• Fourni, Northeastern Aegean – For the Greece of 30 years ago
The mini-archipelago of Fourni – a dozen islets, mountains and bays between Samos, Patmos and Ikaria – encircles a magnificent hidden harbour, once used as a secret lair by pirates for pouncing on passing ships.
In recent years, fishing has become the main occupation, because the tourist scene is delightfully lagging: boat schedules make day trips tricky, and most visitors to the larger neighbouring islands are too lazy to put in the effort. Which means the ‘capital’, Fourni Korseon, is still the archetypal Greek-island fishing village of yore. Laidback and very friendly, it’s full of character, with tiny old-fashioned shops along the Agora, tucked under mulberry trees. Even in the main square you can hear cats mewing, dogs barking and cocks crowing. Most of the island’s accommodation is here, including the most elegant digs and the best views. Thanks to all those fishermen, Fourni’s tavernas have some of the cheapest, freshest seafood in Greece.
There’s a town beach, and another nearby, Psili Ammos, with a bit of shade. Alternatively, make the 20-minute walk, by way of some windmills, to the twin sandy bays of Kambi, with its shady tamarisks and taverna. There are other sandy coves (most accessible only by boat) that you can have to yourself, but Fourni’s public transport is taxis. However you opt to travel, at some point be sure to ride or walk across Fourni’s ridge – with staggering views over the jigsaw coast as far as Turkey – to the hill-hugging hamlet of Chryssomilia, with its blissful sandy beach and taverna. Take things down a notch and grab a taxi over to Fourni’s sister island, Thymena, which has an even smaller village and a great beach, Keramidous.
• Ano Koufonissi, Lesser Cyclades – For a couple’s beach break
With its windmill spiralling above its main wharf, Ano Koufonissi recalls Mykonos. But similarities end here. This is an intimate, charming island that’s small enough to walk in a day. Its waters are calm, clean, safe, its beaches sheltered from the wind. For decades, this tiny archipelago-withinan-archipelago was only for dedicated beachcombers, reached by slow boat from Naxos Town. Nowadays, you can take a ferry from Piraeus but it’s more romantic to arrive the old way, aboard the Express Skopelitis, the boat that has long kept Ano Koufonissi in touch with the rest of Greece.
Chora town’s beach is just 50m from the the island’s best views spot. Walk east and you’ll find hidden coves, perfect for privacy-seeking couples. If coves don’t seduce you, press on, and after 15 minutes, the waft of barbecued seafood heralds Finikas beach and its shaded fish taverna.
You could hike further, to Fanos, with its up-for-it beach-bar, or to the sylph-like curves of Italida, encompassing a few clothing optional bays. But don’t leave without clambering over the headland to Pori. Here, you’ll discover so many secluded bays that, even in high season, you’re sure to find a private spot to relax а deux.
• Samothraki, Northeastern Aegean – For ancient magic
Samothraki has everything we crave from a Greek island: beaches, tavernas, a major archaeological site, traditional villages and gorgeous walks. And yet it remains blissfully uncrowded. There’s no real reason for this, except that it’s way off in the far Northeast Aegean – so close to Turkey’s Troy that Poseidon could watch the Trojan War from the island’s Mount Fengari.
Samothraki wasn’t always so obscure. In ancient times, it attracted pilgrims (including the parents of Alexander the Great) from across the Mediterranean world, to be initiated into long-lost underworld mysteries. Although the Louvre bagged the Sanctuary’s majestic Winged Victory, the ruins of its shrines and temples arrayed on a wooded hillside are still wonderfully evocative, reverberating with tinkling goat-bells.
The island still retains something of its ancient magic, especially at Therma Loutra, an idyllic Arcadia of springs and ancient chestnuts, myrtle, and enormous plane trees twisting like ancient dancers. Paths lead up the Gria Vathra and Fonias ravines to waterfalls and refreshing pools straight out of a shampoo ad.
All the island’s restaurants are good and reasonably priced. Join a boat tour to visit the savage southeast coast, worth it for a 180m waterfall tumbling into the sea; caves of monk seals; and the island’s most beautiful beach pebbly Vatos, at the end of a wooded ravine.
• Arki, Dodecanese – For that Robinson Crusoe feeling
The holy island of Patmos is mother ship to a scattering of islets that once belonged to the Monastery of St John the Evangelist. The biggest of these, Lipsi, has a superb sandy beach that draws most of the daytrippers, while rocky and arid little Arki is ideal for anyone craving the next best thing to being cast away on a desert island. It has four beaches, a few trees, and enough wild thyme and other plants to scent the air and support a few goats and rabbits.
Most residents live near the Lilliputian port. There’s no pressure to see any sights here – there’s only a stalactite cave to explore in the north. Arki’s best beach, Tiganakia, with a mix of sand and pebbles, is a 45-minute walk from the port; the water here is so clear that boats seem suspended in mid-air, casting shadows over the sea. To the east there are three other smaller offerings, Limnaria, Kapaliasmenos and Melissa, and to really play Robinson Crusoe, try swimming over to the deserted nearby islets. But most of all, Arki is an island for sheer indulgence: for daydreaming over a carafe of ouzo, for catching up on your reading, for gazing up at the night sky.
• Othoni, Diapontia – For Corfu-like lush beauty (without the crowds)
Corfu is rugged, outrageously fertile and encircled by sandy beaches. For the same appeal in a tiny, crowd-free package, carry on 15km northwest to Othoni, Greece’s westernmost point. Only a few hundred people call it home. With its secretive coves and transparent blue-green waters, Othoni is beloved of sailors – most famously Odysseus, who spent seven years here in the arms of the nymph Calypso.
