I have a particularly bad habit about not blogging about holidays – much to Ilaria’s dismay. During 2015 I ran out of steam to write about a few weekends away and our December break to the bush and dreamy Mozambique; however, the one post Ilaria would not let me ‘off the hook’ was the one from August: holidaying in the Greek Islands.
And regardless of that fact, Greece was THE destination of the year for me (and it was a fairly good year of travel, involving amongst others Paris, Madrid and Turkey) so it really does deserve to be blogged about, even if it has been six months in the making!
To re-cap, Sean and I started my big birthday holiday with a weekend in London, followed by 10 days in incredible Turkey; visiting Istanbul, Cappadocia and Bodrum. Our final stop in Bodrum (along the beautiful Turkish coast) was intended to make the passage through to Greece an easy one and yet, what developed was a round-about detour via Thessaloniki (best one don’t ask about these things) to arrive in Santorini at 9pm. Arriving in the dark meant we were truly not ready for how spectacular the next morning would seem; emerging from our room to the caldera view, an endless blue horizon and the traditional postcard-view of white Cycladic houses. I don’t think I can articulate how magnificent the outlook was, particularly on that first morning.
Obviously, I had spent a significant amount of time researching where to stay on the island before settling on Imervolgni. The choice of this village, and our hotel (the seriously incredible Kaparai Natural Suites) ‘made’ Santorini for us. It was small – really a gathering of a handful of boutique hotels and petite restaurants scattered across the balconies of the town – quieter in its presence than neighboring Fira (the main town), and equipped with some of the best views on the island. While Oia is known is known for its sunsets (to which thousands of boat tourists flock every night), Imervolgni’s position on the island means the views are as special but significantly calmer. On our arrival night we dined at our hotel restaurant (outstanding, FYI) and marveled at the absolute stillness of the evening.
I can sum up Santorini in one word: magical. I have travelled to some really superb destinations in the past few years; each with its own charms and mystique, but Santorini quite easily comes in my top 3 places. It was also the point in my three week holiday that relaxation mode really started to kick in. We did do some very cool things during our stay: wine tasting IN the vineyards, a beautiful morning aboard a catamaran and a morning hike up Skaros rock, but it was the lazy tanning sessions around our pool with breathtaking views that I reminisce (often!) about.
- My travel tip: If you do go stay in Imervlogni, extend your stay to five nights and see as much of the island as you can – on foot or four-wheeler; there really is a lot to see/do on such a small island.
After our three short nights in Santorini we caught a ferry to our next Greek island: Naxos. My sister, Ali, and her husband Phil had flown from London to join us for a few days of island-hopping. In contrast to the commercialized nature of Santorini and Mykonos, Naxos felt like the ‘typical’ Greek holiday-island: more rugged, less stylish but as geared up for summer tourists. Our hotel’s location was fantastic – as close as you can get to the beaches of Agios Prokopios (according to the hotel’s reception the “third best beach in Europe”) which featured almost real sand – although that is where I will end any sort of review for the hotel. Besides tanning and checking out the Temple of Apollo (Portara) there was not a huge amount to do on the island.
On our second and final night, we made our way to the Old Market of the town, which turned out to be the most surprising thing about the island. Tucked behind the ‘strip’ of the marina area lies the Old Market complete with cobbled market lanes and drooping bougainvillea, traditional tavernas, a multitude of small stores and winding pathways. After some fairly average food on the island, we stumbled into a delightful little courtyard for an updated take of traditional Greek food. Although I doubt I would ever return to Naxos, I am glad we went there; it showed more of the ‘real’ side of Greek islands and what some of the other small islands of the region resemble.
- My travel tip: Naxos is known for its windsurfing so budget some time to try this out (we didn’t, sadly). Enjoy the freshly-baked breads and other goods from the traditional bakeries around town: beats a hotel breakfast hands down!
Mykonos was our final island stop; and one where I had booked a hotel in January given the popularity of the island. My, increasingly, not-so-trusty, guide book had called Mykonos “the ultimate victory of style over substance” and yet, the infinite blue views and expanseless ocean was more than enough to satisfy me. Mykonos has been dubbed the ‘new’ Ibiza by many; the up and coming party capital of Europe. Despite this title, I feel like Mykonos can be whatever you want it to be! Our hotel’s menu was reflective of that; one could order poached salmon on herbs (which I did on our first day), junk food (pizza and burgers which we did on our last day), the most indulgent breakfast pastries or fresh fruit and boiled eggs.
I loved how glitzy and glamourous Mykonos could seem; but at the same time remaining true to what the island first started out as: a gay party island (see photo below!)
One of the highlights of our stay in Mykonos was the day spent to Scorpios Beach Club. We booked a private beach cabana for the four of us and spent the doing nothing more than one should on a beach holiday: swimming, tanning, drinking cocktails and relaxing until sunset. Although the island is very windy, the little bay of Scorpios was completely sheltered that day: hellooooooo tan lines! The natural décor of the restaurant and club was stunning; the perfect complement to the rugged, dusty nature of the coastline. After sunset, the music switched from the chilled lounge music of the day into an upbeat party under the stars.
I could not have asked for more in what we did in Mykonos; our first evening started off at Buddha Bar (sensational sashimi tacos), progressed into town and ended up at another party somewhere on the island (which only ended at 7am the next morning for the guys). On our last day we didn’t make it to the most famous of all beach clubs (Nammos) due to one team member being totally “manned down” so we simply spent the day around our hotel’s pool. I know there are some people who believe a hotel should be nothing more than a rest station, but for me, I love being able to relax at my hotel while on holiday.
By the time it came for us to say goodbye to Mykonos and my sister, I was in complete island mode; tanned (well, as tanned as my sallow skin will allow), bikini-kaftan-slops-hat and utterly rested; the internal battery restored for the rest of the year.
- My travel tip: Do Mykonos your way! Whether its five-star all the way, yoga-retreat style or a backpackers in the middle of town there is something for every budget accommodation-wise; although it is easily one of the most expensive places I have visited in Europe, so make sure you budget accordingly. If you love your music, try planning your trip to coincide with the big DJs visiting the island.
Before heading home, we caught the ferry into Athens and spent two nights in the capital. I was not expecting much at all; having heard how dirty the city is, and has become since austerity measures were introduced in 2009. And while it was dirty, along with a few homeless drug-addicts wandering the streets, and graffiti-ed (lots of anti-German sentiment), we ended up really enjoying our stop-over. A spot of cheap shopping, seeing the Acropolis (just amazing) and a meal at Michelin-starred restaurant on our final night turned this pit stop into a destination.
- My travel tip: Get to the Acropolis super-early; we headed up shortly before lunch time in sweltering heat and *nearly* died of heat stroke. Also, book Hytra. Still one of the best meals I have ever experienced!
Besides the fact that I do have a tiny amount of Greek heritage (my maternal great-grandfather arrived in South Africa after World War I), there was little not to love about the country: the food, the people (significantly more friendly than the neighboring Turks), the varied island scenery and even the slow pace of the locals as later afternoon approaches. It is definitely the type of place to include on any travel list – there were way too many islands to see in one visit (don’t underestimate the travel time between islands!) and, maybe, one of the few places left to travel into Europe that won’t kill a tight budget (if you avoid Santorini and Mykonos). While all three islands we visited were in the general Cyclades region, each was so different (architecturally, scenically and even, culturally) that I can’t say I have truly ticked Greece off the travel-list; I will just have to return one day and see more of this incredible country 😉
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