Travel Story 

The Greek Islands

After the Olympic Games the Aegean Islands offer a place to celebrate, a place to unwind, and a thousand places of untold beauty

From the very beginning the Greeks faced media reports doubting their ability to pull off the Summer Olympic Games. Ticket sales are down, the Athens power grid was strained beyond capacity by searing temperatures and now, only a week before the opening ceremonies, there is concern about possible strikes. If worrying was part of their temperament the Greeks might well be concerned. But optimism prevails and doubts, if there were any, were set aside when the underdog Greek soccer team marched past France, the Czech Republic, and Portugal to win the European Soccer championship. If that can happen then anything is possible.

As the Olympic torch nears its final destination the Greeks are inspired with a sense of great national pride and the confidence to make these Summer Games, the first since 9/11, a shining tribute to the Olympic tradition. And when the Games are over – when it's time to unwind and savour the memory – Athens is little more than a discus throw from one of the world's great holiday retreats.

The Greek Islands, scattered like jewels in the turquoise waters of the Aegean and Ionian Seas, are so different from Athens they could be half a world away. Yet any one of them can be reached in a matter of hours by boat and several have airports served by domestic flights from Athens. From the Port of Piraeus, only a 20 minute metro ride from central Athens, Europe's largest ferry network, provides service to the island of your choice, and there are 160 permanently inhabited islands to choose from.

Although no two islands are the same they seem more closely bonded to one another than to the Greek mainland – a far-flung community of tiny villages linked together by the sea. Unlike Athens, where distant views are muted by a perpetual haze and the pervasive sound of traffic never ceases, the island villages seem to grow from and become part of their natural environment. Perhaps the most striking thing about the islands is the brilliant clarity of the vistas, the crisp contrast between sparkling white buildings and the somber rocky landscapes. The incredible whiteness of the buildings is accented by the sparse use of bright blue trim. The colour of the islands is predominantly white and blue – the colours of the Greek national flag.

For those with time and an open-ended schedule island-hopping by ferry is the ideal way to see the islands but taking one of the packaged cruises from Piraeus is a good compromise. With only 10 days left in our Greek odyssey Betty and I opted to sample the islands aboard the Atlantis, a small freighter converted to cruise ship, which gave us long stop-overs on five of the Greek Islands plus a side trip to Ephesus on mainland Turkey.

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