Greek Island Hopping Tips and Tricks

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If you’re going anywhere in the world to island-hop, Greece is arguably the best place to do it.  Depending on who you ask, the number of Greek islands number from 1400 to over 6000.  The criteria of size being a limiting factor, someone who has an interest in making the sheer number of islands sound overwhelmingly large can easily argue for the 6000 number by adopting the minimal specifications.  Those that are looking to keep the number reeled in a bit can make rules and regulations that disqualify more than 4000 of these beautiful islands.  These are the same kinds of people that decided Pluto was no longer a planet.  Okay, maybe there are official reasons for the demotion from “island” but for our immediate reasons, why not go with the more romantic interpretation and allow for more than 6000 wonderful land masses to visit?  No matter how small or insignificant some of these smaller islands may be, you’re certainly not going to be able to visit all of them, so why not visit 10 or 12 of the 6000 islands rather than a mere 10 or 12 of the 1400?

Don’t worry, we won’t get carried away with our love of islands so we go including ANYthing…  The southern portion of Greece, the Peloponnesus is a large land mass at over 8300 square miles.  It is connected to the rest of Greece by a narrow four mile wide isthmus.  Evidence going as far back as the 7th century BCE shows early attempts to shorten the boat routes by cutting through that small four mile neck.  Greek and Romans tried several times but it wasn’t until the modern era in 1893 when the Corinth Canal was finally realized and connected the Aegean Sea with the Saronic Gulf.  This 70’ gap technically makes Peloponnesus an island.  Locals and scholars will point this out and then immediately tell you that they don’t ‘really’ consider Poloponnesus and island.  You have to consider, if it’s not an island, then why do they mention it at all?  Because many people love to point out interesting facts as they discover them and now you’ll already have this tid-bit of knowledge while you’re out and about island hopping in Greece that ‘technically’ this entire peninsula could be considered an island, but it’s not.  But Pluto is still a planet…

Having decided amongst ourselves that there are over 6000 islands to choose from how do we decide which ones to visit during our limited holiday time in Greece?  Luckily this decision is narrowed down for us without have to make any real decisions yet.  Many of these 6000 are tiny and insignificant.  Okay, they probably is the reason they aren’t counted, but still are islands.  Many of the remaining islands are private property, protected property or otherwise generally restricted from tourist incursions.  This leaves us with plenty of uninhabited islands to see and nearly 200 populated islands left to visit.  Your trip will be better spent relaxing on some of the best Greek islands for what you are hoping to experience and not in making plans to visit all of them until you find your peace by chance.  We hope to help you make the right choices for your desires by sharing some of our tips and tricks to use while Greek island hopping.

Before you begin your island hopping adventure, the first tip you must consider is to learn the geography.  Greece is a large country with 51,000 square miles and 8500 miles of coastline.  Much of the mainland is mountainous terrain and the islands account for 20% of the country.  This means that you either going to be on a ferry boat back and forth to the islands or traveling up and down mountains to get anywhere.  The journey is half the fun of any adventure but if your time is limited, driving up and down switchbacks and waiting on the ferry is something you’ll want to keep to a minimum.

No doubt you have certain “must see” islands you want to get to.  Someone at work told you about their time on Skiathos, a magazine article made Chios look irresistible, or you remember an old photo of relatives on Corfu.  Now that you have your list of places you want to see, set down and study the map of Greece.  Zig zagging across the country and back-tracking across islands is a monumental waste of your precious limited time while on this trip.  Plan your visits by locale, group your islands together and visit them in an order that keeps your travel to and fro minimized and maximizes your down time on the actual islands themselves.  You came to island hop and you want to do more “island” and less “hopping”.  You can see a ferry boat anywhere, but when are you going to get back to see Santorini?

Secondly, you might want to consider the season in which you plan to visit.  We say “might” because Greece is a lovely country to visit all your long but if you’re looking for tips for visiting the islands, consider planning your island hopping adventure for any time of the year but summer.  Spring and Autumn are fantastic time for island hopping because the mild Mediterranean weather is still reminiscent of summer but the islands are lacking the overcrowding that can become troublesome during the peak summer months of July and August.  Island hopping in winter gives you more of the islands to yourself as well.

