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Back in 2008 I embarked on an 8-month sabbatical which I dedicated almost entirely to discovering Greece. I criss-crossed this vast and beautiful country numerous times: from the finger-shaped Chalkidiki to the remote Mani region in the Peloponnese, from Prespa Lakes bordering Albania and FYR Macedonia to the stunning city of Nafplio in the south, and on to numerous islands – I truly left very few stones unturned on my Greek “odyssey” then.
And, because I still have a very long way to go, I continue to visit Greece every year to fill in the gaps. I have lost count of the number of times I have visited Greece to date. At pretty much any given point in time, I hold valid travel bookings to visit Greece at some point in the future. Currently, I have three such bookings, two of which are for next year. It is true that I start looking forward to my visits to Greece early – or perhaps just never stop.
I first started learning Greek almost 10 years ago and have come a long way since. I am a regularly returning student at London’s Hellenic Centre where I currently qualify for the top learning group. In May this year I passed the C1 level (“advanced”) exam in Greek proficiency. When I am in Greece, I thrive in my ability to follow all sorts of conversations and make myself easily understood.
While not a fan of bucket lists and ticking off countries or regions, I recently took stock of the Greek islands I have visited so far. The total number is 42: quite modest compared to total number of inhabited Greek islands (there are about 220), but quite impressive by most other standards.
Some of those 42 islands are extremely popular choices, with large airports welcoming scheduled planes not only from elsewhere in Greece but also directly from abroad. Some are only connected to Athens by a less frequent air link operated on small aircraft. Some islands do not even have airports and rely on high-speed catamarans and ferries to connect to Piraeus, Athens’ major port.
And some islands yet require a special commitment to reach: whether by a slow overnight ferry from Piraeus or on a boat ride from a bigger nearby island, getting there from outside of Greece involves multi-leg journeys and clever planning. And it is such islands that I prefer to the well-promoted (even if pretty impressive, on occasion) plunging views of Santorini, the party scene of Mykonos or the British “colonised” Corfu.
As a self-pronounced Greek island expert, I have put together a list of six Greek islands which are somewhat “out of the way” and do not enjoy the popularity of their better known cousins. The lack of roaring crowds certainly does not mean that these islands are not worth seeing though – frankly, I would take them over Rhodes or Santorini anytime.
1. Donousa (Δονούσα)
WHERE: Donousa is part of the Cyclades group of islands and sits 16 km east of Naxos and 25 km north of Amorgos. It is part of a small group of islands very aptly called “Small Cyclades” (or Μικρές Κυκλάδες in Greek) of which it is the most remote. You can see in the map below how Donousa sits visibly out on a limb from the other Small Cyclades.
GETTING THERE: A large slow ferry connects Donousa with Piraeus four times a week in high season (three in low season, hardly any in winter), taking about 7 hours. There is also a (nearly) daily small ferry called Express Skopelitis which includes Donousa on its route between Naxos and Amorgos, also visiting the other Small Cyclades. Express Skopelitis is indeed quite legendary and has won awards for its public service; it not only links the Small Cyclades with larger neighbours but also transports medicine and essential supplies, including water, for the residents. In fact, if you do decide to visit Donousa, I highly recommend using precisely that.
That said, a voyage on board Express Skopelitis may not be for the faint-hearted: as sturdy as the boat is in a storm, it can be a painful experience to an untested traveller. I took Express Skopelitis twice and both times had to battle extremely strong winds which turned the journey into a lasting nightmare. I bet that in good weather it is, well, a breeze.
WHY VISIT: Donousa remains one of the few relatively undiscovered corners of the Cycladic island group. This is what a fellow Small Cycladic island, Pano Koufonisi, probably looked like before being discovered by myriads of sailing groups and foreign families on school holidays. And even the remaining two Small Cyclades, Schinousa and Iraklia, are too close to popular Naxos: while you will probably get an authentic Greek experience (whatever that means), you may have to share it with many other visitors. Not on Donousa, however – being slightly out of the way of regular visitor groups, it will certainly appeal to visitors seeking peace and wanting to observe a Greek island way of living undisturbed.