Hop on a boat-taxi and you’ll soon be touring Othoni’s eroded cliffs, passing Calypso’s love nest, a sea grotto carved 100m into the rock. Next to it are the sands of Aspri Ammos, the island’s most spectacular beach, a cliffembraced crescent, prettily studded with boulders and lapped by a turquoise sea. The seemingly clement waters hide two sunken steamships; if you’re feeling adventurous, explore their watery depths on a dive.
Besides lazing on beaches and messing about on boats, days on Othoni mean wandering along old mule paths through wild sage and myrtle, orchards, cypresses and olive groves. Don’t miss the British-built lighthouse of 1872 and the little Venetian fort on a precipice. But there’s something rewarding about hiking up the 393m slopes of Merovigli, Othoni’s highest point, for the stunning views of the Italian coast, Albania, the other Diapontia islands, and Corfu.
• Elafonissos, South Peloponnese – For family-friendly beaches
Some of Greece’s most beautiful sands skirt the low hills of Elafonissos, only 570m off the Peloponnese coast. In fact, it used to be linked to the mainland: under the channel between Elafonissos and the tiny port of Pounta lies Pavlopetri. Dating from 3,000BC, it’s the oldest sunken city in the whole world.
Getting to Elafonissos requires dedication, but if your idea of an idyllic family holiday means endless lazing in pillow-soft sands by shallow pale turquoise waters, this island is hard to beat. Little kids love it: the beach seems to extend forever along the seabed, especially at picture-perfect Simos, where white dunes separate Sarakiniko (the larger bay) and Fragos. Some say Simos is the most beautiful beach in Greece: it’s hard to argue: the colours of the sea are hallucinatory green and pale blue, flecked with gold, stunted cedars and, in August, rare sea lilies, decorate the sand.
There’s another, much less crowded contender on the west coast: long shelving, silky white Panagias Nisia, with water as blue as Sinatra’s eyes. Or try sandy Lefki beach, sheltered on the east coast, or seek out the secret path to Elafonissos’s only pebble beach, Aglyfti, hidden on the southwest coast. The other essential thing to do on Elafonissos is eat fish: most of the inhabitants are fishermen. There’s nothing finer than dining on lobster spaghetti while wiggling your toes in the sand, on the edge of the port.
• Antiparos, Cyclades – For laid-back, left-field charm
Antiparos’s main town, Chora, is pretty much a one-street show. From the harbourfront, an alley leads to a ruined Venetian castle, and the walk from the sea takes 10 minutes, a meander that takes in cafes clinking with the sound of backgammon dice, shops hawking beach gear, and laidback beats resounding from the bars.
This is a place of natty threads and coiffured heads, an island not yet visited by British hordes, nor flash-the-cash oligarchs. Instead, it’s favoured by Athens’s hipster, alternative elite. Fashion designers, DJs, artists and musicians are the norm.
Spend days lazing on Psaraliki beach – the eerie cave up a nearby hill is a corker, lined with stalactites and stalagmites. Meanwhile, 15 minutes’ drive across the island, tiny Agios Georgios has a smattering of sugar-cube houses overlooking a pristine beach, its waters sheltered by the uninhabited island of Despotiko. A small jetty, lined with freshly caught octopuses, hosts the umbrella-shaded tables of the rustic taverns. Back in Chora, the evening crowd is drawn to the main square, where the castle ruins are packed with lively cafes.
• Kythnos, Cyclades – For a simple, sleepy sunspot
Kythnos is the island that mass tourism forgot. Although less than two hours’ from Athens, it doesn’t even take credit cards. Yet, it has at least 65 uncrowded beaches, including Kolona, a sandy strip that connects the coast with the islet of Agios Loukas. The bay of Loutra, the place where hot mineral springs bubble from the sea. Eat at sleepy tavernas in the port of Merichas, and trek to the old and quaint medieval capital Kastro tis Orias.
• Ammouliani, Halkidiki – For going back to basics
Just off monastic Mount Athos, Ammouliani was church land until the mid ‘20s. The remote location and the lack of island hopping opportunities meant tourism never really caught on. As such, Ammouliani remains peaceful: rustic rather than refined and devoid of commercialism. The streets of the main town feature coffee shops and tavernas. Accommodation on the island is spartan. Where the island exceeds all expectations is with its gorgeous beaches, notably Agios Georgios and Megali Ammos. Most are walkable from the main town, but for a more evocative method of transport, hop on the ‘beach bus’.
• Kastellorizo, Dodecanese – For that end-of-world feeling
Six hours east of Rhodes by sea, Kastellorizo – ‘the last stop in Europe’ – blends a quirky world’s-end atmosphere with one of the best natural harbours in the Med. The island’s lone town is a cluster of pastel Neo-Classical townhouses, set in an amphitheatre under a ruined Crusader castle. Friendly sea turtles cadge tidbits from the waterfront tavernas. There are bathing platforms instead of beaches, but like Capri, Kastellorizo has a shimmering Blue Cave to visit. Or nip over to Turkey for a day trip to Kas.
• Trizonia, Gulf of Corinth – For true tranquility
A best-kept secret of yachties and weekending Athenians, Trizonia is the only inhabited island in the Gulf of Corinth, a little beauty cloaked in olives, pines and vines, and surrounded by mountains. The water, clear as distilled spirit, laps its quiet beaches and large natural harbour. And quiet is the key word here: cars and motorbikes are banned.
• Schinoussa, Cyclades – For a low-key getaway in a sea of busy islands
There are so many beautiful Cycladic islands that Schinoussa has managed to remain hidden in plain sight. There are hardly any motor vehicles, but delightfully there are 17 beaches to do absolutely nothing on – sandy, shelving Tsigouri, the most ‘developed’, even has a beach bar. Watch the sun set over distant Santorini, then dine in Chora.