By Jason Coleman
Easily reached via land or sea, the Greek Isles are favorite destinations for many Europeans as well as tourists from around the world. Flights via hot-spot cities such as London, Paris and Milan are less than three hours away and extremely affordable via European low-budget air carriers.
Travelers can fly directly to Athens from the U.S., then travel by sea or take local flights to most of the islands. Although many countries in the European Zone seem to be at odds with the Greek political system, the people of the continent still flock like pelicans and seagulls to these Aegean beauties.
The islands of the Aegean Sea have a light spirit, as do the locals. Although summer is an important time for making money in hotels, shops and bars, American tourists might need a few days to unwind and relax once arriving from a long distance.
Staying on Mykonos for two weeks might just do the trick if you settle into "European Island Time."
Europe, in general, embraces a summer culture of relaxation. Since it is often very hot in most EU countries, many employees take two months to three months of vacation time. Some head to the islands of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas for work or play. Others enjoy living in these locales during the summer months.
Either way, relaxation and enjoyment are at the forefront of everyone's minds. For many Americans accustomed to a fast pace, embracing the "slow down" culture may take some getting used to.
I was in Athens for a few days, then I chose the more scenic route and traveled via Hellenic Seaways departing from Piraeus. This port is about 10 miles from the city center of Athens and a cheap cab ride away.
During the journey to the Greek Isles, there are a few stops along the way to the islands of Kea, Syros and Tinos. Each island has a particular charm; however, I stayed onboard because my destination was the island of Mykonos.
Seeing the different islands this way is an excellent tool to plan a future visit. Total voyage time is around four hours on the high speed hydrofoil ferryboat. The slow ferry can be taken during the day or night and used to save money by not having to book a hotel room for that night. Coach, business, sleeper quarters and VIP services are available and very affordable.
Pulling into the port of Mykonos is quite breathtaking, seeing the rolling hills and mountains on the island. The sea is a shade of blue that cannot be duplicated anywhere on Earth. Imagine the most captivating white cloud you've ever seen and the deepest blue in the crayon box, and you don't even come close to picturing the island upon arrival.
The buildings are painted stark white. The blue roofs of the churches almost match the color of the sea. The streets are paven with flattened rock -- abundant on the islands with its “high desert” style of landscape. The stones are painted white on and off, resembling giant-sized chunks of salt and pepper. It feels like "Palm Springs meets the Caribbean Sea."
When leaving the boat docks and heading into the city, you are greeted by many people offering services. Rooms for let -- small rooms available in local homes -- cost 30 to 40 euros per night for travelers who have not booked in advance. Taxis and hotel buses are abundant at the port. The local buses drop passengers off at many locations throughout the island, but there are only about three bus stops inside of the town: Old Port, New Port and the top of Mykonos town.
With streets winding to each of these points, the hotels are small, close together and easy to find with the help of the locals.
After a quick check-in at the Harmony Boutique Hotel, it was time for a little exploration. When walking through the streets of Mykonos Town, the sounds of house music rock the streets from the day bars and motor scooters that pass.
Traditional Greek foods and Italian accents waif through the air. It's like waking from a midday nap and hearing, "Welcome to paradise." It's no coincidence that the two largest beaches on the island are named Paradise and Super Paradise.
Being on an island means there are a variety of beaches to choose from. At least 18 are marked on the map, and this doesn't include the private beaches that locals and regular beaches might suggest. Paradise and Super Paradise are the most lively. Both have sunset parties daily at the beach clubs, which are built directly on the sand. It is very common to see people gather belongings from their cabanas along the shore and move directly to the dance floor.
The open air clubs have a little sand on the dance floor, amazing DJ's and professional dancers such as Natalia Markoulaki from Eastern Europe on the stages. They also have the beach bars, restaurants and gift shops. Keep in mind that these are the afternoon/twilight parties. Kind of like a sunset celebration.
After sunset, many beach-goers head back to their hotels or into Mykonos Town for a nap, some shopping or a snack. Dinner usually doesn't take place until between midnight and 2 am. So, I usually opted for shopping in the early evenings. My favorite specialty shop on the island is Misento, where artisan handmade jewelry comes to life. "One of a kind pieces" are shown in beautiful display cases and the jewelers’ workshop is in full view for shoppers. Christos and Misento are the owners of the boutique, located on Dimitriou Mavrogeni Street.
