Don't know your Skyros from your Symi? Ben Mallalieu brings you a beginner's guide to 10 of the best Greek islands
People will tell you that the Greek islands are not what they were, but they've been saying that for a long time. In 1878, Edward Lear complained bitterly that Paleokastritsa in Corfu had been overrun by badly behaved English tourists, and Odysseus probably disapproved of all the new villas put up in his absence by the suitors. There are more than 150 inhabited Greek islands and fewer than 30 ever get seriously overcrowded. (Has anyone ever been to Agios Efstratos?) Even the busiest islands have places where you can escape the crowds, and sometimes the crowds can be fun. Here's a selection in no particular order, some well known, some not.
For a couple of hours, the evening sun turns the island's dull brown rock to fool's gold. The narrow streets between the white cubist houses are full of people, from a distance all young, all beautiful, all impossibly fashionable. But that too is a trick of the light. When you look closely, you realise they are just the same people you stand next to every morning on the Tube, miraculously transformed for a fortnight a year. And they probably think the same about you.
Greek is not one of the world's great cuisines, but you should be able to find good fresh food simply cooked — fish caught that morning, or one of the island's goats marinated in local olive oil and herbs from the hills then grilled over an open fire. Don't eat anywhere where you're not encouraged to go into the kitchen to see what they're cooking, stick to the day's specials and never eat anything that's been in a microwave.
You may or may not like retsina — again, it's a matter of where you drink it: what wouldn't taste good at home can be very different in a taverna on a beach — and the unresinated wine can be a bit thin. Some Greek winemakers plant cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and the result is a characterless imitation of French or Australian wine. But if you look hard you can find wine made from traditional grape varieties that is exceptional by any standards. The Icarus brand made by Nikos Afianes on Icaria regularly wins international awards, and quite right too.
The best spirit is Cretan raki, Greek brandy is rough but drinkable, ouzo is best avoided and the Corfiots make a kumquat-flavoured liqueur which is truly vile.
When Julius Caesar was a youth, he was kidnapped by pirates and held hostage here for a year. This was not a good move. He was particularly incensed by the small ransom demanded, insisting that his family paid double the asking price for his release, and when he became a general he crucified the entire population of the island. It never really recovered. No ferries stop, but you should be able to hitch a lift on a yacht from nearby Arki or Gaidaros. Take your own supplies.
Early in the last century, a travelling circus was shipwrecked off the uninhabited west coast of Tilos. A pair of tigers managed to swim ashore and thrived on a diet of mountain goat; their descendants can still be found if you know where to look … actually, this story is complete bollocks and originated about five years ago in Sophia's taverna in Livardia. But the island did once have a unique population of pygmy elephants (true) and you can still see more species of birds year-round than on any other island in the Mediterranean (probably).
Delos, Knossos et al are, of course, awesome, but crowded. At Nas, you can have the place to yourself, largely because the temple was unfortunately knocked down in 1857 and not a lot remains. But the Ancient Greeks built temples in magical places, and sitting on the foundations of the Artemision watching the sun set in the bay you get a real sense of the magic that inspired them. And you can spend an enjoyable time discovering many of the marble stones in the church tower up the hill at Christos Raches, in the stepping stone bridge in the stream behind Nas beach and lying on the sea bed in the bay.
The first and still the best. I still haven't met anyone who's been there who didn't love it.
The southernmost island in Europe is what most Greek islands were like 40 years ago. You are welcome to sleep on the beach (increasingly frowned upon elsewhere) and two of the beaches, Agios Ioannis and Potamos, would be contenders for the best in the Mediterranean. The island has a permanent Greek population of fewer than 40 and attracts a small but growing number of artists and drop outs from the rest of Europe. It isn't easy to get to and, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, impossible to leave. If you ever wanted to lounge in a taverna and text the office — "Nope, I won't be in this week either. The ferry still isn't landing" — this is the place. I'll be there in June and I haven't looked forward to going somewhere so much for years.Read more at theguardian.com