Back in 1450 BC, a massive volcanic eruption caused the middle of Santorini to fall into the sea. It left a steep-edged crater known as a caldera peeping above the waves, which, today, is a spectacular sight from the island’s clifftops.
It’s not just the geological make-up of the island that turns heads, though. With its whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches and never-ending vineyards, Santorini is Greece at its traditional best. Thira, the capital, is a popular place to stay – it’s perched on top of the caldera rim overlooking the Aegean. And the northern town of Oia, which also has a spot on the caldera, is the best place to see the island’s famous sunsets.
The beach scene
If you don’t mind your sand in a darker shade of grey – a legacy of the island’s volcanic past – there are some great beaches in towns like Kamari and Perissa. Framed by jagged cliffs, Kamari’s dark sandy sweep has been given Blue Flag status. As for Perissa, the 7-kilometre stretch here comes with a good helping of watersports.
Mykonos Town is a jumble of white houses, scrubbed and polished and accessorised with blue doors and flower-filled balconies. The whole place is a warren of narrow lanes and endless nooks and crannies hiding a little church here, a tiny boutique there. It climbs from the port up the gentle inclines of a hillside, watched over by the island’s 16th-century windmills.
The town’s labyrinthine layout – originally intended to baffle marauding pirates – means it’s easy to get lost here, but that’s half the fun. There’s plenty to see while you get your bearings. Coming from the ferry quay, there’s every chance you’ll pass the Archaeological Museum and its pottery displays, plus the Folklore Museum housed in an 18th-century mansion. Keep walking uphill and you might end up on Matoyianni Street, wall-to-wall with independent stores selling leather goods and one-of-a-kind jewellery.
By the shore
Cupped in a wide bay, the harbour is where the Prada-clothed crowd hangs out to watch the world go by. It’s a whirl of activity, with fishing boats bobbing on the water and ferries coming and going from other islands in the Cyclades. The Little Venice quarter, so-called because of its balconied houses teetering right by the water’s edge, is nearby. It’s a long-standing artists’ haunt, and has almost as many galleries as it does restaurants and bars.
The town has a small beach at the harbour front, and superior sands are close by. Platys Gialos is a long, stretch, 15 minutes away by bus, and the springboard to other southern Mykonos beaches. From here, it’s a few minutes’ walk to the little cove of Aghia Anna, where a handful of bamboo dividers and a sole taverna keep things low-key. It’s only another 15 minutes over the headland to laid-back Paranga Beach.
With a coastline that unravels for over 290 kilometres, Kos has more than its fair share of beaches. They come in all shapes and sizes, from golden swathes backed by beach bars, to hidden bays and little-known coves. The island’s good looks don’t end with its shores, either. Inland, whitewashed villages spill down the hillsides and wild flowers blanket the fields. Then there’s Mount Dikeos, whose slopes are peppered with pine forests and castles.
In terms of where to stay, Kos has two very different sides to it. Kardamena is the best place to head for nightlife – its streets are packed with karaoke bars, English pubs and strobe-lit clubs. The cosmopolitan capital, Kos Town, is also lively, with holidays here revolving around lantern-lit dinners by the harbour-side, and cocktails and dancing in the bars of the backstreets.
Kefalos combines old and new. At first glance it’s thoroughly traditional, with its sugar-cube houses, ancient ruins and timeworn windmills. But it’s also home to the purpose-built resort of Kamari, which is bubbling with cafés, bars and restaurants. If you want to keep things low-key, Psalidi is another good option. There’s little more than a golden sandy beach and a sprinkle of tavernas and shops here.