The combination of ancient history, culture, stunning scenery and fine weather drew us to Greece in 2003. The scheduled 2004 Olympics convinced us to get there a year ahead of the crowds, and a combination of visits to some of the Greek isles and a finish in Athens looked like a winner.
First up on the itinerary was the island of Mykonos, one of the many Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey. Getting there included a red-eye flight from SFO to Frankfurt, a transfer to a flight to Athens, and a final short flight to the island’s own international airport.
The small island is a favored destination of partying Europeans and is thronged during the summer high season. We anticipated correctly that the crowds would be thinned by our arrival in mid-September.
Our flight arrived in the early evening. A white-knuckle ride in a small van on a narrow twisty road, with a wannabe Grand Prix driver at the wheel, took us the final few miles to our modest hilltop hotel.
In the next morning’s sunshine we gazed on countless bright whitewashed buildings with blue trim, including tiny chapels on the property of many individual homes. Uniquely styled windmills turned in reliably strong breezes.
A morning hike downhill on a walled narrow road, tight enough so that traffic stopped when two buses faced off, took us into Mykonos town, also called by its historic name of Chora.
The town is small and easily walked. Well maintained buildings – none very large – often had beautiful bright lavender blooming Bougainvillea climbing their walls and draping over restaurant patio arbors. Squares and lanes were mostly pedestrian and scooter size.
The clean waterfront and shops areas were easy to find. In one shop before lunch we were offered “the special discount for being the first customers of the day”, so of course, we bought a souvenir. We spent most of the day on a relaxed amble, enjoying the fresh salt air, uncrowded neat neighborhoods, small boats bobbing in the harbor and the ever present blue domes of the houses and churches.
Next day, we rented an under-powered scooter to access more of the island and a beach. We were in good company, in a single file line with numerous other scooters in “I think I can” mode wheezing uphill from town to descend toward beaches on the other side.
We were reminded that Mykonos is popular with gay and straight visitors and its two most popular beaches reflect that choice, including clothing optional. The couples on beach-bound scooters appeared evenly divided. At the literal fork in the road, the straight couples peeled off to the right to Paradise Beach and the gay couples went left to continue to Super Paradise Beach, all waving cheerfully to each other.
At the beach, we rented chairs and a spot under a thatched umbrella for six bucks and settled in. Soon after, two young Italian beauties settled in a few yards away, promptly popped the tops off their bikinis and reclined to offer themselves to the sun. Strong peripheral vision and wraparound sunglasses allowed one of us to discreetly admire the scenery while the other quietly chuckled.
We heard the signorinas chatting in a conspiratorial tone while staring at the tanned young Adonis sitting atop his lifeguard station. One of them soon strolled over to him—still sans top—and engaged him in conversation while he played Joe Cool. The conversation must have gone well, as she came bouncing (the operative word) back to her friend with a big smile, followed by exuberant talk.
Eyes fatigued by then, Jerry wandered to the nearby beach café in order to bring back lunch and refreshment to the still bemused Jean.
Our scooter managed to make it over the hill back to town in the late afternoon without us having to imitate Fred Flintstone by pedaling the ground to help the weak motor. We turned it in and walked downtown for a nice patio dinner at a quiet little waterfront restaurant.
Next morning, we boarded a small high-speed ferry for a one -our ride to the neighboring island of Paros, stopping in that port to connect to a big car ferry, then continuing with a stop at the island of Naxos before arriving at the day’s destination – the beautiful, crescent shaped island of Santorini, the southernmost island of the Cyclades.
The port serving ferries and cruise ships is in the volcano- created caldera inside the curve of the crescent. From there, passengers board a fleet of vans and small buses to climb the steep zigzagging road to the top of the ridge and the main town of Thera, which is also the island’s historic and official name.
The island’s crescent shape is the result of multiple volcanic eruptions, the most cataclysmic of which occurred around 1600 BC, destroying the island’s ancient Minoan civilization. The center and opposite rim of the volcano collapsed and the crescent remained.
After settling in at our central hotel, we joined tourists from many countries to stroll the cliff edge promenade lined with restaurants, and shops featuring exquisite gold jewelry and other treasures, their staffs all speaking excellent English. Somehow keeping our funds largely intact, we ended up at a restaurant overlooking the caldera for a fine dinner.
The next day began with a tour of the ancient Minoan ruins at Akrotiri, which, like Italy’s Pompeii, was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash in the eruption in the 1600s that blew apart the island. A small part of the destroyed city has been carefully excavated by archaeologists, revealing frescoes, elaborate buildings and an advanced underground plumbing system.
In the afternoon, we took a short boat ride to one of the small islands in the caldera that have formed over the centuries and are still somewhat volcanically active. Our feet were warmed by the heat rising from the black soil, while steam vented from below.
Another short boat ride returned us to the shore at the base of the steps to the exquisitely beautiful little town of Oia, pronounced EEyah. The 200 steps are not particularly difficult, though one of the smelly dusty donkey caravans bearing passengers up the stairs almost bumped one of us walkers over the side of the cliff. The town sparkles in bright white and blue, with its own collection of restaurants and shops with stunning views. There are also hotels harking back to the time when homes and hotels were built as caves into the cliff walls.
After three fast days in this beautiful place, a short easy flight carried us to Athens for the final trip segment. The increasing prosperity of Athens was apparent, beginning with the sparkling new Mercedes taxi, its friendly and articulate owner-driver happily describing his life, family and the country’s improvements in preparation for the Olympics. Some of those improvements were on display, such as the improved airport and silky smooth toll road carrying traffic from the airport to the center of this city of several million.
Our Divani Palace hotel, the nicest one of the trip, was in the city center, an easy walk to the base of the Acropolis hill, and in another direction to the old city area called the Plaka. Ambling about we saw many signs of the coming Olympics and noted that T-shirts celebrating the event were selling a year ahead. The Greeks were proud and excited that the games that originated there were finally returning.
The next day, our tour guide at the Acropolis shared with us that the golden age of Greece was from 500 to 100 BC. After that, for 2,000 years it was not free but under the control of Romans, Persians, Venetians and Turks, and finally regained independence in 1821. The most prominent and famous site out of many on the hill is the incredible Parthenon temple, completed in 483 BC. It remained largely intact until an explosion inside in 1687 while the Turks were using it as a gunpowder magazine. Major removal of statuary was done by the British in the early 19th century, and it was then relocated to one of their museums. Our guide also showed us where, in this birthplace of democracy, Socrates and Plato spoke, and another hill where St. Paul preached.
After spending most of the day at the Acropolis, our tired feet carried us back to the Plaka for a final delicious outdoor dinner enjoyed while looking up at the Parthenon. Returning to the hotel, we noticed a large crowd heading to a basement banquet area for a wedding party. As we descended to the lobby at 3 a.m. to head to the airport, the wedding party was still going strong, the sound of lively Greek music rising from below.
Watch now: Hotel do’s & don’ts to make your stay better