“All the world is one world, but Kythira is another world,” was an old Venetian saying. So it remains, an authentic bastion of pre-mass- tourism in Greece. Isolated off the southern Peloponnese, it has uncrowded beaches, sleepy villages and, at Mylopotamos, a waterfall in a leafy ravine haunted by nightingales. If you’re up for a challenge, walk from Limnionas beach to the clear emerald waters of the ‘Magic Green Pool’ – a collapsed cave right by the sea.
A bon vivant Cycladic island of sugar-cube villages, sweeping sandy beaches and superb water sports, Paros is famous for its translucent lychnites (‘candlelight’) marble from which the Venus de Milo was sculpted. The capital, Parikia, is known for a tower entirely made of ancient columns and pediments, and for the 6th-century Ekatontapyliani (‘church with 100 doors’). Naoussa, on the north-eastern coast, is the place for seafood and ouzo.
If this butterfly-shaped island wasn’t isolated in the middle of the Aegean it would be packed, with its curl of white Cubist architecture sweeping down from a lofty Venetian castle. It’s mostly arid, yet the ancient Greeks called Astypalaia ‘the Table of the Gods’ for its lush Livadi valley. To reach its tranquil beaches and transparent seas, there’s a tiny airport, so you don’t have to spend all day getting here – if you can bag a flight, that is.
Homer was born on this mountainous north Aegean island, the only place in the world that produces sweet mastic; several of its medieval Mastichochoria (‘mastic villages’) are fantastically decorated in geometric black-and-white sgraffito. Take a cycling tour south of Chios Town through Kambos’s medieval Genoese mansions and orchards, and don’t miss the dazzling Byzantine mosaics in the UNESCO- listed 11th-century monastery Nea Moni.
Barely an island (it’s linked to the mainland by a causeway), Lefkada resembles a rugged, dishevelled Tuscany. The blue-green Ionian Sea is the main allure: sailing from its port, Nydri, you’ll round a bevy of emerald islets, and sunset-perfect beaches – most famously Porto Katsiki – are tucked under sheer cliffs. To the south lies the windsurfing capital, Vasiliki, near the precipice where the poet Sappho is said to have leapt to her death – for the love of a man.
The biggest and most diverse Ionian island, Kefalonia cries out to be toured by car. Its dramatic landscapes and picture-postcard beaches captivated the world in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and its vineyards produce elegant white robola wine. Drive through dense fir forests up 1,628m Mount Ainos, and you’ll see all of the Ionian islands spread at your feet. Take a boat ride into Melissani Cave to be engulfed in iridescent blue.
Greece’s lushest island is said to have inspired Prospero’s sanctuary in The Tempest. Its coasts are scalloped by golden sand, and its unique Venetian-French-British-Greek old town is UNESCO World Heritage-listed. Its remarkable museums include the sublimely kitsch Achilleion palace and a collection of Asian art. Stroll a section of the gorgeous 222km Corfu Trail, and stop for lunch at the White House in Kalami, once home to the Durrell family.
White, flat-roofed houses curl dramatically around the mighty rock and castle of Skyros Town, while just below lies a long, sandy beach. Nightlife means sitting out late in a taverna, then strolling home under shooting stars, while the interiors of the islanders’ homes resemble fairy-tale illustrations. Since 1979 it has hosted the UK-run Skyros Centre, which pioneered alternative creative and wellness holidays in Greece.
The dry classical Aegean light paints in high definition the highlights of this hard-to-get-to Cycladic island: the arid mountains, the blinding white villages and a fantastical monastery, the Chozoviotissa, built into a sheer cliff in 1088. Nine centuries later, Luc Besson found Amorgos’ clarity perfect for his cult film Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue). The capital, Chora, is exquisite, the beaches fine and the people good-humoured.
This is an island of ancient magic. Poseidon sat on 1,611m-tall Mount Fengari to watch the Trojan War, and its Sanctuary of the Great Gods attracted pilgrims from across the Mediterranean to be initiated in its secret underworld mysteries; today tinkling goat bells echo through its evocative ruins on a wooded hillside. Nearby, above Therma Loutra, waits an Arcadia of springs, waterfalls and enormous plane trees twisting like ancient dancers.
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