Andrew Bostock, The Guardian, August 12, 2014
Ask most people to think of the Greek islands and the image that springs to mind probably derives from the Cyclades (pronounced Kyklades in Greek, which does not have a soft “c” sound). Most evocative of these pictures is of white-washed, cuboid houses on a hillside above an azure bay. The houses themselves are dashed with splashes of bright blue, perhaps mixed in with the odd windmill or domed church. This image becomes reality in many places on this rough circle of islands, which provide the perfect venue for island hopping.
In truth, however, the Cyclades consist of a lot of diverse islands with differing cultures and landscapes. It’s impossible to capture them all in a short guide, so will just attempt to point out some highlights.
Mykonos, Santorini and Ios form the touristic heart of the islands, each fulfilling the Greek island dream while being beautiful and vibrant in their own way. Naxos, Paros and Milos offer all that you might expect from the group, but are much-visited, and perhaps better seen out of the high season.
After these six there are a host of smaller and/or lesser-known islands that tend to compete for the Cyclades’ most fashionable, in-the-know, destination of the moment. Folegandros, to the south, once remote behind its tall cliffs, is becoming increasingly trendy, whereas nearby Sikinos, with its tiny population of under 300, is still little-visited.
The northern Cyclades are within easy reach of Athens, and get plenty of Greek visitors (which is no bad thing). Kea, with its oak forest, and Kythnos , with its hot springs, are both quieter than many of the other islands. Andros is one of the largest Cyclades, with a varied and rugged landscape.
Meanwhile quiet Serifos, Tinos with its pilgrimage site, remote Anafi, and Amorgos with its waters made famous by the film The Big Blue, all have something special to offer. I could go on ...
All prices are for one week’s accommodation for two in August, and include breakfast, unless otherwise stated. Prices outside of this month can be considerably cheaper. Greek taverna prices are remarkably similar, and if anything have gone down in the past few years. You can usually expect to eat well for €15-€20 a head. If eating places are cheaper/more expensive than this it is stated in the text.
Where to stay: The Marketos Windmill
Of the more popular islands, Milos is perhaps the least affected by tourism. Its oddly shaped rock formations and white sandy beaches are reminders of the island’s volcanic past, as is its continuing reliance on mining. Don’t let this put you off: it is well worth the visit, and this converted windmill, just above where the famous Venus de Milo was unearthed, makes a great base.
• +30 22870 22147, mylosgreece.com. €1,400 self-catering for four people; family-friendly
Where to eat: Foras
The windmill is on the outskirts of Plaka, the island’s capital, which is in fact a loose collection of villages that nestle beneath the remains of a Venetian castle. At the bottom of the steps down from this is the Foras, a tradition al meze place. Order a couple of small dishes at a time as you make your way through a bottle of ouzo.
• +30 22870 23954
The beaches of Milos are exceptional. Try Paleohori to the south-east, where underground hot springs warm the waters in natural Jacuzzis. A rock tunnel leads to another small beach backed by vividly coloured cliffs.
Where to stay: Anemomilos Apartments
The best way to experience Folegandros’s famous cliffs is to stay on top of one, preferably in one of these gorgeous apartments with balconies over the crystal waters. Though all the accommodation is nice, book a Blue Studio for the balcony view - your every evening should start by helping the sun sink beneath the sea with a sophisticated drink.
• +30 22860 41309, anemomilosapartments.com. £1,277 for a Blue Studio
Where to eat: I Piatsa, Chora
This well-known restaurant sometimes gets overwhelmed by large tour groups. If that happens, it’s probably best to look elsewhere. If not, this is one of the best places to try a plate of matsata, the local pasta served with rooster, veal or goat.
• +30 22860 41274
Piatsa is on the middle one of the five adjacent plateas, or squares, that define Chora, the delightful cliff-edged capital of Folegandros. The whole area is pedestrianised and is a good place to enjoy the evening stroll that still defines much of Greek social life.
