Greece’s finest island hideaways
If you have a mental image of the archetypal Greek island, you’re probably thinking of somewhere in the Cyclades. White sugar-cube houses tumbling down rocky slopes to beaches that shelve gently into a transparent sea: in the clear Aegean light, the contours glow in hyperreal definition and the nights blaze with Van Gogh-like brilliance.
The Cyclades come in all flavours, from hedonistic Mykonos and spectacular Santorini to defiantly traditional Milos. All ooze an Old Greece charm. The British The Times chose six of their favorite islands, and it’s tempting to island-hop the lot.
You’ve seen the photos of blue-domed churches and white cave houses settled like snow over scorched cliffs, yet being on Santorini transcends any picture. This peaceful place was actually birthed in fury: the volcanic eruption that created it circa 1600BC was an estimated four times more powerful than Krakatoa.
The biggest, highest and greenest of the Cyclades, Naxos is blessed with exceptional beaches (particularly good for families). Arrivals by sea are greeted by the Portara, an enormous marble portal from an unfinished temple of Apollo, and the cubist kasbah of Naxos town piled under the Venetian citadel.
Laid-back, horseshoe-shaped Milos also has volcanic origins, and, though it lacks the wow factor of Santorini’s caldera, geology is the star of the show. Brightly painted boathouses (syrmata) are sculpted out of the igneous rock around tiny fishing ports, and coasts are decorated with tuff towers, basalt pipe-organ islets and, at the former pirate lair of Kleftiko, dripping-white cliffs and a secret beach in a collapsed sea grotto.
The celebrity magnet of Mykonos is an island you love or hate. Its rose-tinted light makes everyone look beautiful, and it seems to bathe Mykonos town. This should be your starting point: its Hobbit lanes are lined with Greece’s hippest boutiques, cocktail bars hang over the sea and there’s Paraportiani church to visit — in fact, four little churches melded together under a thousand coats of whitewash. You’re never far from a cool beach bar on Mykonos’s immaculately groomed sands. The best are clustered on the sheltered southwest coast: golden Elia, 20 minutes southeast of town, is one of the more relaxing.
Tinos is the opposite of neighbouring Mykonos: instead of fashionistas and boutiques, pilgrims and candle shops fill the capital, Chora. Presiding over town like a giant ice-cream dessert, the church of Panagia Evangelistria houses the most renowned icon of the Virgin Mary in Greece, which many of the devout approach on their knees.
Mention Sifnos and Greeks think of food: this is the birthplace of the country’s first celebrity chef, Nikolaos Tselementes. The island’s immaculate villages, embraced by rolling hills, are home to 235 pretty churches and more than 70 ancient towers, often in dramatic settings, many linked by trails. Many of these offer swimming options, including the walk from Sifnos’s evocative ancient capital, Kastro, down to the beach at Faros and over the bridge to the church of Panagia Chryssopigi, on its rocky islet.