The partners said some of their favorite pieces of jewelry are based on the Faistos Disc. The original piece was found in ancient Crete and cannot be deciphered. It is similar to hieroglyphics but predated the Egyptian language when carbon-tested.
Among the countless bars on the island and especially in Mykonos Town, two stand out: A piano bar, Montparnasse, and Porta Bar. They have become international legends because of their owners and bartenders.
Montparnasse is owned by partners, Jody Duncan hails from western North Carolina and Nikos Hristodulakis is Greek. The two met on vacation and haven't separated in over 20 years. The bar is located in the little Venice part of town and has nightly entertainment.
When speaking of Porta Bar, it is important to mention "Queen Sophie." She is a local legend! She dazzles guests wearing hats and sparkly costumes, always showing off her photographic memory.
Next, visit the two dance clubs in town, Jackie O's and Babylon. Both are side by side, along the sea, and provide nightly entertainment. To have a quick refreshment, head to the back of each bar and go upstairs for no lines, friendly bartenders and expansive views of the partiers. It's easy to spot your dance location from above the crowds.
But if the smaller bars and clubs don't fit your needs, the largest evening nightclub on the island is Paradise Club on Paradise Beach. Buses run 24 hours a day to this location. Club manager Adam Rodionov promises that visitors will find this club to be outstanding. For the ultimate experience it's wise to book VIP tables via Kamal Abassi at [email protected] Dancing around the indoor pool, watching the moon rise higher in the sky and the beats of Hed Kandi will beckon one to dance!
The party on Mykonos is sure to rival Ibiza and Florianopolois in the summer. On my particular visit, one clubber was wearing a shirt that stated, "Mykonos f**ks Ibiza" -- my sentiments exactly. It's also less crowded during late May, June, September and October. Late summer is the perfect time to book.
When in VIP at Paradise Club, Carla and Maria will attend to your every need. It's common to see these local celebrities around the island throughout the day. Each bar and restaurant on the island supports the others. This well-established vibe and friendliness solidify the idea that you have arrived in Paradise.
If one needs an escape from all the excitement, there's another “must see” in the Greek Isles: Santorini. Reveled for its beauty, Santorini sits perched high atop the Aegean Sea. An active volcano created this island in 1660 B.C. and its tiny towns are the only inhabited Calderas (volcano caldrons) in the world.
Hellenic Seaways offers discounts for booking the hydrofoil in advance and it’s recommended during summer if you want to choose a good seat on the vessel. Just as with travel from Athens, there are many island stops along the way. Naxos, Paros, Los and finally Santorini are the islands visited on the journey.
Once at the port in Santorini, a large bus will take you to the main part of town called Fira. You arrive at the main bus station and can easily tour the hillside cafes and shops, and even find a hotel.
Below the volcanic mountain tops are the beaches featuring red, white and black sand.
Santorini is more conservative and quieter than Mykonos. Almost every traveler who had been to Santorini only recommended staying a few nights on the island. After visiting, I agree. Due to travel time and location of the sites, it is recommended to plan either a beach day or a touring day separate from each other. Spend evenings in the town because it gets very hot due to the close proximity to the sun.
My absolute favorite stop while touring Fira was the Catholic Church of Saint John the Baptist. Located at the point of the town, the church has amazing views of both sides of the island. Excellent photographic opportunities abound and a good bit of history can be found.
Immediately next door to the cathedral is a boutique filled with handmade gifts. The sales support the church, and many of the items are hand-sewn by the nuns. Also, when exploring the area near the church, look for excellent mosaics in the sidewalks. These, along with the crumbling of the walls near the church, are great places to see how islanders have put the abundance of the lava rock to work.
Mykonos and Santorini are the two jewels of the Greek Isles. The relaxing and supporting islands dotted along the southern shores of Athens also offer exceptional alternatives to these two tourist enclaves. Together there is a special magic that takes place only on the Greek Isles. This is a place where tourists and locals drop their mental and physical baggage and just relax in the sun. Each island is a hop away from the others.
September and October are great times to book a late summer trip! And even then, there's an endless supply of perfection and relaxation. Remember, a journey can heal .... now get out there!
Jason Coleman is a flight attendant on private jets that take him on exotic journeys around the world. He is also a writer, photographer, event coordinator and percussive step dancer who also volunteers in the local LGBT community. His Sole Journey column will appear regularly on SDGLN.