I personally greatly enjoyed the hiking trails in Donousa (read about it here). At the time I visited, there were at least three and I combined them to cover the entire circumference of the island. Donousa being quite small, it took me around 4 hours at leisurely pace with photo and beach stops. The best beaches are Livadi and Kedros, the latter allowing camping and nude bathing. The main centre of life is the port village, Donousa (also called Stavros), where several tavernas are located and most permanent inhabitants reside. There is very little human activity elsewhere on the island, providing for relaxed hiking opportunities. Indeed you will feel like you own Donousa, even in the high season.
2. Kasos (Κάσος)
WHERE: Kasos is located 7 km from its only large neighbour, Karpathos. It is the southernmost of the Dodecanese group of islands in the Aegean Sea. The second nearest island, Crete, sits some 60 km to the southwest. Both Kasos and Karpathos therefore connect the other Dodecanese islands with Crete.
GETTING THERE: Stock up on patience! Kasos actually has an airport that connects it with Karpathos once daily, but only for two months in high season (end July to end September). At about 5 minutes of flying time, this is Greece’s shortest scheduled commercial flight, and among the world’s top 5. However, flight timetables to Athens are extremely cumbersome from Kasos and often involve long stops on either Karpathos or Rhodes (or both!), where airports are boring to tears and taxi rides to centres of civilisation pricey. Total one-way journey by air to Athens can last between 4 and 13 hours.
And travel by sea is hardly any better. There is one slow ferry connecting Kasos to Piraeus twice weekly in the high and low season. The journey takes between 15 hours (via Cyclades) and 23 hours (via Crete) one-way depending on the route. Given the substantial distance the boats travel, they often arrive in Kasos with a notable delay (I once waited for four hours). Both routes continue to Karpathos, Chalki and Rhodes. Come November and frequency of ferries drops to zero pretty much until Easter.
WHY VISIT: Being the southernmost of the Aegean islands, Kasos is unlikely to make anyone’s Greek itinerary easily. Indeed the most common visitors to the island are trippers from Karpathos and Kassiot-diaspora Americans returning to the island of their ancestry in the summer. Visitors who do make it this far are rewarded with a peaceful spell on an island unlikely to be visited by many other travellers. The sense of community on Kasos is strong and you are likely to make acquaintance with numerous locals within a day. On my second day on Kasos I knew quite a few names and was invited to share many a meze and ouzo by locals relaxing in the most popular seaside taverna, Mylos.
The island was once renowned for its large fleet and the islanders still hold the reputation of skilled seafarers. Some interesting (but visibly neglected) sailors’ mansions can be seen in a small village of Panagia within an easy walk from the port, Fri. Kasos’ beaches will not win any awards but I enjoyed swimming on the empty Helatros beach in the south of the island. There is no public transport anywhere on Kasos and, to reach Helatros, I walked 14 km each way (rent a motorbike or a car if walking is not your thing). Kasos has two fascinating monasteries, Agios Georgios in Hadies village and Agios Mamas in the northeast of the island. Fri’s harbour, popularly called “Bouka”, is quaint and picturesque, and concentrates pretty much all the afternoon activity on Kasos.
3. Kimolos (Κίμωλος)
WHERE: Kimolos is located only a few kilometres from the popular Cycladic island of Milos in the southwestern part of the Aegean. It also holds a convenient position sitting on the major ferry route connecting mainland Greece with Sifnos and Folegandros.
GETTING THERE: Kimolos’ proximity to more popular islands has been a blessing to the island in terms of transportation links. In high season, at least one slow ferry and high speed catamaran per day connect Kimolos with Piraeus, taking 6-8 hours and 4 hours, respectively. Most of these boats also visit Santorini, Ios, Folegandros, Sifnos, Serifos and Milos, making Kimolos a convenient stop-over on anyone’s island-hopping adventure. Fast boat traffic pretty much dies out by mid-September though, leaving a single slow ferry link to Piraeus twice a week – or one could continue to Santorini on three days a week and fly places from there. From October onwards, even these limited services are reduced.
Another option to get to Kimolos from Milos is by a smaller local boat called Panagia Faneromeni operating out of Milos’ second largest port, Pollonia. The journey only takes 20-30 minutes and runs several times a day from April to August. The quickest trip from Athens to Kimolos would be to fly to Milos, get a bus or taxi to Pollonia (via Adamantas if by bus) and catch Panagia Faneromeni from there. This option is however less reliable than a larger ferry as it can easily be cancelled in adverse weather. I was quite close to getting stuck on Kimolos once thanks to strong winds (I wouldn’t have complained), but Panagia eventually came for me. It was mid-June and I think I was the only passenger.
