January 29, 2018
By Robin Gauldie
Greece has thousands of islands. Some, like tiny Kastellorizo, are no more than dots on the map while Crete, the biggest, is more than 150 miles long. In between, there’s something to please everyone and fit most budgets.
Summer and clear blue water are Greece’s big crowd-pleasers, along with relics of lost civilisations such as Knossos on Crete, medieval fortresses such as Rhodes’ Old Town, and dazzlingly pretty villages on isles like Santorini and Mykonos. And, of course, there are legendary party spots like Kavos on Corfu, Faliraki on Rhodes and Malia in Crete.
If you’re tempted to try a slice of island life, here's where to stay and what to eat and see on a budget.
Beautiful as they are, Mykonos and Santorini are the most expensive spots on the Greek island map. You’ll find cheaper places to stay elsewhere in the Cyclades, on isles such as Naxos, Paros and Amorgos. Like their posh neighbours, they have dazzlingly pretty villages of whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches and long sandy beaches.
But don’t rule out the big, popular islands. You’ll find bargains on Crete, Corfu and Rhodes if you’re prepared to seek them out. On Crete, go beyond the big north coast resorts to spots like Paleochora, Sitia, Zakros and Ierapetra. On Corfu, Agios Stefanos and Agios Georgios, on the north-east coast, offer better deals than the crowded west coast resorts. On Rhodes, you’ll find well-priced rooms near the southern tip of the island at spots like Hohlakas, Plimiri and Lahania.
Eating seafood beside a Greek island harbour is one of those must-do experiences. Sadly, it’s also one of the priciest. At quayside restaurants in places like Chania, Rethymnon or Skiathos you’ll pay through the nose for the location. Look for eateries are few blocks inland – especially mezedopoleio (mezze restaurants) – where you can order one or two little dishes at a time to avoid over-ordering.
If you must eat seafood, squid, marides (whitebait) and goupes are cheaper options, while astakos (langouste) or barbounia (red mullet) are budget-busters.
Self-catering in the Greek islands is more fun – and a lot cheaper – when you shop with the locals. Bigger towns like Chania, in western Crete, have great municipal markets where you can buy locally-grown fruit and veg, cheeses and dozens of different kinds of olive. The best bargains are in the seafood section, where you’ll find fish that don’t appear on the over-priced menus at most harbour-side restaurants.
Your best bets for soft golden sand include Thassos, in the northern Aegean, Skiathos, in the Sporades, and Crete’s north coast, where even in high season you can find a stretch of shore to call your own.
Access to all Greek island beaches is free. On must-see strands like Koukounaries on Skiathos, Limenaria on Thassos, and Zante’s famous ‘Smuggler’s Wreck’ beach you can expect to pay around €4 – €5 per day for a sunbed and umbrella. Is it worth it? Not unless you plan to spend the entire day on the beach. You can save pennies by staying by your hotel pool – or by seeking out a beach taverna that offers free sunbeds as long as you buy a drink or two.
Admission to major museums like the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete and to top archaeological sites like ancient Knossos, the Asklepion and Castle of the Knights on Kos, and other sights controlled by the Ministry of Culture is free on the last weekend in September and on March 5, June 6, April 18, May 18, and every Sunday between November 1 and March 31. Admission is also free for under 18s, over 65s and students with suitable ID.
Don’t buy wine by the bottle in shops or restaurants. Instead, order local wines apó to varéli (from the barrel), served by the litre or half-litre in metal jugs. Quality (and alcohol content) vary, but there are some happy surprises on islands such as Ikaria and Samos, famed for their wines since ancient times.
August 15 is a big national holiday, when hordes of Greeks living in Athens and abroad flock back to their ancestral islands for big family get-togethers. If you’re lucky enough to find a room, a flight or a ferry that weekend or several days either side of it, you’ll pay through the nose.
Plan an island-hop, find the best ferry fares and book your tickets before you leave the UK.
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