Island hopping is the perfect phrase. It conjures up adventure and freedom; deck shoes and playsuits; the smell of the sea; snorkelling, lounging; seafood suppers and chilled rosé; beach-bumming and experience-seeking as you pack up, board another boat and explore the next set of coves and coastlines.
For such pursuits, few places offer the diversity and proximity of Greece’s archipelago. From Sifnos, Naxos and Paros to Tinos, Ios and Folegandros, you could spend an entire summer happily bobbing around The Cyclades – the Aegean’s finest, southeast of mainland Greece – sampling everything from the remote and authentic to the medieval and mountainous and the chic and cosmopolitan. This is a place with ‘sabbatical’ stamped all over it.
For a more condensed jaunt, two islands will suffice – with Mykonos and Santorini (Thira) being the most enviable combination. One is the yin to the other’s yang; one beach-laden and cocktail-drinking, the other dramatic, almost epic, and steeped in history. Only your mood can dictate which to see first – I chose Mykonos, kicking off in Athens before taking to the sea. Why fly direct; flying is not hopping. And you have to hop. Even if it’s laden down with luggage.
Alfresco dining at Kivotos: perfect for spying on locals from across the bay.
Mykonos (4 nights)
Some 150k from Athens, Mykonos is far enough to discourage the daytrippers, with some ferries taking five hours and other high-speed vessels cutting that journey in half. For the latter (seajets.gr), head to Rafina Port – more hassle than Piraeus from Athens as it means schlepping back to the airport and flagging a ¤40 cab. But once there, sit back, board last (your bag will be first off) and enjoy your last good hair day before stepping out onto the ‘windy isle’. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
From Mykonos port, onward journeys are short and sweet wherever you’re staying – the island’s main road connects east to west in 20 minutes – but I’d recommend one of the breezy beachside villages on the south west tip of the island. It took us eight minutes to reach Kivotos in Ornos Bay, a boutique hotel haven of whitewashed Cycladic buildings and an ornate chapel, with a private yacht bobbing in the waters out front. Thought one: ah, serenity. Thought two: white wine please. Thought three: I’m going to like it here.
Set out like a club house with rooms (there’s 40), Kivotos is set into the landscape, with hammocks and daybeds peppered over seven levels, from its dining terrace up top to the private beach below – enabling you to find solitude in any of the numerous hideyholes and rest spots. The room to covet? The two-bed pool suite (amazing!), but our junior suite was very charming too, if not a little dated for my personal tastes. The biggest draw though is a can’t-put-yourfinger- on-it ambience, helped by the attentive but never annoying pool staff who make it so tempting to play out entire days, sampling everything from breakfast (oh, the orange cake!) to lunch (stuffed squid washed down with rosé…) and dinner (an excellent squid ink risotto), while deliberating over a map as you eat, drink, eat, swim and enjoy that breeze; wonderfully cooling for sunbathing. There’s also on-site boutique Wanderlista, stocked with wares from emerging Greek designers.
After a hop to Mykonos and a skip to the Kivotos hotel, it's time to jump in their pool suite.
But don’t just sit on a sunbed as seeing Mykonos on your own terms (mopeds and quad bikes abound) is a must. I loved how all roads lead to a beach enclave with its own personality and charm; there’s a party, amazing dinner, or view waiting at the bottom of every road and you don’t know which till you get there. Mykonos Town (Chora) should be your first stop. You’ll be directed to the labyrinth-like streets of Little Venice to watch gold dip into blue over a cocktail at Caprice or Scarpa, but I found it oversubscribed. Although, do wander through LV’s boutiques and narrow, whitewashed streets another time as it’s charming. Koursaros fish restaurant (koursarosmykonos.gr) gets my vote. Don’t be fooled by its uneventful entrance; it opens up into an impressive canopied dining room. Many starter prices are OTT (everything is expensive here) but order wisely (grilled seabass and a chocolate mousse to die for) and you won’t feel stung.
Out of town, getting lost is a pleasure, with hilltop windmills and white chapels appearing and disappearing as you whizz past. For busy beaches, head south – to Paradise and its Cavo Paradiso club for an all-nighter and to Psarou for a heady stretch of cosmopolitan eateries that are separated from the sand by a wooden walkway. For tranquillity, head north. We spent a lazy afternoon at Agios Sostis, before eating at achingly authentic Kiki’s. Seated underneath a tree ceiling, it’s as bijou and rustic as it gets, with honest cooking straight from the BBQ. Pile high with the salad selection, then order the pork chop and aubergine – ¤60 all-in with two rounds of drinks. We had the cheapest wine and beer on the island here; ¤3.50 each against ¤5-8 elsewhere (cocktails are ¤12-14).
For that elusive secluded sunset, scoot over to Agios Ioannis for cocktails at laid-back beach eatery Hippie Fish. The sun dips behind the mountain before reaching the sea but the view remains food for the soul. Which pretty much sums up my four nights here (although I’d advise six to cover-off diving and Delos island).
