The Greek island of Santorini features dramatic cliffs. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Oia, a village on Santorini, offers unique delights for visitors. // © 2016 iStock
Travelive/Travel2Greece, a regional specialist with offices in Boca Raton, Fla., and Athens, creates tailor-made itineraries for lovers of food, wine and practically any activity imaginable on the islands. It uses inside knowledge and extensive connections to plan custom-made vacations, from beach hotels on remote islands to beautiful spots in the land of the gods.
With its deep azure domes, aquamarine seas, red- and black-sand beaches and white walls that shimmer against a never-ending sun, Greece is an unbelievably evocative place. For some, all this beauty is little more than an enticement to relax and soak up all that warmth. But simply staying poolside? That would be a shame, as well as a missed opportunity. Mykonos, Santorini and Crete — three of the most popular Greek islands for travelers — offer some excellent ways to get outside and experience the destination. Whether you favor food and wine or want to burn off those calories by staying active, here’s a guide to getting the most out of a trip to the islands.
Vines in the Sun: On an island best known for its hedonism — famously, the clubs here rock all through the night and well into the next day — Mykonos Vioma Organic Farm & Vineyard is a lovely anomaly. Set on the far side of Mykonos, a short but scenic drive over roads that wind past beaches, around mountains and down through tiny villages, this is an oasis of culinary calm.
Not so long ago, when Mykonos was little more than an impoverished rock in the Aegean Sea, vines and farms covered it from shore to shore. But tourism has consumed both workers and land, and now Vioma stands as the island’s only remaining vineyard. However, local people make the most of it. Organic, biodynamic growing methods include handpicking grapes and stomping them by foot (often during the annual harvest festival in September), in addition to quirky but apparently effective tactics such as playing classical music for the vines.
Visitors can take a walk on the terroir and check out Vioma’s varietals, which are all well-adapted to the arid environment (the winery also doesn’t irrigate — plants tap into the deep water table). Or, even better, they can relax on the shady patio and admire furniture handpainted with picturesque scenes, taste local cheeses and handmade "tzatziki" (cucumber and garlic yogurt dip) and sip a glass of "mandilari" or "malagouzia."
Cycling in the Cyclades: Tour operator Yummy Pedals will take clients on a bike ride that winds through some of the island’s most scenic routes.
Itineraries can be tailored to skill and ability, and they are indeed yummy — each tour includes homemade lemonade and Greek treats. A stop at an isolated beach is a highlight, and riders are encouraged to cool off by diving into the bright, blue-green water.
Eat: With white tablecloths contrasted by vibrant bougainvillea, the small Avra Restaurant in Mykonos Town looks like a dream. And it tastes like one, too, offering excellent steaks, seafood and traditional Greek dishes.
Stay: Santa Marina, a Luxury Collection Resort, Mykonos features 101 guestrooms across 20 acres. Many rooms feature sweeping views of the Bay of Ornos, and the hotel, which sits on a private peninsula, enjoys the distinction of offering the island’s only private beach. Guests can chill in a cabana by the pool or the sea and then dine at Buddha Bar, a delicious pan-Asian restaurant right on the water.
Wine Around the Caldera: Santorini wasn’t always Santorini. Once called Thera, the island experienced a massive volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago that entirely reshaped it. The eruption, said to be one of the largest in recorded history, created a major tsunami that may have led to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on nearby Crete. The blast blew away the heart of the island, leaving a caldera that smokes to this day. It changed everything — including the very composition of the soil — creating black- and red-sand beaches, as well as the dramatic cliffs that now feature Santorini’s iconic white-and-blue villages.
While its vineyards are shrinking as tourist facilities grow, Santorini still remains one of Greece’s most celebrated wine regions. Santorini Wine Tour, which offers both individual and group itineraries, takes guests right into the fields, letting them get their hands dirty in the island’s unique, mineral-rich volcanic soil. Guides explain how “basket pruning” helps the vines thrive in a place with hard and rocky ground and significant wind.
Participants will explore a recently renovated cave where residents once burrowed into the ground and used the cool spaces to age their own homegrown wine. Clients will also visit the historic Venetsanos Winery, perched on the edge of the caldera, and Domaine Sigalas, a winery near the picturesque village of Oia that is home to some of the world’s most photographed sunsets.
