For arty types (and Leonard Cohen fans): Hydra
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An island of the Argosaronic group of islands that also includes Aegina and Spetses, Hydra is special for several reasons. First: it’s located in very close proximity to Athens – approximately an hour-and-a-half by fast ferry – which makes it very popular with Athenians. Second, cars are completely banned. Donkeys (there are about 500 of them) are the chosen mode of transport and this has helped preserve the traditional rhythms of the island as well as the narrow cobbled laneways. The island is a favourite of celebrities and, of course, the late, great Leonard Cohen, who bought a house in Hydra in 1960 at the age of 26 for the princely sum of $1500. He played his first concert in a Hydra restaurant courtyard and wrote some of his best-known songs here.
For history buffs: Delos
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This tiny island, located a short ferry ride from Mykonos in the middle of the Cyclades, is the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis in Greek mythology and a place of religious pilgrimage for ancient Ionians. It’s positively littered with incredible archaeological remains including the Temple of the Delians, dedicated to Apollo; the House of Dionysus, a private home built for a wealthy Delian in the second century; and the majestic Terrace of the Lions, pictured, built in honour of Apollo by the people of Naxos before 600BC. There were originally up to 12 of the beasts carved from marble; seven remain today.
For endless beaches: Naxos
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The largest of the Cycladic islands, Naxos is ringed by idyllic golden beaches and pristine sandy coves. Its main town, Hóra, is a labyrinthine collection of steep cobbled laneways packed with shops, restaurants and bars, but rent a moped and you’ll find plenty of small, sleepy villages. Likewise, within minutes you’ll find a stretch of perfect beach to yourself, if that’s what you’re after. Others have beach clubs with bars, restaurants and accommodation; still others offer water sports and beach horse riding. If your sunburn gets the better of you, spend some time exploring Naxos’ ancient past (abandoned marble carvings can be found in ancient quarries and Portara, an enormous marble gate, stands on a tiny island connected to Naxos by walkway), sampling its famous Kitron liqueur and exploring tiny mountain villages.
For discovering hidden secrets: Milos
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Milos hasn’t been developed for tourism as much as other Greek islands; its ground is full of obsidian and other minerals and, as a result, mining has been the primary industry here. Volcanic activity has blessed the island with incredible rock formations and underwater caves to explore; there are 80 gorgeous beaches; and Milos is home to the mysterious Catacombs of Trypiti, considered the most important early Christian monument in Greece. There are also numerous natural hot-springs (Hippocrates recommended them for dermatitis and obesity), and the island is criss-crossed with ancient walking paths that often lead to secluded beaches. The island’s towns are picturesque, too: don’t miss the cute, colourful waterfront fisherman’s houses known as syrmata. In some of those houses it’s even possible for visitors to stay.
For traditional villages: Tinos
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Close to Delos and Mykonos, Tinos is home to 50 villages, each with a distinct appeal. Tourist ferries on their way to Mykonos stop at Tinos; often the only people to disembark are pilgrims visiting some of the holiest Christian shrines in Greece (there are more than 1000 churches here). Visitors who do choose to get off in Tinos are rewarded with an intriguing Greek island. Tinos possesses some of the most beautiful examples of Cycladic architecture and its villages are connected by well-kept walking paths. Of course, there are perfect white-sand beaches, but if you’re finished at the beach after a brief basting in the sun and a dip, Tinos offers lots to explore, such as the village of Volax, set among huge granite boulders, where basket-weavers and their workshops can be visited; Dyo Choria, with its white-stone houses and narrow, covered alleyways decorated with colourful flowers; and Pyrgos, a town of marble workers who have adorned the streets with marble arches, churches and fountains.
For oenophiles: Paros
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A 13th-century Venetian castle stands watch over Parikia, the main village of the Cycladic island of Paros. Beneath it, in tavernas and bars, locals and visitors alike enjoy the fruits of the Parian vineyards in the form of monemvasia, a white wine that has been awarded an Appellation of Origin and can only come from the island. Paros is one of the oldest winemaking regions in the Mediterranean and also produces reds mandilaria and vaftra, black aidani grapes and white savatiano. Of course, Paros is much more than wine: Byzantine footpaths connect traditional villages; sun-drenched beaches offer the perfect sun-worshipper’s escape; and enchanting whitewashed alleyways are strewn with bougainvillea and dotted with little shops.
For excellent tavernas: Sifnos
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Sifnos has a reputation for first-rate food, thanks to its most famous son Nicholas Tselementes who penned the first-ever Greek cookbook in 1910. Here, cuisine goes beyond the usual Greek salad and moussaka; tavernas serve up traditional dishes such mestélo (lamb slow-cooked with red wine and spices), manoura (local cream cheese) and Sifnos’ famous melpita or honey pie. In addition to very pleasurable dining experiences, Sifnos offers lovely locally made pottery and the requisite perfect beaches.
For Mamma Mia fans: Skopelos
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This North Aegean island played the role of the fictional Kalkairi in the Meryl Streep musical and its beauty has inspired many an ABBA fan’s pilgrimage. The cast and crew stayed at the charming Skopelos Village Hotel with its pretty courtyard redolent of jasmine, just a short stroll to the port. Whitewashed churches, a picturesque harbour and quaint cobbled towns are reasons to visit even if you’re not beside yourself about the rumoured Mamma Mia sequel.
