Island Hopping: Our Guide to Sailing in Greece
|● Thousands of islands to explore||● Certain areas prone to very strong winds|
|● Brimming with ancient history||● It’s one of the most popular places to sail so some islands can get very busy|
|● Something for everyone
|● Popular islands like Santorini are very expensive|
With 16,000km of coastline and over 6,000 islands, there are few destinations better suited to island-hopping than Greece. It’s no wonder, then, that the land of figs and honey has been one of the most popular destinations for budding sailors looking to sail the Mediterranean for years.
Combine the sheer variety of locations to be found across the many Greek islands with the region’s warm climate and you’ll come to understand why so many boaters find a Grecian sailing holiday to be particularly appealing. Daily averages tend to hit the high 20s and low 30s at the peak of the season, which runs from late July to early September. If you want to avoid the crowds, head to the islands between April and June or late September to November. The seasonal restaurants and weather will still be around, but you won’t run into too many tourist parties.
You should, however, take care on the waters of the Aegean. Despite the very pleasant temperature, the seas can get choppy, especially around the Cyclades Islands. The dominant wind in the region – the Meltemi – averages force 6, often becoming a force 8 gale that’s powerful enough to blow over tables! It’s tough to sail, so we’d definitely recommend hiring a skipper unless you’re a very adept sailor. Nevertheless, braving the seas of the Aegean will yield some fantastic rewards in the form of picturesque towns and stunningly beautiful beaches unique to the region.
It may feel overdone and very popular, but sailing in Greece is like nothing else. The volcanic landscape, clear blue seas and rich history makes for a truly unique sailing destination. In the words of Nikos Kazantzakis: “Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea”.
While the Aegean may be more popular amongst experienced sailors, head to Greece’s western coastline and you’ll have the opportunity to sail the Ionian Islands. With weaker winds present in the region, the Ionian Sea is a lot easier for the amateur sailor to navigate than elsewhere in Greece. Don’t worry, choose to sail the Ionian and you won’t be substituting any of the hidden gems that make the country such a pleasure to visit.
Although they may not be as popular among sailors as the islands in the Aegean, that’s not to say that the Ionians don’t get busy. If you’re looking for a tourist-friendly nightlife hotspot head north to the king of package holiday resorts, Corfu. This large island has plenty for the sailor looking for a taste of the tourist life, including nightclubs, plenty of expat bars and all your home comforts. However, there is also a variety of unspoilt beaches and coastal villages hiding away on the island’s western edge.
Elsewhere in the Ionian sea, sailors can discover the more rustic island of Ithaca. Drink and dine in traditional tavernas while taking in a more relaxed island life. For sailors, a visit to Ithaca can be seen as a kind of pilgrimage as it’s the mythical home of legendary naval captain and king Odysseus, a central character in Homer’s great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. With Odysseus in mind, this island has thousands of years of sailing heritage and is a true heartland of Mediterranean sailing.
Visitors to the Ionian should also be sure to take a trip to Zakynthos. Like Corfu there are some areas of this beautiful island that have been bitten by the tourist bug – though the crowds are far smaller than those found in the former. Zakynthos itself is home to dozens of tiny coves and niches only accessible by boat, allowing you to feel like the island is your own personal paradise.
Moving into the Aegean Sea, some of the most awe-inspiring islands in Greece can be found in the Cyclades. This is the area that you could find yourself at the mercy of the Meltemi, so be sure to check your forecasts before heading out. Despite the difficulty in sailing the archipelago’s 200 islands, the rewards are certainly worth it.
Mykonos is the jewel of the Cyclades and a prime location for people-watching. A playground of the rich and famous, expect designer clothes shops, high-end restaurants and classy cocktail bars. Look beyond the glitz and glamour and you’re faced with a true party paradise with tonnes of late night bars and clubs at your disposal. If you feel like some historical research after a whirlwind night out in Mykonos, sail on over to Delos, legendary birthplace of the god Apollo and home to some of the finest ancient ruins in the region.
For the romantic sailor, the Cyclades offers up plenty of options, but none are more stunning than Santorini. This volcanically-formed island looks like a postcard; its white, cuboid architecture, roofed with blue domes presents a picture perfect idea of Greece. Enjoy a fine wine while looking over the island’s caldera and enjoy what is often described as ‘the best sunset in the world’.