Small plates loaded up with local delicacies such as "dakos," a "meze" (appetizer) made of local tomato paste and feta on a dry bread, along with tastes of some of Santorini’s most famous vintages, are sure to satiate epicurean travelers.
Swim to the Springs: The best way to see Santorini is from — or, preferably, in — the water. Suggest clients try a cruise onboard Lagoon 520, a semi-private catamaran that takes just a handful of guests around the island’s dramatic shores. The boat sails past lighthouses, abandoned beaches and Indian Rock before stopping at Red Beach. The undisputed highlight of the cruise is the opportunity to swim to Santorini’s hot springs. Created by the volcano and heated by the earth’s crust, they spill out through tiny crevices into a small inlet. After dropping anchor, guests can jump off the back of the boat and glide through the cool, clear sea to the warm, sulfurous springs before returning for a lunch of "souvlaki" (meat skewers) cooked on the boat’s grill.
Eat: Dining poolside at Canaves Oia Suites will put visitors right on the rim of the caldera — its handful of tables couldn’t be any closer to the edge. The menu features a nice selection of Greek classics and Mediterranean favorites.
Stay: Few places stun like the cliffside Mystique, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Santorini, located near Oia. Reached by a series of narrow and sometimes steep footpaths, the property’s infinity pools, two restaurants and top-notch spa seem to hang in midair. Rooms are carved into the side of the cliff, and many feature outdoor hot tubs. It’s a prime spot for soaking in the view, which guests should do until long after sunset, when the only sights are lights twinkling from distant parts of the island.
Agreco Farm: Set on the side of a mountain near the historic and often rollicking beach town of Rethymno, this farm supplies the high-end chain of Grecotel Hotels & Resorts on the island and throughout Greece. Tours here take clients through its water mill, olive press, wine cellar and vineyards, as well as to a farmyard where livestock produce everything from honey to cheese and milk. Guests can also interact with peacocks, donkeys, deer and even wild boar, all of which live on the property.
A typical visit begins with a tour of the farm and ends with a giant meal. The on-site "taverna" (cafe) — part of a re-created traditional town square — crafts Cretan cuisine such as curd cheese, pickled artichokes and stuffed courgette flowers, all using ingredients from the farm. Those who really want the full experience have the option to help milk the goats, harvest vegetables and make big, hulking loaves of bread in the farm’s stone oven.
Knossos: Sometimes considered Europe’s oldest city, the partially reconstructed ruin of Knossos is both a wonder and a curiosity. Settlement on the site — near the Cretan capital of Heraklion — dates all the way back to 7000 B.C., and construction on Knossos, a Minoan palace, began as far back as 1900 B.C. Compelling as the heart and soul of the Minoans, a powerful Bronze Age civilization, Knossos is a fascinating example of imaginative archaeological reconstruction. Excavated for more than three decades by English archaeologist Arthur Evans and his team in the first half of the 20th century, many of the spaces in this rambling palace have been reassembled according to the mind of Evans — and may or may not actually correspond with the historical record.
While clients are in the area, an excursion to the wineries lining the hills just inland from Heraklion is worthwhile. First cultivated by the Minoans some 4,000 years ago, these vineyards produce a number of distinctive vintages. Stop at Lyrakis winery, which hosts regular tours as well as tastings, then pay a visit to Katerina Hamilaki, who owns Logari, a nearby bed-and-breakfast and distillery that provides Cretan cooking lessons by appointment.
Eat: Enmeshed in the web of streets that form the heart of historic Rethymnon, Avli has earned a reputation as one of Crete’s finest and most innovative restaurants. In a floral courtyard amidst a 17th-century Venetian mansion, chefs prepare new twists and takes on Cretan classics.
Stay: On the eastern end of the island near the bustling town of Elounda, Blue Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Elounda faces the sea and looks out on the ruins of Spinalonga Island. Travelers can ride the funicular down to the spa and the seashore for some relaxation, then retire to their rooms or suites — many of which feature their own private plunge pool.