After describing in the first part the start in Athens and the roadtrip through the Greek mainland, I will continue here with the Greek islands. First some general info which exist and then getting more specific about these which we visited. Best is if you can arrange a flight back to your home country from one of the islands to avoid either a ferry or a plane back to Athens, saving both money and time. As we did not wanted to miss out on Santorin (spoiler: missing out would have been okay) and had flights back from there we chose it.
So to start with a short overview over the major Greek islands.
Overview Greek islands
Crete: it is the largest Greek island and already worth staying a week or longer there. Hiking, sea and so on, all the options there without changing the island.
Euboea: second largest island and just next to Athens, separated only by 60m from Greek mainland.
North Aegean islands: like the Dodecanese just next to Turkey but a bit more North, Lesbos and Chios being the most famous. Especially Lesbos should be beautiful, in recent years it got mainly bad publicity because of thousands of migrants stranded there. It is a horrible situation for migrants but also not easy for the inhabitants as they mainly rely on tourism.
Dodecanese: close to Turkey and include Rhodes, Kos, Karpathos and many others.
Cyclades: roughly between mainland and Crete there are the Cyclades. We decided to do our island hopping there as it was not too far with the ferry from Piraeus and many flight companies offer (cheap) flights to one of these. The largest is Naxos, most populated Syros. Most famous for touristic reasons are Mykonos and Santorini/Thira. More about these islands in the later text.
Ionian islands: unlike most others they are to the West of Greece. On the map they are not really visibile. Just off the Albanian coast lies Corfu/Kerkyra. Although being the seventh biggest Greek islands, the biggest of the Ioanian islands is Kefalonia. Very famous, especially for British tourists, is also Zakynthos. Ithaka is the second smallest of the group and known from Odysseus´name. Although there are also other explanations it is still the most likely that his origins lie on that island. Lefkada is the only islands connected via a bridge to the mainland. Here I was providing some info about Lefkada.
Sporades: in the North of Greece and ferries go from Volos. Unlike the other islands these are very green and you might know them from the Mama Mia movies. Skiathos and Skopelos are the most popular of these and also the closest to the harbour. Greek friends told us that these might be the nicest islands in their opinion because besides the beaches there is also some vegetation.
Argo-Saronic Island: they are just off the Greek mainland. The most famous of them for historical reasons is Salamis, where the sea battle took place. For tourists the most interesting should be Hydra, a small islands completely without car. Ferries leave from Piraus and it is only 69km. When I went there some years ago it was a super nice boat trip and we saw several dolphins on the way.
After we decided that a flight back from Santorini will be our choice it was about planning which islands to combine. We went in September so there were partly already less ferries but also in summer it is important to check which islands are easy to combine and have good connections for not going back and forth. There are super fast and expensive catamarans, mainly around the major tourist islands, and classic slowlier (car) ferries which sometimes cost a bargain. We used only comparisons to find the serving companies and then usually booked straight via them. It really makes sense to compare prices (we had 8€ vs. 60€, cheaper way slowlier though and on the other hand the same price and big differences in travel time). Getting your preferred schedule is not easy, mainly depending what are the musts for you and then which others to include, first I will give another overview which islands there exists and then I´ll give you our plan which worked out well and was organized with the great help of a Greek friend to combine known and unknown islands.
Source; we went from 17/Sifnos to 12/Milos to 31/Folegrandos to 7/Santorin
When asking Greek friend for unknown small islands she suggested the following:
So for less touristic islands, especially around Naxos (14), these are your places to go to. As we decided to skip Naxos and include others it was not working well with ferries to these and stayed on the Western part of the Cyclades to avoid unnecessary time on ferries. Also in this area and good idea connecting it with lie Paros (15) and Mykonos (13). So if you decide to explore this area use one of the big islands as your hub and include one/some of the smaller to get a better picture and enjoy something less popular as well.
To explain how and why we ended up with our tour: Santorin was fixed due to flight. Then we thought that Milos looked awesome, was often described as a secret tip (secret in comparison to Santorin but definitely not with the other islands). So it was then how to combine these islands the best and which to add, to making unnecessary ferry trips saves money and time and there are some companies connecting them for under 10€, whereas the fast catamarans take 50€ and more. Blue Star Ferry is a cheaper company, Seajet is an expensive one (still worth comparing prices and times though). We based our trip on the schedule of the Zante ferry company as this was the only (cheaper) one connecting Piraeus, Milos and Santorin and our stops in between should be based on this line. Now the help of our Greek friend got life/time saving. If you start comparing the possibilities yourself, every island is having some advantages, something might sound nicer from others and you might spend hours comparing two islands which are more or less the same just to have the perfect choice. Luckily this decision was taken from us: she recommended us Kythnos- Sifnos- Milos- Folegrandos- Santorin. After checking with the days available we decided that 4 instead of 5 islands would be better and after 5 seconds thinking she took Kythnos off the list (cannot imagine how many hours this decision would have taken me), between 2 and 3 nights per island seemed as a minimum to enjoy the time and not only hop from harbour to harbour.
Day 0: after finishing our road trip on the Greek mainland we went from the airport straight with the metro to Piraeus to sleep there and reduce the time needed in the morning to reach the port. Accomodation we just checked online shortly before and made sure it is around metro/our port for the next day to reduce walking times.
