We loved Santorini, enjoyed Mykonos, but Naxos captured our hearts.
From the powdery sand beaches and crystal-clear waters to the fireball sunset over the Temple of Apollo, the island dazzled us. Boutiques, galleries, tavernas, and churches along the winding alleys of the Old Town's Castle surprised us.
And the people embraced us, showering us with kindness, generosity, and enough food to feed a village.
"Come, sit and have something to eat and drink," Marin greeted us at Hotel Grotta, a crisp-white, 37-room inn overlooking Naxos Town and the Aegean Sea. Before registering us, she led us to a bright, comfortable dining room with a panoramic view and served Yia-Yia's (Grandma's) pie and Pappous' (Grandpa's) wine. The "pie" was flaky layers of phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese – like spanakopita, without the spinach – and the wine was a chilled, refreshing white (Pappous also makes red).
"It isn't as good as Santorini's" dry white, made from that island's famous assyrtiko grapes, Marin apologized, but it kept me happy for two days and nights.
Refreshed, we checked in and were shown to our rooms, our bags awaiting us. My wife, Valerie, and I had a spacious first-floor room with a queen bed and a private patio overlooking the Aegean. Our grown children, Eric and Rebecca, had a similar room, which Marin quickly changed when they asked for twin beds.
The hospitality shouldn't have surprised me. Periodically over 10 months, Hotel Grotta owner Dimitris Lianos advised me on the Naxos leg of our 10-night, four-stop visit to Athens and Greece's Cyclades islands. He patiently answered my incessant email queries about ferry lines, times, and reservations, and offered complimentary pickup and drop-off.
It was like that for each of our destinations, with the hotel owners and managers providing sightseeing and dining recommendations and arranging transportation to or from the airport or ferries.
This was a different kind of vacation for us. I usually cram our itineraries with historical sites and other sightseeing spots, adding some shopping and R&R to keep everyone happy.
But this was Rebecca's show — her bucket-list trip for her 25th birthday. She wanted to experience the beaches, sunsets, and vistas of the Greek isles and share them with her family, so beaches were the priority.
Instead of booking a cruise and being limited to eight-hour stops at a few of the most touristy islands, we chose to spend several days on each of three isles and to use ferries to shuttle us around the Aegean.
Acknowledging that we were visiting the Cradle of Western Civilization, however, we started the trip with two nights and a day of sightseeing in sweltering Athens. The 108-degree heat prompted several sites to close by midafternoon, but we managed to trudge up the winding path of the Acropolis — the rocky citadel that towers over the city, topped by the iconic Parthenon.
On our way up, we stopped to admire the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, or Herodeon. The 5,000-seat amphitheater, carved into the limestone mountain in 161 B.C. (and rebuilt in the 1950s) still hosts performances.
There have been temples on the Acropolis since the 8th century B.C., but the most famous one was built for the goddess Athena from 447 to 438 B.C. Standing in front of the Parthenon, our eyes followed the towering marble columns — some fluted, others smooth — 34 feet skyward to what's left of the crossbeams and triangular pediment they once supported.
I was surprised that this architectural marvel, though a World Heritage site, is not one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Seeing it and the other monuments on the Acropolis — and the commanding view of the city — was worth the trek.
After a break, we joined an Athens Free Tour for a three-hour group stroll through the Old City neighborhoods and squares surrounding the Acropolis. Sam, a South African who quit London for Athens 20 years ago, pivoted seamlessly from stories of ancient Greek gods and conquering Roman emperors to today's troubled leaders.
"Most Greeks don't pay taxes," she said, "so how can things get better?"
Outside the presidential mansion, Sam narrated the changing of the evzone, an elite ceremonial unit that also guards the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at nearby Syntagma Square. Their slow-motion, high-stepping gait; clopping, nail-studded shoes; and long, black tassels conjure the look and sound of horses, she noted; the 400 pleats in their kilts represent nearly four centuries of Ottoman tyranny.
Sam guided us along the narrow, winding streets of the touristy Plaka district, packed with memorials, museums, handsome houses, outdoor restaurants and cafes, and souvenir shops. Vendors hawked gyros and souvlaki, but we held out for a late dinner at a taverna in the Psyrri district.
On our arrival in Athens, Maria, the owner of Ta Karamanlidika, made room for us at the corner deli and restaurant popular with the locals. We gobbled up complimentary, paper-thin slices of ham and cubes of sharp cheese while we waited for our table, then dined on authentic Greek dishes. A plate of yogurt topped with a sweet carrot marmalade, also complimentary, was a light and tasty dessert.
The next night, the nearby Oinopoleion was just as good. And, thanks to Sam's tips, we dined in the cool, comfortable garden and were served complimentary white wine made at the restaurant owners' winery. Our two Athens restaurants set the bar high.
We capped each night at the rooftop bar and lounge at Attalos Hotel with drinks, dessert, and a killer view of the Acropolis and Parthenon bathed in spotlights.
Then, it was off to the islands, starting with Santorini, our farthest point south. A bargain flight cost only $23 more than the fastest ferry and got us there four hours quicker – with a little drama.
"We apologize for the uncomfortable temperature," the Sky Express pilot announced as about 60 of us fanned ourselves with the flight safety cards. "We can't provide air conditioning until we can turn on the second propeller."
As we approached Santorini, the pilot warned that high winds were at "the limit of the plane" and that we might need to "divert," though he didn't say to where. Fortunately, we landed safely, and within an hour we were lounging at our hotel pool.
