ancient Corinth, Ancient Olympia and Epidaurus – the latter lies close to Nafplion, which many Greeks consider their most beautiful and romantic city.
To the south of the Peloponnese, Kalamata (where the olives come from), lies close to the Mani, a rugged peninsula with windswept villages of old stone cottages, some of which have been restored as holiday homes.
Northern Greece, which centres on Thessaloniki, is popular with holidaymakers from Bulgaria and Serbia, who stay at the big modern seaside resorts on Chalkidiki, close to the monasteries of Mount Athos (which occupy a separate peninsula).
When to go
Wherever you go, you are more or less guaranteed warm, sunny days and balmy nights from June through to September. Like other Mediterranean countries, Greece sees its peak tourist season in the hottest months, July and August. If you want to avoid the crowds, and the heat, try to visit in June or September, when the sea is warm enough to swim, the hotels and restaurants open for business, but the locals not too fazed by the onslaught of holiday makers.