Last Summer I rekindled my love affair with the Greek Islands after a break of almost 20 years! Greece had been the package holiday destination of choice for my family back in the 1980s. I also spent a few girlie summer holidays there in my student era. It was probably my last alcohol fuelled trip to Zakynthos during that period that put pay to my love affair in the first place!!! When I was planning last year’s holiday, I had a longing for the laid back holidays of my childhood. The draw of the crystal clear waters, sun kissed beaches and whitewashed buildings of the islands was enough. Coupled with the fabulous local cuisine, my mind was made up….. I would return to Greece! Not being one to want to lie in the same place for a fortnight, I decided upon visiting multiple islands. I had ‘island hopped’ with friends during the Summer of 1997, so had some experience of this type of holiday. So the planning began…..
There are many Greek Islands, with something to suit everybody. I was travelling with my Mum and two sons (aged 10 & 4), so was looking to experience relaxed, family friendly beach resorts with a touch of culture and sightseeing thrown in. So the first thing to decide upon was….. which islands? There are various groups of islands and you need to consider things like ferry connections. How long these take and how frequently they run. I decided upon the Cyclades islands (of which there are 220!) as there are good ferry connections and a variety of different island types, where I knew I would find something to satisfy the four of us.
The first thing I looked into was which of the Cyclades had airports that accommodated flights from the UK. It seemed to be only Santorini (the most Instagrammable) or Mykonos (the celebrity magnet). I decided upon Santorini as it is a destination on most peoples bucket lists, and although I had previously visited, my Mum hadn’t. I decided that we would return to the UK from a different airport, to save us going back on ourselves, so I booked flights back from Heraklion in Crete. (Flights for this trip were booked with Thomas Cook, who have now ceased trading. Other airlines do fly to these islands). The other option to consider when island hopping, is to fly in and out of Athens and either take the ferry from Pireaus or catch a connecting flight to one of the islands. This would give you more choice of islands to start at, and you could always tag a few days in Athens onto your itinerary.
The next thing I planned was which of the Cyclades we would visit and for how long. I researched which of the islands were good for families and how well connected they were by ferries. I decided upon Santorini, Naxos, Paros in the Cyclades, with a week in Crete at the end. Santorini to Naxos is approximately 1 hour 15 minutes by ferry. Naxos to Paros is approximately 45 minutes. Paros to Crete takes approximately 4 hours 30 minutes. There are different types of ferries. These trips were some of the fastest. There are even quicker journeys between some of the islands via catamarans or longer journeys via car ferries. In the Summer these routes were running daily, sometimes several times a day. It is worth checking the ferry timetables if you are going to visit less well known islands. I booked all ferry crossings via http://www.ferryhopper.com. I did this at least 6 months prior to travel, as we were travelling at peak time.
Greek ferries are quite an experience!!! The actual boats are great, with comfortable seating and cafe facilities. However….. embarking the ferries at the ports is fairly hair raising! You are advised to be at the port at least an hour before your crossing as you may need to get your tickets printed at the ticket offices (each ticket costs €0.50). You may also find that your Ferry and time have been changed! Be sure to check your tickets and itinerary carefully! The ferries are rarely on time and sometimes you get three turning up at once! There is no clear system of queuing at the port! There just seems to be a person with a whistle to warn you to get out of the way of the vehicles that are getting onto and off the ferries! You really need to have your wits about you to make sure you get on the correct ferry! Quite often you will just hear a person shouting the ferry name and destination and you have to make a dash for it! What is impressive is the way in which they unload and load the ferries within a couple of minutes! I don’t know how it works, but it does! I couldn’t help wondering though if people end up at the wrong destination because of these manic scenes! The younger me, fuelled by a few drinks, would have probably ended up somewhere I wasn’t meant to be!!! There are various ferry companies, we travelled by SeaJets for each of our crossings.
The next thing I planned was our accommodation. An excellent site that I’ve used for hotel recommendations in Greece and elsewhere is http://www.santorinidave.com. This site lists his top choice of hotels, including those most suitable for families, as well as other information about each island. I have used his recommendations many times and have never had a bad experience. I decided that our hotel requirements were for a family room, with a pool, close to the beach, restaurants, a supermarket and not too far from the port. With only a few days on each island, I didn’t want to spend valuable time travelling to and from the port or looking for shops and restaurants! I chose higher end properties which were fairly expensive on a couple of the islands, but there is a range of accommodation available in Greece to suit all budgets. I booked all accommodation for this trip through booking.com.
