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The Cyclades (“circular islands”) take their name from the circle they form around the island of Delos, sacred to the Ancient Greeks.
These islands dotting the Aegean Sea are the peaks of a submerged mountain range, with the islands of Milos and Santorini added by prehistoric volcanic eruption.
Among the many dozens of islands, up to 30 are inhabited and connected by an efficient ferry network.
The largest is Naxos, and the most populated is Syros. Southeast of mainland Greece, they are all within easy reach of Athens and a popular holiday spot for Greek as well as overseas visitors.
Isolation produces an independence in islanders that sets them apart from the mainland but the difference from island to island, and from the rest of Greece, has become less marked as communications have improved.
Traditional family life remains important and men and women still lead often separate lives.
The wife looks after the house, children and religious obligations (most islanders are Greek Orthodox), while the man will spend much of his time at work or in the coffee house.
Such traditional coffee shops fill the place of a pub in British culture and, while usually full of men, all are welcome.
Language and culture
Modern Greek is the language of the islands, albeit with some local dialects, but English is widely spoken in tourist areas.
The Greek alphabet is a barrier for English speakers but much of the vocabulary is accessible given the influence of Greek on English e.g. pneuma (air), logos (word) or phone (sound).
The islands have been inhabited for thousands of years, with Delos being a centre of Greek mythology until the arrival of Christianity.
It was seen as the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis and extensive archeological remains attest to its importance as both a religious centre and later a port.
The islands were once a target for pirates and the settlement pattern reflected that, with the main town being built inland in an easily defended location.
However, tourism has brought a boom to coastal villages, and the main port is now more often the main town as well, with the interiors suffering from depopulation.
The majority of homes in the Cyclades have white walls with blue detailing on doors and windows.
White – using lime made from grinding seashells – was the traditional colour for island houses to protect against the summer heat.
Blue was the cheapest other colour to make, using laundry powder added to the lime mix.
In 1974, the military government banned colours other than blue and white – the colours of the Greek flag – to encourage a sense of nationalism.
Blue is also the traditional colour for church domes, reflecting the blue of the heavens.
The “whitewash” edict, continued in the interests of tourism, is under review but Santorini has always allowed exceptions and its walls continue to show other pastel shades.
Food and drink
The cuisine of the Cyclades will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited a Greek restaurant, with the islands naturally featuring seafood heavily.
Fresh fish, grilled and dressed with olive oil and lemon, is all you need for a great meal and if you are ever going to like octopus, this is the place to try it.
The seafood-heavy menus are just not a result of being surrounded by the Aegean; the dry, barren landscape cannot support much agriculture.
Goat and sheep do find grazing, so fine cheeses are a particular treat.
The volcanic soils of Santorini make it more fertile than most of the other islands and it is famed for its cherry tomatoes, peas, white aubergine and wild rabbit.
The split yellow peas are puréed to make the local hummus-like fava, while the tiny tomatoes combine well with goat’s cheese in a salad.
Barley is also grown for another treat, kopania – sweet bread rolls with raisins coated in sesame seed.
Every other island boasts its own specialities, from the “louza” cured meat of Mykonos to the “froutalia” omelette on Andros.
Santorini’s soil and sunshine also produces a lovely white wine, Asyrtiko, and several good vineyards offer tours, meals and sunset views.
Most of the best wineries in the Cyclades are here, but the tiny nearby island of Folegandros has a notable one, as does Mykonos. Modern Greek white wines make a welcome change from the pine-scented retsina we are all familiar with.
Ouzo is another well-known Greek drink but the more subtle taste of raki has a firmer hold here. Rakomelo – hot raki and honey – originated on Amorgos and is a popular winter warmer.
Greek coffee is strong and black, traditionally made with the grounds boiled in a pot.
Health and safety
Sunburn and accidents from riding scooters when drunk or inexperienced are probably the greatest dangers you will face here.
Smaller islands often have only a clinic but the domestic carriers give priority to medical emergencies for flights to Athens.
The water on the islands is safe to drink but the taste can be salty from the use of desalination plants.
On smaller islands, mains water often has to be shipped in from the mainland. Bottled water is plentiful.
It is worth mentioning that the Cyclades had 35 Blue Flag beaches in the 2016 awards, with Greece coming second only to Spain for the total number.
Santorini, like the island of Milos, has a fertile volcanic landscape that differentiates it from the rest of the Cyclades.
The remnant of a volcanic caldera, the island embraces amazing sunsets with its half-moon shape and visitors descend on the restaurant terraces of Oia every evening to watch the spectacle.
During daylight hours, the black sand beaches of Perissa and the coarser red sands near Akrotiri are among the main attractions.
You can also join wine or sightseeing tours but many visitors enjoy hiring a car or quad to see more.
Anyone wishing to explore the history of the region should visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera on Santorini,
Milos and Kimolos
Milos is smaller but its sunsets are equally good. Less developed than Santorini, the white sandy beaches are a prime draw and it’s also a good place for adventure holidays.
You’ll find even more pretty beaches on the sister island of Kimolos.
Mykonos will be familiar from photos of its “Little Venice” of seaside restaurants overlooking a bay of Venetian windmills.
It has a lively clubbing and shopping scene but the interior is also full of lovely views and pretty churches.
Delos is a short hop from Mykonos and preserves some of Greece’s most important archaeological remains, including the Terrace of the Lions carved in marble.
Uninhabited, it is a Unesco world heritage site.
Naxos, Paros and Antiparos
Naxos is the greenest island and its fertile interior makes for great hiking, helped by a good bus service.
The Old Town of Naxos, with its Venetian castle, and several impressive temple remains are also well worth a visit, as are the Venetian and archaeological museums.
Paros is another place to hike around, to take in the mountain villages and landscapes.
The early Byzantine Ekatontapyliani (“Church of 100 Doors”) is an attraction, although many visitors just go for the beaches, and the kite surfing.
Nearby is tiny Antiparos, ideal for those who think Paros is just too busy.
Kea, Tinos and Pyrgos
Kea is a must-see for birdwatchers, with a wide variety of scenery, from olive groves to mountain slopes and the largest oak forest in the Cyclades.
Divers also enjoy its clear waters, where the Britannic, Titanic’s sister ship, was sunk by enemy action in 1916.
Tinos is home to the church of Panayia Meyalóhari (“Blessed Virgin Mary”), drawing both Catholic and Orthodox pilgrims from all over Greece.
Its history of marble carving has left a rich legacy in its churches and even pigeon lofts, and can be explored further at the Marble Art Museum in Pýrgos.
Amorgos, Sikinos and Folegandros
Amorgos is a draw for fans of the Luc Bresson film “The Big Blue” as the location for many scenes.
The rugged mountains, steep cliffs and tiny coves of this island at the very south of the Cyclades combine to offer perfect get away-from-it-all isolation.
Don’t miss the 11th century Hozoviotissa monastery, the second-oldest in Greece and built into a cliff with amazing views along with the archaeological museum.
Folegandros has become popular in recent years, a threat to its isolation. Its population of 750 live mainly in the maze-like medieval streets of Chora, built on the edge of a cliff.
Nearby Sikinos is benefitting from those still looking for the next island to discover.
Ios and Syros
Ios has a reputation for youthful partying that it struggles to shake off, even if the quiet villages of the interior stand apart.
Like many other islands, it’s worth visiting even as late as November, when the weather is still warm and prices lower.
The Industrial Museum on Syros brings things more up to date, showing the island’s importance to the Greek textile and shipbuilding industry.
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