History of Cyclades
volacano (2nd best ever), name (delos)
Day 1: very early in the morning our ferry left to Sifnos. We went with one of the fast catamarans (seajet) as the price was more or less the same like with the slowlier (car) ferries. Comparing ferries and prices we did via Ferryscanner and also booked straight from their homepage, one ride was 33€ (something between 30€ and 40€ seems normal, depending on discounts, early bird,...) for us and took us a bit more than 2h. As we arrived before lunch time there was still plenty of time, with taxi we went to our accomodation in Apolonia, the capital of the island, as the next bus was just in an hour or so. In the afternoon we went straight with the bus to a beach and then made a longer hike back to Kastra/Apollonia. For more details check the box below.
Where to stay: if you do not plan a whole beach holiday staying in the capital Apollonia seems best. All buses and car rentals leave from here and there´s frequent connection to the harbour and all other towns.
Kamares: The harbour is in Kamares, also some accomodation there but we were happier staying in the lovely center. Many shopping streets, many restaurants, famous especially for French tourists.
Platis Gialos: apparently it is the longest sandy beach on the Cyclades, well protected so no big waves. This is the place for a longer beach stay.
Where to eat: the following restaurants we got recommended from our great host. Asked for rather local stuff and think what we got were all in this category.
Platis Gialos: To Steki: great, local cuisine just on the beach! (Restaurants I have seen on Tripadvisor with great reviews but more expensive and also kind of less cosy: NUS (many products from own farm, also very local cuisine and you get all traditional dishes!) and Omega 3 (fish restaurant where Tom Hanks also goes to). All three are within 10min walking so enough time before eating to check all menus and see what you like best.
Apollonia: Pajas tips
Where to go:
Hiking: Sifnos has an extensive well marked hiking trail system. Here you get already an overview. We tried the following:
Chrisopigi monastery to Kastro: it is path number 2 and think it took us around 2,5h but rather plan a bit more time as you also pass several beaches which would be stupid not using for a break. We took the bus from Apollonia to the monastery, just tell the bus driver he will tell you when to leave. The monastery is super cool, just next to the sea and one of the most famous sights of Sifnos. From there we followed the hiking signs to two beaches and from Faros you walk via the inner land to Kastro. Many animals on the way and we were rather lonely, Kastro itself was over several centuries till 1836 the capital of the island. Now it is a small, cute town with many many churches. To go back to the capital just take the public bus, we came to late for that one and just hitchhiked. The only street leading to Apollonia so I bet you will find someone who takes you along. It is a perfect half/day trip to connect two of the major sights (Chrisopigi monastery and Kastro) with hiking and beaches and can recommend it!
Platis Gialos to Vathi: in the end we did not walk that one but I was very tempted the whole time. Great idea starting either at Vathi or Platis Gialos, some swimming there and then follow the hiking path on the coastline. It should take around 3h walking time, halfway there is the Fikiada beach and I think there is a high chance to find a rather private beach as it is only accesible with walking minimum an hour or so.
Kamares- Profitis Elias (highest peak)- Apollonia: for very motivated hikers I imagine the following also very nice: either as a roundtrip from Apollonia or taking first bus down to Kamares and start at the sea level. Possibility to include the highest peak of the island and quite a hilly hike in the end. Just check the different connection possibilities from their map, have not done it but if so I think I would have gone for the following option: bus to Kamares- Kapsalos (1,5h)- Panagia Toso Nero- Profitis Ilias (from Kapsalos 3h)- Fyrogia- Apollonia (from Profitis Elias 1,5h). So should be around 6h (GPX and overview) in total.
Churches: Sifnos has 360 churches, per day of the year one, per 7 inhabitants approximately also one. The Chrisopigi monastery is the most famous one, for this see the hike above, both with car and bus easy to access. Other famous church is the Church of the Seven Martyrs in Kastro, beautifully located on an isolated rock and connected via a path with Kastro.
Platis Gialos: it is the most famous beach and the most restaurants. We went there with the bus from Apollonia and then returned in the afternoon and took immediately the next bus to Vathi to see more beaches of the island.
Vathi: also accesible with bus/car from Apollonia. If you are a motivated hiker there is a marked trail connecting Platis Gialos and Vathi and on the way you will pass beaches, where you will be most probably completely alone (see the hike).
North: in the North there are more churches and more beaches. Bus/car bringing you there but connections were less frequent than to the above mentioned so we did not go to any of these. Due to the wind we were also advised to use beaches in the South but this can change from day to day. In general good idea to get advise at every island which sides are recommended as the locals know what´s best with each wind.
Day 2: full day Sifnos. We went in the morning to Platis Gialos, lunch at To Steki, back with bus to Apollonia, then bus to Vathi, some swimming there and then back again. Dinner in Apollonia.
Day 4: little town, Plaka, rain day, adamas 19
Day 5: Rent car offroad
Day 6: Rent car island, evening ferry to fole 21
Day 7: fole
Day 8: fole+ferry to sant at midnight 23
Day 9: sant 4am, beach, hike to oia?
Day 10: sant, red beach 25
Day 11: vulcano, flight back 26
Day 5: Milos