GREECE:  ISLAND HOPPING BY FERRY

CRETE-MYKONOS-IKARIA-FOURNI-SAMOS

Island hopping in Greece was up there on my bucket list for years. Greece has thousands of islands with the number of inhabited islands variously cited as between 166 and 227.  The question is how to choose which ones to go to?  The answer depends not only on your choice of islands but mainly on ferry schedules.

There are a lot of ferries but not every island is connected to each other and the schedule also varies. There are islands that get ferry service once or twice a week, which means you are stuck there for a week. It’s fine if you have unlimited time but if you are planning 2-3 days on each island then it does not work.  In addition some islands have more than one port and very often the destination is indicated by port name and not by the name of the island, which complicates the searches even more.  We started our journey on Crete and the goal was to get to Turkey about two weeks later.  I literally spent hours on ferries’ websites trying to come up with an acceptable combination, and had to cut some islands out, like Naxos and Lesvos and to look into others which were not on my list originally. The most reliable and comprehensive website, in my opinion, is ferries.gr/greek-islands-ferry. However, all of them charge a booking fee and it is better just showing up and getting tickets on a spot.  We always were able to get tickets except for the last one transferring to Turkey on a Turkish ferry which was sold out due to some Turkish holiday, so we had to stay another day on Samos, which was not a bad thing.  Another interesting point is that local travel agents are not very helpful about connections on other islands, they pretty much know arrivals and departures of their respective island but not much further and therefore I suggest a thorough preparation and knowledge of schedules.  Having said that, there are some small local ferries that are not listed on ferry websites and it is impossible to know about them until you get there.

We started in Crete where we spent six days. It is the largest island in Greece and calls for a special blog, see my blog about Crete. Therefore our experience there will not be repeated here.

MYKONOS

From Crete we took a ferry to Mykonos.  I have been to Mykonos four times prior and was thinking of skipping it, but it is such a major island with unbelievable night life that we decided to revisit. Plus there are good ferry connections to and from Mykonos.  Mykonos, located in the Cyclades, traditionally attracts glamorous crowds and is probably the most expensive island in Greece. You cannot come to Mykonos in the summer without having reserved a room. I managed to snag a decently (for Mykonos) priced room for two nights. At about $100 per night it was a bargain; a nice light and spacious room right on the main street. It gets a little noisy late at night but the remedy is to be out late as well, which we did.   We ended up extending for another night, as two days in Mykonos is never enough.

One benefit of coming back to a place you visited before is that you know exactly what you liked and what you want to do again. First, it is a must staying in Hora (Mykonos Town) if you want to be within walking distance of night life.  I always stay in the center and take buses to different beaches during the day. The central bus station is called Fabrika and all the buses to beaches, airport and the port leave from there.  At first glance, the scene is very chaotic, but the bus schedules and destinations are clearly displayed; there is a ticket office to buy tickets (I suggest getting a bulk to avoid standing in line) and surprisingly buses leave right on schedule without delays.

I have probably been to most of the beaches at some point or another, but this time we chose Ornos and Psarou. In the past I have been to Paradise, Super Paradise, Ella and Platys Gialos and others. Each is a little different and the prices of chairs and umbrellas tend to be a lot more expensive in the more “upscale” beaches. The price can range between 10 to 50 Euros per day.

For night life I like to go to Beach Club at Paradise, try to get there by 7pm for live music. Later there is a DJ and the party goes wilder and wilder as the night progresses. The crowd is young but we didn’t feel out of place as we danced on our table in par with others.  For a more mild evening I recommend some seaside bars at Little Venice. The setting is as gorgeous for sunset as later at night.  Another good sunset spot is by the windmills at which time hundreds of tourists gather around to gaze at the setting sun. The restaurants are very touristy and quiet overpriced. We chose to eat at a local gyro place by the Fabrika, great fresh mezes and salads, meat dishes, wine and really good prices. If nothing else, take a stroll thru the maze of narrow streets, do some shopping and watch the crowds. The only thing that I noticed this time is that the crowds are less glamorous and the old money types have been replaced by a younger middle class variety.

IKARIA

Located in the Northeastern Aegean Islands, sparsely populated Ikaria is a completely different experience from Mykonos.  Allegedly, this is where Icarus crushed after his wax wings melted being too close to the sun and it is also a purported birthplace of Dionysus, the god of wine. We spent a total of three nights in Ikaria.

We arrived in the afternoon to the port of Evdilos without any reservations or a slight idea about where we are going. The tiny town was deep asleep in siesta and the only two car rental places did not have any available vehicles.  I read that there is basically one bus going around the island but nobody knows when, so we definitely needed some wheels. It also looked like there is absolutely nothing to do in Evdilos.  I stayed with the luggage and bf went to look for a solution; he found a place that would rent us a quad later in the afternoon.  We never drove a quad and the one we got didn’t look too safe but at least they gave us helmets and lucky for us we travel light so our small bags fitted perfectly in the back.

The first stop west of Evdilos was a small village of Armenistis, 15 km away.  It was a beautiful coastal road but it probably took us an hour to get there; quad is a clumsy and not a very obedient vehicle.  If you never drove one before the turns and reverses are especially challenging. I was quiet scared and decided that if we make it in one piece we will return the quad the next day, but at the end of the journey bf felt a lot more confident and we decided to keep it.

Armenistis is a tiny fisherman village and there were barely any tourists even though it was July. We got a room overlooking the sea in hotel/restaurant Pashalia (40 Euros) and ended up eating dinner there since most of the places in the village were closed or empty. There wasn’t much more to do there but to admire the landscape. The next morning we woke up to a beautiful view of the bay and the beach looked so inviting that I ventured out there and swam before breakfast.