For worshippers of Dionysus: Skyros
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Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, winemaking, grape-growing, ritual madness and fertility – they’re all linked, right? The cult of Dionysus was based on unrestrained consumption of the good grape, and today it’s still celebrated at Apokries, or Greek Carnival, every year. Skyros is an excellent place to take part in revelries: its carnival is considered one of the wildest going with bells clanging all day long, parades and locals dressed in symbolic costumes. Located in the southernmost Sporades archipelago, Skyros is the mythological hiding place of the young Achilles, who made his home among the rugged hills and pebbly shoreline. Theseus, the Minotaur slayer, died here. The island has been inhabited since ancient times: recent archaeological digs have revealed villages dating back to the Bronze Age. Diminutive Skyrian ponies, origins unknown, forage among the farms – it’s been suggested they’re descendants of Greek cavalry from the fifth century AD.
For aesthetes: Symi
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To be fair, this label applies to pretty much every turquoise-girt island scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas. But Symi is something special, departing as it does from Greece’s typical whitewashed, blue-roofed beauty. Drawing close to Symi’s main harbour, the scene is a riot of colour: mustard, peach, crimson and emerald neoclassical mansions rise in tiers from the harbour. Things only get better from there, with beautiful churches, historic monasteries, seaside tavernas and enticing coves to explore.
For night owls: Mykonos
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The normally sleepy Greek islands undergo a dramatic personality change in summer (June-August), and nowhere is this more apparent than Mykonos, where open-air nightclubs like Cavo Paradiso and trendy harbourside bars such as Jackie O’ buzz with celebrities, wannabe-models and hardcore hedonists. If you don’t have your own superyacht, book a VIP suite at the chic Grace Hotel.
For romantics: Santorini
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There isn’t a more enchanting vista in Greece than the one from Oia, a gorgeous clifftop village on volcanic Santorini. Sunsets are especially beautiful, but the crowds are intense, so enjoy your own private viewing from a Jacuzzi at Oia Castle, a former fortress turned luxury hotel.
For literary fans: Kefalonia
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Louis de Bernières’ tragic love story, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, played out on Kefalonia, with mesmerising Myrtos beach among the locations featured in the novel (and the movie adaptation starring Nicolas Cage). It’s a 30-minute drive from Fiscardo, a quaint village home to the stylish Emelisse Art Hotel.
For active types: Crete
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Travellers venturing inland from Crete’s bustling beachside resorts are rewarded with magnificent mountain scenery and spectacular hiking routes, including Samaria Gorge. Enjoy post-walk pampering sessions at Elia Hotel and Spa, a converted farmhouse sitting amid olive groves.
For gastronomes: Corfu
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Delectable restaurants and bistros jam the pretty, cobbled streets of the city of Corfu, but it’s the out-of-town tavernas that often linger in the memory. On Corfu’s east coast, Boukari Beach has a cult following thanks to its feta-stuffed squid and grilled lobster and octopus. They rent villas and apartments here, too.
For culture vultures: Rhodes
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Roam the medieval fortifications of Rhodes’ UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town and delve into atmospheric alleys sprinkled with museums, galleries and boutiques. Bed down in the Spirit of the Knights hotel, in a building once occupied by Christian crusaders and Ottoman soldiers.
For young travellers: Ios
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Australian backpackers (and flashpackers) love Ios, an hour’s ferry ride from Santorini. By night, they bar hop through the higgledy-piggledy lanes of the tiny capital, Hora. By day, they recuperate in the sapphire waters off Mylopotas beach; above which nestles the swanky Ios Palace Hotel & Spa.
For spiritual types: Amorgos
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Just east of Ios, Amorgos is blessed with the Monastery of Hozoviotissa, a whitewashed stunner embedded in a sheer cliff. Climb a fleet of stone stairs and you can mingle with the monks in the building’s cave-like, incense-scented interior. Less spartan is Aegialis Hotel & Spa, a five-star retreat near Amorgos’ snug little port.
For luxe travellers: Spetses
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Wealthy Athenians have long flocked to this affluent island, where you can enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides and languid seafront strolls. The iconic Poseidonion Grand Hotel is the place to stay. Dating back to 1914, it’s a whirl of old-world glamour with funky new additions; think Greek-Japanese fusion cuisine and organic spa treatments.
For sun-lovers: Zakynthos
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The Ionian collection of islands, located west of Greece, were once under Venetian rule, and they retain a distinctly Italian flavour. Zakynthos, the third-largest of this group, is known for its crystal waters where visitors swim with sea turtles and snorkel in underwater caves. The north and west of Zakynthos are the places for the unspoilt white-sand-clear-water beaches of your dreams. Navagio, or Shipwreck Beach, is the most famous beach on the island, the perfect curve adorned with the rusting hull of the MV Panagiotis, which ran aground there in 1980. Reachable only by boat, the beach is hemmed by sheer limestone cliffs and little else – BYO picnic.