Passion Points: Escape
Indagare spoke to one of our preferred Greek specialists about behind-the-scenes access and what not to miss on a trip to Greece.
What does an ideal itinerary, balancing great food, adventure and relaxation, look like?
My ideal itinerary would include a one-night stop-over in Athens upon arrival for some rest and initial exploration, three nights on each of the islands of Patmos, Santorini and Crete, and a return visit for a day in Athens for a more in-depth view of the city. I would include a TrueGreece-guided tour of Athens and the Acropolis, a Santorini winery tour, and a Patmos boat trip through crystal-clear water to islets for a fabulous seaside lunch, while still allowing for ample free time during the other days. I believe this itinerary strikes a fine balance between the natural beauty and vistas of Santorini, the tranquility and spirituality of Patmos, and the adventurous nature and marvelous cuisine of Crete, while Athens wraps up the experience with a stay in a historic and fascinating modern city.
When is the best time to go?
My recommendation to first time visitors of Greece is to visit during the shoulder season, from mid- to late May, mid- to late September or early October, unless swimming is a top priority. During this time, guests will avoid the huge crowds seen during the peak season.
Can you tell me some of your favorite “under the radar” parts of Greece?
Patmos, considered by many to be the secret gem of the Aegean. I should say that this destination is under the radar of mass tourism, but it is certainly known by Greek and international jet setters. In addition to the numerous upscale Greek travelers and prominent Greek businesspeople who visit Patmos each year, the island is increasingly becoming the secret getaway of international VIPs, including Giorgio Armani, Tom Hanks and Jean-Paul Gaultier, to name a few. Patmos features a variety of beautiful village settlements, scenic beaches, elegant restaurants, traditional tavernas and upscale hotels, such as the Petra Hotel (www.petrahotel-patmos.com) in the quiet Grikos fishing village. It is on Patmos where St. John is said to have written the Book of Revelation and in 1088 AD St. Christodoulos built the island’s historic Monastery, which today boasts one of the richest monastic collections in Greece.
The main reason that Patmos is protected from mass tourism is that it is harder to get to than most other islands, since it lacks an airport and is only accessible by boat. We use flights to nearby islands and local boat connections to limit the travel time needed to get to the island. Patmos is a short boat ride from isolated small islands, including the islets of Marathi, Aspronissi, Tiganakia, Arki, Lipsi, and Agathonisi. With little to no inhabitants, guests will experience crystal-clear waters and potentially an isolated family-run taverna preparing fresh seafood.
Do you find the best way to experience Greece is by water or land?
The best way to experience Greece is by island hopping rather than a boat rental. Checking into hotels for a few days at a time provides you with plenty of opportunity to interact with the locals and learn about an area in a more authentic fashion than a quick stopover would allow. The hassle of packing and unpacking is easily outweighed by the feeling of having a home base and the opportunity to gain familiarity with an island in ways that are unmatched by a boat vacation, where people are constantly on the go. And for the fans of the sea, each island provides ample opportunity for fabulous day trips with local boats at the day of your choosing during the summer season.
Which islands do you find overrated/underrated and why?
I would not necessarily call famous islands such as Mykonos or Santorini overrated, simply because they are indeed beautiful and have become famous for good reason. However, I would say that there are many other islands that are equally beautiful and have not been fully discovered by the masses, therefore not enjoying as strong a “brand name”. As a result of attracting fewer crowds, those islands offer a more private experience, elevating the overall quality of the trip in terms of authenticity. Underrated islands on the rise, such as Sifnos, Patmos or Spetses provide fabulous accommodation options, cozy traditional villages, refined cuisine, natural beauty and an overall fascinating vacation experience – for a more reasonable price in comparison to more well-known islands.
If a traveler is set on islands like Mykonos and Santorini, what would be your advice on how to get away from the crowds?
Visiting during the shoulder season is the best way to avoid the crowds, unless swimming is a top priority. Other than that, staying in hotels that are located in off-the-beaten path villages can really make a difference in the quality of the experience. Some examples include staying at the Zannos Melathron (www.zannos.gr) or Carpe Diem (www.carpediemsantorini.com) hotels in Santorini’s Pyrgos village, a beautiful habitat that is shielded from mass tourism. On Mykonos, staying at a boutique hotel or a resort set away from the busy Mykonos town, such as the Mykonos Grace (www.mykonosgrace.com) hotel at Agios Stefanos or the Saint John Hotel (www.saintjohn.gr) at Agios Ioannis, can allow for a great opportunity to get away from it all when you return to your hotel. Additionally, I always recommend visiting restaurants that are further away from the main attractions, such as La Cucina di Daniele (Ano Mera, Mykonos; 30-022-8907-1513) in Mykonos’ Ano Mera village, or Saltsa (www.saltsa.gr) on Santorini, which is located off the busy caldera streets of Fira.
