A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
Published March 5th 2015
Discover Greece - Once You Go, You'll Never Want to Leave
Ten Good Reasons to Visit the Greek Islands
View from the Monastery at Paleokastritsa, Corfu
The Greek Islands have long been a favourite destination for British and other European holidaymakers and my husband, Colin, and I are no exception. There's something about the place that keeps calling you back. So here's my top ten reasons to put the Greek Islands on your holiday wish list.
Mostly formed by volcanic activity over thousands of years, there are hundreds of islands set in the sparkling blue seas surrounding mainland Greece, where groups of archipelagos have been divided into different categories such as the Ionian Islands, Agean Islands, Cyclades and Dodecanese. To name a few. Very often they are named after one of the smaller seas that make up the Mediterranean.
Some are mere dots on the map and may be uninhabited, whilst others such as Crete and Kefalonia are the biggest in their chain of islands. One thing they all have in common, however, is absolutely stunning scenery.
World Atlas - Map of Greece
From the verdant island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, which being further north, has more rainfall than it's neighbouring islands, making it lush and green almost all year round, to the mountainous island of Crete, the largest of the Dodecanese, where the dramatic Samaria Gorge is Europe's own Grand Canyon, a trip around the Greek Island uncovers one treasure after another.
Above - The Cast of 'Mama Mia' and right - Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz in 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Image from Kefalonia Travel Service
The undeniable beauty of the Greek Islands has also been the backdrop to many a Hollywood production, with the islands of Skiathos and Skopelos featuring in the thinly veiled vessel for an Abba fest that is 'Mama Mia' - starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters and Colin Firth, (none of whom are known for their singing), while Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz tell the wartime story of the Ionian island of Kefalonia in 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a film adapted from the award winning novel by Louis de Bernierès. And when it comes to location finding, what better accolade for stunning scenery do you need than a James Bond movie under your belt? (Corfu – Roger Moore - 'For Your Eyes Only').
Meganissi is a personal favourite. Lying north east of Kefalonia, we travelled there by boat while on a holiday to Aghia Efimia on the largest of the Ionian islands. With aquamarine seas and tall cypress trees, the vista was a breathtaking combination of bright blues and deep green as we climbed the stairway up to a coffee shop overlooking the bay. Unforgettable.
Being much further south than Britain, the climate is generally warm thoughout the year, that's not to say you don't get thunderstorms, and when they happen, they really do happen, drenching everything in sight and being quite cold at times. For this reason, the main season for holidays is May – October, with many of the owner operators of the smaller hotels opening only during these months. Corfu is particularly verdant with olive trees which were planted in their millions over several centuries while much of the uncultivated land consists of Mediterranean scrub vegetation.
Temperature Chart Showing Monthly Averages for Greece and London
Temperatures regularly reach the high thirties in the summer and temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius are not uncommon, a magnet to sunseekers, just remember your sunscreen.
Map of Odysseus' Voyage on display at his birthplace on Ithaca
Greek history is well documented and you can find evidence of the past wherever you look, including events that have entered mythology, such as Homer's tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which tell the story of Helen of Troy and the exploits of Odysseus on his 11 year quest to journey home to Ithaca following the Fall of Troy (dated around 1100-1200 BCE) after a ten year siege was broken by his ingenuity - 'The Trojan Horse', that helped end the deadlock. To put it into context, the location of Troy is thought to be in modern day Turkey. Many of the Greek Islands are named in these stories and the great thing about visiting the islands is that some of these things (or a tourist trail version of them) still exist today.
On Crete the Minoan culture is widely recognised as the first European civilisation and the forerunner of the Ancient Greek city states in a civilisation dating back to 5 millenia BCE, although there is archaeological evidence of human habitation even further back to 7 millennia BCE. Archaeological excavations undertaken in the 19th century has revealed the Palace of Knossos near the island's capital of Heraklion. The Palace is believed to be that of King Minos (after whom the Minoan culture was named) and is very much associated with the myth of Theseus and Minotaur.
The Palace at Knossos, Crete
Margaret at Knossos in 2003
Unfortunately, this early excavation resulted in the archaeologists of the day using concrete to strengthen the foundations of the temple-like structure, a practice much maligned in modern times.
Jumping forward, the Knights of St. John were resident on the island of Rhodes for hundreds of years until they were expelled by the Turks in the 1530s and you can still visit historical sites connected with this throwback to the time of the Crusades when you visit Rhodes today. The Hospitaler Order of the Knights of St John now reside on the Mediterranean isle of Malta, with their headquarters in Valletta.
As a major trade route to the east, there is evidence of Venetian influence wherever you look, with grand fortresses guarding the Mediterranean ports that supplied their Medieval wealth. A common theme continues as Admiral Lord Nelson took over the reins in the late 18th and early 19th century, when the Royal Navy was on a quest to rule the waves; he and Lady Hamilton supposedly had a little 'place in the sun' in Kioni on Ithaca, however the house that currently stands there was not built until 1892 by her niece. Greece is a history lover's heaven.
