Jostling with hundreds of other travellers at Athenios, Santorini's frenetic port, somehow we all managed to squeeze onto the two-hour-late Athens-bound ferry.
This was my first foray into the world of Greek island hopping and I entered into the spirit of it wholeheartedly. Succumbing to the Greek way of doing things, I flung my suitcase on top of a mountain of bags, cases and rucksacks piled high in the aisle, before being swiftly ushered to my seat by an eager crewmember.
On the surface, the operation resembled complete and utter chaos, but somehow underneath all the confusion, it seemed to work; the ferry departing a mere 10 minutes later, everyone on board and safely in their seats. I couldn't help wondering how I'd ever retrieve my bag, though.
I was at the start of a 10-day long Greek island hopping adventure around the Cyclades island group — pronounced Kick-la-des — a sun-drenched, arc-shaped archipelago scattered like white pebbles around the crystal-clear Aegean Sea.
Flitting around the group's main islands on the region's reliable ferry system is the key to getting the best from the Cyclades and I was here to discover the essence of Milos and Folegandros, two of its smaller, lesser-known islands; as well as Santorini, reputedly its most glamorous, although I must admit, I was yet to see why this was one of the most famous of all Greek islands renowned for its beauty. So far, all I'd seen were coach loads of cruise passengers and huge pedestrian tour groups crowding the kebab-shop lined streets in the main town of Fira. What was there to love?
I was grateful that two hours later we arrived in the pleasantly lively port of Adamas in Milos, with a buzzing waterfront scene. Cocooned in the balmy air, I felt a million miles away from tourist-laden Athenios and knew I was going to like it here. Compared with Santorini, which is easily accessible, and a popular cruise destination, tourism exists on a more human scale on Milos, mainly because you can't fly direct, or visit on a package tour, and also because mining sustains its economy — meaning it's less reliant on attracting hordes of visitors.
Hire car collected, my travelling companion and I made an obligatory stop at Barko Restaurant, a delightful traditional Greek taverna on the outskirts of Adamas, on our way to the Melian Boutique Hotel in the pretty harbour town of Pollonia on the northwest coast. This was our first taste of al fresco Greek-style dining, where we sampled delicious homemade tzatziki and souvlaki in a peaceful courtyard under a canopy of vines; it was the perfect start to our adventure.
Milos, along with most Greek islands, offers the perfect place to do as much, or as little, as you like. Admittedly, it would have been all too easy to pass the entire time swaying gently in the hammock on our terrace listening to the sea lap the shore, but I was surrounded by ancient landscape waiting to be discovered. I was also a visitor to the original home of the Venus de Milo statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, which is now carefully stored in the Louvre, having allegedly lost its arms on the way to Paris in the 19th century. It would have been rude not to explore.
A scenic drive along the northern coastline made the perfect introduction to Cycladic history and landscape, starting just a kilometre away from our base in Pollonia in Phylakopi. This fascinating excavated prehistoric town is considered one of the most significant Bronze Age settlements in the Cyclades for understanding prehistoric Cycladic culture and way of life. From here, it spreads out into one of the most beautiful valleys on the island, the slopes across the hill heading south covered by beautiful clusters of Phoenician junipers and cedar trees seen all around the island landscape. In the interior, it's easy to spot the many "katikies," or derelict buildings, once used as seasonal homes for farmer or shepherds, representing the island's historic rural life.
Pick up Pique next week (Nov.6) for Part II of this travel feature on the Greek Isles.
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