There's more to the Greek islands than Santorini and Mykonos. Peter Dragicevich explores the best of the Cyclades.
If you've recently visited Auckland Museum's blockbuster Ancient Greeks exhibition, perhaps you've found yourself fantasising about escaping to a sunny Aegean island to beat the winter chills. A short hop by ferry from Athens, the Cyclades archipelago contains some of Greece's most popular destinations, famed for their natural beauty, sandy beaches, white-washed towns and fascinating archaeological sites.
If the fantasising shifts to actual planning, forget what you think you know about the best islands to visit – starting with Santorini. The most famous of the Cycladic islands, Santorini's compact old town now groans under the weight of up to 10,000 visitors a day, and it can be hard to enjoy the caldera views and narrow lanes when you're constantly caught in a scrum of day trippers.
Mykonos and Naxos are similarly afflicted, with Mykonos having the additional scourge of attracting some of the most annoying "influencers" on the planet. I'm talking the sort who turn up to a cafe at 9am in diaphanous robes and skimpy bikinis, and start dancing for the benefit of their camera phones – a sight that's hard to endure when you're waiting for your first coffee of the day after a hard night "researching" the town's legendary gay scene.
I blame Lindsay Lohan. Her MTV series Lindsay Lohan's Beach Club, filmed on Kalo Livadi beach, cemented the island's scenester reputation – despite the actual club being abandoned and falling into disrepair before the series even screened. Seriously, if you're not interested in partying at the island's excellent-but-overpriced gay bars or using it as a stepping stone to the World-Heritage island Delos, don't bother with Mykonos. There are many alternatives that are cheaper, less crowded, far prettier and not ruined by overdevelopment.
With that in mind, here's the cream of the Cyclades crop.
The most famous inhabitant of this beautiful island was abducted from her hiding place, trafficked to a foreign land, given a new name and is now on display in the Louvre. In 1820 a farmer stumbled across a chamber containing an exquisite 2m-high marble statue of a half-naked Aphrodite, armless but otherwise intact, near the ruins of an ancient theatre on the slopes below the village of Trypiti. The Aphrodite of Milos was rebranded as the Venus de Milo, and swiftly became one of the most recognisable artworks of all time. There's a plaster-cast reproduction of her in the Archaeological Museum of Melos (the different spelling referencing a major city that disappeared in the 7th-century AD), alongside an enigmatic clay goddess that predates her by at least 1000 years.
It's this casual access to mindboggling antiquity that's one of the truly remarkable aspects of the Greek Islands. As well as the 2000-year-old theatre, Milos boasts 9000-year-old mines, the remains of a 3000-year-old Minoan town, catacombs dating from the first century of Christianity, a 9th-century church and a medieval Venetian fortress.
Along with these ample helpings of history, Milos has a plethora of places to explore. You can take your pick from its more than 70 beaches, painted in multicoloured varieties of sand and stone. The most photographed is surely Sarakiniko, its curvaceous white cliffs resembling a haphazardly constructed pavlova. Like Santorini, Milos is volcanic, and along with its central caldera, some of its shorelines – such as pretty Paleohori on the south coast – feature hot springs bubbling up through the sands.
Ferries from Athens stop several times a day at Adamas, where classic Cycladic white houses cluster below a blue-domed church, and the waterfront is lined with sunny tavernas. For a main port, it's surprisingly picturesque. If you're seeking more upmarket accommodation and the island's best restaurants, base yourself in Pollonia on the northeastern tip of the island.
Much more famous in Greece than outside it, Tinos is the country's most important Marian pilgrimage site, linked inextricably with the foundation of the modern Greek state. In 1823, while the nation was in the throes of its eight-year war of independence, the icon known as Our Lady of Tinos was uncovered in an abandoned chapel on the slopes above the island's main town, Hora. In 1830, immediately after the war, a grand Renaissance-style church was built over the ruins. Thousands of Orthodox Christians flock here on major Marian feasts, and the icon is now completely obscured by the precious stones and pearls left by the grateful faithful.
Aside from its famous church, Hora has an attractive warren of white-washed lanes liberally salted with bars and restaurants. Three kilometres along the coast is a site where pilgrims of the distant past once headed, the Sanctuary of sea god Poseidon and his wife Amphitrite, now resting in inscrutable ruins alongside a pebble-strewn beach.
However, the real appeal of Tinos lies in its mountainous interior. The island is known for its marble, which generations of artisans have shaped into sculptures, churches and the facades of public buildings. The highlight is Pyrgos, one of the most visually arresting towns in the Cyclades, where narrow marbled lanes radiate out from a cafe-lined square. On the outskirts of the town is the excellent Museum of Marble Crafts, an impressive modern building filled with artefacts and interactive displays illustrating quarrying and sculpting techniques, from ancient times to today.
