Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Vacationing on the Water, Part II: The Greek Islands

Anyone who has talked to me in the past few years has heard me rave about the Greek islands.  Eric and I have visited together three times since 2010.  Greece continues to be one of my favorite places to return to time and time again.  Here are some details on a few of the islands and some suggestions of what to check out while you're there.


Crete has been ruled by the Minoans, the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire at different times in centuries past.  After gaining its independence at the turn of the twentieth century, Crete became a part of Greece about ten years later.  While it reflects the Mediterranean culture of Greece, it also has its own distinctive mix of influences.  

The pink flowers everywhere were one of my favorite sights
In 2011, Eric and I visited Chania, Crete, with his parents for several days.  Chania is a gorgeous harbor city with narrow streets and remnants of Venetian and Turkish rule.  In addition to vestiges of the ancient and medieval past, bombed-out buildings serve as a reminder of World War II.  Across the street from our hotel, a restaurant had set up outdoor seating in the half-walls of a former multistory building.  We also found a garden growing in the remains of a house.  Walking through the old city let me feel that I was observing a historical text written by the physical landscape around me.

Plants growing out of the windows of a destroyed house
Restaurant in the remains of a building
In addition to Chania's history, the modern life in the city is vibrant.  There are many shops and delicious restaurants along the little streets.  Several afternoons, Eric and I picked a waterfront café in which to sit, read and watch the boats.  Another morning, Eric's mom and I went for a boat ride out into the sea.  From Chania, you can also hike in the Gorge of Samaria, a "Cretan highlight" according to Rick Steves.

Chania's harbor with its lighthouse at the end
Though the main town square can feel a bit like a carnival at night, with goups of hawkers selling cheap toys that light up, make noise, or both, and others selling souvenirs and balloons.  The Starbucks right on the edge of the square make make you feel as if you've barely made it outside your comfort zone.  Once you venture into the alleys and side streets, it will be much easier to switch into vacation mode.

This former mosque in the harbor has been turned into an art gallery
Getting there: You can fly from Athens to Heraklion International Airport, which takes about 45 minutes, and catch a bus to Chania from the capital.  It is also possible to take a ferry into Chania, though that would take much longer.

Where to stay: We stayed at the Vranas Studios, a small hotel that felt comfortable, antique, and authentic.  There were many other small, boutique hotels in the area, so I'm sure you can find whatever type of accommodation you prefer.

Where else should I go?: In addition to Chania, Eric loved visiting Rethymnon when he visited Crete.  The island is large, so I'm sure there are other cities and villages to explore. 


Looking at the main town in Ios
Often mentioned in conjunction with Mykonos, Ios is one of the Greek party islands.  The main town has the narrow, white-painted streets and blue doors associated with traditional images of Greece, yet each narrow path is lined with bars and clubs.  During the day, the town is quiet and picturesque.  After hours, you can find just about any type of drinking establishment you could want.  During my last visit for Eric's 30th birthday, we visited a quiet, classy bar that served us Hendrick's Gin while playing Jimi Hendrix (there was some confusion about what Eric's brother had ordered), a circus-themed bar with an acoustic guitar player, and a few less classy spots that played Ke$ha and had long shot menus.  

A sunset over the harbor
Despite its reputation for debauchery, Ios has a lot to offer aside from hangovers.  Because the island is popular for return visitors, the restaurants have to meet expectations in a way that many tourist spots don't.  In addition to traditional Greek fare, the international food is excellent, from Thai Smile to Harmony, a great Tex-Mex place.  Beyond that, the beaches are lovely and the island itself is beautiful.  If you aren't in the mood for a party, you can explore the island, find a spa, or just relax on a terrace looking out over the sea.  

Twilight from our hostel room
Getting there: You can catch a ferry from Athens or any of the other islands in the Cyclades.  If you've made a reservation at a hotel or hostel, usually they will send someone to pick you up at the main port.

Where to stay: The only place I've stayed is Francesco's, a well-maintained hostel set up high in the town.  It offers dorm beds and private rooms along with a patio with a great view of the water.  In the middle of the summer, it is often filled with young Australians looking to party, but in late August/early September, an older crowd tends to drift in.  I'm sure there are nicer resort-style hotels, though I have not had the opportunity to explore them.

White church, blue sky, and coral-colored flowers - this is my image of Greece
Naxos is tied with Paros for my favorite Greek island of the few I've visited.  It is bigger than Ios or Santorini, so its economy relies on more than just tourism.  Its boardwalk has many great restaurants and places to get dessert.  It feels calmer than Ios – it has more families than single Australian nineteen-year-olds — and has fewer expensive jewelry shops than Santorini.  The old town is big enough to get lost in and the beaches are calm and beautiful.  

When we first visited together in 2010, Eric and I spent an afternoon on an ATV driving through the hills of the island's interior.  We found our way to a few different ancient ruins and stopped at a sleek but empty café for a Coke.  From Naxos, you can also take day trips to tour around Paros.  I enjoyed spending afternoons wandering through town, stopping at the English language bookstores or the small shops.  I found a few pairs of earrings for my mom and sister at a shop called Happy Ending, which the owner and her husband had set up after living on the island for several decades. 

Shops along the street in the old town
The price range for hotels in Naxos's main town can accommodate backpackers and people looking for a luxurious vacation.  During our first visit, Eric and I found a small hotel for around 30 euros a night.  We got a glass of wine when we checked in and were just a short walk from the main streets.  It wasn't especially fancy, but it was comfortable and felt airy and relaxing.  

The balcony at the Nissaki Beach Hotel
When we visited with Eric's parents, we traveled with significantly more style.   We stayed at the Nissaki Beach Hotel, one of the nicest places I have ever had the luck to visit.   Our room was stunning and had a balcony overlooking the hotel's pool, while Eric's parents' had a suite overlooking the sea.  The hotel's restaurant, meanwhile, was situated directly on the beach.  You could sip amazing red wine while running your toes through the sand.  I frequently daydream about running off and living there permanently.  

Sunset on Naxos
Getting there: You can take a ferry from Athens or any of the other islands in the Cyclades.  Naxos also has an airport, but I'm not sure how much more expensive a flight would be rather than a ferry.


Looking out into the caldera
Santorini is the island in all of the pictures of Greece.  It is strikingly beautiful, with towns set along the caldera, a massive cove created by a volcanic explosion.  Gorgeous cave houses are set into the hillsideBeing there feels surreal, as if no place could be this breathtaking.  

Looking out from inside a cave house
Because it is such a beautiful place, Santorini is also one of the islands most popular with tourists.  The shops lining the narrow, crowded streets frequently sell expensive jewelry, designer clothing, and other high-end items geared towards a vacationing set willing to buy luxurious items.  Of course, this is not all of Santorini — if you explore a little more, you can find smaller, local shops selling handmade jewelry or paintings.  

View over the caldera
Eric and I visited for a night with his parents and then let them enjoy the island on their own.  They went on a wine tasting, took a cooking class, and rode a boat into the sunset.  

Getting there: You can take a ferry to Santorini from Athens and the surrounding islands.  From the harbor, you can take a taxi or bus up to Oia or Fira, two of the main towns.  The island also has an airport with regular flights to Athens.


Street in Naoussa
Paros is a calm, lovely place to relax that's popular among European travelers.  Eric and I visited this summer and spent three weeks in Naoussa.  It was a small town with winding, maze-like streets and a beautiful coastline.  We stayed in a studio apartment near the main town square.  Though we didn't take advantage of them, there are many beaches around the island.  The cafés in town are stylish and I wanted to try a new one almost every night. 

Waterfront in Paros
Where to stay: Pension Anna was perfect for us.  We had a little room, a nice bathroom, and a secluded patio.  There are other hotels in town that might be bigger or more luxurious, so I'm sure you can find whatever you might be in the mood for.

One of my favorite discoveries in town
Getting there: Like the other islands in the Cyclades, you can get there by ferry from Athens or the surrounding islands.

Have you visited the Greek islands?
Which ones did you like best?
Have you been to ones that I haven't?

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