April 15 2009 by Julie Drossos
Hands down, my favorite destination I've visited to date is Greece. Not only for its unbelievable beauty and charm, rich culture and delicious food, and not only because I married into a 1/2 Greek family (hence my last name that I get asked about all the time!) but for the indescribable magic I felt - and you will feel - when you visit Greece for your first time...specifically, the Greek Isles.
Spending time in the Greek Isles is almost euphoric, fantasy-like.. like stepping into a magical world. You know those images that come to mind when you think of Greece - the ones you see in fancy travel magazines or in movies such as Mamma Mia! ? The white washed buildings, hypnotizing azure blue water, breathtaking cliffs? I always thought that cameras and computers had made those images look so impressive and attractive... nope - that is what the Greek Isles really look like.
Most people don't know (like I didn't) that "The Greek Isles" actually refer to a collection of over 6,000 islands and islets that belong to Greece. Only 227 of those islands are inhabited, and only 798 have more than 100 inhabitants. Two of the most popular Greek Isles (and the two that I fell in love with) are Santorini and Mykonos, both part of the Cyclades.
Getting to Paradise
In order to get to these small little idyllic pockets of beauty, you need to fly to the mainland, namely Athens, the capital of Greece. From Athens, if money is no option, your best bet will be to book a flight to Santorini or Mykonos on Olympic Airlines or Aegean Airlines. This will take roughly 45 minutes and cost approximately 100 Euros one way. If you're on more of a budget, you will want to take a Ferry. The Superferries will take roughly 3 1/2 hours each way and cost approximately 40 Euros one way. If you have a lot of time and don't mind "roughing it" a bit, you can save even more money by taking the standard Ferry. This will take you 5-6 hours each way and cost around 25 Euros each way. To book any Ferry services, this is the best site to use; it includes all the major carriers and you can also conveniently book online ahead of time. You can also look into island-hopping packages, which can save you significant amounts of money if you plan to visit a number of the islands.
Santorini - Greece's #1 Destination
Santorini was once a circle, but a volcano (which is still live today) erupted in 1500 BC and sank half the island into the sea, leaving it in its current crescent shape. The water in between the two visible islands is called the caldera. Some of the most beautiful and quaint hotels you'll find anywhere in the world are perched high on these cliffs overlooking the caldera. Quite a site. Here is my list of must-do's for Santorini:
Explore the beaches (but don't spend all of your time exploring the beaches as Mykonos - in my opinion - has the best beaches). Walk to Red Beach which has an amazing red volcanic cliff. The black beaches - Kamarri and Perissa - are also worth seeing but they can be a little overridden with tourists. The more quiet and private beaches are Monolithos and Vlihada. Tip - black sand can be VERY hot... be sure you have flip flops or shoes because on a hot day it may not be comfortable to walk bare foot
Take in a sunset (or a few sunsets) you will never forget at Oia (pronounced EE-AH). If you watch one you will want to go back to take in another. Oia is a small town on the northern tip of the island... the views in general are spectacular, but at sunset they are something out of a dream
Get your exercise while taking in the stunning views by trekking up to the villages on the cliffs. There are a lot of hills and cobble stones so be sure you are wearing good footwear and you have water and snacks (or money!)
Visit the Volcano. Take a boat ride to visit the Volcano. Beautifully picturesque and also a piece of history
Ride a donkey. You will see people riding donkeys up from the main port of Santorini - named Fira - up to the summit. This is one of those great memories that you'll want to capture with a photo... proudly riding a donkey with the gorgeous white washed buildings and blue water behind you. I will warn you - two people I know got "fleas" or something like it after riding the donkeys... so ride at your own risk! If you're not willing to risk the itchy scratchies or simply are not so agile, you can easily take the cable car ride up to the town, which is just as visually exciting.
Visit a Winery. You'll notice the endless fields of grapes around the island. There are a number of excellent wineries that offer tours including wine-tasting and food. My favorite is the Art Space Winery, built in 1830. It is located in the small village of Exo Gonia, and is actually both a beautiful art gallery as well as a winery. The art is beautiful and the wine is excellent
EAT! The food everywhere we tried was out of this world. Fresh fresh produce, aromatic flavors. A favorite was Finikia's Place. Delicious chicken souvlaki, friend eggplant and spaghetti
This is a good overall site to check out if you plan to visit Santorini.
Mykonos - Greece's most elegant and exciting island
Mykonos is another hugely popular and famous holiday spot in Greece It boasts the best nightlife in Greece and world-renowned beaches. Referred to as "the island that never sleeps" it is a real hub of excitement and activity. Here are my must-do's for Mykonos:
Rent a scooter. This is a blast! I highly recommend that you and your spouse or friend, or just you, go exploring on your own on a scooter or ATV. Don't worry about getting lost, the island is small enough that you'll find your way back if you do get off the beaten path. Plus, getting lost on Mykonos is part of the fun! When you arrive in Mykonos you will see several small outlets where you can rent scooters or ATVs. Personally I prefer the scooters as you can maneuver on the narrow and windy roads a little more easily. Riding your scooter with the breeze blowing in your air and taking in the movie-like scenery will be something you will never forget
Enjoy the beach(es) Part I. Mykonos has some of the most beautiful and world renowned beaches in the world. Be warned in advance that most beaches in Mykonos are topless beaches (not mandatory but there will be topless women). This is the norm there and you will see that people are simply not shy. Paradise Beach is probably the most talked about beach on Mykonos. Ask anyone in town how to get there and they'll tell you. At Paradise Beach, other than the obvious activities of soaking up the sun and enjoying the white sand, you can jet-ski, scuba dive, snorkel, water-ski, people-watch (trust me, there's lots) or enjoy the bars. At night, Paradise Beach transforms into a huge outdoor night club. Even if you are not a "night clubber"... this scene is something worth visiting just to say you've been there! Be warned that at Paradise Beach - seeing full nudity is not out of the norm. This is NOT a family destination.
Enjoy the beach(es) Part II. If you're seeking a more serene beach experience, visit Agrari Beach. This is a medium-sized quiet sandy beach located at the south of the island. It has just one tavern and bar and is a great spot for relaxation and rest amongst clear blue sparkling waters and soft sand. There's also the beach of Elia, which is the biggest and most organized and developed beach on the southern part of the island. This area includes higher-end luxury hotels and bungalows, fine dining restaurants and the only established water park on the island. While nudism is allowed at this beach, it is in section off areas.
Visit Delos. The neighboring island of Delos can only be visited by boat. It is one of the most interesting and memorable historical sites in the Mediterranean, and it is impressively covered in white marble. Many have said that it rivals Delphi and Olympia in mainland Greece. Get your cultural fix by visiting Delos!
Experience the nightlife. Mykonos has the most colorful and robust nightlife scenes of the Greek Isles, and within Mykonos, it is Little Venice specifically that is the hub of excitement. Wherever you look there are clubs and bars and dancing and excellent eateries. There is something for everyone here, so don't think you need to be a hard-core party animal to enjoy Little Venice. If you are wanting to party into the night, head out to the spectacular Cava Pardiso party at the beach, where you can party into the wee hours... and into the next day!