As Rachel mentioned yesterday, part of the reason for my long silence (though not the primary reason – that would be laziness) was the recent fabulous trip I took to Greece with our lovely parents, Rock and Melanie.
We were there for ten days – five nights in Athens (with several day trips from there), three nights on Mykonos and two nights on Santorini – and we saw a LOT of stuff. I could write four or five posts on the subject, but many of the details would probably not be terribly interesting for you readers, and I don’t want to make you all desperately jealous about how fantastically wonderful our time was. So, I’m planning to write two posts on the trip. This first one will focus on the islands we visited. I’ll write a future post about all the many many many ancient sites/ruins we saw.
Before I tell you about our island visits, some general reflections on Greece.
1. I loved it.
2. May is a great time to go! The weather was beautiful – warm and sunny but not oppressively hot. May is the very beginning of the summer season so there were fewer tourists and cheaper prices. The only drawback was that the sea water was pretty cold, so there was no real swimming to be had.
3. The people are lovely and friendly and helpful. It was almost embarrassing how well everyone spoke English, and they were (on the whole) warm and welcoming and happy to answer questions/give directions/what-have-you. Very nice.
4. The recent economic troubles of the country are particularly evident in Athens where nearly every other building was abandoned. The economic issues also mean that prices (especially for food) are rather high, but even so, I enjoyed it enough to say I’d go back…probably not to Athens, which is a been-there-done-that kind of city, but to any of the islands for sure.
5. My one significant complaint: the cost and quality of food. Greek cuisine is very tasty, but unfortunately, in touristy areas lots of places can get away with serving less than amazing food for steep prices. Even some of the places recommended in our guide books underwhelmed me. When we hit upon a good spot, it was always really really good (our final meal in Athens was particularly great), but on the whole, I thought our meals were just okay. And seafood is SHOCKINGLY expensive – especially for a place with such direct access to the sea!
Right okay, on to the islands…
As I said, we spent five nights in Athens (more on Athens in the future ancient ruins post), but we did day trips out of Athens, so it wasn’t like we were really in the city for those full five days. One of our day trips was to a small island that was about 1 1/2 hours away by ferry: Hydra (pronounced Ee-dra).
This little island has no cars/trucks (save for some small garbage collection trucks). Instead, there are lots of donkeys to do the heavy lifting up the steep and narrow streets. There’s not really a whole lot to “see” in Hydra other than the island itself, which is picturesque and quiet. We sat down and had a pick-me-up coffee (a Coca-Cola for Melanie) when we first arrived; then did a short little self-guided walking tour around the main town/harbor and then a slightly longer walk along a stretch of the coast; had lunch; and then had another drink in the harbor soaking up the sun and people-watching while we waited for the return ferry.
Our lunch in Hydra was actually one of our best meals of the whole trip. We sat under a bougainvillea arbor at a little taverna set back away from the harbor, where we shared some simple – but very well prepared – small plates (fried cheese, salad, grape leaves, fava dip) while a guitarist played in the background. It was painfully charming (and tasty!).
As our first island experience in Greece, it was fantastic. I highly recommend Hydra, and I would go back for another longer, leisurely stay.
Our next island – Mykonos – has a reputation as a party island. I have no doubt that this is true in the height of the summer, but in May, it was still pretty quiet. In fact, we were the only people staying at our bed & breakfast. The main old town is centered around the sandy harbor where numerous small fishing boats bob up and down. The few “iconic” spots on the island include a row of old windmills on a hilltop and some waterfront restaurants/shops in an area they call Little Venice.
The small streets behind the main harbor are twisty and narrow and confusing, packed with shops and restaurants and people. Again, if it had been the height of summer, I imagine they would have been a nightmare, but while we were there, it was lovely.
Since our b&b was not in easy walking distance of anything, we rented a car, which was great since it gave us freedom to explore the island. On the first day, we drove all over the place, taking in the scenery and scoping out all the beaches to determine which ones were worth a visit the following day. This was actually a terrifying undertaking as the roads from the rocky hilltops down to those beach fronts are narrow, winding and occasionally nearly vertical. Still, it was a good way to get a feel for the place.
The next day was all about the beach. We went to one called Kalafatis in the morning and stayed pretty much all day. It was wonderful: very few other people; gentle breezes; clear, cold water; a yummy waterside lunch; sunny all day long – not a cloud in sight; reading all day; relaxing. I loved it. I don’t have a picture of it (taking pictures would clearly not have jived with my totally-vegging-out attitude that day), so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
There’ll be a bit more about Mykonos in my second Greece post, but for now…on to Santorini.
Santorini is probably the most popular and well-known of the Greek islands. It’s the one with all the blue roofs and whitewashed buildings (okay that’s like every island) and homes/hotels built into cliffs that drop down into a volcanic caldera and beautiful sunsets and all that jazz. It is geographically stunning and beautiful. You can see why it’s a popular honeymoon destination.
Our time on Santorini was very brief (like we’re talking 36 hours brief), so we opted for a bus tour that took in all the big sites on the island in one day, including the ancient ruins of Akrotiri (more in the second post), the highest point on the island, a charming old village in the middle of the island, the red beach and the black beach, and a winery. I didn’t do a great job of taking pictures that day since it was such a whirlwind, but it was a good way to see as much of the island as possible in one day.
The night we arrived, we wandered from our hotel down into Fira (the biggest town on the island) to watch the sunset and have dinner. The night of our bus tour, we went to Oia with the same intention. Oia is a town on the northern side of the island that is supposed to have BREATHTAKINGomgyouwilldieitissoBEAUTIFUL sunset views, but we learned the hard way that if you want those views over your dinner, you best book a table. We couldn’t find a restaurant with a free table AND a good view, so we opted for one without a sunset view. Post-meal we decided it wasn’t worth watching the sunset with a crowd of people only to subsequently fight them for a taxi or a seat on the bus afterwards. After all, we had a 5:15(!!) wake-up call the next morning, and the sunset view from our hotel was pretty darn good.
Our time in Santorini was definitely too short, but it was also the only stop on our trip where I felt overwhelmed by tourists…and it was just as early in the season there as it was everywhere else in Greece, so I can only imagine what it’s like when the real hordes arrive. It was also the place where I felt most keenly that the economy is driven almost entirely by tourism. It kind of took away the charm of it for me. I got the impression that it’s the type of place to go if you’ve got money to burn and can stay in one of the really really really posh hotels with a private pool on your cliff-side balcony and can drop money on the really nice restaurants with the stunning stunning views and drink wine all day and have someone chauffeur you from beach to beach.
Don’t get me wrong – the views and picturesque-ness definitely live up to the hype – but the tourism machine was a little too strong and prevalent for my taste. I’d rather visit a different island that didn’t have quite such a big reputation if it means a slightly quieter experience.
But that is a nit that is hardly worth picking. It was a lovely locale to end a very lovely island hopping adventure. And the company could not be beat.
Seriously, it was so great. Greek islands = awesome. And that was only half the trip!
Stay tuned to hear about all those ruins!