Picking a Greek Island for the optimum vacation is not a simple matter. There are 1,425 of them, and even if only 170 or so are inhabited, that leaves something of a dilemma of where an odyssey should begin. Well maybe it’s less complicated than we think. According to Fay George, spokeswoman for the Greek National Tourism Organization, “There’s no question that, after a few days in Athens, North American travelers focus mostly on the three Aegean islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Crete, with Rhodes running a distant fourth. At the same time, those not taking scheduled Greek Island cruises to many islands are discovering that the exact island on which they want to stay and play can be easily linked by plane and ferry into a customized itinerary.”
George points out that the growth of island-hopping as a vacation style is possible and increasingly popular because Aegean Airlines and Olympic Air have frequent flights from Athens to all islands, and ferry travel has expanded greatly to and from the mainland and between islands. George figures “there must be three times as many boats connecting Athens with the Cyclades as there were a decade ago.”
Recommend was curious if agents were selling this island-hopping vacation style. “Your call is unbelievably timely,” says Greg DeClemente, travel consultant at Courtyard Travel, a Signature member agency, as well as Tzell, in Great Neck, NY. And indeed, he was working on vacation arrangements for two young women heading off to the Greek Islands in July. First stop would be Athens, followed by a flight to Mykonos, “which young people love for its perfect combo of beaches and party life,” says DeClemente, and then ferry to Santorini, “which offers scenic beauty, lots to see and do by day, and a lively nightlife of its own.” And he reports that when his clients want to book the Greek Islands, they almost always want Mykonos and/or Santorini, followed by Crete.
In general, DeClemente views the Greek Islands as “central to Mediterranean cruising—bracketed by ports of call in Italy and Turkey—and they are fabulous destinations for honeymooners. Additionally, in relation to the rest of Europe, the islands represent great value.” He gives two examples: three nights in a double room with breakfast for two at the Royal Myconian Resort, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, costs $900; the cost is $700 for two nights for two with breakfast at the boutique Altana Traditional Houses & Suites on Santorini.
Without doubt, the “big three” have a lot going for them.
Dazzling white Mykonos, one of the Aegean’s most popular islands, was once easily dismissed as too crowded (with cruise ship passengers), too expensive, and too much of a cliche. But in recent years, it has bounded back hard as one of Europe’s jet-set playgrounds. These days its hoteliers and restaurateurs are creating the magic with luxury accommodations, fusion gastronomy, and improved service and hospitality. In Mykonos Town there are skinny streets, stucco stairs and chapels with blue domes; red nets draped to dry on a bright white wall; clicking looms and windmill sails; boat lights bobbing in the swell; and sunsets with cocktails in the “Little Venice” quarter. One hotel with great fame and a view that’s hard to beat is Cavo Tagoo. Set into a cliff, it has recently been impressively renovated, is better than ever and is accommodating guests in 69 super-slick white minimalist rooms, with spacious bathrooms, balconies and sea vistas. Featured also are suites with private pools, a spa, infinity pool and good restaurant. Rates start at $425 dbl with breakfast.
Beaches here rival those of St. Tropez in reputation for bohemian activities, from Paradise Beach with its clothing-optional feature to Elia and Agia Anna, which promise a bit more space and peace. And Mykonos is not the only island town in Greece with nightlife that continues into the morning, but it was the first and still is both the party and shopping capital of the Aegean. The premier excursion is a short boat ride away to that most ancient domain of the gods, Delos, settled in 1000 B.C. and preserving Classical-era remains. Guests can’t stay here, but they can spend a day exploring and walking up Mount Kinthos for a view over most of the Cyclades. (A tip for clients: Delos is without trees and hence without shade; an umbrella can be a lifesaver, along with a bottle of water.)
Visually, Santorini is the most spectacular of all the islands: sublime sunsets, black volcanic beaches, the Aegean’s finest winemakers, cave-rock hotels, ancient and startling frescoes at Akrotiri, and picture-perfect, cliff-hanging towns with signature blue-domed churches. One of those is the main town of Fira, perched atop cliffs that tower above the cruise ships anchoring in the harbor. Needless to say, its views are extraordinary, but the pace is less frantic at Oia, a bit farther north with a more bohemian ambiance and the most votes for the prettiest village on the island. Homes traditionally were built into the hillside, and many have been converted to art galleries, shops and boutique hotels.
