The Beautiful Islands of Greece

The Beautiful Islands of Greece

The north-east Aegean includes a hodgepodge of islands stretching from lush Samos in the south – just off the coast of Turkey – up to Thassos, 400km to the north and closer to Bulgaria than it is to Athens.

In between are an isolated stretch of islands, often far apart from each other and not well connected. Perhaps because of this, and the difficulty of labelling them easily together, these islands are often overlooked. For those prepared to travel a bit further afield, this is a bonus as, apart from midsummer, they tend to be uncrowded and unspoilt.

Samos is the nearest thing this group gets to “well-known destination”, but it is still more easily reached from Turkey than most of the rest of Greece. It does have its resorts but is big and diverse enough to still reward visitors. It is probably the most instantly attractive of the group.

Lesbos Island, Greece
Calm waters … Lesbos. Photograph: Getty Images/Flickr RF

Heading west, little Fourni is getting increasing recognition as an “unspoilt” gem, and still deserves the reputation. Larger Ikaria is a different kettle of fish and, while not immediately pretty, is worth exploring: the locals have an independent and proud streak that sets them apart.

Chios and Lesbos also hug the Turkish coast. The former has a long and often tragic history but hides many beautiful places away from its couple of beach resorts. Lesbos is one of the biggest of all the Greek islands, and a long visit and exploration will reveal why it is still beloved by artists, historians and modern Sapphos.

In the north is a scattering of volcanic islands that remain off-the-beaten track. Limnos has become trendy, especially among mainland Greeks, but remains beautiful and authentic. Samothrace is one of the most dramatic of the Greek islands and is home to a stunning and world-class ancient site. And if you want to see how Greeks party, Thassos is your place.

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 last few years. You can usually expect to eat well for €15-€20 per head. If places are cheaper or more expensive than this, it is stated in the text.

Samos

Armonia Bay Hotel
Armonia Bay Hotel

Where to stay
Armonia Bay
This is exactly what you hope for from a Greek island hotel. The simple rooms are large and tastefully done, and most have balconies with great views down to the beach, which is a five-minute stroll away – although there’s a pool if you can’t manage that. The hospitality is relaxed and friendly.
£560, +30 22730 92279, armoniabay.com; family-friendly

Where to eat
Pnaka
For the best food you should head up to the hillside villages above. This meze place has a great terrace in the village of the same name, and serves a great mixture of small dishes and salads to mix and match. Do as the Greeks do and order a little at a time and keep going for as long as you can.
+30 22730 93297

Vathy, Greece
One to muse on … Vathy’s Archaelogical Museum makes a pleasant break from the summer heat. Photograph: Peter Forsberg/Alamy

Don’t miss
Most museums on the islands are only for the real enthusiast. The one in Vathy (the Archaeological Museum), the capital of Samos, is an exception, and has one of Greece’s largest statues as its prize exhibit. The old upper town of Vathy is also worth a stroll.
+30 2273 027469

Fourni

A fishing boat at Thymena Island, Fourni, Greece
A fishing boat at Thymena Island, Fourni. Photograph: Alamy

Where to stay
Archipelagos
As the ferry pulls into isolated Fourni you will be greeted by plenty of locals willing to offer you rooms, some of which are very nice indeed. If you want a bit more certainty in your life, book this port-side hotel that has all the views and facilities you would expect.

£470, +30 69734 94967, archipelagoshotel.gr

Where to eat
Nikos
For a little island, Fourni has a surprisingly large permanent population (which gives it a more dynamic atmosphere than some). The key to this is its large fishing fleet, which means the island’s seafood tavernas are first class. There are a couple of prominent ones by the port, and Nikos is perhaps the best choice. Lobster pasta is an island speciality.
+30 22750 51207

Don’t miss
A short boat ride from Fourni is the even smaller island of Thymena. The population of barely 100 lives mainly in the little port. A short hike takes you over to an isolated beach and taverna – bliss.

Ikaria

Restaurant overlooking fisherman's bay, Ikaria, Greece
Restaurant overlooking fisherman’s bay, Ikaria. Photograph: Alamy

Where to stay
The Ikarian Winery
Eccentric Ikaria takes a little getting to know, and there is no better place to do that than at this agri-tourism-themed vineyard near the island’s north coast. It has a cluster of traditionally-decorated cottages and is still producing its own wines –offering the opportunity to get involved with production, as well as sample the product.
£490, +30 22750 31151, ikarianwine.gr; family-friendly

Artemis Studios
These simple studios are all about location, with superb sunset views down to one of the prettiest coves in Greece. It comes at a bargain price as well.
£195, +30 22750 71485, artemis-studios; family-friendly

Where to eat
Ilias
If you can find them, meze tavernas are often the best places to eat in Greece, giving you the opportunity to try lots of different dishes. This one is just above the small village of Avlaki, serves 40 different dishes, and does an interesting sideline in Moroccan tagines.
+30 22750 71009, ilias.com.gr

