Two seasons, two routes, two destinations, with one basic idea: get to the Greek Islands for some sun. Specifically–the Cyclades, the archipelago closest to Athens, which includes some major holiday destinations.
Flying in the high season, ferrying in the off season (or shoulder, as it is sometimes known): I selflessly undertook both of these trips to determine the ideal Aegean getaway based on weather, price and availability as well as the more elusive qualities which define a great holiday. Here are the results.
Flashback: Greece, summer 2007. The country is in the grip of a heat wave and as my plane heads for Athens I can see forest fires dotted across the countryside. Once on the ground there’s no time to admire the fancy new terminal building as I rush to catch the connecting plane to the island of Mykonos. It appears to be a bus with wings. As it takes off I momentarily feel like I’m flying in a private jet, an illusion soon broken as the in-flight staff, pressed for time, sprint down the aisle frisbeeing rolls at the passengers (would Donald Trump put up with this? I suspect not.)
Things aren’t much calmer on Mykonos, but this, in fact, is probably the best thing about the Hellenic high summer: the buzz. And especially on Mykonos, with its revolving cast of party people and wealthy island-hopping sea dogs freshly disgorged from their yachts. In the beautiful old town the bars and restaurants are full, knots of revelers wind through the labyrinthine alleys. Moneyed Athenians pop in for the day and clubs go all night. If you want to put your arms in the air and wave ‘em like you just don’t care, then it has to be July or August.
And if you want rays, they are there in abundance. But you can have too much of a good thing: Greek summer heat is fierce and unrelenting. Indulge in a glass (or two) of wine at lunch, and afterwards the sun feels not just strong but somehow accusatory. I visited the neighboring island of Delos, which features an extraordinary ensemble of Greek antiquities, covering much of the island. What was it like? I couldn’t really say – the mercury topped out at 114 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) that day so after resentfully admiring a couple of columns I found the one palm tree on the island and refused to extract myself from its shelter until it was time to get back on the ferry.
Routine can creep in even on holiday, and as you return to the same bars night after, you see the same faces, a little browner each time. Good restaurants fill up, the edge of the old town can be a churlish tangle of cars, motorbikes and quad bikes. And all this at the hefty premium added to plane fares, hotel rates and just about everything else when you travel when everyone else wants to.
Flash forward to early fall, 2011 for an off-season visit to Paros. Note, I said off-season, not low season. I haven’t been to the islands in winter, but reading about Chopin and George Sand’s troubled stay on Mallorca has put me off the idea of storm-lashed Mediterranean islands for life.
After a leisurely overnight stay in Athens, it’s up early the next morning to get the ferry from Piraeus. No passport control, no baggage check, no queues, just stroll on with your bags any point up to the time of departure and find somewhere to sit. It’s a manageable four hours to Paros, during which you can wander the ferry, dine, find a bench to lay down on, watch the passing islands. There’s a reason the words “shipping magnate” are usually preceded by the word “Greek”: with more than 13,000 kilometers of coastline and centuries of practice, the Greeks have become really, really good at moving people and things across water.
Read more: Top Tips for Touring Paros
If you haven’t already booked a hotel you can pick from the gaggle of hoteliers holding out brochures once you arrive, but it pays to plan ahead. Because if you’d always thought the Greek Islands were located somewhere beyond the horizon of your budget, it’s time to think again. Off-season independent travelers can pick up deep, deep discounts. Hotels which might otherwise shut up shop for the year offer prices as low as a quarter of the high season price; find a self-service apartment and you can really keep costs down. I found a great deal on a hotel across the bay from the main town of Parikia, minutes’ walk from the beach but blissfully quiet.
The restaurants which remain open in the off-season are generally those patronized by residents as well as tourists, so you can be fairly certain you’re getting authentic local cuisine. Service is friendly, unhurried, personal. Temperatures range from mild to hot but don’t reach the infernal heights of August. And as the sea takes longer to cool down than the air, the water is ideal. The main beaches are quiet, and if you travel a little further you can probably find a cove all for yourself.
Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. The Cyclades can get windy come fall so if you have high maintenance hair you will want to timetable your trip with care. Away from the main towns you may find facilities lacking and the atmosphere not just quiet, but eerily, unnervingly so. Head off the main roads and you’ll find villages seemingly under a spell where even the stray cats can’t rouse themselves to curiosity.
So if you’re a 24-hour party person with a surfeit of funds, by all means head off in the dog days, otherwise, wait a bit longer for a cheaper, cooler, more relaxed holiday.
Read more: Greece’s Most Romantic Islands
Photos courtesy of James Conway.
- James Conway