Where to stay: Onar
Paradise is worth making a bit of extra effort for. In this case the 40km drive from Andros’ main port includes a last half hour down a rough dirt track. You won’t be leaving in a hurry, and you won’t want to. Set by a perfect beach, and with a natural pool, these nine houses offer a perfect getaway from the modern world, with a great mix of seclusion and communal get-togethers. Mobile signals are patchy and the internet isn’t up to much either – long may it last.
• +30 21062 51052, onar-andros.gr. £1,166 for a one-bedroom house sleeping three; family-friendly
Where to eat
As you won’t want to stray far in the evenings, it is good to know that the food provided by the Onar is excellent and based around local ingredients and freshly caught fish. On top of this, local village ladies sometimes offer masterclasses on their family recipes.
If you can tear yourself away, Andros has a lot to offer. The landscape is fertile and rewards exploration by car or on foot. An even more idyllic option might be hiring a small boat and chugging from cove to secret cove.
Where to stay: Coralli Camping
This is a top-notch campsite right on the top-notch beach of Livadakia. Plenty of shade is provided by tamarisk trees and the atmosphere around the pool and other facilities is suitably laid-back.
• +30 22810 51500, corallicamping.gr. £95; family-friendly
Where to eat: Stou Stratou
The “cafe on the street” is on the central square in the island’s main town of Chora (the capital towns of the islands are often called this: the word basically just means “main town”). It is a kafenion rather than a proper taverna – where the old men of the village used to go to discuss the world over Greek coffee. You can eat however, and on top of good breakfasts, and a famed chocolate cake, it is a good place to try a pikalia, a mixed plate that can be based round meat, fish or vegetarian treats. There is also no need to bring any reading matter as the extraordinary menu contains extracts of prose and poetry in several languages.
• +30 22810 52566
Away from the beaches, Chora itself is a relatively unspoilt version of a Cycladic settlement and well worth exploring. From here various hiking trails can be followed across the small island.
Where to stay: Esperas
The view from the cliffs of Oia, Santorini’s second village, is one of the most famous vistas in the world, especially as the sun sets. To enjoy it to the full you really need to push the boat out – the best rooms here can come at thousands of euros a night. The Esperas is an excellent bet if your budget doesn’t stretch that far. While its rooms aren’t quite as “designer” as some, it does have the location and the view of the sun dipping below the sea.
• +30 22860 71501, esperas-santorini.com. £1,561 for a studio
Where to eat: Floga
It’s easy to spend plenty of money on dining in Ia. The options tend to get cheaper as you head east and lose the expensive view. Floga is a good compromise, and has an interesting take on Greek/Mediterranean dining.
• +30 22860 71152, on the expensive side
The amazing view comes thanks to Santorini’s volcanic past. Around 3,700 years ago an eruption blew out the middle of the island, so the villages are perched around the cliffs of the caldera (the sea-filled crater). Boat trips explore the caldera, but you should also visit the ruins of Akrotiri to see how the people here lived before the eruption – it’s a mini Pompeii, and much older.
Where to stay: Ta Plagia
If you want some isolation, even in high season, Anafi is your island. Another 90 minutes past Santorini on the ferry, this really is the end of the line. You will probably find Athina, the owner of Ta Plagia, waiting at the small port for the boat to arrive. Her 12 simple rooms are a delight, with great views down to the sea.
• +30 22860 61308, taplagia.gr. £278, breakfast from £4
Where to eat: To Steki
Five minutes’ stroll on from Ta Plagia is the oldest taverna on the island, and still the destination of choice for many locals and Anafi “old hands”, making it a good place to swap gossip on hidden coves and hikes. The welcome and the food are both traditionally Greek.
• +30 22860 61380
The pleasure of Anafi comes from its peaceful isolation and fantastic beaches. If you do want to stir yourself, the stiff hike up Cape Kalamos is well worth it, and rewards with fabulous views. Apparently this is the largest single rock formation in Europe (including Gibraltar). On its slopes can be found two uninhabited monasteries, including the whitewashed Kalamiotissa at its peak.
Where to stay: Chateau Zevgoli
The best way to approach Naxos Town is from the sea, where you will be drawn towards the remains of the Temple of Apollo that seems to act as a gateway into the island, and then the old Venetian castle that looms above the old town. To stay here at Zevgoli, simply follow the signs through the winding backstreets to this converted mansion, decorated in the old style of the island.
