City stays steeped in history, island hideaways, rustic escapes in rugged mountain realms… Greece has a tick for every box on the holiday wish list. Our run-down of five of Smith’s favourite Greek destinations shines a spotlight on the culture, cuisine, nightlife and, naturally, boutique hotels…
Coastline Azure Aegean waters
Coast life Stunning sunsets by the pool
The food Expect typical Santorini fare such as domatokeftedes (fried tomato balls), fava (yellow split peas puree), and barbecued meat. As you’d expect from an island, fresh seafood is a major player on menus here, but Santorini’s own cherry tomatoes and white aubergine are among the most flavoursome you’re likely to taste. Santorini has some of the oldest vineyards in Europe and whichever one you visit, you’re up for a great tour and tasting.
The nightlife By day, it’s all about poolside lounging with a cocktail in hand and a Café del Mar soundtrack. At night, things hot up a little in the capital, Fira, the beach resorts Kamari and Perissa, and the idyllic town of Oia (have sundowners at Mylos).
The culture Santorini (officially known as Thira) is essentially the result of a volcanic eruption several thousand years ago that all but obliterated a much larger island (a possible source of the Atlantis myth), making the whole place a geological museum of sorts. One of the oldest Minoan settlements, Akrotiri, was destroyed in another eruption in 1627 BC. The town was preserved, Pompeii-style, in ash and, although only a small percentage has been excavated, it offers a fascinating glimpse of ancient frescos and artefacts.
The hotels Of all the pristine whitewashed retreats, the cave-sheltered suites of Iconic Santorini, at the highest point on the island, are among the most inviting. The Tsitouras Collection is an elegant 1780s mansion 10 minutes from the capital, and houses an impressive selection of fine art and sculpture. For access to Oia, check into one of the 300-year-old cliffside caves at Perivolas and enjoy its adults-only ambience and knockout infinity pool. (And there’s more where they came from – see other boutique hotels in Santorini).
CRETE (THE LARGEST OF THE GREEK ISLANDS)
Coastline Treasure island
Coast life Minoans, myths and merry-making
The food Crete has a sunny climate and fertile soil, which means fruit and veg abound. The island also turns out delicious cheeses – graviera is mild and nutty and made from sheep’s milk (eat it with a pinch of thyme and a drizzle of honey). To blend in at a taverna, order a selection of dishes, put everything in the middle of the table and feast with your fingers. (But leave room for the Raki and desserts that often turn up unsolicited later).
The nightlife Heraklion is the island’s dance-floor destination for the international DJ scene, whereas Chania Town is a bit more ‘dancing on the sand holding something with an umbrella in it’. Agios Nikolaos is the place to head for long and lively taverna nights.
The culture Here a Minoan palace; there a Byzantine monastery; yonder an Ottoman mosque; turn any corner in Crete and there’s every chance you’ll run into a relic from one civilisation or another. The Minoan ruins of Knossos easily eat up a morning (best for crowd-avoidance) – add in the palace of Malia, the Bronze Age city of Phaistos and the harbour of Zakros and you’ll have filled the week.
The hotels Domes of Elounda is an all-ages beach resort with five pools, four restaurants, a spa and no danger of running out of things to do. Further inland, Kapsaliana Village Hotel is one for privacy-seekers, set in Crete’s largest olive grove. Close to Anissaras, Paradise Island Villas gives guests a taste of real rustic Cretan life (with private pools, of course).
Coastline Cobbled castles, secret shores
Coast life Sailing to Byzantium
The food The Peloponnese is dotted with olive and orange groves, both of which find their way into its kitchens almost every day. Here, cooks often experiment by lacing savoury dishes with sweeter spices such as cinnamon (you’ll often taste it in tomato sauces). The eastern coast is famed for its long, striped aubergines, called Tsakonikes.
The nightlife As a general rule, any region where traffic jams are more likely to be caused by cows than cars is unlikely to have a banging night-time scene. Outside of the larger towns and the late-night bars of coastal resorts, the best after-hours attraction is the sunset over the sea and the sky full of stars. Stake out a spot at a hilltop taverna and get stuck into the ouzo.
The culture Off the eastern coast of Laconia, the rocky islet of Monemvasia is home to a fairy-tale castle and Byzantine churches, including Agia Sofia, built in the 12th century by the Emperor Andronicus. The 5,000-year-old Pavlopetri, off Laconia’s southern coast, is a submerged city with streets, buildings and tombs intact.
The hotels For prime views over Monemvasia, and a peaceful atmosphere unpunctuated by anything other than birdsong, check into historic, spa-equipped Kinsterna Hotel. And Amanzoe makes a great spot for exploring both the Peloponnese and its nearby islands, but the real reason to stay is the private-pool pampering and near-psychic service.
Coastline Unspoilt Aegean
Coast life Sails, snorkels and sunsets
The food Halkidiki excels in unfussy dishes that showcase regional ingredients. Expect tender and aromatic stuffed squid, mussels, other mouth-watering seafood dishes and the definitive taste of the Greek summer, briam, a medley of baked Mediterranean veg and potatoes in tomato sauce.
The nightlife If you’re looking for a late night and a tale to tell, you could do far worse than the alfresco clubs of Kalithea. Elsewhere, the scene’s more low-key but many beach bars get a little clubbier as the sun sinks. Skioni and Marmaras are good bets for dining on the waterfront and a gentle bar hop.
The culture The peninsula is dotted with archaeological sites, including the ruined city of Olynthos, Byzantine churches by the dozen and the Unesco-protected holy mountain of Athos, which is dotted with monasteries. Aristotle was born in the village of Stagira, which has a theme park devoted to the great thinker as well as numerous walking routes.
The hotels On Sithonia (the peninsula’s ‘middle leg’), Ekies All Senses Resort promises bleach-white sands, an open-air spa, and a hammock strung out over aquamarine seas.
ATHENS (CAPITAL CITY OF GREECE)
Cityscape Monuments and marvels
City life Ancient history now
The food Most Athenians are fuelled by the classic Mediterranean line-up of grilled meat, fresh fish and veg, all slathered in gloriously golden olive oil. The village-esque Plaka district at the foot of the Acropolis may be the prettiest area to eat in, but you’ll also find memorable meals in the unassuming tavernas of the city centre. If you’re peckish rather than ravenous, pop into an ouzerie (we like Ouzadiko in Kolonaki; +30 210 729 5484) and snack on mezedes – tapas-style dishes such as kalamari, grilled octopus or fried tomato balls.
The nightlife We’re going to say it straight: Athens has the best nightlife in Greece. The city’s evening escapades run the gamut from convivial drinks in low-key bars to hardcore megaclub all-nighters – and handily enough, most of the action is localised in central areas, including Gazi, Thission, Psiri, as well as the upbeat Syntagma & Agia Eirini Squares surrounding areas.
The culture They don’t call it the cradle of Western civilisation for nothing, you know. The Acropolis and the Parthenon are the headline acts (go later in the day when the crowds are leaving). And make time for the temple of Athena Nike, Kerameikos (the old potter’s quarter), the temple of Olympian Zeus, the Theatre of Dionysus… There’s a lot to see, OK?
The hotels Daringly designed New Hotel puts you smack in the thick of things, steps from Syntagma Square. Downtown, the terrific-value Fresh Hotel is more restrained, but its rooftop bar has views so good you can explore every ancient monument the city has to offer without having to put down your martini.