Going hand-in-hand with its history, Greek traditions and culture are intoxicating – and I don't just mean the local alcohol, although Metaxa brandy, Raki and the aniseed flavoured spirit Ouzo are ever popular. A modern 21st century location, it doesn't take long to immerse yourself in traditional music and dancing when you're on holiday there. The melodic and sometimes hectic sounds of the bouzouki are the backdrop to many and evening out, an impromptu dance from the waiters at a restaurant are not all that unusual either. Talk about giving the punters what they want.
Waiters put on their own show at Zorba's Restaurant, Aghios Stefanos, Corfu
Traditional 'Greek Nights' with professional dancers in full tradition costume are also an expression of Greek pride in their heritage. These usually can be booked through your holiday representative or via your hotel if there are any local shows on at the time you are there. It seems to me that almost all the locals know how to do the traditional dances (ok, I know it's just for the tourists but I'm always impressed), the general joy of showing off their traditions shining through.
Buildings in Greece are generally low-rise with many hotels and apartment complexes blending in with the local landscape. It seems that the early days of high-rise tourist accommodation that emerged in early days of mass tourism has been deliberately side-lined by the national government, helping to maintain that traditional small and friendly feel. Don't be surprised, however, if the accommodation you choose is a little more basic than you have experienced elsewhere. Star ratings used by travel companies are very much based on local comparisons, although a three star property will usually have a swimming pool.
The main religion is Greek Orthodox, and if like me, you admire beautiful architecture and how religion inter-twines with history, then you will enjoy this aspect of your visit.
Church of Aghios Stefanos in Corfu village named after the Saint
Georgeous Greek Church on Crete
We've seen some beautiful Greek Orthodox churches over several holidays to Greece in the last 15 years or so and the evidence of a strong community is everywhere. Most Greek islands have their own patron saint and many traditions have envolved around Saint's Days, including processions and parades. There are also recognisable festivals such as Easter, although their calendar is slightly different to the Western Christian church, in my experience, about a week behind the one I'm familiar with in the UK.
The flora and fauna of many of the Greek Islands is unique to that environment so nature lovers will have a field day if they care to investigate further. My first encounter with wild dolphins was on a boat trip across the Ionian sea from Corfu to an uninhabited beach just off the Greek mainland more than ten years ago. A small pod of dolphins played in the wake of our boat and, despite being in my forties, the thrill of seeing these beautiful creatures in the wild for the first time has never left me.
Whilst you can never predict where they are going to turn up, dolphins have also been spotted in the Bay of Argostoli, Kefalonia and, no doubt are regular visitors to various parts of the Greek Islands, and seeing them in their natural habitat is the best way to appreciate them.
Turtles at Koutavos Lagoon, Argostoli Bay, Kefalonia
Another fascinating sea creature is the Loggerhead Turtle *Caretta Caretta), which grows up to about a metre in length and undertakes thousands of miles of sea journeys in its lifetime. We visited the Koutavos Lagoon in Kefalonia last year to see the turtle sanctuary there. They lay their eggs on beaches around Kefalonia and the neighbouring island of Zakynthos, returning each year. The turtle conservation area also has many wading birds and is surrounded at one side of Argostoli Bay by eucalyptus and pine forests. Many indigenous species to these islands are also protected.
Even in a busy resort, a nature watch is always intriguing, take the time to smell the flowers – unless, of course, you're advised not to touch.
Margaret by the flowering trees at Assos, Kefalonia
Moussaka, souvaki, teriyaki, stifado, kleftiko; over they years we, like many other visitors, have learned several Greek words, most of them to do with food. Eating out in Greece is a social event, often outdoors with people of all ages enjoying the balmy Mediterranean evenings and adding to the 'buzz'.
Using all kinds of local ingredients such as aubergines, tomatoes, feta cheese, olives, lamb (or goat) and locally caught fish, the array of traditional Greek dishes is tantalising to the taste buds. Find your own favourite local taverna and give it a go. Here's a link to some of our favourites.
Margaret at Zorbas Restaurant, Aghios Stefanos, Corfu
Welcoming, friendly, kind, funny, great hosts – it doesn't take long to immerse yourself in the Greek hospitality, and when you do, you never want to leave. One of the things I love is that most towns and villages still have a central square where the local people meet in the evening and enjoy a meal or a drink with friends and family of all ages. Children are encouraged to play while the adults talk and the atmosphere is relaxed and self-policing, if you like. There's something about the place that keeps calling you back. In many cases, English is widely spoken, so communication issues are not usually a problem and, as their guests, they take pride in bringing you into the circle for however long you are staying. Perhaps it is the Mediterranean sunshine, but the outlook of the local people is often pleasant and upbeat despite the difficult economic times of late – a deep sense of stoicism is holding things together and their national character is helping to overcome huge hurdles they face in their uncertain economic future, where tourism is a main player. Their economic circumstances are very fluid at the moment but it's a very good reason for you to go there and spend your dosh. Click here to read about our visit to Lixouri in 2014.
