From the forest covered Ionian islands west of Greece and the sun washed Cyclades south of the of the mainland to the historic Dodecanese, strung along the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey) in the Aegean, the islands of Greece have many different personalities. These six islands are all different but all popular with visitors. Which one is best for you depends on how you define paradise.
Santorini is probably the most popular Greek Island. Afloat in the Aegean, east of the mainland, it is typically Cycladic with its blinding white houses, blue and pastel shutters and roofs. The key villages are perched on cliffs around the rim of the caldera, left when the island's volcano blew its top thousands of years ago. A new, underwater volcano still simmers away. Hotels are glamorous and the ones that command the best views also command the highest prices. Because of its stunning views, this island is popular with honeymooners and cruise liners but it can get very crowded when the big ships disgorge their thousands of day tripping passengers. Bag a luxury hotel with your own private hot tub or pool and wrap yourself in elegant privacy.
Note: If you're looking for a connecting flight with a Greek airline, search for Thira, the Greek name of this island. Santorini is a leftover from its Venetian occupation.
The southernmost island, Crete is closest to the coast of Africa with its southern beaches on the Libyan Sea. It is the largest with several cities and Venetian fortresses, a long and deeply indented coast and a dramatic mountainous spine running east to west. Beaches range from long stretches of soft sand — Elafonissi, Potamos, long stretches of Plakias and Preveli — to tiny, secret coves beloved by snorkelers and nudists.
The huge excavations at Knossos, the capital of the Minoan civilization, are possibly the most famous in Greece. Many of the finds from there are kept in the island's Archaeology Museum of Heraklion, considered one of the best in the world, but a walk around the site itself is very impressive.
Crete is also known for its dramatic gorges that crisscross its mountainous spine. They vary from arid, rocky challenges to shaded, subtropical passages. The most famous walk is the Samaria Gorge. It's long, descending some 3,900 feet over 10 miles, but its relative ease makes it a popular route.
Before they moved on to Tuscany (turning it into Chianti-shire) middle class English vacationers turned Corfu into the sort of place they came back to again and again. Today, this Ionian island remains one of the easiest for English speaking tourists to visit. There are flights from all over Europe, Great Britain and the USA. The island has been made more popular as the setting of naturalist Gerald Durrell's Corfu Trilogy, humorous autobiographies of his family's time living there between the wars. "My Family and Other Animals" has been made into several TV mini-series and films, most recently, The Durrells, available on Netflix.
The island is famous for its flora and fauna — notably exuberant wild flowers, butterflies and small birds. Corfu Old Town, the center of the capital on the east coast, is UNESCO Listed (though, frankly, almost everything in Greece is) and lined with lovely, historic buildings. At night it has a lively cafe and music scene. With a mild climate from April through October and a good selection of villas to rent as well as hotel accommodation, Corfu is a great family destination.
Zante, the Venetian name of the island Greeks call Zakynthos, has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Smugglers' Cove, pictured here, is also known as Shipwreck Beach — for the large shipwreck in the middle of it — and Navagio Beach, for the bay it sits on. It doesn't matter what you call it. All the boatmen on this Ionian island know what you mean.
The beach is completely surrounded by sheer, white limestone cliffs and can only be reached by boat. There are no services and no shade — only what you bring with you — but the experience of this magnificent place makes up for everything. It is really unforgettable. Excursion boats drop you off in the crystal clear bay, bottomed with rounded white pumice stones that also coat the beach, and wait for an hour or so before returning you to Zakynthos town with its shopping and cafes.
The south coast of the island has long stretches of flat sandy beaches and there are several cave complexes you can approach by boat and swim into. The so-called Blue Caves at Cape Skinari on the northern tip of the island, light up with sunlight reflected off the limestone giving the water an almost neon glow at certain times of day.
Spetses is in the Saronic group of islands, off the south coast of the Argolis Peninsula, easternmost finger of the Peloponnese. Like a lot of Greek Islands once occupied by the Venetians, it has lovely churches, very colorful towns and villages — including one with its feet literally in the sea — and tile roofed houses covered with vibrant pink bougainvillea and hibiscus. It also played an important role in the Greek War of Independence of 1821 and an important naval battle is re-enacted every year. The House of Laskarina Bouboulina is a museum that celebrates the heroine of that war.
What makes Spetses different, however is how easy it is to get to. By Flying Dolphin (Hydrofoils operated by Hellenic Seaways) from Piraeus, the trip is only two hours. A lot of wealthy Athenians use Spetses for their weekend escapes — including the former Greek royal family, who hosted a wedding there in 2010. So you can expect lots of interesting and sophisticated shops, restaurants and nightclubs. If this island has any shortcomings, it is in the lack of broad, sandy beaches. But there are plenty of magical, rockbound coves with unbelievably clear water.
There are two sides to Mykonos, the crowded little Queen of the Cyclades. There's the Mykonos of travel brochures, experienced by the hundreds of cruise ship passengers who disembark for a day of wandering from cafe to cafe and from shop to shop. It's the Mykonos of the pretty cubist white houses with their brightly painted doors and vibrant flowers, the tight little lanes with an artisan or designer shop at every bend.
And then there's the Mykonos exemplified by the picture here, a pool party at the Paradise Club on Paradise Beach. This is a party island. Well-heeled vacationers who visit (because it's an expensive party island) come for the social life, the dance clubs, the beautiful people and the action. It's a nightlife island also known for its lively and sophisticated gay scene.
Mykonos was once the exclusive retreat of celebrities and jetsetters. In the 1950s and 1960s, Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Nureyev, Pierre Cardin, Stavros Niarchos all vacationed here. You still might catch a glimpse of some modern day Hollywood royalty mingling in the exclusive clubs. But nowadays it's a lot more democratic. If you like to party all night and you've got the money, this is the place for you.