There Will Never Be a Better Year to Visit the Greek Isles

The views, beaches and palatial accommodations are intact. The crowds, however, are not.

July 23, 2021 2:57 pm
Oia Santorini
Oia Santorini
Jake Emen

An impossible palette of colors is unfurling across Santorini’s sky as a burst of Aegean wind blows past. The Greek island is hailed as one of the world’s prime locales for sunset gazing, which in most cases means battling off throngs of other revelers for a piece of prime positioning. But that’s not the case at Nafsika Estate, a private villa perched on the seaside cliffs of Megalochori village.

The palatial five-bedroom abode boasts that otherworldly view along with creature comforts such as its own helipad for discrete and direct arrivals, a perk which has earned the favor, apparently, of the likes of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. With a glass of the island’s renowned, mineral- and salinity-drenched assyrtiko in hand, and perhaps another one or two to follow, the evening’s sunset feels like a sledgehammer of serenity smashing me in the face. (But, like, really delicately.)

Yes, the Siren song of the Greek isles is calling, and not only has it never been louder, but perhaps there has never been a better time to give into its allure. Even better is that opposed to the mythological Sirens who delivered doom and despair to the weary travelers who succumbed to their song, their modern counterparts offer rest and relaxation with no strings attached. We promise.

From Athens to the Isles

Greece is open to international tourists, and the airlines have responded by increasing their stateside service to the country. On July 1, United debuted a new nonstop flight from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles (IAD) airport to Athens, which is on top of its existing daily direct route via Newark. The new flight is aboard the airline’s Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, equipped to maximize its Polaris seating arrangement with several dozen business class, pod-style seats aboard.

United also hopes to reopen its flagship Polaris lounges later this year. In the meantime, their Travel-Ready Center provides a crucial trip planning resource, offering up-to-date guidelines and requirements based upon your ticket. Vaccinated travelers headed to Greece don’t need a pre-trip or arrival test, though you’ll still need a return test for reentry to the U.S., and the app can help you book one or obtain approved, self-administered testing kits.

Whichever way you get to Greece, you’ll be flying in and out of Athens, and therefore you may as well spend a few nights in the grand ancient capital, even if you’ve previously visited. Twist my arm, right?

As one of my first to-dos after arriving at any international destination is often heading straight to a market or food hall to grab some local grub, a stay at the Ergon House is a win-win, as the boutique hotel sports a grand food market dubbed the Agora as its de facto lobby. The property is in a prime position adjacent to the Plaka neighborhood, with the actual ancient Agora of Athens a 15-minute walk away, along with a few other minor sites of import, such as the Acropolis.

Its famed hilltop facade is viewable from Ergon’s rooftop restaurant and bar, Retiré, and the group continues to launch more modern hybrids across the country. The latest effort, for instance, is a food hall-slash-grocery store in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, with a seaside restaurant and open-air event space.

Aegean Negroni from The Clumsies
Aegean Negroni from The Clumsies
Jake Emen

If a bite to eat is my first stop in a new locale, a satisfying cocktail is usually the next item on the docket. It’s convenient, then, that Athens is home to one of my favorite bars on the planet, The Clumsies, currently touted at number three on the World’s 50 Best Bars list.

The drinks are brilliant and inventive, thanks in part to a high-tech lab in the attic, as well as a fermentation and experimentation room in the basement. As with any great bar, there’s more to it than that, though. I visited in the days leading up to the full reopening of indoor dining in Athens, and there was a palpable sense of an imminent and cathartic night-after-night party on the horizon. Their team epitomizes the warm embrace of Greek hospitality, a desire to give and serve and share and make merry, masks or not.

As further testament to their reach, their bottled cocktails can now be found in hotel mini bars across the country, including at Ergon House, and my next stop, Vedema, a Luxury Collection Resort on Santorini. This trip was about the islands, after all, and therefore despite my inclinations to stay posted up at The Clumsies for a week straight, I, like Odysseus before me, needed to set sail towards that beckoning Siren song.

There’s an immediacy to Santorini’s beauty. Its presence is felt as soon as you get your first glimpse of the tiny crescent-shaped island, its missing chunk the obliterated epicenter of one the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, leaving a sunken caldera in its place. Today, the island’s steep, dense villages and their whitewashed buildings and blue cupolas are the stuff of Instagram dreams. Be alert, then, as it’s perilous walking through those narrow, cobblestone streets, with wayward selfie sticks protruding around every corner, alley, doorway and viewpoint.

Vedema is right in the midst of Megalochori, a small medieval village, and as the property was initially purchased as a string of homes, the resort maintains that vibe as a smaller, more intimate town unto itself. The property showcases traditional Cycladic architecture, and its multi-story guest suites and villas showcase features such as white marble floors, soaking tubs and private outdoor spaces.