Our next stop directly across the island to the south coast was a tiny place called Marganitis.   It was only 30 km away but being on a quad you are completely exposed to elements. Not only you feel very vulnerable but the strong July sun can fry you in minutes.  We covered ourselves as much as we could but I could still feel my toes getting burned and had to settle for the ridiculous socks with sandals look…  While still on the coast we stopped a couple of times and jumped in the sea to cool off but quickly the road took us inland. That part between the coasts, about 10 km, was the best. We drove slowly (quad cannot go fast anyway); we could smell the trees and the flowers and it was serene and beautiful.

When we arrived to the southern coast the terrain changed completely. The barren sun drenched mountains and dry cliffs were magnificent and totally quiet. But the last 10 km were the most terrifying experience. Every time the mountainous serpentine road made a turn I was sure we are going to flip and roll off the cliff into the sea. Also because we were driving extremely slowly the midday sun was roasting us with all its might. At some point we went thru a pitch dark tunnel and had to light our way with cell phones. Finally we made it to Marganitis “port”, comprising of two restaurants and some fishing boats and jumped right in the water, I could swear it was sizzling around us.

At the restaurant the owner set us up with a lovely room with one of her aunts. I am kind of sure that everybody in that village was related somehow.  Later in the afternoon we took a 10 min boat ride to the famous rocky Seychelles Beach which can only be reached either by boat or by a very steep and long decent thru the rocks.  In the evening we ate in the same restaurant again which is probably a focal point of the village because we recognized same people from the lunch time eating here again.  We also checked out the competition next door for a drink but didn’t stay too long because we were exhausted from all this sun earlier.

The next day we were getting ready to drive thru the terrifying road again to Agios Kirykos, the main town of the island located on the south east of the island. Learning our lesson, we got up really early so we can make the 27 km way before the sun is in its peak. Surprisingly, the road did not seem as scary as the day before and we made the 27 km in two hours.

Agios Kirykos is a cute typical Greek town wrapped around a small harbor. The cafes were filed with local men drinking coffee smoking cigarettes and doing nothing. We got a small cheap room overlooking the bay right in the center of everything and drove to the next town of Thermal famous for its hot spring spas.

We spent some time in a café right on the beach and then checked out the town’s hot spring bathhouses.  The spa that we chose was right on the beach, it had a very basic interior but the hot mineral bath was good and extremely hot.  Dinner in one of the harbor restaurants in Agios Kirykos was the extend of the island‘s nightlife.

FOURNI ISLANDS

           We thought Ikaria was a small island, but that was before we got to tiny Fourni, also part of Northeastern Aegean Islands.  Fourni is actually an archipelago and its capital Fourni Korseon named after the French privateers, the Corsairs, was basically a pirate lair at some point.  I am a big fan of pirate stories and therefore was naturally attracted to the place.

            The town center, obviously concentrated around the tiny harbor has about three restaurants and some accommodations. At this point we never pre-booked any accommodations and just searched for something upon arrival. As a rule, if you arrive on the last or the only ferry of the day, the owners are amenable to bargaining since they know nobody else is coming and it’s the only chance to get some money.

There is also one pedestrian street in town with some bars, sea food restaurants and shops. Now being experts in driving a quad we rented one for 24 hours and drove thru the island back and forth, all the 20 km the length of it. The landscape, sun-drenched and bare is truly breathtaking and there is nobody on the road except for an occasional car.

We had a fabulous lunch in tiny northern village of Hrysomila, freshest fish, Greek salad and wine.  Actually the place looked like a small grocery store and we came in to buy some ice cream. Then we saw a refrigerator with fresh fish and after some discussion, not clear in what language, since they didn’t speak a word of English our ice cream turned into a lavish lunch.  After lunch we drove to the other side of the island where dramatic cliffs melt into blue calm sea.  Most of the beaches are rough with no services whatsoever except for the Kampi beach couple of km north of town.  A very steep set of stairs leads down to the beach which has a bar, chairs and some rooms for rent.

SAMOS

We took a fast ferry from Fourni to Samos, our last stop before departing for Turkey. Samos, still part of Northeastern Aegean Islands is huge in comparison to both Ikaria and Fourni.

Samos has three ports: Pythagorio, Karlovasi and Vathy, sometimes also referred to as Samos because it’s the island’s capital. Our ferry luckily arrived to Pythagorio, named after Pythagoras[1], because it’s funner and livelier then Vathy.  A promenade along vast harbor lined with private yachts was full of tourists, shops, bars and restaurants all steaming with activities. I liked Samos from the first moment. As usual we bargained for a nice room right in the center of everything and changed to nice cloths for a change since I saw earlier that people were actually dressed up.

Next day we rented a car so we can explore the island. Two important points here: 1. You MUST have an international driver’s license now to rent a car in Europe, and 2. it is difficult to find an automatic. We spent several hours searching for a place that will give us a car and had to go to Vathy to a place that agreed to rent us a car under the table. There is a public bus but it is not very convenient and its schedule is scarce. The city beached are not great, the best beach we found was Ammos beach, about 20 minutes away; it had all the necessary services, beds, umbrellas, nice restaurants and a quiet bay to swim in.

We drove northwest as far as Karlovasi, an industrial not interesting place and stayed overnight in a lovely Kokkari in a room right on a beach. The beach is pebbly but the swimming is amazing.  Beach restaurants have good fresh seafood and there is also active night life on a promenade and live music. Kokkari is a total gem and a place to spend few days in.

We spent couple of hours in Vathy before our ferry to Kushadasi, Turkey and were glad that our ferry landed in Pythagorio and not Vathy, so our first impression of Samos was not spoiled.

[1] Pythagoras of Samos[a] (c. 570 – c. 495 BC)[b] was an ancient Ionian Greek philosopher and the eponymous founder of Pythagoreanism, Wikipedia.

 

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