I once watched a documentary set in the 1980s about a guy who backpacked through the Greek Islands. He was able to travel for months on a tiny budget because he took a tent and camped on some of the smaller uninhabited islands. He would stay for weeks on an island simply because the ferry didn’t return for that long. I then heard stories of European university students going to Greece with a hundred Euros and a bottle of Ouzo and staying for months until it was time to head home for class.
Apparently this low cost idealic meandering was the norm for years until hoards of tourists realised the potential for the unlimited blue beaches, stunning sunsets and delicious garlic lamb.
Well the 80s are over and Greece can cost a pretty penny these days. Millions of people travel to the Greek Islands every summer with the majority hopping between the Cycladic Islands. Five-star Resorts have now popped up accommodating for the rich and famous and gone are your nostalgic, quiet backpackers with a tent, a beard and a good book.
But stick with me and I will show you how to escape the crowds.
The Cyclades are made up of approximately 2200 islands and are found in the Southern Aegean sea. I took the main route through these Islands starting at Athens and then taking ferries to Mykonos, Ios, Naxos, Santorini and then Crete.
The beauty of the high tourist flow through the islands is that it makes them so accessible. Multiple ferries will visit any one of the islands each day, giving travellers the ability to literally book a ticket on the day of departure. So if you aren’t taken with an island (I am looking at you, Ios) you can simply move on to the next paradise.
Now how do you escape the crowds on a route that literally sees a million people a summer?
Firstly, go just before or just after the high season (High season runs July to August-ish). It’s still fun and there are still heaps of people around, what’s missing is the amount of cruise ships dropping off their passengers for the day. We went in June and the weather was perfect, even getting really hot towards the end of the month.
Secondly, how many times have you been told when traveling to get out of the main town and see the country-side?
Well this applies more than ever in Greece. Your average holiday maker will stay in pre-arranged resorts with pre-arranged transport between the port and their central accommodation, they wont drive through the hills of Naxos to visit the old town and then stop for a spot of pork and salad.
The secret is securing independent transportation while on the islands. We hired cars, 4 wheel motorbikes and even Donkeys. Technically you have to have an international drivers license to hire vehicles and it is best to arrange this before you leave home. But rarely will you be asked for it so it is easy to get around this technicality.
I will go into detail of some of the off the beaten track places that we found but have compiled a list of generic tips for the islands.
Hints and tips for the Cyclades
- You can begin your island hopping adventure by flying into Athens, but it can also be just as cost and time efficient to fly into one of the main islands and then ferry to others from there.
- The fast ferries are more expensive and slow ones are cheaper. Majority of the time the difference is only an hour. So if you have the time and looking to save cash it could be worth it.
- No you are not going crazy! The main towns on many of the islands are called Chora or Hora. Once you figure that out it’s easier to navigate.
- The rule is: if there is a nice view, you will pay more, much more. This goes for accommodation, meals, cocktails and even a well-deserved coca cola after a hot hike.
- Take flip flops to the beach, all the beaches are made from pebbles and pebbles get hot in the sun. Ouch!
- If you are traveling on the fly and haven’t booked accommodation there will be a hoard of people waiting at the ferry port to offer you a room. This is perfectly legit and some people have scored some amazing last minute accomodation this way. Except in Crete. There will be no one waiting in Crete, as we discovered.
- If you use the deck chairs on the beach – payment is per chair
- The maps in Greece are always wrong; they are at best a very general guide so expect to get lost. The Greeks don’t beat around the bush so if a map says ‘bad dirt road’ it literally means that. Luckily the locals are friendly and will point you in the right direction!
- The Euros/Giros/kebab or whatever you want to call it is delicious and cheap dinner.
- Ferry timetables are impossible – don’t even bother trying to book in advance and if you do don’t expect to leave or arrive on time.