Farther on, the village of Imerovigli offers an escape from the tourist madness that overwhelms the island in summer (July and August), and there’s no better escape than to the gorgeous Astra Suites, with its 27 handsome suites, excellent restaurant, and spectacular views over the famous caldera. Rates start at $425 dbl. Venture from here to dine at Selene, located in the charming town of Pyrgos and the best restaurant on an island with lots of good places to eat. Better yet, recommend clients take a 1-day cooking class here to learn how local food is made (a 3-day cooking course is also available). And if one needed another reason to beat it to Santorini, the Akrotiri archaeological site reopened last year. It’s not as visually fascinating as Pompeii, but it is 2,000 years older.
Crete, which gave the world Zeus, El Greco and Zorba, is not just big—about 160 miles east to west—and distinctive—8,000-ft. mountains, vast fertile plateaus, countless cliffs and caves, warm white beaches—but a world unto itself. Its singular treasures are the relics of the Minoan civilization, which flourished around 2000 B.C. to be destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption around 1500 B.C. Travelers arriving at Heraklion airport head east toward Porto Elounda on the north coast. A trio of Greece’s most famous hotels are here: The world-class Porto Elounda Resort, overlooking the Bay of Mirabello with views of the mountains of Sitia; the Elounda Peninsula All Suite Hotel, among the most exclusive hotels in Greece; and the Elounda Mare Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property also overlooking Mirabello Bay. Built as a Cretan mansion, Mare has 46 rooms and 36 suites, as well as bungalows with private pools; activities range from spa time and tennis to sailing and diving. Rates start at $377 dbl with breakfast.
For clients staying in this area, early morning is the best time for the pilgrimage to the archaeological site Knossos, the most impressive of the Minoan palaces with its red-pillared palace fragments and maze of ruins. On another day, travelers should drive to Phaestos, where there’s another important palace, and to Aghia Triada, where Minoan royalty is said to have vacationed. And no visitor should miss the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, before heading west to the port city of Hania, Crete’s capital and a handsome town with a picturesque harbor framed by historic houses. Some have been converted to hotels, such as Casa Delfino with 24 accommodations, or Hotel Amphora with 20 rooms, many with sea views from private balconies. From Hania, recommend a hike through the Samaria Gorge, a rocky wonderland of geological formations and wildflowers.
Cyprus, the birthplace of Aphrodite and gift of Mark Antony to Cleopatra, has been an outpost of mystery and romance since the dawn of its 11,000-year-old history. When considering travel to this most eastern Mediterranean island, think craggy mountains covered with pine and flowering almond trees; rolling hills of farms and vineyards; a rich treasury of ancient sites; and a Mediterranean shoreline whose wide sandy beaches—the cleanest in the Med—are dotted with appealing resorts.
Tourism from the U.S. increases steadily, says Tasoula Manaridis, director, Cyprus Tourist Organization (CTO), who expects this year’s visitor count to surpass 40,000. “Our U.S. guests stay a week to 10 days, or four or five days when combining Cyprus with Greece, Turkey or Israel. Most of our American guests come for cultural travel, although religious tourism, tracing the steps of Apostle Paul, is strong with both FIT and group visitors.”
Manaridis also notes that the CTO promotes special interest travel in many ways, such as Wines Routes that lead through five viniculture regions, and she reminds us that “Cyprus is the Island of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, which makes ours a very romantic destination for honeymoons and weddings.”
And indeed the most beloved destination in Cyprus is Pafos (aka Paphos), in the days of yore the center of the cult of Aphrodite and today housing so many cultural and natural treasures that the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Few mosaics in the world are more beautiful than those of Pafos, on view in the ancient houses of Kato Pafos Archaeological Park, while nearby are the fabulous Tombs of the Kings, a sprawling necropolis of underground tombs and chambers. Outside of town, Palaipafos and the ruins of her 12th century BC temple are about 12 miles east of the city, while another six miles away is Petra tou Romiou where in September opera lovers flock for the Pafos Aphrodite Festival.
And from Pafos, clients can spend a couple of days exploring the rugged Akamas Peninsula, taking a nature walk through Akamas Gorge National Park. There are distant views of the hills of Akamas from the seaside village of Polis, and overlooking its beach and the Mediterranean beyond is the super-deluxe but family-friendly Anassa Hotel, part of The Leading Hotels of World collection. Spread over 21 acres, the resort resembles a Cypriot village with gardens and villas arranged around a village square, complete with Byzantine-style chapel. There are 169 rooms and suites, all with balconies and complimentary WiFi access; some suites have plunge pools on sea-facing terraces. Facilities range from five farm-fresh restaurants to a Roman-style Thalassa spa. Rates start at $559 dbl including breakfast and taxes.