There's something about a boat trip that really makes you feel like you're on holiday. Perhaps it's because you don't do them at home all that much but for many people, including us, a boat trip is often the highlight of a holiday – and the Greek Islands are the perfect place to indulge yourself in your fantasy film star lifestyle. The great thing about island destinations is that, whether you take a local ferry or hire a boat or go on an organised trip, you will see the land in a different way and experience the sense of freedom a sea journey gives you.
On Kefalonia we took the local ferry to Ithaca, spending the whole day exploring an island we had only ever seen on the horizon from our balcony. Being the legendary home of the Greek hero Odysseus made it all the more tempting to see what was there? The deep harbour of the island capital Vathy is a magnet to all sailors, ancient and modern.
The Greek Islands is definitely the place to indulge your inner movie star. On one occasion we went to Skorpios, the Ionian Island owned by the Onassis family, where our boat anchored a little way off the beach and we swam close to the shore of the island where Aristotle Onassis married Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s and hosted lavish parties with guests such as Elizabeth Taylor. It was an organised boat trip with dozens of tourists on board and we weren't allowed ashore but it was still pretty cool.
On the same boat trip we also visited beautiful Meganissi and Lefkada – the birthplace of Onassis, where a statue of him stands in the harbour.
The Three Island Boat Trip is definitely worth every penny. It leaves from Aghia Efimia on the island of Kefalonia daily and is a full day trip.
Another one that interested us was based in Argostoli and offered several types of trip including a glass bottom boat around the bay. Look out for the Captain Makis boat in the harbour as there doesn't seem to be a stall to book your tickets but you can view the boat and go aboard to buy tickets or use your smartphone or tablet to book by e-mail. Whatever you decide to do, it is often safer to book through your holiday representative as this usually means that the holiday company has checked our the boat company's safety records and procedures, however you may be able to do this online if you so wish. It goes without saying that the captain and the crew are their for your safety so if in certain circumstances they give you an instruction you should follow it. This is especially important if you intend to go swimming from the boat or consume too much alcohol. Enjoy yourself and stay safe.
If a party atmosphere is what you want from a Greek Island holiday then there's plenty going on in places such as Kavos (Corfu), Malia (Crete) and Faliraki (Rhodes) to name just a few. While Greece endeavours to maintain its culture and traditions amid a sea of mass tourism, certain towns have emerged as party capitals with a huge array of bars, restaurants and night-clubs concentrated in a handful of locations across the Greek Islands, leaving the rest of the islands the same as they have always been. Bars line the streets and you are spoilt for choice as the sun goes down and the neon lights come to life. A myriad of music bars and sports bars line up with Irish bars, English pub restaurants selling food from various cultures around the world alongside traditional Greek establishments.
Faliraki Street - bbc image
Younger travellers love these party capitals, - these are the place to be seen, a party playground for girls' getaways and lads' holidays with more than a touch of hedonism; up all night partying with friends and sleeping it off on the beach the next day. Very often celebrity DJs will be engaged to provide the entertainment, and local promoters will be touting for your business. It's almost a 'right of passage' for younger travellers but also popular with other age groups.
In Faliraki, Rhodes, you can visit the self explanatory 'Bar Street' and Club Street' while in other resorts late night bars are open to the wee small hours. So have a great time, let your hair down and stay safe.
Being a nation of many islands, the range of beaches is staggering and on just about any island you are sure to find your favourite. On Kefalonia Myrtos beach was once listed among the best in the world with its white sand beach and dramatic coastline, however, it does have a strong undertow and visitors should be aware of local warning signs.
The Beach at Aghios Stefanos, Corfu
My favourite is in Aghios Sefanos on the west coast of Corfu where its golden sand stretches for miles and you can wade out in shallow water for perhaps 50-100 metres and still be only waist deep. It also has a stunning sunset.
What else can I say? Greece is great for a short-haul holiday from the Uk with direct flights from many local airports and flying times between 3-4 hours. There's also a range of accommodation to suit every pocket and taste - from small and friendly to luxury 5* All-Inclusive
Or - if you prefer an adventure and it's the journey that stokes your passion, rather than the getting there, you can always try a bit of Island Hopping.
After all these amazing things to see and do in the Greek Islands, I'll leave you to ponder whether Helen of Troy was a real person or if the 'Face that Launched a Thousand Ships' was really the jewels that are the Hellenic islands - and the Trojans that sought to steal them?