WHY WE LOVE IT
- Exotic, ancient, atmospheric: sugar-cube villages, white-sand beaches, domed monasteries, classical sites, the sparkling sapphire Aegean Sea.
- A new breed of intimate high-design hotels on trendy islands contrast with simple, rustic accommodations on lesser-known ones. High-rises and large resorts are rare.
- Great variety—from jet-set Athenian hideaways to sleepy, rocky outposts that have hardly changed in centuries. The most popular islands are Santorini and Mykonos.
- If you want everything to run like clockwork and require first-class transportation, this might not be your ideal getaway, as you'll be walking and taking ferries and local buses, not to mention the odd mule.
- Good buys: fishermen's hats, stoneware pottery, Metaxa brandy, handmade leather sandals and worry beads.
WHEN TO GO
Summer is high season, with July and especially August almost too crowded for comfort. On many islands, spring is a bargain and quite lovely, with blankets of wild flowers and a breezy warmth. Most places are closed in winter, so November to March is off-limits.
Oia, Santorini, Cyclades
The owner is an architect, which explains why this sea captain's house is so beautifully renovated. Delicious, elevated Greek cuisine goes toe to toe with the interiors—dinner here is as refined as Oia gets. It's also a great place to try the best local wines. Indulge in the impressive variety of Cuban cigars too.
Near the church, Oia, Santorini, Cyclades
Come here for the sunset—everyone does, since the terrace has the best view and the contemporary cooking is among the finest in town. The candlelit, antique-filled interior is, arguably, even more romantic, though.
AMBROSIA & NECTAR
Oia, Santorini, Cyclades
You won't be astonished to learn that this gracious place, an early epicurean Oia highlight (formerly known as Café-Restaurant) that serves up a mix of authentic Santorini cuisine and international dishes, is the sister to Ambrosia. The superstylish owners of 1864 The Sea Captain's House are responsible for both.
__Firostefani, Santorini, Cyclades
This 19th-century windmill has fairy lights, flowers and white wooden chairs on a terrace with a sweeping view over the blue Aegean. The fascinating food is worth a journey too—flowerpot chicken with smoked local tomatoes is a typical tweaked traditional dish.
__Hotel Belvedere, Mykonos, Cyclades
This de rigueur outpost of Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa marks Mykonos as the place to be, and you'll feel right in the center while eating his New Style sashimi in this seasonal (June to September) and ever-fashionable restaurant. Downstairs is a wine cellar room for intimate tastings.
__SEA SATIN MARKET
The pricey food is fine at this popular glass-walled seafood specialist located at the very edge of the island, but you come here more for posing and beautiful-people-watching than for a gastronomic experience.
__Kato Mili, Mykonos, Cyclades
Designed by acclaimed Greek architect Aris Konstantinidis near the famous Mykonos windmills, this retro '60s haven has 52 rooms decorated with bold tangerine, avocado and turquoise hues, op-art prints, and groovy furniture and fixtures. While there's no beach associated with the hotel, its pool, new mini-spa (called b-healthy) and hipster fellow guests make it an innovative yet serene must-visit oasis.
__School of Fine Arts District, Mykonos, Cyclades
If you like to make the scene, this white-hot, style-conscious hotel, comprised of traditional village houses, is for you. While all rooms are equipped with AC and satellite TV with DVD, it's the sea-view suites that will really woo you with their outdoor living rooms—worth every extra cent! Two bars and a Nobu restaurant keep the stream of jeunesse dorée flowing.
__Tagoo, Mykonos Town, Mykonos, Cyclades
While the intimate size of this 17-room waterfront hotel, which is only a 10-minute walk from town, hardly qualifies it as a resort, the young owner delivers all the upscale amenities of its flashier counterparts, not to mention some cool extras: Hermès and Molton Brown toiletries, free mimosas on arrival and your choice of a soft or hard mattress! The pretty floodlit pool with bar is the centerpiece of this enchanting oasis. The breakfasts are spectacular too!
Oia, Santorini, Cyclades
A group of traditional troglodytic peasant houses dating from the 18th century were painstakingly renovated into this complex of 17 private houses filled with local antiques and hand-woven fabric that guests can enjoy today. Retaining the original aesthetics of the 300-year-old homes, which were essentially caves, the private stone terraces, sinuous whitewashed interiors, cliffside gardens of geranium and bougainvillea, and a pool add value. It's the place that put Santorini on the map, and it still rocks.