WHY VISIT: Being seemingly frequented by ferries in the high season does not mean that Kimolos gets crowded by tourists. While visitors certainly stop over on Kimolos, the ones that do come mainly stay around the port of Psathi and the main village of Chorio. The only paved roads on Kimolos run along the southern and the eastern coast which is where most of the island’s beaches are located. The most interesting part of the island in the centre and north receive unbelievably few visitors, even in the high season.
The best way to see Kimolos is to walk its several dirt roads and hiking trails. The island only measures about 7 km in radius and a leisurely walk will take you a long way. The elevation is nothing insurmountable, with the highest hill of Paleokastro reaching 364 m – indeed the trail there from Chorio is one of Kimolos’ highlights, with barely a local astride a donkey to meet on your way. The track further north leads to one of the island’s prettiest (and emptiest) beaches, Monastiria. But there are many other calm beaches on Kimolos within easy reach from Chorio, most of them not organised and secluded. Kimolos makes a perfect detour from the much busier Milos.
4. Sikinos (Σίκινος)
WHERE: Sikinos is located mid-way between more popular islands of Folegandros and Ios in the south Aegean. Some 30 km to the north sits Paros and the same distance to the southeast is the world-renowned Santorini.
GETTING THERE: Like Kimolos, Sikinos benefits from its proximity to more popular neighbours. Ios is widely known as one of Greek party islands and has fantastic and frequent links to the mainland (despite not having an airport). Sikinos’ location just a stone throw away means that several ferries stop there. The slow boat runs 5 times a week in the high season and takes 8 hours from Piraeus. The fast boat, scheduled daily, takes 5 hours. Other islands which can be visited from Sikinos include Santorini, Sifnos, Serifos, Ios and Folegandros.
In the low season ferry frequency drops to 3-4 slow boats per week until the end of October, and further decreases in the winter. Indeed when I visited Sikinos in early September, the visit by a slow boat was visibly seen as a major occasion by the locals, many of whom came down to the port to welcome returning relatives, receive parcels from the mainland or simply watch such a juggernaut stop by.
WHY VISIT: Travellers seeking busy nightlife will be disappointed by Sikinos: it is truly worlds apart from the party action of Ios and the growing popularity of Folegandros. Unlike its neighbours, Sikinos is mainly empty and has only three (or really two) settlements, the port of Alopronia and the “capital” combining the villages of Pano Chorio and Kastro. The entire western coast of Sikinos is high, rocky and inapproachable. The beaches, restricted to the east, are not many and certainly will not be the sole reason for anyone to visit Sikinos.
That said, before I visited the critical mass of Greek islands I used to say that Sikinos was my favourite. You may have noticed that I like extremely quiet places where I have plenty of opportunities to chat undisturbed to locals and walk all day while hearing little more than a goat’s bleating on my way. For that, Sikinos is absolutely perfect. The village of Kastro, with its typical Cycladic architecture and narrow streets, is extremely picturesque. The Monastery of Zoodochou Pigis on top of the hill nearby is a perfect place to watch the sunset in the backdrop of the majestic Aegean and nothing but wind interrupting the silence. Sikinos’ many hiking trails lead to remote churches all around the island, including the abandoned – but famous – Monastery of Episkopi. In short, please visit one day.
5. Telendos (Τέλενδος)
WHERE: Telendos lies less than 1 km away from the island of Kalymnos. When you see it first, you cannot help wondering if Telendos is merely a mountain sticking out of the sea that somehow got separated from the mainland. It is substantially smaller than the other islands covered here and has the smallest permanent population of around 50 people.
GETTING THERE: Large ferries do not visit Telendos, and the only way to get to the island is from Kalymnos. There are small taxi boats, each fitting maybe 10 passengers, departing from Myrties every 15-30 minutes in the high season, from 9am until after midnight. I have not checked this information, but, given the short distance (and knowing Greeks), I am pretty sure that one could easily arrange an informal ride from Kalymnos to Telendos outside the popular season.
