by Dana Facaros.
Med expert and Cadogan author, picks the best Hellenic holidays for families and grown-ups!
Something is sizzling at the end of the Balkan peninsula, and it’s not all souvlaki. Greece emerged as one of last year’s hottest destinations, and this summer promises to be even hotter. Patras, a 2006 European Capital of Culture, is brimming with exhibitions and performances by artists from around the world. Mykonos reigns supreme as the capital of cool in the Med. The Ionian, a sea of emerald coasts and islands, villas and yachts, is Europe’s latest swan-around riviera for the rich and famous. Sleek, post-Olympics Athens is being transformed by its dynamo mayor, Dora Bakoyannis, into a year-round festival city, the Edinburgh of the south.
There’s a renaissance in Greek cuisine. And, although archeologists are biting their nails, diving holidays are set to boom now that a new law has opened up Greece’s previously restricted seas, filled with 3,000 years’ worth of shipwrecked treasures.
A land as old as Greece has as many layers as baklava. Underneath all the recent buzz, the reasons to go are as honeyed as ever: the drop-dead beauty of 1,000 islands, the exquisite art, the Zorba-ish zest for life, all contemplated while sipping an ouzo as the sun sinks into the sea. Don’t miss out.
All packages include flights from London and transfers: contact the operator for details of regional departures. For full information on flights and ferries, see the bottom of this page.
Sample prices for family holidays are based on departures during school summer holidays; those for adult holidays are based on June departures
GREEKS LOVE kids, and kids love Greece
Not only does it have the essential sand and sea that make them happy, its good-natured, unfussy attitude is contagious. They love the laid-back rhythms of Greek time, and playing under skies blazing with stars after a long siesta in the hot afternoon. And for any child who knows the stories of Hercules, Pegasus and the Minotaur, there’s the added wonder of visiting the ancient sites of myth — brain food that lasts even longer than the inevitable sand-mixed-with-ice-cream goo at the bottom of their backpacks.
If unwinding is the priority, Greece’s more popular coasts are a perfect option: everything you need is at hand. It’s easy for the offspring to make new friends on the beach or by the pool, and nearly all the large resort hotels have kids’ clubs that offer parents some time on their own.
Go independent: it’s next to supercool Mykonos, but the island of Paros is more about fun than fashion. If your family loves sand, sea, and watersports, go for Golden Beach, staying just a short walk away at the Cycladic-style Aeolos Rooms Complex (00 30-22840 42650, www.poseidon-paros.gr). A pair of pools and a tennis courtare on-site; windsurfing, kitesurfing, water-skiing, wakeboarding, diving, and riding are close at hand. A junior suite sleeping four costs £278 per adult (£194 per child aged 2-12), including car hire; take a charter flight to Paros.
The homeland of King Minos, the Minotaur, and many of the more provocative myths, Crete offers a banquet of art, ancient sites, sports, mountains, and beaches. Venetian Rethymnon makes a central base for exploring, and the Villa Stella (sleeps eight), four miles from the centre, is a lovely place to retreat to after a day out. With Villas to Go (01279 464464, www.villastogo.com), you get grand views from the terrace, satellite TV, and a pool for £1,421 per week in August. Fly to Heraklion with British Airways and hire a car.
Go packaged: the playground of northern Greece, Halkidiki has Greece’s last word in sybaritic family holidays, the Porto Sani Resort. Occupying a 1,000-acre ecological oasis of pines, gardens, and soft-sand beaches near Moudania, it encompasses pools, a spa, sports facilities, 31 restaurants and bars, an open-air cinema, and free clubs for kids and teens. There’s even a free “Babe Watch” service on the beach, so you can have a worry-free dip. A week’s B&B with Mediterranean Experience (0870 499 0511, www.themed.net) starts at £1,185 per adult (£228 per child aged 2-12).
Sun-drenched Rhodes has plenty to keep even the most demanding pipsqueak entertained: the walled medieval city of the Knights Hospitaller to explore, donkey rides to the acropolis at Lindos, a water park, and more.
