I booked a cruise to the Greek Islands to find the perfect seaside taverna meal of grilled fish, stuffed grape leaves and ouzo; to climb on (where appropriate) the rubble of past empires; to find the point where the sunny Aegean sky meets the sea while lying on rocky beach or wooden boat; to wander down narrow alleys, past white-washed, cubist art displays that double as residences -- in short, to satisfy my vision of the "real Greek Islands".
But where are the "real Greek Islands"? As the focus of cruise travel has shifted to Europe, with mega-lines like Carnival and Celebrity debuting their newest 3,000-passenger ships in the Mediterranean, the Greek Islands have become an increasingly popular cruise destination. The mainstays of the big-ship circuit -- Mykonos, Crete, Santorini and Rhodes -- welcome thousands of cruisers from four or more ships at a time during the July/August high season. These islands certainly fit many travelers' postcard image of Greece. A stop in Mykonos would tell me if it fit mine.
There are more than 200 habitable Greek Islands to explore, and I was determined to try out a few lesser-known spots -- like rocky, off-the-grid Kalymnos; its tooth-shaped sister island, Telendos; and Syros, the uncrowded capital of the Cyclades with its peach marble architecture and isolated northern beaches. And, by choosing a September departure -- the tail of the April to October season -- I found I could enjoy nearly the same phenomenal 80-degree weather you'd find during popular summer months and fewer crowds.
To get to the more off-the-beaten-path islands, I could choose from small-ship luxury lines like Seabourn, SeaDream or Star Clippers or cheap, bare-bones easyCruise. I went with the 12,711-ton, 600-passenger easyCruise Life because it offered a destination-intensive itinerary and no-frills experience. We'd get 21 hours in Mykonos, 17 in Kos and 19 in Kalymnos. I imagined it to be a lot like using a ferry, the most popular method of inter-island travel in Greece, except on easyCruise, a cabin (cramped but clean) and food (tasteless but filling) are included in the price. The tradeoff, of course, was in onboard trappings -- I swapped mega-ship boasts of multiple watering holes and restaurants, nightly Las Vegas-style extravaganzas and cabins with balconies for extra hours of exploration in port.
And, while my initial expectations materialized much as I had imagined, I did learn, as they say, "a thing or two about a thing or two".
Rent an Odd Motorized Vehicle for Independent Exploration
Excursion-wise, I found plenty on offer for each Greek Island. You've got your scenic sails (beautiful during sunset), cave swimming and guided, daytime tours of castles, ancient ruins and blue-domed hilltop churches. (For more information on pricing and options, visit our Eastern Mediterranean Cruises page, or check out Cruise Critic's active Europe Forum.)
But, while excursions are practical and sometimes essential, as with visiting the remains of a sprawling, ancient city on the island of Delos, don't miss the chance to explore independently. The best way to do it? Vespas or motor scooters, mocked status in the US not withstanding. Many Greek islands are between 40 and 100 square miles, so a few gallons of petrol cover you for the day. And, as long as you practice defensive scootering -- keepin' it cool on s-curves and dusty downhills -- there are few navigation issues. If you get lost, just seek out the coast; then enjoy a scenic, shoreline drive back to the rental agent.
Flying along the windy, rocky coast of Kos, speedometer busted, was a gas. I took the road to the end of the line, descended down a wide path cut into a cliff and ended up at a natural hot spring.
Another motorized option is the quad, a four-fat-wheeled scooter suitable for more off-road endeavors. A quad ride along the winding roads of Paros took me to Lefkes, a traditional Greek village that's set in a natural, 1,000-foot-high amphitheater. After parking, I hoofed up and down stairs, through narrow cobbled streets that zigzagged past a mix of white-washed, cubist and Venetian buildings to the immaculately lined marble Church of Agia Triada. A paved path from the Byzantine period, flanked by flowers, connects Lefkes with the beachside village of Podromo.
But this isn't the time to channel Evel Knievel: I witnessed a horrifying flipping accident that left a fellow rider and his quad's side-view mirrors lying on the road. He was fine, but his wallet suffered the worse injury when he returned his damaged bike to the rental agency. If you take it slow and keep your focus, even novice quad- and scooter-drivers should be fine.
Editor's Note: If you're not an EU national, some agencies will require an international license. Others are much more casual. You can usually tell, based on the look of the agency -- the better the shape of the vehicles and actual building exterior, the more likely it is you'll need the license.
Choosing Where to Dine: Harborside Tavernas and the Way of the Meze
Food is a big part of why I travel, and like a stray dog hankering after a just-out-of-reach lamb chop, I slobbered in anticipation of gyros smothered in tzatziki, marinated feta and olives, dolmades, moussaka (Greece's lasagna, usually with meat and eggplant) and spanikopita, all topped off with a shot or two of ouzo. Ordered in combination, these dishes make up a traditional meal of mezes, the Greek equivalent to small plates, dim sum, tapas, appetizers -- every country has its version. And, lucky for me, just about every Greek taverna serves these mini-dishes.
On many of the islands I visited, the harbors are lined by stretches of similarly outfitted tavernas, rows of awnings and umbrellas, tightly packed tables, persistent hawking and the promise of free wine. Dining options are seemingly endless and often overwhelming.
So how do you pick? As a general rule, the harbor-side tavernas are a bit cookie-cutter, ideal for their locations, rather than for their food. Especially during dinner (later a la many southern Europe countries), it looks as if the entire population comes to eat, drink, laugh and people-watch. Motor scooters are out in abundance, and the scene almost always includes Vespas popping wheelies and burning rubber. In Bodrum and Paros, I went with location, and the resulting meals were more memorable for their sea views than their food.
On the other hand, heading a bit farther afield can yield better culinary results, even if the views and the vibe are taken down a notch.
