Ten of the best Greek islands by a seasoned traveller

Billy Cotsis has travelled to 65 Greek islands and counting. Here he recalls HIS top ten favourite islands based on personal experiences, beauty, aura and history.

They say that Greece has 227 inhabited and 6000 uninhabited islands. They also say that each one has a story to tell; I have been lucky enough to have spent almost two years of my life travelling the islands and collecting stories. Whenever I close my eyes I can feel the magic of every one of these islands, every one of the sunsets and occasional sun rises that I have experienced.

As Greece teeters on the brink of financial oblivion, it’s worth evaluating the one element of Greece that no economic crisis can undo: the spiritual and cultural wealth of the Greek islands.

I cannot get over the charm and wonder of the islands, and getting there via ferry, plane or even by a bridge (Lefkada), can be just as pleasing as the visit itself. I have learnt over the years that if it’s not too busy, you can easily make friends with the crew of a ferry. In the past that has led me to access ouzo, cigarettes, funny anecdotes, football stories and tips on what to do once you reach your destination. Oh and how to do a kamaki!

Based on the criteria above and feedback from people I have encountered, these are MY favourites. It should be noted that irrespective of my subjective list, each island is brilliant. Whether it’s the tiny Gavdos facing Africa or the rocky island Saria off the mesmerising Carpathos, no list will do the islands justice for too many were unable to feature.

#10: Poros
Technically, two islands connected by a bridge, known as Spheria and Kalavri in classical times. It’s possible that the Greek Gods designed Poros as it sits in the shape of an amphitheatre, has enough greenery and around 6 or 7 spots to go for a swim.
I first came here in 2004 and then almost every second year since. My highlight is the Love Bay and it is fair to say it truly is an island of romance as I met my then fiancé here in 2005. Poros is perfect for the sunset and has an array of hidden shops in the backstreets of the port. My tip is to visit between Monday to Thursday as its quiet, despite the island boasting 5000 residents. On the weekend, Athenians tend to visit and the nightlife comes in to play. Do not visit the temple of Poseidon, as there is very little to see. I remember the German who made his girlfriend walk 40 minutes up the hill and boy did he hear it when they reached the site…

Not content with the beauty of Poros? For two Euros and 200 metres away catch the caique to the Peloponnese for a good feed and a laugh with the locals.

Get here by Delphini or ferry only, takes about an hour, double that with the slow ferry from Piraeus.

#9: Corfu
My only visit to Korkyra/Corfu came in 2005 on my way to Albania to visit the Greek towns. What I came across was one of the best medieval towns in Europe. In fact, this is an architect’s dream, especially if Venetian tickles your fancy. The food was expensive and portions remain smaller compared to other islands.

Each beach is almost the epitome of paradise, you will swim all day and you can find an abundance of beach barakia. Unlike Poros, it has an airport and 110,000 people year round. Fun fact for you, the capital was one of the most fortified in Europe, making it difficult for French, Russian and other invaders to capture. Corfu, like the rest of the Ionian was part of the Republic of Ionian Islands which formally joined Greece in 1864.

#8: Kalymnos
If it’s old Greece you want, then Kalymnos is the place to be. I came here in 2007 and enjoyed every moment. From the taxi driver who didn’t want us to miss the sunset at the pretty Vathi therefore drove 100 km an hour along a narrow cliff to the older dialect spoken, you will not want to leave.

Kalymnos has a winter population of about 17,000, with many being expert divers. Sponge diving is a speciality and Kalymnians have found their way across the Mediterranean and Darwin. My tip is to stay on the north side where the beaches are quiet and spectacular. Stay a night on Telendos Island, should cost about 4 Euros to cross with caique. Stay away from the nudist beach; it was full of older Germans! They intend to repay what they owe from World War II with their “modesty.”

Kalymnos is nestled in the heart of the Dodecanese. We arrived from Cos and the 20 minute boat trip saw temperatures rise from hot to heatwave. Apparently Kalymnos has a warmer climate year round. If you are travelling in the Dodecanese, make sure to visit islands such as these as well as the scenic Leros, Castellorizo, you will not be disappointed by any of them.

#7: Milos
Truly an island for the love birds, yet I found myself visiting here three times on boys’ only expeditions. The first time was 2008 and most recent in 2013, and it is the 42nd island I have been to.

Milos has beach after beach which is surprising as it is not a large island. Take a boat tour of the island and you will be captivated by the caves, rock shelters and aqua blue waters. Try not to take the boat that has a teenager as the skipper. Pedro I believe he was known as.

Milos was created from lava and various rock formations and hence it can have a ‘space’ feel about it. Take the beach of Sarakinko; this has a narrow inlet with a small beach surrounded by moon like craters.

Visit Tsigrado and climb the rope down to one heck of a secluded beach, then climb back up, walk across the road and follow the rocks around for 200 metres and you will find a beach bar and surprise, surprise a hidden beach. Make sure you visit the capital of Plaka with its white washed buildings.

My tip for clubbers, there are only very few clubs that operate here. Cruise boats tend to pull up at Adamas around midnight and then depart a few hours later meaning those clubs are rammed for a short period. Catch a ferry here from Piraeus or the Cyclades.

#6: Mykonos
Unlike Milos, this is the place to be for incredible all hours partying and believe it or not archaeology – make sure you visit nearby Delos island, the former capital of the Delian League and treasury. My 19th island and six visits later means I am all partied out. My friend Tekno Manos, one of the famous summer dancers has been here twenty-four straight years. Enough said.