Stay at the Atlantica Princess Hotel, by the beach at Ixia, near Rhodes town, with clubs for babies, kids, and teenagers, and sports to keep everyone happy. Book online with First Choice (0870 850 3999, www.firstchoice.co.uk), and a family of four pays a total of £1,535 for a week.
The big UK family operators have some of their best clubs in Greece. With Neilson (0870 333 3356, www.neilson.co.uk), kids as young as eight can learn the ropes and sail to their hearts’ content at friendly little Finikounda, in the southwest Peloponnese. There’s also windsurfing and mountain- biking, with a children’s club for over-2s. A week, B&B, costs £819 per adult (£655 per child aged 12 or under), including equipment and tuition.
Children aged six months up are well looked after at Mark Warner’s bougainvillea-swathed Paleros Beach Resort (0870 770 4227, www.markwarner.co.uk), on the Ionian Sea, 30 minutes from Preveza airport. Kids have their own beach and clubs with masses of sports equipment and tuition; water-skiing, windsurfing, scuba diving, sailing, tennis, kitesurfing, and a spa are on offer for parents. A week, including most sports, all meals, and wine, cost £953 per adult (children aged 2-6 £715, 7-12s £810, infants £100).
Greece’s quieter coasts are ideal for families who enjoy a change of culture as well as scenery — the more remote, the warmer the welcome. And your offspring may well find new friends of their own: Greek kids are not only friendly but keen students of English.
Go independent: Skopelos, with a handsome traditional capital, fragrant pine forests, and pristine beaches, was never an island to lose its pretty head over mass tourism. With Villas to Go (01279 464464, www.villastogo.com), you can savor it from hilltop Villa Chrysalis, a house sleeping six just a couple of miles out of Skopelos town, with ravishing ocean views from the terrace and pool; a week costs £845. To get there, it’s a charter flight to Skiathos, then a 45-minute hydrofoil ride.
Step onto Kea, they say, and you step back 30 years. Although it’s one of the closest of the Cyclades islands to the mainland, this charmer of rolling valleys, windmills, and a smiling ancient stone lion is a best-kept Greek secret: the only access port is out-of-the-way Lavrion, and accommodation is notoriously hard to find. Sun Isle (0871 222 1226, www.sunisle.co.uk), however, has winkled out the Perlevos Mezzanine Studios, a stone’s throw from the quiet beach at Otzias. A week for a family of four costs £532. To get there, fly to Athens airport, hire a car, drive 40 minutes to Lavrion, then take a ferry.
Luxurious Villa Lagonisi has the works — gardens, a pool, a conservatory, and a tennis court — and it’s just five minutes from some lovely beaches where you’re likely to be the only foreigners. It’s also just 40 minutes drive from Athens, a city that really makes history come alive for kids, and has a great range of summer festivals too, with plenty for the children to enjoy. Yes, it’s hot in summer, but your seaside retreat is just a short drive away. It sleeps 12 — best for two or three families sharing — and through Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0618, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), it costs £10,360 for two weeks in August.
Go packaged: Laskarina (01444 880380, www.laskarina.co.uk) has long specialised in more remote islands, in particular the smaller Dodecanese — slices of authentic, easy-going Greece, with beaches near at hand.
A possible two-center holiday would be a week at Villa Bartholomeos, in sweet little Lipsi, followed by a week at Villa Zina, on the islet of Telendos, just off Kalymnos: both sleep four, are near the beach, are very Greek (no pools, satellite TV or any of that modern nonsense), and cost £696 per adult (£678 for under-18s).
It takes longer to get to an island such as Sifnos, but it’s not so bad if you look at the five-hour ferry from Piraeus as a little Aegean cruise. And pretty Sifnos, with its sugar-cube towns and the softest sandy beaches in the western Cyclades, is worth the effort. Verina Suites have all mod cons and are two minutes from the island’s most beautiful sandy beach, Platy Yialos. With Greek Sun (01732 740317, www.greeksun.co.uk), an apartment sleeping four costs £790pp, B&B, for a week (no child discount), including all transfers in Greece.