Artemis Studios, Ikaria, Greece
Artemis Studios

Nas
If anything this taverna’s terrace has even better views, and the hearty meals carry on the theme of value for money. Also, you can’t help but be tempted to follow the river canyon below to the sheltered cove itself, which is surrounded by wind and wave sculpted rock. It’s a beautiful place, but be careful not to swim too far out as the currents can be deceptively strong.
+30 22750 71486

Don’t miss
The Ikarians like to do things differently. The four villages of Raches are linked by a well-mapped hiking trail, something that is becoming more common in Greece. They also run on “Ikarian time”. The villagers sleep for much of the day, then open up their shops and tavernas for most of the night.

Chios

Houses of Pygri, Chios
Houses of Pygri, Chios. Photograph: Alamy

Where to stay
Perleas Estate
In the interior of this popular island is this superbly-restored old mansion set in four acres of land now given over to organic fruit, olives and vegetables. Attention to detail is the key here, with the gorgeous rooms mixing traditional styles with a nod to the Genoan history of the estate.
£585, +30 22710 32217, perleas.gr

Where to eat
Fabrika
In an old olive press in the market town of Volissos, this taverna specialises in grilled meat (done properly over charcoal). For the carnivore this is heaven (in particular try kokoretsi if it’s on the day’s menu – just don’t ask what it is first) but don’t worry if that’s not your thing as there are plenty of other dishes. .
+30 22740 22045

Don’t miss
Chios made its fortune from the harvesting of mastic, a tree resin once chewed in the harems of Ottoman Istanbul. The product is just a curiosity now, but the villages that were based around the industry still make worthwhile visit. The houses of striking Pyrgi are decorated with whitewash patterns on top of the black, volcanic rock underneath.

Lesbos

Lesbos, Greece
Photograph: Getty Images/Flickr RF

Where to stay
Aphrodite
Lesbos, with its artistic associations has plenty of boutique getaways; the Aphrodite, on a long stretch of isolated beach, is something a bit more old-school: a classic seaside Greek hotel, down to the two-ring electric hobs in the studios. Don’t expect sophistication, but enjoy the friendly welcome from the Hahathakis family and the relaxed atmosphere.
£280, +30 22520 61288, aphroditehotel; family-friendly

Where to eat
Akrotiri
At the west end of Vatera beach is the little port of Ayios Fokas, where this seafood taverna is by the sparse ruins of a temple to Dionysus. This is the real deal with freshly caught fish washed down with plentiful local wine. Try the lakerda, a dish of raw, pickled tuna.
+30 22520 61465

Don’t miss

Molyvos Harbour, Lesvos, Greece
Molyvos Harbour Photograph: Robert Harding/Getty Images


Molyvos is the prettiest village of Lesbos, even with many of its shops now given over to the tourist trade. It is topped by an impressive Byzantine castle that has superb views.

Limnos

Limnos, North Aegean, Greece
Photograph: Alamy

Where to stay
Ethaleia
This is a lovely little hotel with a warm heart. Dina, one of the couple who have put their souls into this establishment, is a local, and her love of the land and its culture shines through. The 10 rooms are often booked up by return visitors, and given the views and hospitality you can see why.
£400, +30 69443 55755, ethaleia hotel

Surf Club Keros

Glamping arrives in Greece! The Surf Club provides luxury safari tents right by the beautiful beach of Keros Bay. The tents have air-con, comfy beds and even a TV and coffee machine, so you’re really not slumming it.
£465, +30 69441 56679, surfclubkeros.com; family-friendly

Where to eat
Mamas Kitchen (as above)
You are rather in the middle of nature at the Surf Club, but don’t be alarmed as Mamas Kitchen will provide all your needs, from a fresh breakfast to a chill-out area, and then Greek taverna classics in the evening.

Surf Club Keros, Limnos Island, Greece.
Surf Club Keros Photograph: Pantelis Ladas/Panteliz Photography

Mantella
This is a traditional taverna in the little village of Sardes, the highest of Limnos. Apparently named after Nelson Mandela, everything else about this place is very Greek: hearty portions of local food are served with a smile.
+30 22540 61349

Don’t miss
What else to do at the Surf Club Keros but try the waves? Lessons and equipment are available in surfing, kite-surfing and windsurfing for adults and children. The surrounding nature area is also well worth an explore, or just a gentle stroll. One of the best things to do on Limnos is to explore its villages and dramatic landscapes. The latter can be seen by visiting the cave chapel of Panagía Kakaviótissa. It’s a stiff, if short, climb, but the views are well worth it.