There are two sleek pool areas replete with the island’s requisite views, along with plenty of other smaller nooks and crannies for lounging and people-watching. Elsewhere, take a trip to the hotel’s indulgent Elios Spa, its rooftop restaurant or its wine bar, Canava, a cave filled with dusty bottles and old production equipment from the 400-year-old winery which once called the cellar home.

Mystique Hotel
Mystique Hotel
Jake Emen

The resort is one of four sister properties from Kanava Hotels scattered across Santorini, alongside the aforementioned Nafsika Estate, Mystique, another Luxury Collection hotel, and Istoria, a member of Design Hotels. Each has a distinctive personality in line with its locale on the island. Whereas Vedema is a village within a village, Mystique is adjacent to Oia, perhaps the most picturesque destination on Santorini, and as such is all cliffside splendor, with a maze of walkways, balconies and turquoise pools stretching down to the sea. Perched at the resort’s peak is Lure by Olivier Campanha, showcasing a tasting menu filled with modern riffs on the classic dishes and ingredients of the region.

Both Vedema and Mystique are sprawling and immersive, while Istoria, on the east side of the island, features just 12 suites in one converted estate. A stay there puts you right atop Santorini’s famed black sandy beaches, and the hotel offers its own private swath of beachfront with club-style service.

Island Hopping

The first rule of the Greek islands is that you definitely talk about the Greek islands. The second rule of the Greek islands is that you don’t visit just one.

One good turn deserves another, as they say, so pick a ferry and pick a second or third destination. The rest of the Cyclades — including Mykonos, Paros, Naxos and Ios — are within easy reach of Santorini, not to mention other notable isles, such as Crete. The historical home of the Minoan civilization is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, and thanks to its size and prominence to a succession of empires, has a different feel than the others. The island has an abundance of beaches, an alluring landscape filled with ancient olive trees, and standout cuisine that has been passed down through millennia.

That’s no exaggeration, and a visit to Crete should include stops at any number of archeological sites, including the Palace of Knossos and its surrounding complex abutting Crete’s modern capital of Heraklion in the center of the island’s north coast. To the west is the Old Venetian Harbor of Chania, which only dates to the 14th century; Knossos, on the other hand, dates back at least 3,500 years further, and is commonly touted as the oldest city (and its Minoans as the oldest civilization) in Europe.

A traditional plate of meze in Crete
A traditional plate of meze at Mouries in Crete
Jake Emen

An hour east of Heraklion is the tiny fortified island of Spinalonga, which once protected the bay of Elounda, now a popular getaway lined with restaurants and cafes. Directly across from the old fort is the small town of Plaka, which is where you’ll find Blue Palace, another Greek island entrant to the Luxury Collection family. The hotel features tiered levels of suites extending down a hillside to a stony beach lined with cabanas and lounge chairs (adorned with service call buttons for when that next spritz just cannot wait).

Start the day with a lavish breakfast spread at the Anthos restaurant — under no circumstances should you skip the Cretan omelet, an oven-baked skillet of eggs with feta cheese, olives, tomatoes and herbs — then skip the stairs and ride the resort’s funicular down to its beach club. Rinse and repeat as needed, and when you’ve had enough lounging by the pristine waterfront, you can retire to the personal plunge pool of your room’s balcony.

The town of Malia offers a beach escape closer to Heraklion which has long been overlooked by American travelers. We should collectively reconsider — whether for the beach itself, its many busy tavernas and late-night bars, or stylish stays at resorts such as Cretan Malia Park, a member of Design Hotels.

Come for the beach, sure, but stay for the food at several on-site restaurants, including Mouries, touted by the hotel as “Crete’s true soul.” The restaurant is powered by an old-school wood-fired stone oven, nearly all of its produce is grown at an on-site organic garden, and it’s set in a lush environment reminiscent of the idyllic courtyard of the Cretan estate you’re fantasizing about buying right about now. The difficulty is figuring out the timing to allow for maximum enjoyment of both breakfast and dinner at the restaurant in a single day, each of which is equally enticing with massive servings of traditional Greek meze. “We want to give people a real feel for the authentic way we live and eat,” I’m told as a series of breakfast trays loaded with dozens of cheeses, meats, spreads, breads and assorted delights are delivered. Consider me a convert to the Cretan lifestyle.

Those Sirens are powerful creatures. Odysseus had his crew strap him to his ship’s mast so that he could hear their song without acting on it. When you head to the Greek isles, you might want to try a similar approach: strap yourself to a lounge chair on some stunning beach, so that you never have to leave.


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