From April to September, Kalymnos is served by several daily flights from Athens: both direct (1 hour) and involving stopovers without changing the plane (2.5 hours). Kalymnos airport is only 10 km away from Myrties, making the total journey to Telendos from Athens potentially a very quick one.
WHY VISIT: Telendos is a relatively popular climbing destination. The nearby Kalymnos has become a climbing mecca of sorts and some climbers make their way to Telendos for a bit of a change. There are several climbing sectors on the island with catchy names, but, being absolutely indifferent towards climbing myself, I cannot comment much else. Some climbers have reportedly been too eager to use the climbing sites and not linger elsewhere on Telendos, attracting a certain dislike from the locals who are keen to reap some benefits from all the climbing craze.
Thankfully it isn’t just the climbers that visit Telendos. The flat part of the island is very small and can be walked in under an hour. There is no traffic anywhere on the island. There are a few beaches in the western part of Telendos, one of which, Hochlakas, is a perfect backdrop for sunset watching. Besides climbing and swimming, pretty much the only activity on Telendos is watching the world (boats, mainly) go by from one of the atmospheric waterfront tavernas in the main settlement. The views of Kalymnos from there are absolutely superb.
6. Tilos (Τήλος)
WHERE: Tilos lies between the very popular islands of Kos (40 km away) and Rhodes (80 km away), in the south eastern Aegean. It is also mid-way between the much smaller and lesser known islands of Nisyros and Chalki, both of which are 20-30 km away. Tilos is within easy reach from Turkey’s shores, with the peninsula of Datça lying not much further away than the nearest Greek territory.
GETTING THERE: Given Tilos’ distance from Piraeus of over 500 km, it isn’t the easiest Greek island to get to. Slow ferries take about 15 hours from Piraeus and operate twice weekly in low and high season, reducing themselves to a trickle in the winter months. A much better way to reach Tilos is on board one of the fast Dodekanisos Seaways boats, which stop there twice weekly in the high season en route Kos to Rhodes, also visiting Chalki, Nisyros and Kalymnos. Both Kos and Rhodes (2 hours away) have major airports (by Greek island standards, anyway) with many domestic and international flights.
Even so, getting to Tilos can be a serious undertaking. I stayed two days on the island and would have extended it had it not been for the limited connections out (my flight back to London was from Kos).
WHY VISIT: For such a remote island, Tilos has surprisingly many sights of interest. I was particularly blown away by the eerie village of Mikro Chorio, which used to be one of Tilos’ two settlements but has been gradually abandoned by its inhabitants since the 1960s and now stands in half ruin. It makes for an exciting couple of hours of exploring a short distance out of the main port, Livadia.
Tilos is a mountainous island and has several superb hiking trails with stunning high views. I enjoyed hiking from the settlement of Agios Antonios to Agios Panteleimonas Monastery in the north of the island, and on to Eristos beach in Tilos’ central part. The 18th century monastery, dedicated to Tilos’ patron saint, has a beautiful hillside setting surrounded by trees (the rest of Tilos is quite barren) and is one of the island’s prime attractions. There are several nice beaches, including Eristos with 2km of coastline. If you have any more strength left, make your way steeply uphill from Megalo Chorio to the castle on top of the hill. Built by the Knights of St. John over the ruins of an ancient acropolis, the castle now stands in ruin, opening fantastic views to the rest of Tilos and the neighbouring Nisyros in the distance.
Of course there are many other secluded Greek islands not included in this list, both in the Aegean and the Ionian Sea. I am absolutely dying to visit the tiny Anafi near Santorini and Inousses, Chios’ satellite island famous for its seafaring history. I have been to both Santorini and Chios but, unfortunately, never made it just that one step further.
Three other islands I will no doubt visit one day are Antikythira, Antipaxos and Erikousa, all part of the Ionian Sea basin. Antikythira, lost somewhere between Kythira and the western side of Crete, lies near absolutely nothing else and is therefore ridiculously difficult to reach. Antipaxos is the satellite island of Paxoi and may not contain anything beyond several gorgeous beaches: its sheer attractiveness lies in how off-the-trodden-path it is located. Finally, you have probably never heard of Erikousa – sitting some 15 km from Corfu’s northern coast and edging into Albanian waters, it is actually home to several pristine beaches and a population of 500 people.
Let’s hope one day I will get a chance to go there and introduce myself.