ASTYPALEA, Greece (AP) — In a small bay flanked by thyme-covered hills and a medieval village topped by a castle, I floated in perfect solitude on the shimmering Aegean Sea.
Last summer I traveled for the fifth year to different Greek islands, such as the distant Astypalea. During the pandemic, the crystal clear waters of the islands, the white and blue villages, the sweeping vistas and the genuine welcome of the locals was just the escape I needed.
The absence last summer of the usual mass tourism in the most popular places, such as Santorini, where before the coronavirus I had to make my way to take a photo of the sunset near the famous windmills even one evening from mid-January, also offered a chance to rethink such a bucket list trip.
As travel restrictions have eased since the peak of the pandemic, the wide-open blue of the Greek islands is beckoning this spring and summer – with the ability to focus less on Instagrammable snapshots and more on chatting with a landlord in the tavern over a cold glass of tsipouro, the powerful Greek spirit, while waiting for the octopus to take away.
Two archipelagos in the southern Aegean, the Cyclades and the Dodecanese, alone have dozens of islands, each offering a unique experience. From the least traveled to the most jet-set, here are my four favorites:
ASTYPALEA, pirate treasure
As the ferry reached the midpoint of this butterfly-shaped island, I felt a momentary twinge – had I really traveled 10 hours from Athens, the country’s monument-filled capital and air travel hub / ferry, for barren mountains and a lone dolphin playing in the waves?
Doubt turned to enchantment at first sight of the chora, or main town – a blue church dome surmounting a medieval castle towering above a white village lined with windmills and cascading down a rocky outcrop to the sea.
Over two long weekends, I never got tired of gazing at this 13th century castle, whether it was illuminated at night when the warm air smelled of aromatic herbs, or standing guard in the glorious sunshine when as I swam in the creeks around it, in the most multi-colored waters I’ve seen outside a South Pacific lagoon.
After walking through the remains of the castle, where villagers once sheltered from pirates, I stopped to admire the white battlemented Portaitissa Church.
An elderly woman passing by gave me a handful of freshly picked yellow plumeria flowers that she was carrying. The way tropical flowers can grow in such a stark, windswept landscape is just another part of its magic.
DELOS, divine cradle
The mystical appeal of these ancient islands is strongest on Delos, an islet a short boat ride from the party hub of Mykonos. The ancient Greeks considered Delos to be the birthplace of Apollo.
Its sanctuary, and the temples and mansions built around it from the 9th to the 1st century BC. J.-C., today constitute the archaeological park. I spent an entire day wandering among the mighty colonnades, lifelike carvings, risque fertility symbols, and intricate mosaics depicting frolicking dolphins and a tiger-riding deity.
TINOS, proud villages
The nearby town of Tinos is steeped in a more recent sanctity. Its chora is home to a revered shrine to the Virgin Mary, to which masked pilgrims climbed on their knees nearly a kilometer from the port last summer. A profusion of smaller churches dot the countryside amongst stone-walled terraces and dovecotes built like fantastically carved towers.
From the highest bell tower to the humblest house, the villages of Tinian are richly decorated with marble from local quarries. Pyrgos is home to the Museum of Marble Crafts, artists’ studios and a marble-paved central square with tiny low tables around a soaring plane tree.
I liked driving the mountain roads better at dusk, when the only traffic was a wayward goat, the only lights the blue silhouettes of church crosses.
SANTORINI, vertiginous luxury
Blue lights also stain the villages of Santorini – but these are the infinity pools and jacuzzis of luxury hotels carved into the edge of the island’s volcano that erupted into the sea 3,600 years ago.
The 10 km hike between the main town of Fira and Oia, the fanciest village perched on the caldera created during the explosion, crosses fields of black and red lava. On the white pumice stone grow tightly coiled vines of Assyrtiko, the native grape that family-owned vineyards like Gavalas turn into unique intense whites.
The eruption also buried the prehistoric city of Akrotiri, whose brightly colored frescoes are on display in the Fira museum, and whose site rivals in archaeological power with ancient Thira, perched on a high hill above the most beautiful beaches.
My last afternoon in the islands, I tear myself away from the black sand and navy blue waters of Perivolos beach to admire the sunset from Oia. Couples in matching white attire and sunburned tourists scurry along shop-lined lanes to the West Bank, filling every inch of intersecting terraces.
Next door is the small cistern-shaped chapel with a white and blue steeple featured in countless engagement photos and Instagram feeds. The children of the village have taken it over as a goal area for a football match.
A loud argument breaks out as the ball passes the bell; for a moment it is framed by the Aegean Sea, where the light dissolves from orange to pink.
It might be the perfect picture of a cruise ship brochure – but now it’s simply and refreshingly Greek.