After more than a dozen trips to Greece over the years, Jim Bantis, 43, had acquired the wisdom of experience. He knew of a secluded black-sand beach on Santorini, was partial to a certain taverna on Naxos with a harbor view and friendly locals, and had honed his snorkeling skills in the glass-clear Aegean Sea. So when it came to planning his family's big summer escape, the Greek Islands obviously topped the list. This time, however, he was determined to do things differently. "I wanted to see the islands, not other tourists," says the accountant from Brooklyn, New York. "And the only way to do that is on your own boat."There are hundreds of inhabited islands and thousands of barren ones scattered between the coasts of Greece and neighboring Turkey. Most of them are renowned for calm beaches, ancient ruins, and whitewashed villages-not to mention more than ten million annual tourists. Let's face it: The charms of Aegean landfalls can sometimes get lost in the crowd. But cruising on a fully equipped yacht is the secret to privacy and the key to mounting the ultimate island-hopping expedition.
Certified sailors can take the helm of their own bareboats, and professionally staffed vessels of all sizes are as easy to rent in Greece as cars. So in May 2005 Bantis signed on for a 12-day multisport trip aboard a 110-foot (34-meter) twin-masted schooner operated by Athens-based Aegean Adventures. Courtesy of this floating base camp, he and his wife, Kristine, 35, and their sons James, 14, Matthew, 12, and Nicholas, 10, slept in style, kayaked, snorkeled, and sampled the scene at various ports, all while avoiding the sunburned masses. Greece, it seems safe to say, is adventure travel's legendary home-the land of the Olympics, that sailing saga The Odyssey, and Achilles, the poster boy of action heroes. Nothing could be more authentic than multisporting in the Aegean. But with so many islands, a hop here can seem like an epic undertaking. So what's the best strategy? Think in terms of a few coastal and inland forays linked by short sea cruises. And two or three islands is plenty.
Kayakers, for example, can prowl coves and sea arches around Milos; climbers can put ashore to tackle the crags of Kalimnos; and hikers can find trails on Naxos that wend through olive groves, past Byzantine monasteries, to the tops of mountain peaks.
"We'd wake up onboard, eat a great breakfast, and cruise over to an island to mountain bike," Bantis says. "You've got your own taxi. There's an itinerary, but you're in charge of it."
Odysseus, the godfather of island hoppers, spent ten years sailing the Aegean. With your own boat and the winds on your side, you can do it right in ten days.
Dive Into History
In ancient times it was forbidden to give birth or die on Delos. You still can't stay overnight on this island, which is sacred to the god Apollo, but it ranks as the premier day trip for a master's seminar in the classics. This UNESCO World Heritage site's highlights include the third-century b.c. Theatre, built to seat 5,500 spectators, and the seventh-century b.c. Terrace of the Lions. Admire the sprawling ruins, then, come dusk (unless you've got a boat to go home to) head to neighboring Mykonos: the Dionysian yang to Delos's tranquil yin. Mykonos is mythic in its own right-a notorious party spot with lively beaches and excellent diving. Dive Adventures runs a two-dive day trip ($110; www.diveadventures.gr) and a snorkeling tour ($30 a day) in the crystal clear surrounding waters. Base Camp: The beachfront Hotel Deliades ($140; www.deliades.com) is a homey, wood-beamed lodge smack in the heart of the action and close to the port for Delos trips.
Fill Your Sails
Seafaring, like politics and algebra, is an ancient Greek obsession. Those salty dogs who have the necessary certification and appropriate sailing skills can easily rent a bareboat-from humble skiff to majestic schooner-crew it up with friends, and mount a personalized Aegean odyssey. With islands 20 to 40 miles (32 to 64 kilometers) apart, land is never out of sight for long, and though storms can blow up suddenly, the waters are generally tranquil. Stow mountain bikes, kayaks, and diving gear aboard, and the yacht becomes a floating multisport platform. Many boat rental companies, such as Aegean Adventures, will supply a captain and crew ($6,850 for 14 days; www.aegeanadventures.com). But take the helm yourself and you can set your own course. If you want to start from unspoiled Rhodes and meander through the Dodecanese archipelago to fertile Kos, under-the-radar Leros, and beyond, just give the order. Port Authority: Athens-based Alpha Yachting will deliver a boat to any port. Their cutting-edge Custom 47 ($700 a day with skipper; $550 a day without; www.alphayachting.com) sleeps eight and has a 16-foot (5-meter) motor launch for fishing, diving, and shore calls.