Small adjustments in day-to-day activities can help visitors avoid the crowds. For example, asking a local store owner what days and times cruise ships arrive and avoiding visits to the main towns, main attractions, museums or stores during these times can have a great impact on one’s experience. Another example would be to visit the beach in the morning or later in the evening.
What would you recommend to a family with young children?
The island of Crete is one of my favorite destinations for children. Crete has an abundance of archaeological sites that children find exciting due to the strong ties to mythology, such as the Knossos site, associated with the Minotaur, or the Diktaion Andron, the Cave in which Zeus was born. In addition, Crete boasts amazing sandy beaches, fascinating mountainous terrain and massive fields full of olive trees that allow for children to experience nature. Crete is easily and quickly accessible from Athens, with numerous daily direct flights; as the largest island of Greece, it also offers hospitals and healthcare facilities that can take care of the little ones in case of an emergency. Crete is also home to many children-friendly resorts, such as the Grecotel Kalliston (www.grecotel.com) at Chania or the Porto Elounda (www.portoelounda.com) in Elounda, both situated on the beach. The Porto Elounda features the “Children’s Ark”, a space inspired by children and made specifically for their entertainment. Surrounded by an olive grove and equipped with two shallow pools, creative entertainment areas such as a drawing school and a kitchen, as well as sleeping quarters for the younger ones, the Children’s Ark is perfect for children from 6-months old to 10-years old. Experienced childcare professionals are also provided to allow for parents to have some time to themselves.
With only one day to spend in Athens, what would you say are the must-sees for a first-time visitor?
Undeniably, visiting the Acropolis and seeing the famous Parthenon is a must-see attraction for a day visit to Athens. I would combine a visit to the Acropolis with a short walk through the beautiful and revamped Dionysiou Aeropagitou pedestrian street, which is cast in the shadows of the Acropolis and filled with neoclassical houses and cafes. It is on this street that the new Acropolis museum was built; constructed in a unique architectural style, the museum offers an impressive variety of ancient ruins. For museum lovers, the Benaki Museum (www.benaki.gr) offers a broad range of exhibits that are not limited to ancient ruins, which many guests find refreshing. My favorite area for an evening outing is Kolonaki, a high-end section of the Athens center filled with designer stores, fabulous local restaurants, cafes, and bars. Kolonaki provides a vibrant look into modern Athens.
What suggestions do you have for foodies visiting Athens?
Enjoying local food and wine is one of the most important aspects of a Greece vacation! I have many favorite restaurants in Athens: from refined dining at Varoulko (www.varoulko.gr), which offers marvelous seafood, or Spondi (www.spondi.gr), which features world-class gourmet cuisine, to more casual places with traditional Greek delicacies such as Ouzadiko (25-29 Karneadou; 30-021-0729-5484) or Papadakis (15 Fokilidou; 30-021-0360-8621) in Kolonaki, to a seaside meal at Thea Thalassa (www.thea-thalassa.gr) in Glyfada. Greek wines are marvelous and ever evolving, so I would definitely recommend that visitors ask their waiter for a recommendation for a fine Greek wine that matches the meal.
Can you give some examples of exceptional tours TrueGreece has helped arrange for travelers?
Some examples include providing exclusive access to the 4,500-year old private royal apartments of the Knossos Archaeological site, typically closed to the public; setting up a private tour of the Sigalas winery and wine tasting with Paris Sigalas, a renowned and decorated winemaker in Greece; and providing a private opportunity to visit the library of the Monastery of St. John, normally closed to the public, where guests may see manuscripts dating back to the 5th century AD, as well as pages of the original Gospel of Mark.
What are the biggest changes you’ve observed in Greece in the last decade and what do you think will be the next spots to discover?
One of the biggest improvements has been the emergence of modern, customer service focused companies that have provided a breath of fresh air to the country’s hospitality industry. Large companies such as Aegean Airlines and Blue Star Ferries as well as smaller travel providers such as TrueGreece are providing an infrastructure for fabulous customer-centered experiences, bringing a significant positive shift in tourists’ sentiments while visiting this beautiful country. Also, following the 2004 Olympics, Athens has certainly emerged as a must-see city.
_For help with a custom itinerary in Greece, contact our booking and advisory service.
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