Another distinctive quirk of Tinos is the groups of elaborate Venetian-era dovecotes gathered in the central valleys like miniature fairy castles. And, of course, there are plenty of beaches.
Tinos is known for its food – which is saying something in a country as culinary as Greece – especially wild artichokes, tomatoes, sausage and spicy cheese. Most of the tourists here are Greek, and this is likely to have something to do with the quality of its restaurants. The best place to experience Tinoan cuisine is O Ntinos, a sunny taverna overlooking remote Giannaki Bay. Start off with fish soup before tucking into a selection of mezedhes (Greek mezze) and finishing with homemade icecream.
Sifnos has a charm all of its own. It's hard to choose where to base yourself as each of its main towns is appealing in a different way. Ferries dock at Kamares, which doesn't detract from its chilled-out beachy atmosphere or dramatic setting, nestled within a horseshoe of mountains. Perched in the centre of the island is chic Apollonia, its narrow, whitewashed lanes lined with restaurants, bars, boutiques and, this being Greece, numerous churches. One suspects this might be exactly the kind of elegant ambience a more mature crowd seeks in Mykonos but struggles to find.
Then there's Kastro, once the administrative capital of Sifnos but now an atmospheric backwater. Here an ancient acropolis tops a walled hill town, its streets bestrewn with Roman sarcophagi. Clinging to the sea cliffs below the town, a tiny, blue-domed church is poised above iridescent green waters, provoking an endless stream of "#nofilterneeded" posts to Instagram.
The island's other painfully photogenic church is the Moni Chrysopigi monastery, sitting on its own islet linked to the mainland by a narrow footbridge. The beach here is gorgeous, too, with a couple of tavernas more than justifying it as a day-trip destination.
Families flock to the low-key beach towns of Vathy and Platys Gialos, each lined with waterfront tavernas serving fresh seafood and other local specialities. The pick of the bunch is Omega3 in Platys Gialos, where marinated octopus sits alongside ceviche and sashimi on a globetrotting menu.
Ragged-edged, almost-circular Serifos is a short hop towards Athens from Sifnos but somehow manages to feel far more remote. Legends abound on this little island, home to the one-eyed Cyclops and to Perseus, the hero who bagged the head of Medusa.
The laidback port town of Livadi offers a sweeping view of ancient capital Hora, its dazzling white buildings stretching along the mountainside beyond. Livadi has the beaches and waterfront tavernas, while Hora has atmosphere by the bucketload. A nifty trick is to get the bus up and walk back down – a much less taxing proposition than the opposite. At the very top of Hora you'll find an acropolis capped by a crumbling 15th-century Venetian castle and a church carved into the rock on the site of a temple to Athena.
The island's most beautiful beach, Agios Sostis, sits on a narrow spit of sand ending in a rocky crag topped by a blue-domed church, with excellent swimming on either side. It's only a 40-minute walk from Livada. Hire a car or scooter to explore the many other remote beaches encircling the island, stopping to explore the castle-like Monastery of the Taxiarches along the way.
The closest of the Cyclades to Attica, Kea is to Athens what Waiheke is to Auckland. Wealthy Athenians have their weekend homes here, but international travellers tend to bypass it as there are no direct ferries from Athens' main port, Piraeus. Instead, cashed-up locals drive to Lavrio on Attica's southeastern tip and take the hour-long ferry journey from there.
Kea's port town Korissia has some good restaurants and a decent beach, but there are better places to stay. Far more interesting is the former ancient city-state, Ioulida, spread over adjoining hilltops in the rugged interior. It's the island's administrative centre but, with a population of about 600 people, it's hardly a metropolis. Steep streets wind past centuries-old, whitewashed houses and good-quality tavernas set on sunny squares, most of which have views over the valleys and out to sea.
The town's little archaeological museum showcases a collection of bare-breasted terracotta women dating from somewhere between 3300 and 1100 BC. However, Ioulida's most intriguing sight is an 8m-long schist lion, grinning like the Cheshire Cat from a perch on the sunny slope where it's been since the 6th-century BC.
There are some terrific beaches such as Spathi, Otzias, Gialiskari, Kampi and the regrettably named Pisses. Yet the main reason Kea makes this list over some of the other islands is ruined Karthaia, hidden on the island's inaccessible southeastern coast. For 1500 years until it was abandoned in the 7th-century AD, Karthaia was a bustling city, which at its peak had temples, a Roman bathhouse and a theatre that seated 880 people. It's now so remote that it can only be reached by boat or on foot.
There are plenty such ruins all over Greece, but there's something incredibly special about hiking down an overgrown track for 40 minutes and finding yourself with an ancient acropolis all to yourself. Here you can Instagram yourself to your heart's content, never having to worry about spoiling someone's coffee.
For more Greek travel ideas, see visitgreece.gr