1864 THE SEA CAPTAIN'S HOUSE
Oia, Santorini, Cyclades
There are just three suites in this 19th-century shipping family's mansion, all of them grand and crammed with modern conveniences (TV, DVD, CD, WiFi, AC) as well as antiques. The captain's on the ground floor is the most impressive, but the Venetian is so romantic and has better views. There's no restaurant, but dinner from either of the owners' two restaurants (Ambrosia and Ambrosia & Nectar) can be delivered.
__THE TSITOURAS COLLECTION
__Oia, Santorini, Cyclades
The House of Portraits and the House of Nureyev are arguably the most romantic of these five divine villas, of which every inch has been art-directed by antiquities collector and owner Dimitris Tsitouras. Choice pieces from his vaults are generously deployed among the cathedral ceilings, decadent bathrooms and little terraces of the Tsitouras Collection, which perches on a thousand-foot cliff over the Mediterranean. There's a free bar and elegant breakfast, but mostly you're left alone.
Imerovigli, Santorini, Cyclades
In a neoclassical mansion high on top of this village overlooking the caldera is a rare—though small—full-service hotel of great style. Patrician interiors look traditional, though they're up-to-the-minute in amenities. There's a spa, hammam (a Turkish bath), a good restaurant and should you ever want to emerge, daily wine tastings.
PERANTZADA 1811 ART HOTEL
Odyssea Androutsou Str. Vathy, Ithaca, Ionian Islands
This ahead-of-its-time 1811 Ernst Schiller building has become arty indeed, with an appealing space-age-boho look in the 12 clean-line bedrooms. There's room service instead of a restaurant, but you're in the port, near everything—including the Odyssean sites. There's no beach, though—[Ithaca has none to speak of].
This dramatic, volcanic island makes a fine base of operations, as long as nightlife is not what you're after. Drink in the magnificent caldera (also the harbor), take the cable car to the capital, Fira, and spend time in elegant Oia, the gentrified village of 19th-century villas and restored troglodytic peasant houses. Note the sand here is not white but black.
The single most famous Greek island is having another moment, and it's a good choice if you like to be where it's at. With its windmills, Little Venice and Alefkandra (the artists' quarter), the main town, Mykonos, is beautiful and unusual. It's less of a gay mecca than it once was (the clothing-optional end of Super Paradise beach is another matter). Even here, seclusion can still be found in other parts of the island.
Easily accessible from Mykonos, the sacred birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, with its world-famous archeological sites, is memorably atmospheric—though less so in the boiling-hot, crowded afternoons. Try to catch the first ferry. Keep in mind that you can't stay on the island.
Less frequented by international style-seekers and Americans, though quite popular with Europeans, the third-largest island in the Cyclades has a lot going for it: great, white beaches, scores of good tavernas (cafés) and pretty fishing villages. There are also frenetic towns, more or less ruined by tourism: the two ports Parikia and Naoussa among them.
Virtually unknown to Americans, this compact island with 365 churches is one of the prettiest in the Cyclades. The distinct dearth of top-class accommodations has kept it off the map, but between the lively port Kamares, the inland capital Apollonia and sleepy, medieval Kastro, there's a lot to like. And Sifniot chefs are said to be the best in Greece.
The chief Ionian island seems more Italian than Greek—it's near the toe of Italy and was under Venetian rule for four centuries. Tragically, much evidence of that period was razed by the massive earthquake of 1953, but the ocher and pink houses still differ from the white-and-blue Aegean norm, and the Italianate capital is downright elegant. There are also big beaches and party towns for mass tourism, plus quiet, upscale villages. Hotels aren't great; the best way to stay here is to rent a villa.
Like Corfu, the chief island of the Dodecanese chain differs greatly from the Aegean standard, though here it's not Italy but neighboring Turkey that has exerted its influence—the Ottoman rule lasted 300 years. Rhodes Old Town is Europe's biggest inhabited medieval town, worth seeing for its three-mile ramparts alone.
The biggest Greek island has quite distinct attributes due to its size, its mountainous topography and the fact that it's the birthplace of the Minoan culture. Archeology buffs are in heaven here, with the magnificent Heraklion Archaeological Museum (Xanthoudidiou St.; 302810-226092) and the Minoan Palace of Knossos being the greatest of sights.