Despite their differences, Santorini and Mykonos are tourist hotspots. Whether they’re being drawn in by the beautiful views of the former, or the flash restaurants of the latter, it’s impossible to avoid the hordes of foreign visitors. If you’d prefer to enjoy sailing the Cyclades while avoiding these tourist traps, head to Naxos. This island’s amazing beaches are often overlooked by tourists, offering a more laid back and personal slice of Grecian culture to the discerning sailor.
If you’re sailing out of Greece’s ancient capital, you may want to restrict yourself to the Saronic Islands. Nestled in a gulf to the west of Athens, these islands are usually quieter than those found elsewhere in the country.
By far the most popular island in the Saronic Gulf is Hydra. This island was the former home of Leonard Cohen and has been home to Greece’s jet-set for years. Of course, this can make a visit to the island a pricey one, but it’s worth it just to experience the feel of the island’s eponymous port town. Hydra Port has been restored to look exactly as it did in the 1800s, with its uniquely beautiful architecture making it a must-see location.
Move away from Hydra and make land in Aegina for a definitively Greek experience. This Saronic Island is almost entirely overlooked by foreign tourists and has really managed to maintain a Greek identity that is often lacking elsewhere. As such, it’s a prime location to try out authentic seafood and enjoy rustic tavernas rarely visited by foreigners. A word of advice: try to avoid visiting on the weekends as the island becomes thronged with Athenians looking to make the most of their days off work.
For nature-loving sailors, the Sporades Archipelago is the place to visit. Aside from Skiathos, these islands in the west of the Aegean tend to be more relaxed and uneventful than many others in the Sea, making them ideal for a sun-drenched relaxing getaway.
If you love the beach, head to Skiathos. This island is often considered to have the best beaches in Greece, with blue waters and golden sands dominating the island’s coastline. Despite the apparent tranquility of these beaches, the island is often referred to as ‘The Mykonos of the Sporades’ thanks to its bustling nightlife scene and a number of wealthy expats. Due to the foreigners who have made the island their home, expect it to be busy year-round, making it a viable option to visit even out of season.
For a real nature-lovers getaway, you should pay a visit to Skyros. This densely forested island is almost entirely covered by pine trees and is almost impossible to visit unless you have access to your own boat. Thanks to this lack of foreign visitors, Skyros has retained many of its traditions, including a week of vibrant carnival celebrations to celebrate the beginning of Orthodox Lent.
To include Crete with the other Greek islands just doesn’t do it justice. This huge, standout location to the south of the Aegean is worth dedicating at least a week or two of your voyage to.
As the heart of the truly ancient Minoan Civilisation, there’s plenty to see in Crete for the history buff, from world-class museums to the amazing Palace of Knossos – legendary home of King Minos and the mythical location of the labyrinth that once held the fearsome Minotaur. Many of these ancient sites are within close proximity to the island’s capital Heraklion, making it an ideal first stop on any ancient Greek history tour.
Leaving Heraklion and its ancient sites behind, sailing around Crete offers up a variety of picturesque port towns and beautiful beaches. No sailing tour of the island would be complete without a visit to Vai towards the island’s eastern tip. This secluded beach is lauded not only for its clear waters and golden sands, but also for the fact that it opens up to the largest forest of palm trees in Europe. Vai is known to get particularly busy at the height of the season in August, attracting thousands of visitors every year and with the roads leading to the site becoming overly congested. Of course, if you borrow a boat to visit Vai, you won’t need to worry about that at all!
If ancient ruins and natural beauty aren’t for you and you’ve come to Crete in search of the nightlife, a visit to Malia is a necessity. This resort town has become a mecca for holidaymakers looking for some of the best clubs in southern Greece. Even if the nightlife doesn’t take you, like the rest of Crete, Malia still has some historical gems including the well-preserved ruins of a Minoan Palace.
One of the main benefits of sailing Crete is that you are able to visit sites off the coast of the main island with ease. Seek out the natural beauty of the heavily-forested islets of Dragonada and Gianisada in the Dionysades and come face to face with a variety of unique animals and plant life. You should also pay a visit to Spinalonga, an island-turned-fort that is steeped in history from the Venetian era.