Beyond the coast
It may not seem possible, but even kids can tire of the beach after a while, and hanker for something different. Organising activities on your own can be a bit daunting, but there are a growing number of possibilities that make it easy to take even the youngest child off on a little adventure.
Go independent: new for 2006, Exodus’s eight-day Greek Legends and Cruise (0870 240 5550, www.exodus.co.uk) is suitable for children as young as six. You’ll have to get yourselves to Athens, but after that, everything’s taken care of: small groups meet there, then travel to Navplion, in the Peloponnese, for visits to ancient Mycenae, Tiryns (birthplace of Hercules), and the perfect 3rd-century BC theatre at Epidavros, then return to Athens to see the Acropolis.
The rest of the holiday is aboard a traditional caïque, sailing around southern Evia and the Petali islets, once the summer residence of the Greek royal family. Prices start at £659pp, B&B (no child discount), including three nights in a hotel, four nights on a caïque, all Greek transport, and a guide.
With villages spilling over a yawning, sea-filled caldera, Santorini is one of the crown jewels of Greece. Behind its awesome beauty, however, lies one of the most intriguing islands anywhere, even if you pooh-pooh the legends of Atlantis. Families with teenagers can learn all about its geology and archeology with the volcanologist Dr Tom Pfeiffer and Volcano Discovery Tours (00 49 22412 080175, www.volcanodiscovery.com): seven nights cost £655pp, including accommodation, guided walks, transfers, wine-tasting, and most lunches and dinners. Get to Santorini on a UK charter. During school holidays, Dr Pfeiffer can tailor tours to fit family groups aged 10 and up; for a quote, contact him at email@example.com.
Trekking Hellas, Greece’s premier active-holiday company (00 30 21033 10323, www.outdoorsgreece.com), has a flexible, self-guided 10-day package for families, offering a taster of Greece’s archeology, mountains, sea and sport. Fly to Athens, spend a day doing the classical sites, then pick up your hire car and drive to ancient Delphi. Carry on with a visit to a unique bauxite theme park at Vagonetto, go riding and trekking in Evritania, and end up with a motorboat cruise and a few days by the beach in Lefkas. Activities can be adjusted to fit children’s ages; the price for a family of four is £1,900, including hotels, car hire, and three sports.
Go packaged: if you have toddlers, Walks Worldwide’s new nine-day Aegean Island Life holiday (01524 242000, www.walksworldwide.com) offers a stress-free way to enjoy the real Greece. Small groups led by Greek guides are whisked off to the sweet, unspoilt Cycladic islands of Andros and Tinos, making it easy to explore a clutch of typical villages, quiet beaches, and authentic working countryside, all far from the mass-market tourist areas. The price is £920 per adult (£785 per child aged 2-11, infants £95), including hotels, transfers, and most meals.
GREECE IS sexy these days, so sexy that – now here’s an irony – the birth rate has fallen off dramatically. Young Greeks are simply having too much fun to reproduce. Wannabe grandmothers may moan, but visiting grown-ups can reap the benefits of all this self-indulgence in the exponential growth of spas, boutique hotels, romantic villa retreats, superb restaurants, cosy mountain inns and sports facilities.
Best of all, you’re not limited to school holidays. Greece is cheaper and less stifling in May and June, or in September and early October, when the weather tends to be clear and still warm enough for a swim.
Resorts in Greece come in all flavours — from the classic package-holiday complexes by the beach to the terribly, terribly exclusive. Some of the newer, arty hotels lift already beautiful destinations into another dimension altogether.