Hike Like Zeus
Trodden by more than 5,000 years of history, the Greek Islands certainly don't lack for footpaths. And though the trekking here may not take you through soaring backcountry, there are steep mountains, hillsides green with olive trees, drowsy villages, and hospitable locals. The island of Naxos is crisscrossed with a network of ancient trails. One legendary trek starts in the town of Filoti, on the slopes of the Cyclades archipelago's highest peak, 3,284-foot (1,001-meter)Mount Zas (Zeus). After bagging this modest summit, hike the trail toward Danakos, past the fortified Byzantine church of Fotodotis, and sip a cold Mythos pilsner in Apiranthos, Naxos's most fetching village. Trail Mates: Trekking Hellas leads a five-day Cyclades hiking trip ($630; www.trekking.gr). For an extended land-based jaunt, REI organizes ten-day trips from Tinos to Naxos to Santorini ($2,799; www.rei.com).
THE GREEK DINER: On the island of Ikaria, in the village of Christos, secluded among pine forests and overlooking the sea, a cooking class from Cuisine International ($1,850 for six days; www.cuisineinternational.com) will give you the skills to bring a taste of your trip back home. Appropriately located on the mythological island home of Dionysus, the god of wine, the classes are held in a traditional village house surrounded by olive and fruit trees. This hands-on course will teach you how to prepare dozens of delicacies, such as shrimp with creamy ouzo sauce, and octopus with fennel, oranges, and olives. Warning: At your next dinner party, plates will surely be smashed in your honor.
THE ROCK OPERA: According to climbing instructor and guide Aris Theodoropoulos, director of the Hellenic Alpine Club of Acharnes, there are some 800 climbing routes on the cliffs of Kalimnos, in the Dodecanese chain, with a few 5.14s. "The quality of rock on Kalimnos is extraordinary," he says, "with good friction and chances for serious three-dimensional climbing." And, of course, after a vertical scramble above the sea in this relatively secret climbing paradise, what could be better than a plunge into the waves? Rope up with Theodoropoulos for $180 a day (www.oreivatein.com/climb/eng.htm). Mountain Guides Arco leads a six-day Kalimnos climbing trip ($525; www.kalymnos-climbing.org) for more dedicated rockers.
THE HONEYMOONERS: A uniquely Greek twist on blending the New Age with ancient times is the Cycle Greece Cycle Yoga & Spa Tour ($3,000 for ten days; www.cyclegreece.gr). This enlightened island-sampling excursion will have you practicing daily asanas on the beach, then pedaling roughly 20 moderate miles (32 kilometers) among olive groves and coastal villages. The zenith of the trip comes in the town of Leutra Aidipsou, on the secluded island of Euboea, at Thermae Sylla Spa-one of Greece's most renowned. Aristotle and Plutarch took their cure here among the more than 80 mineral hot springs.
WHEN TO GO: Spring and fall are the best times to visit: ideal weather, blooming wildflowers, and space to spare at hotels and restaurants. Avoid July and August-half of Europe is already here on vacation.
GETTING AROUND: The trip from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Paros, the ferry hub for the Cyclades, takes about four hours ($40 one way; www.greekferries.gr). The cheapest way to travel on the islands is by bus ($2). Scooters are available for rent just about everywhere (around $10 a day) and allow for more mobility.
WHAT TO BRING: Pack The Iliad and/or The Odyssey. Let's face it, most people only skim Homer in school, but he makes for essential Greek Island reading. Talking ancient history with the locals is also a sure way to get a bottle of ouzo uncorked and passed your way.