In Santorini we stayed in the family friendly resort of Kamari Beach. This is the opposite side of the island to the caldera clinging villages of Oia and Fira, where tourists clamber for space each evening to view the world famous sunsets! I didn’t think the Caldera side would be suitable for my kids, the sheer drops and multitude of steps felt like an accident waiting to happen! When we visited Oia one evening it confirmed that I had made the right decision! There were hoardes of tourists arriving off the many cruise ships docked in the port! A very different vision from the many Instagram posts of beautiful women in floaty dresses posing on the steps! In reality there are hundreds of people, armed with selfie sticks, jostling for position! I had booked a private tour of the island and our wonderful and extremely knowledgable guide ushered us through Oia before it was too crowded. She took us to the almost deserted village of Pergos to watch the same sunset. I can highly recommend a private tour. I booked with ‘Get Your Guide’ and although it was rather pricey (nearly £300 for 4 hours) we had an air conditioned Mercedes minivan to ourselves, with our own driver and guide. We were able to set our own itinerary and even change our mind along the way. It was a high cost but it was the only big spend on such trips that we did. It was worth every penny to be taken in comfort to the sites we wanted to see (and to avoid the 4 cruise ships full they were expecting that afternoon)! We stayed at ‘Santorini Crystal Blue Suites’ in the beach villa. It was an absolutely fabulous spot. Our doors opened up onto a private Bougainvillea filled terrace which overlooked the promenade and volcanic beach. It was absolute bliss to hear the waves lapping just metres from our beds. Kamari beach is a lovely resort. There is a promenade filled with restaurants and gift shops, a black sand beach (which can get very hot underfoot in the Summer) and it is in easy reach of all other parts of the island. The food on Santorini is fabulous, as it is on all Greek islands, and Santorini wines are very good (more on the local cuisine in a future blog post)!
Our second island stop was Naxos, known for it’s fabulous beaches and the unfinished Temple of Apollo. Here we stayed at the ‘Galaxy Hotel’ in Chora, a short distance from the port and right on St George’s beach. This was a fabulous spot, close to the many shops and restaurants of the town, as well as the very well equipped beach. We spent most of our time in Naxos on the beach, although we did make the pilgrimage to the temple doorway! Naxos is definitely somewhere I could return as we only really scratched the surface. Highly recommended for families or anyone who enjoys watersports.
Our third island stop was Paros, billed as ‘Mykonos without the celebrity prices’. It did not disappoint. I think this was the prettiest island we visited. The old town was a maze of cobbled streets with traditional blue doors and pink blossoms at every turn. A very photogenic place. Here we stayed at ‘Casa Di Roma’ which was a short walk from the port, tucked up a side street just offset from the beach and many seafront restaurants. This was the cheapest of the accommodation that I booked, and the most rustic! I felt like Meryl Streep’s Donna as I flung open the blue shutters of our white washed room! We timed our visit to Paros well. We were there on August 15th, which was the feast of the Virgin Mary, a festival which is celebrated with particular significance on Paros. In the evening the fishing boats sailed past the waterfront restaurants adorned with lights and flares. This was followed by a spectacular firework display.
From Paros it is a very short boat ride to the island on Antiparos, home of many celebrities including Tom Hanks! We took the Paros-Antiparos regular boat service which cost €5 per person per way. Antiparos is another picture perfect island, a little bit more off the beaten track. I could certainly see the draw for the A listers!
Our final island was Crete. We spent a week here, in the town of Elounda, on the northern coast. We stayed at the ‘Elounda Garden Suites’, which were tucked away just at the end of the town, but very near the shops, restaurants and beach. The beach here has a blue flag, tranquil waters and good public facilities. There is a well maintained playground behind the beach which my kids loved, and the highly recommended ‘Rudi’s Bar’ just across the road, that I loved, as they stocked Greek Gins! Elounda is surrounded by many luxurious resorts, but manages to retain a charming, fishing village feel. There is something there for everyone’s tastes and budgets.
Situated in the Gulf of Elounda is the island of Spinalonga, made famous by the novel ‘The Island’ by Victoria Hislop. Spinalonga served as a leper colony until 1957 and is one of the top attractions in the area. Many tourists visit each day and it is easily reached by boat from Elounda, Plaka or Ayios Nikolaos. The boat trip over is a treat in itself, with some fabulous views of the coastline and clear blue waters.
A short bus ride from Elounda is the town of Ayios Nikolaos. The town has three faces to the sea; the lake and port, the beach and the marina. Ayios Nikolaos has a leisurely feel, yet is also bustling. There is a good choice of restaurants and shops and the port makes a good spot for people watching!
Probably my favourite day in Crete was the day we rode the ‘Happy Train’! We were taken up into the local mountains, from where we enjoyed breathtaking views of the Mirabello Gulf and the island of Spinalonga. We stopped at the traditional villages of Plaka, Krista and Vrouchas, where we visited old churches, learnt about the history of the area and sampled the local flavours. I would definitely recommend this if travelling with children, as the fact we were travelling by a land train was certainly a novelty.
We only really touched upon one corner of Crete. It is the largest of all of the Greek islands, and you should probably spend a few weeks there to appreciate it fully. After nearly 3 weeks of travelling and 3 ferry rides, we were happy to spend our time in Elounda, soaking up the last of the summer sun, before our flight home!
Thank you for reading my review of Greek Island Hopping, I hope you enjoyed, and found it useful. If you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment.