Boasting white sand, blue water, winding cobbled streets, tear-drop olives, and temperatures reaching 27°C (80°F), the Greek islands are perfect for a European summer beach break.
If you're visiting Athens and feel like an island break but only have one or two days to spare, the Argosaronic offers the perfect opportunity for a rejuvenating getaway. Most of its islands are just a couple of hours away by high-speed hydrofoil, with Aegina close enough to pop over to for lunch and be back by evening.
These four islands – the cosmopolitan Spetses (two hours by hydrofoil), picture-perfect Hydra (90 minutes), pine-clad Poros (one hour) and pleasantly bustling Aegina (40 minutes) – all make invigorating day trips or relaxing weekend breaks. If you do them as a quick side trip from Athens, it makes sense to take a fast boat or hydrofoil rather than the regular ferry: journey times are halved.
Aegina is a world away from the fumes and angst of Athens, with its horse-drawn carriages and pretty neo-classical buildings harking back to its days as Greece's first capital after the War of Independence (for just a year). The biggest island of the Argosaronic, measuring 85 square kilometres (33 square miles) and with a population of 10,000, Aegina is centered around a pleasantly bustling town full of tavernas and cafés overlooking the main harbour.
Not to be missed, 12 kilometres (about eight miles) east of Aegina Town, is the intricate and immaculately preserved fifth-century BC Temple of Aphaia, a local goddess, later identified with Athena. En route are the Monastery of St Nektarios and the island's abandoned, atmospheric medieval capital, Paleohora.
The best spots for a swim are Marathona or Aeginitsa on the west coast, and Kleidi and Keri near the southern village of Perdika – an ideal place for a seaside lunch.
Where to stay
In Aegina town, the Aegenitiko Archontiko (229 702 4968, doubles €70) is traditional and friendly, while Hotel Areti (229 702 3593, doubles €50-€60) offers sea views. In Agia Marina, the Hotel Apollon (229 703 2271, doubles with breakfast €82-€92) offers panoramic views of the Argosaronic from its cliff-side location. In Perdika, Hotel Hippocampus (229 706 1363, doubles €45-€60) is traditional and cosy.
The small, scenic, pine-clad island of Spetses has an exclusive feel, perhaps because of its affluent residents. Cars are banned, so a scooter or comfortable walking shoes are required in order to explore the charming courtyards and grand neo-classical mansions of the port capital Spetses Town. Horse-drawn carriages are a romantic, but expensive, alternative.
The majestic Mexis Mansion in the town centre, which once belonged to the island's first governor, Hadziyiannis Mexis, is home to the Museum of Spetses. As well as displaying relics from the 1821 Greek War of Independence, it houses the bones of Spetsiot heroine Laskarina Bouboulina, a leading figure in the fight against the Turks.
The best beaches are at Agia Anarghiri and Agia Paraskevi, a few kilometres further west. Water taxis are an exhilarating way for groups to get to secluded beaches.
Where to stay
A short walk from Spetses town, in Kounoupitsa, the traditional Economou Mansion (229 807 3400, www.spetsestravel.gr, doubles from €185) is much loved for its huge balconies. Also in Kounoupitsa is the luxurious Nissia (229 807 5000, www.nissia.gr, doubles from €245). For more affordable comfort, try the Yachting Club Inn (229 807 3400, www.spetsestravel.gr, doubles from €85), near the beach, half a mile from town. Zoe’s Club (229 807 4447, www.zoesclub.gr, apartments for two €150-€245) is a small complex of luxurious suites in central Spetses. Armatahotel (229 807 2683, www.armatahotel.gr, closed Nov-Feb, doubles from €90) is a boutique venue that has been converted from a traditional island home.
Arriving on this picturesque gem of an island is like stepping into a painting. The distinctive neo-classical stone mansions of Hydra Town rise above the picture-pretty port, where cafés teem with customers, and donkeys await their next expedition along cobbled lanes. Hydra is twice the size of neighbouring Spetses but has an even smaller population of around 3,000.
For spectacular sea views, follow Boundouri, a pebbly path winding upwards from the port to the fishing village of Kamini. Alternatively, climb the mountain from town to the Monastery of Profitis Ilias, the adjacent Convent of St Efpraxia and the nearby uninhabited Monastery of St Triada - views from the top make up for the one-hour trek.
Mandraki and Vlichos are the best beaches near the main harbour, but for more secluded spots, head to Bisti and Agios Nikolaos on the west of the island or Limioniza in the south.
Where to stay
The stylish Bratsera (229 805 3971, www.bratserahotel.com, closed Oct-Mar, doubles €140-€215) is set in a restored 19th-century sponge-processing factory. At the Orloff (229 805 2564, www.orloff.gr, closed Nov-Apr, doubles €160-€220) guests can enjoy breakfast in a flower-filled courtyard. Both are within walking distance of the port. Hotel Mistral (229 805 2509, www.hotelmistral.gr, doubles €120-€150) offers rooms in a traditional stone mansion with a cool yard.
Poros is a lively, pine-covered island close to some of the most striking archaeological sites in the Peloponnese, and home to around 4,000 inhabitants. Poros (meaning 'ford' or 'crossing') is actually two islands – Sferia (the tiny volcanic peninsula that is home to Poros town) and the larger Kalabria – separated by a shallow artificial canal.
Poros town's skyline is dominated by the Clock Tower, which looms over the café-lined waterfront. On the west of the islan is the glorious Villa Galini, famous for having accommodated Greek Nobel-winning poet George Seferis and US writer Henry Miller.
Also worth seeing are Constantinos Parthenis's magnificent wall paintings at the Cathedral of St George.
Good swimming spots include Neorion Bay and Kanali (north and south of Poros Town respectively), and the pretty sheltered cove of Agapi (or the Love Bay).
Where to stay
The Sto Roloi guesthouse (229 802 5808, www.storoloi-poros.gr, doubles €75-€150, villa with private pool €250) is housed in a restored neo-classical mansion behind the port. For minimalist luxury and great views, the Poros Image Hotel (229 802 2216, www.porosimage.gr, doubles €130-€150, suite €265) has a prime location on the waterfront at Neorion Bay. A cheaper option is the Hotel Saga (229 802 5400, 229 802 5132, www.sagahotelporos.com, doubles €45-€75, suite €75-135), with large balconies overlooking Kanali Bay.
Flight time 3.5-4hrs mins from the UK to Athens. Airport Eleftherios Venizelos (Athens airport) Transport The airport is linked by taxis, metro line 3, the suburban railway the Airport Express busses, which run all night. If you're planning on travelling by boat in August, make sure you're reserved your tickets well in advance. For information on routes and timetables, visit www.greekferries.gr and www.piraeusferry.co.uk.
Easily Crete's most beautiful and atmospheric city, the western port of Chania is essentially Venetian. Most wanderings will be spent in the old town, but a visit to the bustling covered market, which marks the boundary between the Venetian-Ottoman districts and the modern city, is worthwhile.
A warren of alleys leads down to the waterfront, dominated on the east by massive Venetian arsenals and the mosque of the Janissaries, and on the west by row upon row of taverna and café tables, where locals and tourists congregate. This inner port is embraced by the Naval Museum/fortress on one side, the Venetian lighthouse on the other.
On the main street, Halidon, the basilica of San Francisco contains the only remnants of the Minoan palace and Greco-Roman Kydonia you're likely to see. Exploring the back streets will reveal attractive and original restaurants, bars, galleries, shops and hotels. Look for the restored Itz Hayyim Synagogue among them and seek out the less frequented Splantzia quarter with its minaret.
Chania makes a fine base for day trips to Akrotiri's monasteries, beyond Souda Bay, drives into the White Mountains, and the trek down the Samaria Gorge, or to the 50,000sqm Water Park Anopolis, at Anopolis, for wave-pools and racetracks.
Flight time 3 hrs-3hrs15 mins from the UK. Airport Crete-Ioannis Daskaloyiannis-Souda (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/hania.htm) is nine miles east. Transport The airport is linked by 4-5 buses daily (20mins). Taxi €15.
The most well-known of the verdant Ionian islands, Corfu lies just off Albania, a large enough island to contain an attractive unspoiled hinterland behind the stretches of package resorts thrown up in the 1960s.
The main town of Corfu is a bustling capital, close to the airport and ferries for the mainland and Italy. It comprises historic quarters squeezed between forts constructed by various invaders who have occupied the island over the last millennium – including the British, who came to Corfu in the 19th century.
The narrow alleyways of Campiello, Mandouki and a once thriving Jewish neighbourhood jostle for space between a handful of churches and museums. Don't miss the icons in the cathedral or pre-Christian mosaics in the Byzantine Museum.
The island's Archaeological Museum is also impressive, with Neolithic and Ancient Greek finds. Evidence of British occupation includes the Palace of Saints Michael and George, where the High Commissioner lived, and a cemetery with ornate memorials.
Popular day trips include the nearby islands of Vlaherna and Pondikonissi. At the island's northern tip, DJ base Kassiopi is a mecca for party-goers, while windsurfers flock to Avlaki.
Flight time 3hrs - 4hrs from the UK. Airport Kapodistrias International (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/kerk.htm) is two miles from Corfu town. Transport There are no buses from the airport to town but Nos.5 and 6 run along the main road (€3-€6). Taxi €15-20. It is easy to get around Corfu town on foot, though there are buses.
Crete's biggest city would never make it through the first round of a beauty contest. It is noisy and chaotic; its architecture a muddle of competing styles. But Heraklion has a lively charm, wonderful eateries and a dozen or so landmarks that are worth ferreting out.
The port's Venetian fortress, vaulted arsenals, plus four kilometres of walls proclaim La Serenissima's 460 years of domination, relinquished in 1669 only after a 22-year siege by the Turks, who held on until 1898. The Historical Museum, off the waterfront, contains exhibits from the Byzantine through Ottoman eras as well as the Battle of Crete.
Of course, Crete's most celebrated phase was its first, the Minoan, and the finds in the city's Archaeological Museum – gold, pottery, frescoes from Neolithic to Roman – are incomparable.
Heraklion's pulse beats fastest around Market Street, bordered by three Venetian fountains. Near the 17th-century Morosini (Lion) fountain, you'll find the basilica of San Marco/Municipal Gallery, the Venetian Loggia/Town Hall, Agios Titos, which the Turks had converted to a mosque, chic boutiques, and the stalls spilling over with luscious local products. Above the New Gate, scene of summer concerts, the Martinengo bastion holds writer Nikos Kazantzakis's grave.
The Minoan palace of Knossos is only 5 km south of Heraklion.
Flight time approx. 3hrs 15 mins from the UK. Airport Nikos Kazantzakis (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/irak.htm) is three miles from town. Transport Shuttle buses depart every 10 mins. Taxi €5-15. The centre is easily walkable.
This city, in the southern Peloponnese, stands between the Mediterranean and the endless silvery grove that produces Kalamata's famous tear-drop olives.
For decades, it was chiefly known as the gateway to the western Mani, but since the mid 90s there have been many reasons to linger. First is the annual International Dance Festival held in the third week of July. Most performances take place in the courtyard theatre of the medieval castle built by French Crusaders on Mycenaean foundations. The castle overlooks the old town with its elegant neo-classical buildings, lively main square and tempting, traditional food shops.
The Archaeological Museum conjures up a civilisation at perennial odds with its aggressive neighbour, Sparta, while the Folklore Museum depicts Kalamata's gentility two centuries ago and its declaration of independence from the Ottomans in 1821, two days before the rest of Greece.
The town's long, clean beach lined with medium-sized hotels and good tavernas could delay your departure for the treks and towers of the Mani or a trip to explore Ancient Messene. The site, 19 miles north of Kalamata on Mt Ithomi, is one of the most impressive in the Peloponnese. On-going excavations have laid bare the major buildings of this fourth-century BC city and dozens of beautiful sculptures.
Flight time 4hrs from the UK. Airport Kalamata (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/kalam.htm), four miles west of the city, is linked by regular buses. Transport Taxi €15-20. There is a good bus network and plans for electronic rail (ULR).
The book and film connection, courtesy of Louis de Bernieres and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, has placed Kefalonia firmly on the holiday map, and there is lots to like here. This is a big, green island with the bluest water in the Ionian, lots of beaches and dramatic mountain scenery (some of the coastal drives, with steep drops and hairpin bends, are not for nervous passengers).
Fiskardo, in the north, is a strong contender for the 'prettiest village' title, but some may find it just a bit too prettified. Those who like their fishing villages a bit more authentic may prefer Assos, on the west coast – it has the requisite tavernas under plane trees and there's an adequate beach with clean water right beside the quay. Motor boats can be rented in both villages.
Between Assos and Fiskardo, Kefalonia's most scenically spectacular beach at Myrtos is pleasantly undeveloped – mainly because it is at the end of a giddy series of hairpin bends that wind their way down from the main coast road to a crescent of white sand and blue water beneath looming limestone cliffs. Although there are few places to stay here, Myrtos gets crowded in summer: arrive early if you want a place to lay your towel.
The bigger beaches are on the south coast, and it's here, closest to the airport, that Kefalonia has become most commercialised. The busiest resorts are Makris Yialos and Platis Yialos. Further east, Lourdas (also known as Lourdata) has half a mile of sandy beach and an attractive little village with shops, tavernas, and cafés but no blaring disco-bars. Skala is another popular low-key beach resort, while Kato Katelios and Ratzakli, near the south-east tip of the island, are reckoned to be the finest beaches on Kefalonia. Argostoli, the island capital, is a surprisingly sophisticated small town, with a pedestrianised main drag lined with cafés and bars (patronised more by local residents than by visitors).
If Kefalonia has one drawback, it is a dearth of sightseeing opportunities. An earthquake in 1953 levelled many of the Italianate buildings that were a legacy of its centuries under Venetian rule, leaving the battered ramparts of Aghios Georghios Castle (above the modern village of Peratata) as the island's most imposing historic relic. It's worth visiting if only for the view across the patchwork of fertile plains to the mountainous heart of the island.
The sights that most visitors remember longest are from the natural world. Deep within Kefalonia's limestone core, deep grottos have been carved out by aeons of winter rains. Many are off-limits to casual visitors, but the boat trip through the Melissani Cave, where a deep turquoise pool some 200 metres long is lit by sunlight entering through the gap where the cavern's roof caved in during the 1953 earthquake, is unforgettable.
Dominating the southern part of the island is the 1628-metre peak of Mt Ainos, one of the highest summits in the Greek islands. With slopes covered in Kefalonian fir, plane trees, lemon groves and gnarled olive trees, it is an attractive walk for those with plenty of energy.
Kefalonia is only 12 miles from the mainland, with several ferries daily from the east coast ports of Sami and Poros to Killini on the west coast of the Peloponnese. This makes it possible to take a day trip to ancient Olympia (about 90 minutes drive from Killini) or to visit the ruined, but still spectacular, medieval castle at Chlemoutsi. Several ferries daily also make the short hop to smaller, quieter, Ithaki, with its perfect natural harbour.
Flight time 4hrs 15mins from the UK. Airport Kos (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/kos.htm) is 16 miles west of Kos town. Transport The airport is served by KTEL buses from the roundabout. Taxi €25. A mini-train travels around town.
Boasting top brands of ouzo and olive oil alongside impressive antiquities and Europe's only petrified forest, Lesbos (Lesvos in Greek) has managed to achieve a good balance between a self-sufficient economy and a successful tourist industry. Mytilene, the capital, may be a bustling university town but it also accommodates a Hellenistic theatre, a Roman aqueduct and a massive Roman/Venetian castle. Go north to Molyvos and you'll find pure elegance: the town's red-tiled roofs spill down from the lofty Byzantine/Venetian castle to the harbour below; it's a stroller's paradise of cobbled streets with ancient fountains, a covered market and waterside cafes. Not far away, Orpheus's head and lyre are said to have washed up on the shore, giving Lesvians a special gift for music and poetry.
Of course, Lesbos's main claim to fame is the fact that the poetess Sappho came from the island – from the small west coast village of Eresos, now a popular lesbian venue. Close to Eresos is the petrified forest, created by volcanic action 20 million years ago, with fantastically colourful tree trunks up to 20 metres long. A drive around pine-covered Mount Olympus will land you in the faded grandeur of Plomari, olive oil hub and origin of the country's most famous ouzo brand.
Flight time 3hrs 30 mins from the UK. Airport Odysseus Elytis (+30 22510 61590) is five miles south of Mytilene. Transport Taxi €8. Mytilene bus station (+30 22510 28873).
Narrow, mountainous Kos, the second-largest island in the Dodecanese, is a heady mix of fascinating antiquity and mass tourism. Hippocrates, father of scientific medicine, was born here in the fifth century BC.
The remains of the Asklepion complex, built after his death as both treatment and research centre, is the island's premier ancient site. Kos town is full of Hellenistic and Roman remains and has its fair share of Italianate public buildings (they were in use from 1912 to 1943).
Still dominating the harbour is the castle of the Knights of St John, built in the 14th century as the crusaders' riposte to Ottoman aggression. Opposite its entrance is the so-called Hippocrates plane tree, under which the master was said to teach. Unlikely – it's old but not that old.
For the most picturesque inland villages drive up the forested slopes of Mount Dikeos in the area known as Asfendiou. A small winding road leads up as far as Zia (it's overrun by tour buses for sunset views). The best and least-developed beaches are on the little neck of land on the south coast near Antimahia. For a dramatic contrast, visit neighbouring Nisyros, a volcanic island where you can walk on lava.
Flight time 4hrs 15mins from the UK. Airport Kos (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/kos.htm) is 16 miles west of Kos town. Transport The airport is served by KTEL buses from the roundabout. Taxi €25. A mini-train travels around town.
Wildly off the beaten track, Greece's eighth largest island, opposite the entrance to the Dardanelles, offers a rare glimpse of Aegean life barely touched by tourism. The main town, Myrina, straddles a promontory of black volcanic rock encircled by the crenellated walls of a Byzantine Italian-Turkish fortress. From here, you have a good view of Myrina's two waterfronts: Romeikos Yialos or Greek Beach, with tavernas, neo-classical houses and the Archaeological Museum lined up along a strip of ochre shingle; and Tourkikos Yialos, where the buildings are humbler and the sand finer. The fishing port with its wall-to-wall taverna tables and the ferry landing are on this side.
The rest of the island is a peaceful blend of rolling wheat fields, vineyards, open bays, well-camouflaged air force bases, and shallow lakes. Moudros, at the back of the biggest bay, saw the launching of Churchill's disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915. East of it, at Poliochni, lie the ruins of what may be Europe's first city, dating back to the fifth millennium BC. There is little left of the sanctuary of the pre-Olympian Kabeiroi to the north, but don't miss Hephaistia and its elegant, newly restored Greco-Roman theatre. Limnos's beaches are not world-class but they're not mobbed either.
From Limnos you can board a boat to Samothrace, Lesbos and Agios Efstratios.
Flight time 4hrs from the UK. Airport Limnos (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/limnos.htm) is 14 miles east of Myrina. Transport Taxi €15. Bus services are infrequent.
Mykonos has a lot of the things you expect from a small Cycladic island: sandy beaches, clean water, scuba diving, photogenic windmills, a pretty whitewashed hora (capital) – but the real magnet is its nightlife.
Mykonos may be busy and expensive but it does have style. Once considered an exclusively gay resort, this is no longer the case. Dress the part and wander down to Little Venice at sunset, stop for a drink in one of the evocative waterfront bars, drop into the nearby art galleries, fashion shops, or jewellery stores. Maybe take dinner near the port and then head to the nearby clubs and discos or, for a bit more sophistication, try some of the bars around Enaplon Dinameon like Aroma or Celebrities.
By day, the hora is a delightful cluster of sparkling white houses and alleys, full of little churches and chapels, with colour provided by bushes of bougainvillea and hibiscus.
In the town's Archaeological Museum you'll find pottery from neighbouring Delos, a good reminder that you should take an excursion to the most important ancient site in the Cyclades, birthplace of the divine twins Apollo and Artemis.
Flight time 3.5hrs from the UK. Airport Mykonos (+30 228 902 8720) is two miles south-east of town. Transport The airport is served by irregular buses. Taxi €5. There are two bus stations at the harbour and Lakka. Local buses run frequently. Tourist Informationwww.mykonosgreece.com.
Most of the passengers who fly into Preveza head straight for the green island of Lefkada, 12 miles from the airport.
The Ionian’s fourth largest island, Lefkada has become the sailing and wind-surfing capital of Greece. The west coast is a succession of gorgeous beaches tucked between increasingly high limestone cliffs and the peacock-hued sea. From the most precipitous rocks at the southern tip of the island, there’s a splendid view of Ithaka and Kephalonia, as well as numerous smaller neighbours. You can take day trips to many of them from Vassiliki and Nydri, Lefkada’s chief resort, on the lush, lagoon-like east coast. Nydri faces Skorpios, the late Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis’s private islet, still off limits, and Meganisi, a quieter version of Lefkada with three villages, pleasant beaches and sea caves.
Lefkada town boasts the Ionian’s largest and best equipped marina and its funkiest architecture.
Nowhere else in Greece will you see houses faced with corrugated metal and painted every colour of the rainbow. Most of Lefkada’s stone buildings collapsed in a disastrous earthquake in 1948 but baroque churches in the Venetian style are reminiscent of the Italians’ long presence.
From Lefkada you can visit Parga, the Roman ruins of Nikopolis, and of course the low-key port of Preveza.
Flight time 3hrs from the UK. Airport Aktion National (+30 26820 22355) is four miles from Preveza town. Transport The airport is served by buses meeting charter flights. Taxi costs about €10 or €30 to Lefkada island. The bus station is on Leoforos Irinis.
With a multitude of sandy beaches and a spectacular medieval town of grandiose buildings and winding cobbled streets, it's no surprise that Rhodes is one of Greece's top destinations.
Always an important force in antiquity, Rhodes briefly overtook Athens in the third century BC as a centre for the arts, though its subsequent prosperity was checkered. The heaviest imprint on the Old Town was made by the Knights of St John (1309-1522), whose order drew crusaders from all over Europe. Divided into langues (people of the same tongue), the Knights each built their own auberge, a hostel with private chapel and dining hall.
Elegant Ippoton Street is a seamless run of auberges, their coats of arms displayed on the walls. At one end is the Palace of the Grand Master, at the other is what used to be the Knights' Hospital, now the Archaeological Museum. The Palace, most of which was destroyed in 1856 in the latter years of Ottoman rule, was restored (as was much else) by the Italians, who occupied the island from 1912 to 1943.
Walk south from the Palace and you'll encounter the most eye-catching Turkish building in Rhodes – the very large pink Suleyman Mosque. Still used by the island's small Muslim community, it is open to all 1-2pm daily.
For those sandy beaches, follow the east coast, going beyond Tsambika to miss the worst of the crowds. This route will also lead you to the town of Lindos, where the Knights's Castle assimilated the ancient city's acropolis and a Doric temple of Athena to create a magnificent architectural hybrid.
Flight time 4hrs from the UK. Airport Rhodes- Paradisi (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/rhod.htm) is eight miles south-west of Rhodes Town. Transport The airport is served by a fairly frequent bus 6am-10.30pm. Taxi €13. The town is walkable, though there is a good bus service (+30 22410 27706/+30 22410 36370).
Unspoilt mountain villages, the intriguing town of Pythagorio and some fine beaches along the western coast do much to compensate for Samos's negatives – its over-eager embrace of package tourism and the damage caused by wildfires.
The island's most celebrated historical period is the sixth century BC, when it was under the rule of the tyrant Polykrates, who liked to do things big. Herodotus tells us that he commissioned the largest harbour, the largest temple complex and the longest tunnel of that era. All were in Pythagorio (named after Pythagoras of theorem fame, another resident).
The harbour is now under water but the ruins of the Heraion sanctuary give you a feel for its scale; you can also explore the first 100 metres of the staggering kilometre-long Eupalinus Tunnel, used for water supplies. A fine archaeological museum in the unremarkable capital of Vathy houses the tallest surviving kouros (nude male statue) from antiquity.
For atmospheric mountain villages, with fine views and tavernas, drive to Vourliotes and Manolates in the north of the island. There are great beaches around Potami, a few miles west of Karlovassi; follow the footpaths west from here. This piece of coastline is a protected area for the monk seal. The Turkish coast is close, so don't miss the chance to visit the ancient site of Ephesus.
Flight time 3hrs 30 mins from the UK. Airport Samos International (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/samos.htm) is nine miles south-west of Vathy and two miles south-west of Pythagorio. Transport Taxis only are available. They cost around €18 to Vathy or €10 to Pythagorio. There is a regular bus service between the two towns (+30 22730 27262). Taxi +30 22730 28404.
Santorini is, quite simply, the most spectacular of all the Greek islands, with an awesome crescent of multicoloured cliffs rising from a deep, blue, sea-flooded caldera that was created almost 4,000 years ago by one of the mightiest volcanic events in human history. The resulting tsunami destroyed the Minoan culture – based on Crete, around 80 miles south of Santorini – and some archaeologists suggest it inspired the legend of the lost continent of Atlantis.
A chain of pretty, whitewashed villages runs around the crater rim from the island capital Thira north to Firostefani and Imerovigli and then to Oia, at the island's northern tip. These villages are home to charming boutique hotels, sharing the same splendid sunset views. Oia, which was partly destroyed and evacuated after an earth tremor in 1953, has been almost entirely rebuilt since the 1980s as a desperately chic, colourful village of gorgeous hotels, smart cocktail bars and restaurants, and boutiques selling locally designed clothes and silver jewellery.
Santorini's beaches – along with its airport – are on the east coast and are famed for their black volcanic sand. Kamari, closest to the airport, is the island's only proper beach resort, with a clutch of mid-priced package holiday hotels and self-catering apartments. Unless your budget's really tight, a pool is essential: Santorini's beaches are swept on summer afternoons by scorching winds.
The island's other big beach is Perissa, separated from Kamari by the 566-metre bulge of Profitis Ilias, Santorini's highest hill. Perissa has its share of places to stay – mostly at the lower end of the market – and is less busy than Kamari.
Inland, Santorini at first glance looks unprepossessing, with treeless fields of ashen volcanic soil separated by low stone walls. Look more closely, and you'll see most of these unpromising patches of land are dotted with grapevines. Santorini's soil is surprisingly fertile and the island produces some of Greece's best wines, which can be sampled at the Boutari Wine Centre.
For all its history, Santorini isn't big on old buildings and ancient monuments. Atop Profitis Ilias is the medieval monastery of the same name (modest clothing is essential for a visit – no exposed midriffs or knees). Nearby are the scattered, fallen walls and patches of mosaic floor that mark the site of Ancient Thera. At Akrotiri, on the southern tip of the island, archaeologists have unearthed relics of Europe's oldest civilisation, including walls, mosaics and frescoes.
Santorini's nearest neighbour islands, Aspronisi and Thirassia, lie tantalisingly close, across the caldera, and are popular destinations for all-day or sunset booze cruises. If you fancy travelling further afield, there are frequent ferries, catamarans and hydrofoils to Mykonos, Paros, Ios, and other islands in the Cyclades group, and southward to Crete (www.gtp.gr).
Flight time 3hrs 15mins from the UK. Airport Thira National (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/santor.htm) is two miles south-east of Thira, linked by twice-hourly buses (€1.20, 30mins). Taxi €7.
For 300 years the Venetians called their prize possession the Flower of the East because of its fertile hills, vineyards and gracious town. They ignoredthe long sandy beaches, white cliffs and sea caves that make it a holiday island par excellence. The presence of British tour companies has lessened the appeal of some of the best beaches – especially Laganas, Argasi and Alykes. Endangered loggerhead turtles continue to try to lay their eggs there, creating tensions between local proprietors, tourists and ecologists. Nevertheless, there is progress towards coexistence, notably at beautiful Yerakas, at the tip of the peninsula opposite Laganas.
Three attractions bring in the crowds: the grottoes in the cliffs at Keri; the Blue Caves at the north of the island; and Shipwreck Beach (the most photographed of all, best reached by boat from Skinari).
Zakynthos Town crumbled in the earthquake and fire of 1953. What you see today is a faithful re-creation of the original.
Don't miss the churches (they were rebuilt stone by honey-coloured stone) and the excellent Post-Byzantine Museum on Dionysios Solomos Square (+30 269 50 47 714), named after the island's most famous poet. Agiou Markou Square, with the Solomos Museum (+30 269 50 28 982), is livelier and more commercial.
The Venetian castle at Bokhali, above the town, has splendid views.
Flight time 3hrs 15 mins from the UK. Airport Zakynthos (www.hcaa-eleng.gr/zakinth.htm) is two miles south-west of Zakynthos Town. Transport No airport bus service. Taxi €10. There are buses from Zakynthos Town bus station (42 Filita, +30 269 50 22 255) to the resorts.
More information about destinations and transport in Greece can be found on at www.visitgreece.gr.