#5: Kefalonia
You can visit this island by ship from almost anywhere in the Ionian Sea and from the Peloponnese, which will take you to Argostoli or the second port of Sami, where the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was shot. Kefalonia has plenty of beautiful landscapes and Venetian architecture. I was last here in 2011. My friend Stella Matt is quick to tell me this is the best island and points out that Antisamos beach is pure, while a visit to the Cave of Melissani is a true delight as it contains a beautiful lake and forest. You can row across the lake (actually someone else will do that for you). Visit at midday when sunlight filters into the cave through a large hole.

Like most of the Ionian islands you will find plenty of Venetian reminders in particular castles. Two further recommendations from my friend and from my own visit include Petani which is a white pebble beach, aqua blue waters, and Argostoli. Catch the ferry from Lixouri to and find a taverna with a view of the De Bosset Bridge which is the largest stone bridge on a sea water body. This is a large island which has a high influx of Italian tourists (Italy is around 14 hours away); it quietens down dramatically after August.

#4: Symi
Symi has a population of about 2,500 and is less than an hour from Rhodes, the only way to arrive. I’m amazed by the amount of people who overlook a visit to the island when they visit Rhodes. The ferry that sails in to the harbour will be greeted with the most incredible sight…… multi coloured mansions hugging the mountain that surrounds the shore. If your breath is not taken away, then clearly you are not kissing your partner, for this is a paradise for honeymooners and the romantic at heart.

This island was once a commercial powerhouse of the 19th Century, with ship building and sponge diving prominent and a population of over 20,000. Over the last century Symi was occupied, like most of the Dodecanese islands by Turkey, Italy, Britain, before it was returned to Greece in 1948. Many Symiotes found their way to Australia.

Just sitting around the harbour can be enough, and breathtaking. My tip is that that you climb to the top of the mountain overlooking the harbour. This is a must and will take you about 20 minutes of huffing and puffing to get there. Go around sunset or sun rise and take your partner.

Everything you need is around the majestic harbour. If you wish to get away from the main hub and the busy port, catch the caique (boat) to explore. This is the only way to actually get around! We did that and enjoyed stopping at a beach ten minutes from the harbour. I remember we all swam out to the little island in the bay with a small church, about a hundred metres into the ocean. And as we stood on the shore, then I heard a very Aussie accent say, ‘G’day guys, welcome to paradise.’ It seems antipodeans are everywhere in Symi.

This was the 35th island I have been to.

#3: Santorini
When people ask what has modern Greece achieved? I suggest that they start with architecture. The best architecture of modern Greece essentially commences here. An earthquake in the 1950s and a lack of wood, resulted in the flat roof, cement sculpted structures that exist on every second Greek post card. The white keeps the ants away and the blue ushers in the sky and the water of summer. Aside from all the picture perfect moments on the island, make sure you visit Thirassia island and the volcano/caldera. Three times I have made it to the island named by the Italians (Saint Irene); its real name is Thira, the ancient name. My tip is to visit Akrotiri for this is perhaps Atlantis, well preserved and waiting for visitors.

#2: Lesvos
The first island I ever went to, Lesvos has everything except for the Milos style beaches. A hundred villages and towns, a capital that is a mini hustling bustling Athens, close proximity to Asia Minor. Molyvos on the other side of Lesvos is arguably one of the most impressive towns in the world; 5000 residents, a harbour, beach, clubs, colourful stone houses, coble stone streets, all rising on a hill that meets a castle. You will be mesmerised.
I have been to the home of ouzo over twenty times and lived here for a year. We have the best sardines in Greece, tasty olives and food that only your gia gia can cook. This is the destination for anyone who has a week or two spare and wants to step away from the mainstream island holiday. You will not find Mykonos style parties here; you will find sophisticated Greek bars and clubs, tavernas that never run out of food and nature! The island is green. We are also famous for Sappho, the first ever Lesbian and the millions year old Petrified Forrest. When you are bored of all that, visit an ouzo refinery, go mountain trekking, take in one of many monasteries or natural springs.

A number of boats pull in to Mytilene harbour daily, though my tip is to fly in. There is nothing better than landing with the mountain on one side and the ocean on the other. Magical

All of this is contained in the new documentary, Lesvos: fall in Love.

#1: Crete
With a population of almost 700,000 Crete is one of the most amazing and historical places I have ever been to. I have been four times, including this year to run the Penny Marathon, being the 38th island I ever went to.

I was always going to have a brilliant time… phenomenal settings, incredible local (dopio) wine, food that was out of this world, clear blue sea and great company (parea), Crete became my paradise.

I will try to give an overview of what to see, but let me just catch my breath back as I think back to such an amazing experience.

To truly appreciate Crete, you must take at least ten days to two weeks. Stay away from Mallia during peak season as this is for the youngsters who party hard. Visit just about every other village of town. The best thing to know about Crete is that civilisation is here; this is where you can truly understand how Greek civilisation evolved. It is the home of Minoan culture that dates back a very long time and is the heart of fierce resistance against Venetian, Ottoman and the brutes of Germany. The damage the NAZIs caused should be repaid with interest.

My tip is to stay in Chania or Rethmno and try to visit Balos which is the equivalent of Thai tropical waters and Elaphonisos – here you can walk to this uninhabited island through shallow water.

Crete has two main airports and various harbours. I suggest flying here as it’s quicker, either from Athens or across Europe. It’s a year round island and the people will appreciate your visit, for Cretans may be ferocious warriors and carry out vendettas in times gone by, however they are also the home of kindness and filoxenia.

Honourable mentions: even though I always count Cyprus as a Greek island, and it could have been as high as #2, it has been kept off this list as technically it is a country. Kythera, Serifos & Sifnos, Byzantine Monemvasia, Tzia, Spetses, Carpathos, Skiathos. Actually, it is my own subjective list of paradise, every one of us has our own favourites. See you in 2017 on the nisia!

*Billy Cotsis is the director of Lesvos: fall in Love which is playing at the Greek Film Festival


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