This tip comes with it’s own pros and cons.  Depending on what you expect to see and your level of flexibility, island hopping in the off-peak season may be the right choice for you.

The good: Restaurants are less crowded and you can explore the attractions without bumping elbows with your fellow tourist.  Hotels lower their rates during the off season as rooms begin to empty and you can get deals which offer you better accommodations at a lower price.  Fewer people on the ferry means you’ll get a better view and a more comfortable seat without jostling for position.

The bad: Ferry operators cut their schedule down in the off seasons due to the lower number of tourists.  You’ll need to keep a watchful eye for when the ferry to your island is running and available.  Also the winter weather can make for some rough seas, more so than during the summer months.  This can be a mild inconvenience while trying to relax on the shore, or can cause major interruptions with canceled island trips.

The third tip for a great experience while Greek island hopping is to put in the work yourself.  There are plenty of opportunities to lay the planning and scheduling to the experts, but the experts are out for their own interests, not yours.  That is not to say anything deriding about the tour planners or cruise captains, it just happens that the only person who can plan your perfect island hopping adventure is you.  You know what you want to seem what you like and dislike, and you know your comfort zones and how far you are willing to push those boundaries.  It won’t be a fun trip if you allow someone else to make all these decisions for you.  However, don’t be afraid to push those boundaries and explore beyond your comfort zone.  If you wanted to be comfortable, you would have stayed home.  Instead you find yourself island hopping in Greece!  Live a little, plan to try new things!

Putting in the work by planning and scheduling your own itinerary will give you the best of all possible worlds and allow you to learn more about the upcoming experience before you go.  Maybe as you plan your island hopping, you intend to schedule a visit that sounds intriguing but while making the reservations you discover that it’s not quite really what you are looking for.  Find out now before you go rather than allowing someone else to make those decisions for you on site.

Fanciful excursions like island hopping around the Greek archipelago are not a “one size fits all” trip.  You’ll get the most out of this trip if you make the plans yourself since you know yourself better than any trip adviser.  Feeling adventurous?  Maybe you’re willing to go for lower cost accommodations with a single common bathroom per floor?  Feeling shy?  Maybe that’s not something you have experienced before and this trip isn’t the place you want to try that.  Or it’s possible you have a physical limitation that requires you have a private bathroom.  When you book your own hotels you can plan for variables such as this.  Perhaps you have plenty of time to spend wandering the island and don’t mind waiting on public transportation, or maybe your time on the islands is limited and you need to rent a car while there in order to reach everything you want to see in a timely fashion.  These are the considerations you can personally attend to, discoveries of these easily skipped details will come to light when making the plans.

And it’s not just the small details that may be a worthy time investment for you.  Not being accustomed to European cultures, you may learn plenty of worthwhile information about your upcoming vacation host and the people as you make the intimate plans.  Knowing more about the Greek culture and the people of Greece will ensure you have a much more enjoyable time as you maneuver you way among the hotels, cafe tables, taxis, and beaches.  The more you plan your trip, the more you will learn about the proud and ancient culture of Greece.

The northern Greek islands consist of two common groupings, the Sporades and the North Aegean Islands.  The Thessalian Sporades are a group of 24 islands scattered into the Aegean sea just off the coast of Pelion and Eubeoa.  Only four of the 24 islands are inhabited and carry a population of nearly 14,000 people.  Skiathos offers forested hiking routes and historical churches.  Skyros is home to the wild Skyrian Pony, growing to three foot tall they are a perfect distraction for visiting children.  The island of Alonnisos is home to the Greek national Marine Park where you can see protected rare sea birds on display and encounter the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal.