The many layers of Mystique in Santorini: If only there was a fun slide to the sea...
Santorini (5 nights)
If Mykonos is the dirty stop-out younger sister, Santorini is its more complex and sophisticated sibling. The approach from the water (just under three hours south of Mykonos; hellenicseaways.gr) is dramatic, in an epic Titanic-like way, with towering sheer cliff faces and switchback roads winding up from the port. Ridiculously, I hadn’t even realised the island was volcanic before it loomed into view, but nature’s force is what makes it so spellbinding; its geology having transformed a once circular isle into a tilted ‘C’. At first sight, you feel a bit like Christopher Columbus, until you spot clifftop villages perched right on the edge, as if a giant eagle’s just swooped down and left them there. The island’s allure is obvious – who doesn’t want to walk pathways carved from the rock, and sleep in rooms dug out like luxury batcaves? The volcano view being what everybody wants – and will pay handsomely to get.
One such vista is found at Mystique: a cream-painted oasis located on the coveted cliffs of Oia, Santorini’s most picturesque village. Reached by steps from the main road – most cliffside properties weave among others here and sit at the bottom of steps – the views from the infinity pool/restaurant/rooms (read: everywhere!) are breathtakingly beautiful. The volcano, and deep sheltered basin around it, is dead ahead, giving no doubt of the impact from the 1,700BC eruption, which left part of the island submerged.
With a vista like that, you’d happily sleep in a hammock, but Mystique’s 20-plus rock-carved suites are plush; some with fitness rooms; others with open-air jacuzzis that provide relief by day (there’s less wind here) and a novel stargazing spot by night. And staying here is a treat; like hunkering down in a discerning hobbit house with rounded roofs, polished stone and driftwood bathrooms. Even walking to breakfast (a carb-burner from room 45, although the privacy from our cliffhanging balcony was worth the leg stretch) feels like a mini adventure, scaling verandas and walkways that feel like they might tumble over the lip of the caldera. For lazybones there’s a resort app to order room service and other fancies on your phone; for the wine aficionado a candlelit wine cave dug into the rock; for foodies Charisma restaurant to serve up everything from salmon, fresh fruit and rosé champagne in the am to a mean lobster potato cake in the pm.
Susan admires the vista from Mystique in Santorini. We are green. With. Envy.
The town of Oia, with its romantic white houses and domed churches perched on the lip of the crater, is a few minutes stroll. The clifftop walk – a very smug, self-satisfied kind of walk – is lined with restaurants and boutiques, and again sunset is the main event. Descend the 300 steps at the end of town at 8ish; find a piece of wall (donkeys will pass you on their ascent), walk the sunset (people hang off every vantage point!), then walk down the rest to Amoudi Bay below. There’s a line of fish tavernas but it’s Dimitri’s on the end you want. We had starters, calamari, grilled prawns and red snapper fresh off the BBQ – with fisherman cutting up their catch behind us – and two jugs of house white for ¤90. A bargain compared to Oia’s Ambrosia (restaurant-ambrosia. com) who charged ¤58 per person for lobster linguine. (It still hurts).
For sunset while you dine, head to the ultra-chic Grace Santorini (santorinigrace.com), a boutique hotel two villages along in Imerovigli where cool practically rubs off on you on entering. Three hundred metres above water, it’s got a different perspective of the caldera (facing Skaros rock) and a perfect view of that dipping sun from their cliff-perched dinner terrace. Sitting next to their infinity pool (Santorini’s longest!) and its twinkling blue lights, I really wouldn’t have minded if their divine ¤70 tasting menu had been my last supper on earth.
While quieter, more traditional and spread out than Mykonos (it’s long, thin and prone to congestion around Fira) Santorini is just as explorable. In one afternoon, we drove to the opposite tip of the island and ticked off the red beach (elsewhere you’ll find powdery black sand), the prehistoric city of Aktori (protected in a greenhouse-like structure, it’s the excavations of an abandoned settlement from 3,600 years ago, and – like Pompeii – its engineering, wall paintings and pottery have been preserved in lava; very cool) and Santo wines (santowines.gr). Take in the vista from their terrace with six tastings and a cheese plate (¤12) before stocking up on your favourite Santorini wines and tomato dip. You could do much more – hikes, boat trips, hot springs, Ancient Thira – but we were happy to mostly sit, with great wine and great food, looking out at that more than great view; a pretty cool adventure in itself.
Entry level vibrant suites at Mystique (mystique.gr) start from €448 (£384) per night (including a champagne breakfast, airport transfers and a wine and welcome platter on arrival). Book through Mr & Mrs Smith and you also get free wine tasting for two. Book online at mrandmrssmith.com or by calling the expert travel team on 0845-034 0700. Starting rate at Kivotos is €290 (£248) or €450 (£387) in July-August; kivotosmykonos.com. Guests can reserve by calling + 30 22890 240 94 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words: Susan Riley, Acting Editor