Lemesos (aka Limassol), the second largest city in Cyprus, is part seaside resort and part commercial center. Other than its sandy beaches—hosting such high-profile hotels as the 304-room Four Seasons Limassol Cyprus and the 329-room Le Meridien Limassol Spa & Resort—the chief attraction is Limassol Castle, where Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarre in 1191 and proclaimed her Queen of England. History buffs will enjoy the Municipal Folk Art Museum and the Archaeological Museum in town and out of town along the road to Pafos, travelers can climb the steep steps of the beautifully restored Greco-Roman amphitheater at Kourion, dating to 490 B.C. and one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in Cyprus.
It’s an easy hour’s drive (left side of the road in Cyprus) from Lemesos or Lefkosia up into the Troodos Mountains, a beautiful and accessible area famous for its remarkable painted Byzantine churches, 10 of them UNESCO World Heritage sites. Kykkos—the island’s richest monastery—and Trooditissa are heralded for their awesome frescoes, icons and inspiring architecture. Omodos, an ancient winemaking town centered around a Byzantine monastery, may be the prettiest of mountains. The Troodos are also a highlands favorite with birdwatchers, mountain bikers and hikers, and January through March, skiers head for the slopes of Mount Olympus.
And if your clients had to pick one perfect Troodos experience, recommend a stay in a traditional mountain village, whose boutique hotels are made up of clusters of old stone houses that have been painstakingly renovated by the owners and furnished with every comfort and modern amenity. Additionally, they are also known for lovely fresh-produce meals, soothing spa facilities, excellent services and grand views. For instance, the 9-room and suite Apokryfo in the village of Lofou won the 2010 Conde Nast Traveller Award for “Best Traditional Hotel.” The Library Hotel & Wellness Resort faces a 19th century church in the Kalavassos village square; its 11 uniquely styled suites are named after international poets, thinkers and writers.
While Larnaka is the main airline gateway to Cyprus (Cyprus Airways offers flights from New York through its code share partners such as Virgin Atlantic), Lefkosia (aka Nicosia) is its 1,000-year-old capital, one politically divided after the Turkish invasion of the north. The so-called “Green Line” divides the city, with crossing points—bring a passport—from south to north at Ledra Street and at the Ledra Palace Hotel. But even with a military border (set up by the U.N.) running through it, Lefkosia remains an interesting mix of Mediterranean cultures. Surrounded by Venetian walls, the Old City is the charmer: visit the Omeriye Mosque, the Byzantine Art Museum, the Folk Art Museum; stop to shop at the Cyprus Handicraft Center; wander through the vegetable and fruit markets; stop for a meze meal at Zanettos Taverna; or enjoy a Turkish bath in the Hamam Omeriye. Outside the walls, the essential stop is the excellent Cyprus Museum. Scheduled for 2014 is the completion of a huge park in Eleftheria Square, designed by Zaha Hadid to better integrate the Old City into the new.
Greek Islands in a Nutshell
There are more than 1,400 islands in Greece. A few like Crete, Thassos and Samothraki are isolated, but most of the rest are in island groups. Clients who have “done” the big three, have oceans of island choices for return trips. (Note: Author takes the liberty of bold-facing her favorites.)
• Ionian Islands: Located on the western side of Greece, these islands have a softer climate than the Aegean and are culturally influenced by Italy; the group includes Corfu, Ithaca, Karpathos, Kephalonia, Paxos and Lefkas.
The majority of Greek islands are in the Aegean, on the eastern side of the county.
• The Cyclades: Beyond the classic isles—Mykonos and Santorini—other favorites in this largest of all island groups are Naxos (the largest), Tinos, Folegandros and Syros.
• Saronic Islands: Closest to Athens and easily accessible by ferry, the group includes Hydra, Spetses, Poros, Kythera and Aegina.
• Dodecanese Islands: Resting against the southwest corner of Turkey, this group is dominated by Rhodes and Kos; all are rich in history, take Patmos, and some just unspoiled—spotlight enchanting little Simi.