Beyond the Sporades is the North Aegean Islands.  This grouping is not so much an island chain, but a loose conglomeration of the Greek islands in the North Aegean that are defined by “not” being the Sporades.  Some of these islands are among the famous names you have heard of and may have inspired your trip.  If Greek mythology is one of your interests, Samothrace still banks on the remembrance of the ancient pantheon at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.  Lesbos is the third largest Greek island after Crete and Euboea and it is very nearly part of Turkey as it is separated by the narrow Mytilini Strait.  The western part of the island contains a petrified forest with fossilized plants and trees.  If you’re looking to integrate with Greek island culture, visit Ikaria where they are known for their village fairs and communal party life.  The residents are accustomed to working in the fields during the day and doing their shopping and visiting during the evening hours.

The southern Greek islands are just as diverse as their northern cousins.  The Ionian islands are primarily off the west coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea but also wraps along the southern coast and comes to the island of Cythera off the bottom of the Peloponnesus.  Basically, the Ionian islands is a loose term given to all the Greek islands between Crete and Albania.  So if you find yourself away from Athens and Thessaloniki, visiting the west coast of Greece, island hopping the Ionian Sea will reward you with some of the greatest islands you’ll ever see.  The emerald island of Corfu has two fortresses to explore and a large Spianada absolutely bustling with the spirit of Greek hospitality as small shops, cafes, and local musicians are enchanting you to sample their wares.  If the Ionian islands are where you find yourself at the final leg of your holidays, why not end your journey on Ithaca, the island where Odysseus finally ended the Odyssey coming home to Penelope to finish his journeys.  A nice symbolic finale in a land full of ancient symbolism and stories.

To the south are Greece’s two largest islands, Crete and Euboea.  Euboea is often lumped in with Crete as a “southern island” but only because it is a large standalone island.  It is actually in the central region between the Sporades and Cyclades but we won’t let geography get in the way of how the Greeks cluster their islands.  Euboea is another one of those large land masses close enough to the mainland coming as close at 130’ to ask if it is actually an island but this one is most certainly its own island.  With a medieval castle, ancient churches and temples, and more than its fair share of pristine beaches, Your time island hopping to Euboea will be filled with admiration.  As if that wasn’t enough, Greece’s largest island Crete lies even further to the south.  Entire posts and pages upon pages could be written about this amazing island.  From the ancient mythological stories of King Minos and the Minotaur labyrinth, to the alluring natural splendor of mountainous gorges and a palm forest, Crete will have you wandering the island in awe.

If you’re reading along you may be wondering why we addressed the north, then the south, skipping over the central region.  That’s because the north and south islands have much to offer but the central region islands are by far the most visited by those looking to spend their Greek holiday island hopping.

The Saronic Gulf Islands are just south of Athens and make for picture perfect getaways without venturing too far out into the sea which is why there are many local vacation homes on these islands.  Some of these palacial second-homes are available through rental sites so you may choose to base your island hopping adventures from an amazing perch on Hydra where there are no motorized vehicles, only bicycles and pack animals to venture out and about.

Twelve main islands make up the aptly named Dodecanese Islands further out in the central region closer to the Turkish coast.  In total there are an additional three large islands and more than 150 smaller islands in the group.  Explore the disputed locations of the colossal statue of Helios that stood over the harbor at Rhodes, one of the ancient world’s Seven Wonders.  Or luxuriate in the hospitality of top end hotels and warm sandy beaches on the island of Kos.

Right in the middle of it all, between the Saronic and Dodecanese are the Cyclades; some of the most visited islands in the Mediterranean.  993 square miles of island hopping paradise.  Ancient archaeological digs have unearthed exquisite examples of past Aegean Greek cultures such as the amphitheater on Delos or the highly detailed neolithic statuettes and figurines unearthed on Antiparos or Saliagos.  Museums are nearly everywhere displaying these fancy finds.  Mykonos is known for its vibrant nightlife and Santorini is the image most people conjure up when you describe the Greek islands.  This remnant of volcanic creation is resplendent with the escalating white buildings with blue domed roofs built up and alongside the steep seaside mountains.

There are more than 200 islands in the Cyclades to explore, and these are but a small fraction among the 6000 Greek islands.  Using the simple tips and tricks of minimizing your travel by grouping your island destinations, know the seasons and what to expect, and planning the trip yourself, you are sure to find what you are looking for while island hopping in the Greek islands.

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