• +30 22850 22993, apollonhotel-naxos.gr/naxos-hotel-zevgoli. £305
Where to eat: Metaxi Mas
Also tucked away in the old town is this good-value little ouzeri that serves plates of salad, local cheese, and fried small fish. It can get crowded, but the atmosphere remains convivial.
• +30 22850 26425
Naxos is probably the only Cycladic island that could survive if all the tourists stayed away. Its often more workaday atmosphere comes as a refreshing change from some of the other islands. This can be sampled in the attractive, inland village of Sangri, from where you can also hike to a ruined temple (dedicated to the goddess of fertility) and a Byzantine castle with stunning views.
Where to stay: Villa Terrier
If a few of you are going to the islands, a villa rental is always worth considering. This stylish option, with its own pool, is on the island of Kea, only a two-hour trip from Athens. This means it gets a lot of Greek visitors, which gives it an authentic feel, even when busy. The villa is in the more isolated south, but the island is small enough to be easily explored.
• 020-3286 5400, thegreekvillas.com. From £2,856 in low season, sleeps six adults and two children; family-friendly
Where to eat: Porto Koundouros
Below the villa is one of the best beaches on the island. It hosts this complex of cafes, bars and restaurants that cater mainly for Greeks and the yachting crowd. Perhaps because of this, the food is of a great standard, and with kids’ entertainment often laid on, you could while away a whole day here.
• +30 22880 31111
The inland capital of the island is called Ioulidha, or sometimes just Chora. Its pedestrianised centre is well worth an explore, especially out of season, when it is wonderfully quiet and atmospheric. There is, of course, the remains of a Venetian castle, and a surprisingly good archaeological museum.
Where to stay: Manoulas
Even the beaches are high-energy on Mykonos, but it is nice to have somewhere tranquil to retreat to. A short taxi or bus ride from Mykonos Town above Agios Ioannis beach (made famous in the film Shirley Valentine), the Manoulas has whitewashed balconies, a pool, and relative peace and quiet.
• +30 22890 22900, hotelmanoulas.gr. From €1,680
Where to eat: Eva’s Garden
This being Mykonos, you could dine at a branch of Nobu should you so want. For something a bit more Greek, with prices to match, head to this taverna in a pretty courtyard in the centre of town. The spanakopita (spinach pie) and grilled fish are particularly good.
• +30 22890 22160
Mykonos is all about the party scene, and it’s surprisingly affordable – the cover charge to hear a world-class DJ can be as little as €10, compared with €70 on Ibiza, and drinks are more reasonable too.
Where to stay: Lucas Studios
The Lucas family run a couple of small apartment buildings as well as a taverna. Try and get into the A Studios, whose simple rooms are right on the sea. All of them have large balconies for enjoying the view, as well as small kitchens.
• +30 22860 51075, sikinoslucas.gr. £278 self-catering; family-friendly
Where to eat: To Steki tou Garmpi
The Lucas’s taverna is good, and may be one of the few options out of season. It’s also worth making the short trip to the island capital (named Chora, would you believe) for this traditional taverna that has its own barrel wine.
• +30 22860 51215
The island is tiny and quiet, but still manages to hide some good beaches and worthwhile walks. To get to some of the more isolated beaches, such as Malta, it is worth trying to hire a kaiki, or Greek fishing boat. As with all things, the Lucas family should be able to help.
There are airports on some of the bigger islands (Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Santorini, Syros and Milos) that can all be linked to via Athens. Easyjet flies direct in summer to Mykonos and Santorini from the UK (Mykonos starts at around £65 return if you book early; Santorini tends to be more). The islands are all linked by ferries to each other and to mainland Greece. The ones nearer to Athens are accessible fairly quickly, whereas Santorini takes from five to nine hours, depending on the route, and Kea is another hour an half after that. It’s the most romantic way to arrive at the islands, however, and often the only option, perhaps combined with a flights to the nearest island airport.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Andrew Bostock from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.