On the quiet island of Telendos, a jagged, tooth-shaped landmass that was part of nearby Kalymnos until an earthquake separated them in the sixth century A.D., I stumbled across Barba Pathis', where lunch was dolmades stuffed with recently butchered goat and spices, a gyro and freshly squeezed orange juice. Barba, a middle-aged woman whose constant smile revealed a gold tooth, cooked the meal, and her granddaughter served it up.
In Arnos, a short drive inland from Mykonos' capital, Hora, I satisfied my meze jones at Taverna Vaggelis, where I ate fried tomato balls, fava bean salad, feta cheese, tzaziki-dipped bread and a couple Mythos, the ubiquitous Greek lager.
Editor's Note: The arid climate on several Greek Islands is ideal for growing pistachios. If you like the nut -- smaller here and baked with a biting, vinegar zing -- do yourself a favor and buy several pounds. It'll remind you of the islands every time you crack a shell.
Ruins and Churches: Greek Time Travel
For aficionados of ancient history, it's impossible to avoid being beguiled. As the cliche goes, past is truly present in the Greek Islands, with ruins -- ancient Greek healing centers, early Christian shrines, Medieval castles -- dotting every rocky outpost. The great majority of ruins and ancient sites on the islands have not yet been commoditized (i.e. no entrance fee). It's easy to take a quick peek inside and spend as little or as much time as you like.
You have no choice but to explore most smaller sites (little churches, tombs) on your own, but the larger attractions are often better served by guided tour. Unless you have a vivid imagination and a working knowledge of ancient architecture, you do really need a guide to turn a pile of rubble into a living, breathing city.
Case in point is the island of Delos, located a 30-minute boat ride from Mykonos. In antiquity, Delos was the spiritual (and geographic) center of the Cyclades island chain, and Greek mythology holds that the island is the birthplace of Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, offspring of Zeus. The place is an archaeological treasure, with expansive remains of temples, traditional houses and statues -- some reconstructed, others not. Without a guide, all this might not appeal to anyone for very long -- especially if you've been to 12 other sites in the course of a few days. But, the official Delos guides combine a theatrical style with just the right amount of facts to both educate and entertain.
On the other hand, some sites work just as well if you're going guide-free. The Order of Knights Hospitaller (also knowns as the Knights of St. John and the Knights of Rhodes) came first to conquer the Greek islands and then stayed on to protect the people from Barbary pirates. They left their mark on many of the islands, with their castles dominating the seascapes in Rhodes, Kos and Bodrum, Turkey. In Bodrum, I didn't need a guide to reconstruct a tower or dining hall. The Turkish castle is fully restored and remarkably well-kept, featuring a serene inner courtyard with trees and flowers, surrounded by rebuilt towers and knight's halls.
Back on your own, you can literally stumble upon ancient sites, like the early Christian Basilicas and necropolis I came across while wandering around Telendos. Hiking headlong down a rocky slope, I nearly ran into some stairs that led down and around a bend to a small, hidden church -- a single, white-washed cube with a bright blue roof, built into a seaside cliff. It was the image of monastic solitude and one of the lasting images of my cruise.
Finding Castaway-Style Beaches and Secluded Coves
The beaches of the Greek Isles are legendary for a reason. Everywhere we turned, there were postcard-perfect stretches of sand. If you like to swim, come ready with mask and snorkel. The Greek Isles aren't particularly known for snorkeling, but the Aegean is quite salty, so eye protection is key. Every island has its heavily peopled, sun-bed-and-umbrella-style beach with water sports, tavernas and shops -- Paradise Beach in Mykonos, Kolimbithres in Paros, Gumbet in Bodrum. And, if the goal is to people-watch or mix it up with other folks, these are your beaches.
But, if you're looking for a more secluded option and have time pre- or post-cruise, head from Athens to the port city of Piraeus, where you can take a 2.5-hour speed-boat ride to Syros, the capital of the Cyclades island chain. Once there, find the fishing village of Kinni (on the standard bus route). There, at the far end of a beach, lies a water-taxi shack. Take 15 euros from your beach bag, and hop aboard a boat to zip past the islands' remote northern beaches. You then pick your favorite, and the boatman drops you off (and will pick you up). Walking to these beaches is possible, but is definitely the more strenuous, bush-whacking way to go.
Feeling adventurous, I decided to hike, following vaguely outlined goat paths up hundreds of feet and then descending over loose rocks into natural, semi-circular harbors with deep-set, sandy beaches. I'd repeat to see a new beach. The settings are half-amphitheaters, with encircling cliffs as seats and sand and sea as stage. The first I visited was the most spectacular -- a sheltered beach, punctuated by monolithic boulders rising out of the sea. It was made oddly memorable by the visitors: a nudist doing calisthenics and picnicking family, who arrived by boat. Make sure you're up for some exertion -- and relative isolation -- if you hike, rather than cruise to these beaches, and definitely bring food and water for the trek.
Even in packed Mykonos, an island where the population swells to many times its usual size during high season, there are secluded options. If you have a car, you'll discover empty stretches of sand by simply driving along the island's rocky coastline. Beaches appear at literally every turn.
Did You Know?
The Greek Isles are hubs of tourism, so the English language is readily spoken. Learn some Greek though; it'll put you in good graces.
Fun Fact: Traveling through the islands, you'll notice odd structures on top of most houses. They're actually rooftop cisterns, which accumulate rain water that's suitable for watering plants. Many of the Greek Islands have few natural water sources, so this is just one way of collecting usable water. The island populations also rely on desalination plants and imports as additional water sources.
Despite what you will likely see, nude sunbathing is illegal in Greece. It is, however, tolerated -- especially in places where there's no one around to pass judgment.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor