Which is the prettiest Greek island to visit? We round up the most dazzling island idylls of them all.

Lord Byron, Lawrence Durrell and Leonard Cohen are but three of the aesthetes who have favoured the Greek islands when it comes to Odyssean summer jaunts. And who could fail to see why? Holidays upon which to be seduced by azure waters, ambrosial food, relics of the ancient world and – perhaps – siren song are hardly to be knocked. But with over 200 to choose from, which Greek island should you visit first? That all depends on what you’re looking for – parties, family-friendly activities, peace, heavenly beaches. Happily, with such bounty on offer, there is something to suit every kind of holiday maker. And for the best of all worlds, why not try island hopping between them all? We love them all, but these are the Greek islands that make our top nine.

Corfu




Most people with a passing interest in the Greek islands are familiar with Corfu, not least because of its association with the Durrells. Unlike some of the more arid islands, the jewel of the Ionian Sea is lush and verdant, and its villages are endlessly pretty. Agni is popular with the well-to-do seeking the simple life, its waterfront tavernas serving up perfect seafood to the sound of the water gently lapping against the pebble cove, while the nearby Kalami on the north-east coast is a destination for fans of Durrells (it is where their The White House is situated). A word of warning: avoid Kavos in the south, home of banging nightclubs and 18-30 style holidays. Unless, of course, that’s what floats your holiday boat.

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Do venture to the Durrells’ house, but also make time for Corfu Town, which is vibrant and beautiful. Thanks to its strategic position, it has been under the control of the Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Neapolitan Angevins, the Venetians, the French and the British – all of whom have demonstrably left a cultural legacy.

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The island abounds with wonderful, traditional tavernas. If, however, you want an extraordinary gastronomic experience, head for Etrusco, where each dish is like a work of art.

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The all-inclusive Ikos Dassia on the Ionian coast is a dream for couples and families alike. So good is it, in fact, that it has been named the world’s best all-inclusive resort.


Hydra




Leonard Cohen kept a home on Hydra in the 1960s, thus setting the tone for the arty crowd to come flocking – and, 60-odd years later, they’ve never left. Greece’s foremost art collector, Dakis Joannou arrives via yacht every summer, and now the likes of Brice Marden and Juergen Teller have homes there too. Don’t, however, expect anything flashy: the whole point of Hydra is its seductive simplicity. There are no cars on the island; everything is reached on foot, by donkey or by boat. And the pebbled beaches are spectacular.

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Hydra is not a touristy place, thus the chief ways to enjoy the island is by hiking along its hilltops and footpaths to discover old monasteries and secluded beaches. Keen divers will be well rewarded, thanks to its profusion of reefs and underwater caves.

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There are many lovely places to eat on the island, but our favourite must be Castello Hydra, housed within an 18th-century castle. The view is breathtaking and the food sublime.

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Hotel Miranda, a boutique beauty housed within an old sea captain’s mansion.


Santorini




Azure-domed churches, narrow streets and views over the Aegean: Santorini is one of the best-known of the Greek islands – and for good reason. Its distinctive half-moon bay is the centre of the caldera, a volcanic depression created after one of the largest eruptions in history, after which the Minoan Civilisation went into decline. Today, however, the island is very much thriving, thanks to its marriage of natural beauty, spectacular sunsets (most popularly watched from the village of Oia) and history. Don’t miss its array of unforgettable black volcanic sands beaches.

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If you’re interested in the island’s history, do head to Akrotiri of Thera, a Bronze Age Minoan settlement akin to Pompeii, preserved by volcanic ash.

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Don’t miss the glorious Selene, which opened its doors in 1985 with the mission of epitomising the spirit of Santorini in every morsel. It succeeded; no trip to Santorini is complete without a visit.

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Hotels come and go, but the trailblazers tend to stay. Such is the way with Perivolas, the hotel that sparked the popularity of Oia and whose style – minimalist suites carved into the cliffs – spawned a thousand imitators. This is the original and still the best.


Skiathos




The smallest island in the Sporades, Skiathos is nonetheless blessed with acres of soft sandy beaches that are not just the best amongst its neighbours, but some of the best in Greece. A real holiday island, it’s a place to bed down on a sun lounger (if you can get one, that is; the more rugged northern side of the island is less likely to be packed in peak season) until night, when the town comes alive. Wander from bar to restaurant via an array of boutiques and bask in the sheer laid-backness of it all. The nearby Skopelos is also worth a visit – especially if you fell in love with the scenery in Mamma Mia, which was set on the island.

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Do take a boat to see the sea caves that lie on the northern side of Skiathos. You can pick one up from the town, which will take you straight to the crystal waters and wild landscape.

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Exantas in Skiathos Town perches right above the lapping waters of Megali Ammos beach. Clink glasses and tuck into refreshing dishes – such as a watermelon dip – while you lap up the scenery.

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Right on the beach and yet surrounded by lush greenery sits Atrium Hotel, a four-star beauty designed by its owner. Magical and inviting, every detail has been carefully considered and perfectly conceived.


Kefalonia




Cephalonia flew somewhat under the radar until it was made famous by the book – and later the film – of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Myrtos Beach is dazzling, the snorkelling opportunities at Dafnoudi or Emblissi are sublime, while in national park, Mount Ainos, wild horses run free. It may be very much on the map now, but it is still one of the quieter of the well-known islands.

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Do visit the Cave Lake of Melissani, close to Karavomilos village. Tour it by boat and spot archaeological wonders from the 3rd and 4th century BC.

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Go off the beaten track to the lovely village of Fiskardo and make straight for Elli’s, where you can settle in for the afternoon by the water’s edge while mainlining calamari.

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F Zeen is a retreat in the true sense of the word. Come to wander amidst the tropical gardens, to restore equilibrium in the hammam and to float in infinity pools that merge into Ionian Sea below. In a word: paradise.


Syros




For veteran Greek island holiday-makers, why not switch up the well-trodden likes of Santorini and Mykonos for the lesser-travelled Syros? Quite distinct from other islands in the Cyclades, its long Venetian occupation is still keenly felt today, notably in its Italianate architecture and piazzas. As a former shipbuilding centre, another legacy can also be found in its boatyards and manor houses. What you won’t find here are package holidays or cruise ships – a fact that makes our hearts sing.

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Although some of its beaches can get crowded, there are remote sandy bays that haven’t been discovered by hordes of tourists (yet). And every single beach on the island is Blue Flag standard (the highest rating for cleanliness). But between swims, do not neglect to visit the Apollon Theatre, a mini LaScala, or to seek out some live Rebetiko, a distinctive local music otherwise known as the ‘Greek blues’.

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The lovely Mazi is hung about with vines and bougainvillea, while Django Gelato serves up inventive and delicious ice-cream flavours to punters. Persian cream topped with apricot jam and crushed pistachio, anyone?

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Hotel Ploes is housed within a neoclassical mansion in Ermoupoli – it’s a short walk from the port and a myriad of restaurants, but you would be forgiven for foregoing all that in favour of spending your days swimming straight from its waterfront location.


Paxos




Teeny tiny Paxos is only accessible from nearby Corfu. It is, however, well worth the extra bit of effort. It is characterised by olive groves and the most electric blue sea imaginable – notable even in this part of world, which is hardly short on azure vistas. Gaois is the main town, but Lakka and Loggos are equally lovely and vibrant by night.

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Do make sure you spend one day of your holiday on a boat, seeking out the hidden coves as well as its ‘Blue Caves’ – and do also make a lunch stop at the neighbouring, ruggedly beautiful Antipaxos.

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Dal Pescatore serves up fish so fresh you know it was flipping around in the nearby sea just hours earlier. Eat, drink and make merry here, all while soaking up the atmosphere of Gaios’ central square.

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Paxos Villa is one of the most heavenly spots on an already heavenly island. A simple stone farmhouse style house, it is carved into the Erimitis cliffs, making for a beautifully dramatic place to bed down.


Rhodes




Rhodes is a wonderful island for those who like to mix up the beach with history. Visitors can stroll through the medieval citadel in Rhodes Town, from whose battlements you can see its melange of Roman ruins alongside minarets and Byzantine churches. Lindos, meanwhile, is the ‘it’ place for more chilled holidaying, its pretty streets and spectacular beaches overlooked by a wonderful ancient acropolis.

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However wedded you are to your sun lounger, a visit to Rhodes without heading to its main town would be a travesty. The Old Town features the Palace of Grand Master, the Street of the Knights, the old port of Mandraki and Hippocrates Square.

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Rhodes Auvergne Café is situated inside the walls of the Old Town and housed within a knight’s old lodge, dating back to 1507. The food, though excellent, is second only to the magical atmosphere.

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Lindos Blu Luxury Hotel and Suites overlooks the twinkling Vlycha Bay is exquisite. However, we long to stay at Jasper Conran’s Lindos home, which you can book through Lindos Villas.




Ios




Part of the Cyclades and situated roughly halfway between Santorini and Naxos, Ios is small (eleven miles by six) but perfectly formed. Like a clutch of other islands, it has a reputation as a party destination, but such sensibilities are indulged only in one pocket; the rest is peaceful and home to some of the very best beaches in Greece. It is also endlessly pretty, its streets lined with Bougainvillea, thus painting the whole scene in vibrant pink. Purported to be the final resting place of Homer, it is a mecca for classicists, budding and established alike.

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You cannot come to Ios and neglect to visit Homer’s tomb, which is situated on a hillside with wonderful views across the Aegean. It is glorious to think of the great epic poet looking onto the seas and scenery of which he wrote for all eternity. And do also head for Mylopotas for the best beach on the island.

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The Octopus Tree is great if you want to sample local wines and excellent mezze – all with a view of the port. Make sure you try the delicious titular octopus.

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This dreamily romantic boutique hotel has endless view across the Aegean. Its artsy rooms are delightful – and there is even an outdoor cinema, so that you can get your entertainment fix without missing a precious minute to stargaze.

By Nancy Alsop
June 2022

Nancy Alsop

Editor

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