Samothrace (Samothraki)

Ancient hellenistic theatre at the temple of Great Gods at Samothrace island in Greece
Ancient hellenistic theatre at the Sanctuary of Great Gods, Samothrace. Photograph: Alamy

Where to stay
Archondissa
Set in its own, lovely, gardens, and right by the beach on the edge of the village of Therma, these apartments are spacious and well furnished. Terraces offer views either to the crystal clear sea or up to Mount Fengari, the highest in the Aegean (you can climb it from here, but it’s a good six hours each way).
£280, +30 25510 98098, archondissa.gr; family-friendly

Where to eat
Perivoli T’Ouranou

This nearby taverna sells all the standards to a good quality, with the added bonus of having regular, and sometimes spontaneous, live music performances.
+30 25510 98313

archondissa, greece
Archondissa apartment

Don’t miss
Samothrace is a visually stunning island and there is nowhere better to appreciate this than the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. This cult was worshipped here for over 1,000 years, and the site still evokes awe in the visitor.

Thassos

Where to stay
Thassos Inn
Thassos can be on the lively side, so it can be nice to get away from it all. This hotel dominates the quiet and attractive hilltop village of Panayia. It’s bright yellow buildings are set round a terrace of plane trees and a carp-filled pools, while inside the simple rooms have terraces with great views.
£320, +30 25930 61612, thassosinn.gr

Thassos Inn, Thassos, Greece
Thassos Inn

Where to eat
Drosia
Also in Panayia, this is another reliable standard taverna, specialising in grilled meat, but also offering good sardines and mussels.
+30 25930 61340

Don’t miss
Thassos is a destination for Greeks (especially those from Thessaloniki) who are looking for entertainment. The island is overpopulated with bouzouki bars, and it’s worth giving them a go, even if only for one night. Ideally go with Greek friends and don’t expect to be home before dawn and without a fair amount of whisky inside you.

Getting to the north-east Aegean

The larger, southern islands of the chain can be reached by ferry from Athens, and plane from Athens and other places in Greece. In summer, charter flights run from abroad. Limnos can be reached from Thessaloniki by ferry. The two northern islands of Thassos and Samothrace are a more difficult prospect. Ferries run from the northern mainland ports of Kavala and Alexandropouli respectively.

Other Greek Islands to Visit

Syros

The Venetian quarter of Ano Syros topped by the Catholic basilica of San Giorgio.
The Venetian quarter of Ano Syros, topped by the Catholic basilica of San Giorgio. Photograph: Alamy

When visiting this cosmopolitan town with its marble streets and mix of modern and traditional restaurants, don’t miss the medieval Catholic settlement, Ano Syros, on a hill overlooking the city centre. Along Ano Syros’s whitewashed cobbled streets are some of the island’s best tavernas and handmade-souvenir shops. Go to the northern part of the island – by boat from Kini village – for stunning beaches and exceptional food; head to San Michalis village with the locals to enjoy sunset at taverna Plakostroto.

Macedonia region

Nymfaio, in Florina, Macedonia, Greece.
Nymfaio, in Florina, Macedonia, Greece. Photograph: Alamy

Nymphaio is a beautifully preserved mountain village. It has fresh cool air and no crowds, even in high season. Stay at Argyro guesthouse and enjoy stunning views, lavish breakfasts (homemade loukoumades and rosewater rice pudding set you up for a long day’s hiking). There is also a bear sanctuary at Arcturos environmental centre that cares for animals rescued from circuses and zoos in the region.
Rescue centre €6 for adults, €4 for children, arcturos.gr 

 

Peloponnese peninsula

The beach at Kalogria.
The beach at Kalogria. Photograph: Alamy

Stoupa is the perfect base to explore the peninsula – it’s a holiday resort but also a proper working village with lovely beaches and gorgeous cooling waters running down from the mountains. Kalogria beach has gentle shallow waters perfect for children and a great vibe from the chilled-out backpackers.


Chios’s mastic villages

Xysta decorations on houses in Pygri
Xysta decorations on houses in Pygri. Photograph: Alamy

Visit the Mastichochoria, which are to the south of the island. For centuries, these little villages have lived on mastiha, a resin from the Pistacia lentiscus tree with a distinct aroma used to flavour sweets, cakes and liqueurs. Visit Pyrgi for its houses, covered in a unique kind of sgraffito, and Mesta for its stone houses, archways and perfectly preserved reminders of when it was fortified to resist pirate attacks.


Quiet Folegandros

Kimisis Theotokou church, Folegandros.
Kimisis Theotokou church, Folegandros. Photograph: Alamy

Less touristy and quieter than neighbouring Santorini (and only an hour away by fast ferry), this tiny rugged island feels like stepping back in time. Stay in car-free Chora – a town with picture-perfect squares and charming tavernas, all serving affordable and delicious local food. See an unforgettable sunset from the cliff-top Hotel Castro, then treat yourself to matsata, a local pasta speciality.


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