Go independent: beautiful Cephalonia attracts visitors bearing books, and this summer it may be Odysseus Unbound — The Search for Homer’s Ithaca. The surprise history hit argues that Cephalonia’s westerly Paliki peninsula was really Homer’s homeland, rather than the nearby island of Ithaca. Add the discovery of a royal Mycenaean tomb in 1991, near the easterly port of Poros, and there’s plenty to ponder. The Emelisse hotel (00 30-26740 41200, www.arthotel.gr), in bijou Fiskardo, the only town on Cephalonia to survive the 1953 earthquake, is conducive to reverie, with heated infinity pools, tennis, bikes, a new spa, a gourmet Mediterranean restaurant and comfy terrace sofas where guests cuddle during the magical sunsets, surrounded by hundreds of candles. Doubles start at £196 per night; get there on a charter flight to Cephalonia.
Near the ancient hot spots of Mycenae, Tiryns, Epidavros, Troezen, Corinth and Nemea, neoclassical Navplion is a year-round destination. A tower-topped islet floats in its lovely bay, an enormous Venetian castle spills over the mountain above, and in the walls of the Akronafplio, it has the country’s only hotel in a historic monument: the state-of-the-art Nafplia Palace Hotel and Villas (27520 70800, www.nafpliapalace.gr), reached by a lift from the old town. There are grandiose sea views from the elegant rooms, and some of the 24 designer villas have their very own pools. Double rooms start at £193, villas at £379; fly into Athens
— thanks to the new bypass, Navplion is less than two hours from the airport.
Go packaged: Mykonos is glitzy and ritzy, and in summer, nobody on the entire island seems to sleep. So it seems a little perverse that mosthotels here are so fiendishly expensive: why spend a fortune on your sleeping quarters when you’re going to spend the night partying away in the lovely maze of Mykonos town?
With Olympic Holidays (0870 429 4224, www.hotelroomsandvillas.com),
you can stay at the Olia Hotel, with a pool, sea views, and a bus stop nearby for the hop into town, from a mere £9pp per day, B&B. Buy your charter flight through the operator and the whole holiday costs £331pp for a week — what you could easily spend in a single day at a flashier hotel.
Probably the single most gorgeous island in Greece, Corfu is slowly winning back its soul from the mass-market demons. The northeast coast, with its beaches buried in emerald scenery, was always too rugged to corrupt in any case. Stay here and fall in love with Corfu again at the romantic Villa Folitsa, a rebuilt “artistic ruin” for two, with its own pool and stunning views above the white pebble beach at Kerasia. The villa is exclusive to CV Travel (0870 606 0013, www.cvtravel.net), and prices start at £555pp for a week.
Diving is set to boom this year. You can take advantage of Greece’s newly relaxed diving rules — and much, much more — at the chic St Nicolas Bay Hotel, set in luxuriant gardens overlooking Crete’s bewitching Mirabella Gulf. Rooms are in cool, minimalist bungalows. Besides the diving school and boat, the hotel offers three pools, a host of other watersports, a state-of-the-art spa and beauty centre, a gallery featuring contemporary Greek art and eight Mediterranean gourmet restaurants and bars. From £925pp, with Simpson (0845 811 6502, www.simpsontravel.co.uk). A two-hour dive costs £30.
With 12,000 miles of coast, Greece has no lack of places below the radar of most tourists, where you can rediscover many of the simple pleasures that brought us all here in the first place — where watersports means going out with a fisherman, and nightlife is a late supper in a taverna and a walk along the beach by the light of the moon.
Go independent: little-known Chios is a captivating island with all the basics — beaches, scenery, quaint villages — as well as superb Byzantine mosaics at Nea Moni, and well-watered Kambos, where the medieval Genoese built country estates. One, the Perleas Mansion (00 30-22710 32217, www.perleas.gr), set amid organic citrus groves and gardens, has been converted into an exquisite guesthouse where the owners prepare meals based on fresh-picked produce. Doubles with full breakfast cost £65 until June 15. Fly to Athens, then catch a domestic flight to Chios — or take a ferry from Lesbos, which is served by charter flights from the UK.
