‘The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece, eternal summer gilds them yet…’
Lord Byron was on to something when he waxed lyrical about the Greek islands. But with more than 200 to choose from, which ones are the very best Greek islands? Here regular isle-hopper Rachel Howard reveals the ones to get in a speedboat for in 2022.
Best Greek island for: Culture and off-season cachet
On Syros, capital of the Cyclades, you won’t find sugar-cube villages and whitewashed lanes. The colourful 19th-century city of Ermoupoli is built on twin peaks – one Orthodox, the other Catholic, the heritage of a long Venetian occupation. There’s still a strong Italian flavour in Ermoupoli’s marble piazzas, princely mansions, and miniature replica of La Scala, the showpiece of a year-round cultural scene. Syros hosts festivals of animation, dance, digital art, film, classical music, jazz and rembetiko, the Greek blues popularised by local musician Markos Vamvakaris. A few rembetiko joints have survived in the upper town, Ano Syra.
Once Greece’s ship-building centre, Syros still has a boatyard at Neorio. But the most splendid legacy of the shipping industry are the manor houses in Vaporia and Poseidonia. The beaches are slightly less splendid — with the exception of Delfini, Varvarousa, and Aetos in the wild north. But fabulous seaside tavernas abound: Ambela for fresh fish; CIliovassilemar on Galissas beach for samphire and sea-urchin salad and rockfish soup; Allou Yallou in the pretty seaside village of Kini for lobster with orzo. In Ermoupoli, the finest places to eat and drink are along Androu Street: Ousyra (ousyra.com), where the chef plates up Greek-ified pasta and beautifully balanced salads, and Django Gelato, where the smoked-hazelnut ice cream and fig sorbet sell out in 30 minutes flat. Perhaps the prettiest restaurant of all is Mazi) a vine-covered courtyard festooned with bougainvillaea. Before you leave, stock up on loukoumi (rose-tinted Turkish delight) and San Michalis cheese from Prekas delicatessen, and visit Zylo for hand-made wooden sunglasses.
Best for: Big, fat Greek feasts
Sifnos owes its foodie reputation to its most famous descendant, Nicholas Tselementes, who wrote the first Greek cookbook in 1910. Forget souvlaki and moussaka: here, chickpea croquettes and stewed capers are taverna staples. The island is peppered with potteries that produce the earthenware casseroles used for revitháda (baked chickpeas) and mastello (lamb with red wine and dill). Traditional dishes are slow-roasted in a wood-fired oven at To Meraki tou Manoli, a local institution on sheltered Vathy bay. (While you’re there, invest in some timeless tableware from Atsonios pottery, in business since 1870.) In postcard-pretty Artemonas, all roads lead to Theodorou, purveyors of nougat wafers and almond sweets since 1933. You can eat in your bikini at Omega 3, where locally foraged and fished ingredients are given an exotic twist: baby-calamari tempura, smoked eel in chilled melon soup with wasabi, and chickpea sorbet with wild apricot jam and pine nuts. In 2020, Omega 3’s previous energetic head chef Giorgos Samoilis opened Cantina, an equally experimental restaurant in Seralia, a pretty little bay below the beautiful medieval village of Kastro. Lobsters are plucked straight from the sea at Heronissos, then served with spaghetti on the jetty. It’s just the right balance of low-key luxury and unspoiled authenticity. Rather like Sifnos itself.
Best Greek island for: a long weekend with the art crowd
You know when Dakis Joannou, Greece’s foremost art collector, is on Hydra. His yacht, Guilty, is painted in gaudy ‘camouflage’ by Jeff Koons. Every summer, Joannou invites big hitters such as Matthew Barney and David Shrigley to create site-specific installations in the Greek island’s old slaughterhouse. Even the school is commandeered for exhibitions in the summer holidays. Car-free and protected by a preservation order, Hydra has always been the artists’ muse of the Greek Islands. Leonard Cohen set the scene in the 60s; now Brice Marden, Sadie Coles and Juergen Teller have homes here. Athenian artists take up residence at the School of Fine Arts, one of the vast, grey, stone mansions overlooking the horseshoe harbour. Musicians of all stripes rehearse and record at the (Old Carpet Factory), an 18th-century residence whose double-height ceilings and underground cistern have incredible acoustics.
Less than two hours from Athens, Hydra fills up with chic Greeks at weekends. . They come to disconnect and slow down, but also to see and be seen. Wily cats and weary donkeys patrol the back alleys, but all the action happens along the waterfront. Oh look! There’s Olivia Palermo at The Pirate Bar and Chloë Sevigny shaking her tail feather at Hydronetta beach bar. Who cares if there are barely any beaches? You can always find a slab of sun-baked rock from which to leap rock from which to dive into the clearest water in the world.
Best Greek island for: A photogenic and dramatic coastline
Everyone knows the Venus de Milo (which has stood in the Louvre since the 19th century). Until recently, very few had heard of Milos, the volcanic island where Aphrodite’s graceful likeness was discovered. Those in the know jealously guard their treasured island, and especially its 70 (or more) beaches — surely the most diverse and dramatic coastline of all the Greek Islands.
Little by little, though, Milos is being discovered. Instagram is saturated with no-filter shots of the undulating white cliffs at Sarakiniko, the bottle-green swimming hole at Papafragas, and colourful, rickety syrmata, tiny boat houses wedged between rock and sea. (You’ll find the best photo opportunities at Klima and Mandrakia). This painterly landscape was shaped by the minerals that have long been a source of wealth – obsidian, alum, barite and sulphur, which still bubbles up in the island’s many hot springs. As the 11,000-year-old mining industry is gradually giving way to tourism, several chic hotels have made an appearance. Go now, before the trickle of visitors turns into a tide.
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Source : Condé Nast Traveller