Look at a map of Greece and it’s almost as if someone has shaken a pepper pot over the Aegean Sea, such is the abundance of islands and islets scattered between Turkey and mainland Greece. Some, like Corfu, attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each summer, while others remain quieter and less developed.
Somewhere in this archipelagic constellation you’re bound to find a particularly bright star – an island that’s made in beach-holiday heaven. But how to find it, that’s the trick. Start by asking yourself the questions shown below right – although chances are you’ll end up visiting the Greek Islands over and over again, sampling a different one each time.
One of the greenest and most beautiful of the Greek Islands, Corfu’s hilly interior is draped with forests of olive and cypress trees. Gerald Durrell based My Family and Other Animals here, and you can still stumble upon wild, unspoilt Corners of Corfu that inspired the author. There are resorts like Benitses where nightclubs, not cicadas, reverberate through the night, but there are also plenty of boltholes where you’ll find a more sympathetic balance between traditional Greek charm and tourist facilities.
Most of the mass-market resorts are concentrated in the southeast. For something quieter look to the southwest (for sandy Maltas backed by thickly wooded hills), the northwest (for Palaiokastrftsa with its three coves clustered around a forested headland), the north (for long sweeping bays and interesting rock formations at Sidari) and the northeast (for sandy Almiros or the resort at Kassidpi).
Best days out
Older children will appreciate the elegant Venetian architecture, pavement cafes and shops of Corfu Town, and even littl’uns will enjoy exploring the maze of narrow streets in the old quarter – especially if you plonk them in a horse- drawn carriage. Also worthwhile is a day (or two) of island touring. Hire a car and dawdle inland, stopping for Durrell-style nature hunts (or more strenuous jaunts on Mount Pantokfetor). Alternatively, hire a motorboat and potter along the coast in search of hidden coves. And if you’re seized by wanderlust, don’t forget that Albania is just a ferry ride away.
Kefallonia has it in bucket loads. From mountains and caves to beach resorts and fishing villages, this large island is ideal for families seeking a bit more than just a beach holiday.
The liveliest resorts are at Lassi and nearby stretches of coast. Elsewhere you’ll find a mixture of pebbly and sandy beaches, usually with a striking backdrop of mountains. Lourdas and Skala in the far south both have long stretches of white sand with safe swimming, while the north of Kefallonia has mainly white-pebble beaches. Myrtou Bay, south of Asos, is considered the island’s most beautiful.
Best days out
Bus services are limited, so it’s essential to hire a car. Allow plenty of time for getting around this large, rugged island. Highlights include Asos (with its nearby Venetian fortress), Fiskardo (Kefallonia’s prettiest village), Mount Ainos (home to wild horses and native fir trees), Drogkarciti Caves (the size of a large concert hall) and the Melissani Cave-Lake (a mysterious subterranean azure-blue lake). The island of Ithaca – fabled as the home of Odysseus – is also worth a visit. Join a tour with a good guide who will bring to life the legends of Homer’s epic, the Odyssey.
The sandy beaches in the southeast of Kos, as well as north-coast resorts like TigkSki, make this a popular family destination. Inland, you’ll find the remains of the Asklepieion, a fourth-century BC sanctuary dedicated to the god of healing. Kos Town, meanwhile, is the jumping-off point for boat trips to Kalymnos, renowned for its sponge-fishing industry.
Once a favoured holiday haunt of the Romans, Lesvos still has what it takes to draw the crowds. A large island with a good scattering of sandy beaches and resorts, the so-called Garden of the Aegean has a rugged landscape rich in tradition.
Skala Kallonis, a fishing village at the head of the Kallonis Gulf, has a gently shelving beach and warm shallow water that’s ideal for small children. To the west, Skala Eresou boasts one of the island’s finest beaches – a 3-km stretch of dark sand.
Best days out
There’s a petrified forest and 12th- century monastery at Mount Ordymnous – an extinct volcano in the west of the island. Birdwatchers should stake out the lagoons along the western coast, while culture vultures should descend on the atmospheric harbour town of Sykaminia.
Perfect for families in search of a traditional island with few other visitors, Limnos has plenty of sandy beaches for children, although teenagers may find it a little too quiet. The west coast has the pick of the beaches – try Avlonas, just to the north of Myrina with its cobbled streets, bazaar and Ottoman houses.
Deservedly popular, this large sunny island has some excellent beaches, a fascinating historic town and a certain buzz that will appeal to families with teenagers.
The east coast has a string of beaches: from boisterous resorts like Faliraki, with watersports and nightlife, to quieter coves further south.
Best days out
Base yourself on the east coast and it’s a straightforward bus ride into Rhodes town. Kids will love exploring the walled Old Town where the Palace of the Grand Masters, a medieval citadel built by the Knights of St John in the 1300s, is guaranteed to spark their imagination. Inside, challenge them to find the mosaic of the mythical Gorgon Medusa, with hair of writhing serpents.
The nearby Street of the Knights, with its austere gateways and Impressive coats of arms, is also worth a look. In the new town you can arrange diving and boat trips at Mandraki harbour where the 40-m statue of the Colossus of Rhodes is believed to have once stood. A popular boat excursion is to Undos where an ancient acropolis looms over a village of whitewashed houses and cobbled streets. If you want shade and tranquillity, visit Petaloudes, a wooded valley where thousands of Jersey tiger moths gather between June and September (get there before the tour buses arrive).
This famous island blew its top around 1450 BC, spewing clouds of molten debris over 30 km and unleashing a tsunami that devastated Minoan Crete. The volcanic eruption left a giant caldera, which subsequently flooded with seawater and inspired the legend of Atlantis.
With whitewashed buildings perched on volcanic cliffs, the town of Fira is a port of call on just about every cruise ship operating in the Aegean Sea.
Although there are black-sand beaches on Santorini, families will find more inviting stretches of sand on other islands in the Cyclades, such as Naxos and Paros. For independent-minded (ferry- or yacht-bound) families, this beautiful archipelago is ideal for island hopping.
Just 13km long and with more than 50 sandy beaches, it’s small wonder that package tourists overrun Skiathos during July and August.
This exquisite little island is buzzing with resorts, watersports and nightlife, but combines well with much quieter Alonissos to the east.
Although blighted in places by new development, Laganas Bay has fine sandy beaches. Certain stretches are off-limits to tourists to enable endangered loggerhead turtles to lay their eggs in relative peace between May and August.
The resorts of Tsilivi and Alykes are further north, along with the Island’s most popular boat-trip destinations – Shipwreck Beach and the Blue Caves.
Meanwhile, at the tip of Vasilikos peninsula, Geraki beach has clean, white sand and Is gently shelving, making it ideal for kids.