Though you might be tempted to stay. . . Greece’s third-largest island, Lesbos has its share of surprises — petrified forest, traditional settlements, archaic festivals, ouzo distilleries and the Theophilos museum, dedicated to Greece’s most delightful naive painter. It’s within walking distance of the Loriet Hotel (22510 43111, www.loriet-hotel.com), a 135-year-old villa with high painted ceilings, antiques and a stunning garden pool. Luxury suites cost £138, B&B; rooms in the modern annex start at £62.
Thanks to the spanking new 1.7-mile Rio-Antirio bridge over the Gulf of Corinth, Delphi and Nafpaktos are now within easy driving distance of the northern Peloponnese. Ride the unique railway up the Vouraikos Gorge and wander round Patras, one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, before making for Galaxidi, a laid-back couples’ haven on its own little fjord west of Delphi.
Stay at the intimate Ganimede Hotel (22650 41328, www.ganimede.gr), in a 19th-century captain’s house; it offers the town’s best breakfast, and is a short walk from a pebble beach. Doubles cost £52, B&B; to get there, fly into Athens and hire a car.
Go packaged: Paxos, with its hobbit-sized port towns, dramatic coast and narrow lanes through the olives, grows more popular by the year. It’s lovely, but the best way to enjoy it is by staying on its little neighbour, Antipaxos (year-round population 30), and taking boat trips over for your sightseeing. Antipaxos is gorgeous, too: vineyards, a handful of tavernas, and sandy beaches with a Caribbean glow. With Sunvil (020 8232 9780, www.greekislandsclub.com), the romantic and utterly private Phoenica House, set in a garden with a pool and all mod cons, costs £706pp for a week.
Magical, mystical Samothraki, closer to Troy than Athens (Poseidon made its Mount Fengari his seat for viewing the Trojan war) is as remote as they come. Famous in antiquity for its Sanctuary of the Great Gods of the Underworld, it’s also a botanical wonderland, with groves of plane trees, pools and waterfalls. Filoxenia (01653 617755, www.filoxenia.co.uk) is the only UK company to go there: it offers five nights, B&B, at Kamariotissa’s Hotel Thea, which has a garden and pool, with a further two nights in the island’s port, Alexandroupoli, for £659pp in June, including flights, but not ferries or taxis.
Beyond the coast
Beaches are only the glittering surface: at the crossroads of the east and west, of the Balkans and the Mediterranean, Greece has forests, rivers and mountains rich in endemic species, relatively unvisited and as fascinating to explore as its famous antiquities.
Go independent: arranging transport to trail-heads and back can be such a palaver that many who would love to wander never venture far, even on an island made for walking. One such is Naxos, where 1,000-year old paths, authentic villages, and Byzantine towers and churches invite detailed exploration. Walking Plus (0030 6972288821, www.walkingplus.co.uk) solves the problem, offering all necessary luggage transport and accommodation along the way. A week’s guided walking costs c. £510pp, including breakfasts and lunches; self-guided, without meals, the price is c. £420. Get to Naxos on a charter flight from the UK.
Although terra incognita for foreigners, Naoussa is the heart of a top Greek wine region, surrounded by mountains and archeological sites linked to Alexander. Pella, Dion, Vergina (with the treasure-filled tumulus of Philip II), Aristotle’s “school” and the painted Macedonian tombs of Lefkada are nearby; Thessaloniki, with its superb early-Byzantine churches and mosaics, is just over an hour away. The Esperides hotel (00 30 23320 20250, www.esperideshotel.gr), on a farm outside Naoussa, makes a serene base and serves delicious breakfasts; doubles £41, B&B. Fly British Airways or Olympic to Thessaloniki.
Mention Ikaria to a Greek and they’ll smile — the island is famous for its easy-going, fun-loving ways. The chef Diane Kochilas, a New Yorker of Ikarian descent, has won prizes for her cookbooks, and in summer she and her husband run The Glorious Greek Kitchen — a culinary haven in the charming village of Christos Rachis. Book through Cuisine International (00 1 214 373 1161, www.cuisineinternational.com); from £1,400pp, including all meals, six nights’ accommodation, local transfers, excursions and tuition, but not travel to the island. To get there, fly with Olympic from Athens or take a Superfast ferry from Piraeus.