• Sporades Islands: Lying off Greece’s eastern shore, this pine-forested group includes Skopelos and Skiathos for great beaches, Alonissos and rich-in-folklore Skyros.
• Northern Aegean Islands: Mountainous, forested and littered with ruins, in this group pick Samos and Thassos for beaches and Chios for well-preserved local villages.
Greece is back on the European map of travel vacation picks, and the Greek Islands remain in first place on the best destination list, according to Cally Papas, president of Cloud Tours and a pioneer in packaging island-hopping vacations for North American travelers.
“Actually, the Cyclades Islands in particular retain their popularity, even with Greece’s financial crisis woes and steep transatlantic air fares. And while destination-oriented cruises are a key component in Greece’s tourism picture, we noticed 20 years ago that U.S. travelers like to stay-put on a few islands, vacationing more at their own pace.”
She gives two main reasons for the company’s success in selling island-hopping programs: Vastly expanded transportation to and from the mainland and between the islands, as well as a traveling public now keen on customized vacations that experience Greece up-close.
Papas adds that a major part of island-hopping-style business comes from the “romance” market. “The Greek Islands have long been a popular choice for honeymooners, whose top pick is Santorini, with its great hotels, restaurants, and nightlife, as well as hiking, biking, day cruises and diving, historical sites and, of course, those fabulous sunsets.”
Cloud Tours offers what may be the biggest menu of island-hopping packages to 10 islands in the Aegean and two in the Ionian Sea. Programs are designed for stays on two or three different islands, spending three nights on each island, customized with a choice of hotels from standard to deluxe. Also included are transfers, domestic flights from Athens, inter-island water transportation, all breakfasts, and a special feature such as a dinner cruise or 3-day car rental. Agents can enrich client experiences with wine tasting tours, cooking classes, hiking and biking tours.
Just a sample: Eleni is an 11-day package starting in and returning to Athens and including three nights in Santorini with a sunset BBQ dinner cruise; three nights in Paros and three nights in Naxos; domestic flights from Athens/Santorini & Paros/Athens; inter-island boat Santorini/Paros/Naxos; and all other features mentioned above. Prices range from $1,245 pp dbl using standard category rooms to $2,155 pp dbl in deluxe. (800) 223-7880; cloudtours.com
Homeric Tours markets Cyprus with three independently hosted packages: the 7-day Cypriot Delight tour is based in Pafos and the 7-day Irresistible Cyprus tour is based in Lemesos; both operate April through October, starting any day of the week. The 8-day Discovery of Cyprus tour, spending four nights in Pafos and three nights in Lemesos, offers monthly departures (two in July) through October.
“Our itineraries are independently hosted trips that capture the variety of Cyprus attractions,” says Tasoula Christofidis, general manager of Homeric, “but of course we can customize any arrangements to client expectations.”
She feels that Cyprus is an up-and-coming destination for Americans, whom she likes to guide to traveling in spring when the wildflowers cover the countryside and in fall for the grape harvest. And everywhere, “Cyprus has upscaled her tourist product.”
Clients booked on the Discovery of Cyprus tour have a full-day tour with lunch to the Troodos Mountains, including the Kykkos monastery, during the 4-night stay in Pafos, and a full day to Kourion, Kolossi Castle, the Wine Museum and villages of Omodhos and Monagri. Hotels featured are either the St. George or Coral Beach in Pafos and the Mediterranean or Grand Resort in Lemesos. Daily breakfast and all transfers are included in the tour cost, priced from $1,225 pp sharing. (800) 223-5570; homerictours.com.
Altana Traditional Houses & Suites: altana.gr
Anassa Hotel: (800) 745-8883; lhw.com
Astra Suites: astrasuites.com
Casa Delfino: casadelfino.gr
Cavo Tagoo: cavotagoo.gr
Cyprus Tourist Organization: (212) 683-5280; visitcyprus.com
Elounda Mare Hotel: (800) 735-2478; relaischateaux.com
Elounda Peninsula All Suite Hotel: eloundapeninsula.com
Four Seasons Limassol Cyprus: fourseasons.com.cy
Greek National Tourism Organization: (212) 421-5777; visitgreece.gr
Hotel Amphora: amphora.gr
Le Meridien Limassol Spa & Resort: lemeridienlimassol.com
Library Hotel & Wellness Resort: libraryhotelcyprus.com
Porto Elounda Resort: portoelounda.com
Royal Myconian Resort: (800) 745-8883; lhw.com