Your Greek islands guide
There are 6,000 of them strewn across the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Here are 10 of the best
With its soaring cliffs and powder white sands, Zakynthos is one of the most dramatic of the Ionian islands, particularly as the rugged coast contrasts so completely with the green and fertile interior.
Known by the Venetians, and Falcon Holidays, as Zante, its nickname was “Flower of the East”. Flowers are still big part of the draw here – an estimated 7,000 species bloom here. It’s also home to some interesting fauna, having its own maritime preserve dedicated to the protection of loggerhead sea turtles, as well as to the local monk seals who use the island’s hidden coves and caves to give birth to their young.
The Ionian islands have a history of earthquakes, with a particularly devastating one having taken place in Zakynthos in 1953. Despite this, the main town’s beautifully reconstructed Venetian architecture has retained its appeal and the broad sweep of Solomos Square is still the town’s front parlour by night, as it has been for centuries.
It’s a relaxed city, possibly because most of its younger tourists don’t venture beyond Lagunas on the southwest coast, the island’s party capital.
Antiquities: The devastating earthquake of 1953 left only three buildings standing in the island’s main town. One of the best places to view the rebuilt version is from the ruins of the Venetian Castle, at the town’s highest point.
Villas: Assimi, a super-swish villa near Agios Nikolaos, 30km north of Zakynthos town, is high enough on a rocky outcrop to offer views of the sunrise and the sunset and has a master suite with glass on two sides to make that most of that fact. It also has an infinity pool, cool white marble floors throughout and costs from £667/€813 per person for a seven-night stay, based on 12 sharing. peligoni.com
Unfortunately now forever associated with a somewhat gormless looking Nicolas Cage, the dramatic island of Kefalonia is much more than the star of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it’s a celebrity in its own right. Not for its architecture – it too was ravaged by the 1953 earthquake – but for its natural talents. Think soaring cliffs, steep mountains quilted in fir trees and gleaming white beaches. Make the most of its dramatic topography with hikes through Mount Ainos National Park, whose mountain tops out at 1,600m. Chances are you’ll be familiar with its most famous beach, the much photographed Myrtos, an arc of white pebbles backed by limestone cliffs.
Or go celebrity-watching at trendy Fiscardo, known as the St Tropez of Greece. The picturesque fishing village in the very north of the island is more interesting still in that it gives you a glimpse of how the island once looked, as it alone survived the earthquake untouched.
The capital, Argostoli, is an attractive working port where fishing boats jostle with smart yachts and a nice promenade for people watching.
Antiquities: Assos castle on the northwest coast, 36km north of Argostoli, is the largest in Greece. Its 2km of walls, reinforced with bastions, run almost entirely around the Assos peninsula. Built in the 16th century the prison was in use until 1953. Today, it’s all about the views.
Villas: Stay in Villa Gaèta, high among the cypress trees within walking distance of Fiscardo. The three-bed property sleeps six, has a pool and panoramic views to the islands of Ithaca and Lefkas, from €2,649 in July. See uniquevillaskefalonia.co.uk/2518
Off the coast of western Turkey, this archipelago – whose name refers to the fact that there are 12 of them – has been taken back and forth with gusto down through the ages. In the last century alone it was occupied by Turks, Italians and Germans. Indeed, only in 1947 were they formally returned to Greece. It’s no wonder so many were attracted to them, given their location in Greece’s sunny southeast Aegean.
The medieval city of Rhodes, on the northern tip of the island, is not to be missed. The old town was built by the Order of St John of Jerusalem, the “Hospitallers”. After the order had lost its last Crusading foothold in Palestine, it arrived here in 1309 and, over the next 200 years, set about transforming the city into a formidable stronghold – before sailing off into the sunset, or at least, to Malta.
As with so many Greek islands, over time Turks and Italians came and went, putting their own stamp on its architecture, leaving cobbled streets with gothic towers standing beside mosques and public baths.
It’s not so much a sense of time standing still you get here, as much as time darting all over the place at once. It’s what makes it such as worthy member of the Unesco World Heritage Site club.
If it’s heaving clubs and nightlife you’re after, head for Faliraki on the northeastern tip of the island, where cheap and cheerful is the order of the day.
For a quieter option, head for picturesque Lindos, a whitewashed, cobblestoned, low-rise resort town mid way down the island’s west coast, with a good variety of restaurants and three bays offering clear water and safe bathing. As well as restrictions on unsightly development, it benefits from regulations regarding traffic and noise pollution too.
Antiquities: There’s no sign of any Colossus but you will find the Acropolis of Rhodes on Monte Smith Hill, 3km outside the city centre, on a serene site which includes a Temple of Apollo, a classical stadium and an ancient amphitheatre.
Villas: Sandpiper is a two-bedroom seaside villa in a quiet location on St Nicholas Bay, halfway between Lindos and Pefkos. Sleeping four, it has a garden, terrace with barbecue and a swimming pool and is priced from €1,100 a week in July.