Go packaged: extending south of Sparta and Mount Taiyetos, the independently minded Mani is one of Greece’s most distinct regions, its rugged landscapes dotted with unique Byzantine churches, sandy beaches and villages of steepling tower houses. Inntravel’s flexible, self-guided 10-day Two Faces of the Mani tour (01653 617906, www.inntravel.co.uk) makes sure you see the best of it by car and on foot, including the ghost town of Mystra, with its delightfully frescoed churches from Byzantium’s twilight: from £975pp, including car hire.
Greece is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, and if you have the puff, you can take in its highest altitudes on an escorted 15-day trek with Sherpa (020 8577 2717, www.sherpa-walking-holidays. co.uk). The route follows ancient tracks through the sublime Vikos Gorge and Pindos Mountains to the Dragon Lake, then tackles the two highest peaks in Greece, Smolikas and Olympus. The trek includes visits to the hanging monasteries of Meteora and the lakeside city of Ioannina. The price, £899pp, includes flights, transfers, 14 nights’ accommodation, most meals and baggage transfers.
Dana Facaros is the author of more than 30 Cadogan guides, including Greece and the Greek Island
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
SCHEDULED FLIGHTS Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460, www.olympicairlines. com) flies to Athens from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, and to Thessaloniki from Gatwick. It also has flights from Athens to 33 domestic airports, with through fares available. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick and Luton to Athens; British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba. com) flies from Heathrow to Athens, and from Gatwick to Thessaloniki, Heraklion and, starting in May, Rhodes; and Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522, www.flyglobespan. com) flies from Glasgow to Heraklion and Athens, and from Stansted to Athens. Summer fares start at about £140: in off season, they cost even less.
CHARTER FLIGHTS There are direct charter flights from the UK to 19 destinations in Greece, as well as options from Ireland. Try Just the Flight (0870 758 9589, www.justtheflight. co.uk) or Charter Flight Centre (020 7854 8434, www.charterflightcentre. co.uk). Summer fares start at £150 — or less for last-minute bargains. In Ireland, contact Budget Travel (01 631 1111, www.budgettravel.ie).
FERRIES Classic “slowpoke” ferries to the islands are subsidised by the government and remain relatively cheap — a nine-hour overnight sailing from Piraeus to Heraklion, for instance, starts at £20. Outside August, when the Greeks themselves go on holiday, it’s a pretty safe bet that you can buy a ticket on the quay before boarding, which allows you to choose the next sailing (in larger ports, shop around — not all agents sell tickets for all ferry lines). The same caveat applies to the range of faster craft — fast ferries, catamarans and hydrofoils — which take half the time of the old-fashioned boats and cost twice as much. As places are limited on these, it’s wise to book a ticket in advance. Greek Travel Pages (www.gtp.gr) has the most up-to-date ferry timetables; www.ferries.gr and www.greekferries.gr allow you to book online.
DOMESTIC FLIGHTS Aegean Air (00 30-210 626 1000, www.aegeanair.com) is a good option for domestic flights, and has one-way fares from £10. AirSea Lines (210 940 2880, www.airsealines.com), Europe’s first regular seaplane service, links Corfu with Paxos and Ioannina; one-way fares start at £20. It plans to expand to other Ionian islands, as well as Patras and Brindisi, in Italy; check the website for details.
CAR HIRE A week’s all-inclusive rental starts at about £90. Try Carjet (0870 267 6767, www.carjet.co.uk); Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010, www.holidayautos.co.uk); Hertz (0870 844 8844, www.hertz.co.uk); or Europcar (0870 607 5000, www.europcar.com).
FURTHER INFORMATION Contact the Greek tourist board on 020 7495 9300 or visit www.gnto.gr.