For three days, we lounged on Kamari's black beach, strolled the serpentine streets of Fira and Oia, and sailed and swam in the waters of the caldera — a collapsed volcanic crater formed thousands of years ago. Both northwestern towns are perched on the mountainsides overlooking the caldera. Oia, with its white houses, shops, restaurants, and blue-domed churches — framed by the deep-blue sea and bright blue sky — is the picture postcard for the Greek isles.
Across the island, Kamari's restaurants, shops, and boutique hotels line its waterfront street, and pairs of "sun beds" shaded by umbrellas or thatched canopies fill the beach. Eat breakfast or lunch at a restaurant or order drinks and snacks on the beach, and you can lounge on the cushioned beds as long as you like – we took full advantage of them.
"The Jersey Shore should copy this business model," Eric said, admiringly.
But the black beach has no sand, just black volcanic pebbles that get hot in the sun and are rough on the feet. We quickly realized that flip flops or water shoes would have come in handy.
Once in the water, though, the gently rippling sea was comfortably cold and refreshing. I was so buoyant that whenever I stopped treading water, my feet rose to the surface, and I back-floated effortlessly, gazing at the cloudless sky. Clusters of boulders a few hundred yards off shore were within an easy swim, offering a reverse view of the beach scene.
Though the first week of July is high season, the beach and waterfront were not crowded during the day. At night, though, tourists filled the street and many of the restaurants. We were lucky to get a table at Almira's, recommended by Marta, our hotel owner, as a place where the locals like to eat, and one of the top-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor. My sea bream was expertly filleted, Valerie and Rebecca's lamb dishes were succulent, and we all enjoyed our first of many long, leisurely island dinners late into the night.
All of the staffers seemed to know Marta – it turned out her cousin owns the place.
The next day, we lounged on the beach till mid-afternoon, then took the 20-minute bus ride to Fira, the capital of Santorini.
There are three ways to get from the Old Port to the top of the mountainside town – on foot, cable car, and donkey. We started heading for the cable car, but the jewelry, clothing, and souvenir shops kept drawing us in, so we strolled the winding alleys instead.
After bargaining at several shops for earrings, bracelets, a necklace, and a ring, we took our seats at the restaurant about 7:30 p.m. – an hour before the daily event. It was the earliest dinner we had the entire trip; otherwise, we followed the Europeans' lead and dined about 9:30.
We had a clear view for nature's spectacular. The only clouds were on the horizon, providing a touch of orange to the blazing yellow ball as it steadily descended. When the last speck of sun was gone, we toasted our version of July 4th fireworks.
For our final day and night on the island, we headed to the star of Santorini – Oia (pronounced E-ah). Marianna, the manager of our new hotel, had recommended a five-hour catamaran cruise as "the best thing you can do on the island," and she had made our reservations, which included being picked up at Kamari and dropped off at Ecoxenia Studios.
The 74-foot catamaran provided an up-close look at the caldera's volcanic features. We stopped to swim at the hot springs and snorkel off the famous Red and White Beaches, named for the color of their lava cliff backdrops and pebble sand. Both are in a remote area and difficult to reach – Red Beach has warnings for falling rocks – so this was a fun and easy way to see them.
Between stops, we got some sun while viewing the rugged cliffs and sparkling Aegean. I lounged on the trampoline net stretched between the hulls, sipping white Santorinian wine, until the wind and waves drove me back to the shaded seating. The crew barbecued skewers of chicken, pork, and veggies for our lunch, accompanied by Mediterranean pasta, Greek salad, and stuffed wine leaves, with fruit for dessert. Wine and soda flowed from the time we set sail.
After the cruise, our bags were waiting for us at Ecoxenia Studios. Marianna gave us some dining and sunset-viewing tips, but first I settled into a hammock in the garden for an hour siesta while the others rested in the air-conditioned, two-story studio.
In Oia, we strolled the cobblestone walkways, checking restaurants for a bird's-eye view of the approaching sunset. We eventually realized that most of them faced the caldera to the east, and those facing west had obstructed views at best. So, we headed to the tip of the town, where turret-like ruins called the Castle provide a 360-degree view of the cliffside buildings and the sea.
Since the Castle is the most popular spot for sunset viewing and picture-taking, it gets crowded, with diehards staking their spots for hours. After using the vantage point for shots of the city, we headed down a less-traveled street toward the western edge of town, passing homes and a small hotel. When we came across a cluster of sunset watchers, we picked a spot and snapped away as the huge, white sphere sank toward the volcanic islands on the orange-tinged horizon, framed by a windmill and a simple whitewashed house beneath us.
Once the sun was gone, the Castle cleared out quickly, but we returned to capture what theplanetD.com bloggers call the "magnificent view of … Oia lit up at blue hour, showcasing the windmill." And we got an added bonus, as a full moon shined brightly over the blue domes and chalk-white buildings.
Naxos was the biggest surprise in a trip filled with unexpected delights. The largest island in the Cyclades served as a convenient midpoint for our ferry ride from Santorini to Mykonos, and it offered a more authentic taste of life in Greece than those touristy isles, yet with all the amenities. And, unlike Santorini, it has long, white, powdery beaches.
We were greeted by the Portara, a towering marble frame and the only remnant of the never-finished Temple of Apollo, dating to 538 B.C. It looks like a doorway to the Old Town and the Aegean, and we entered eagerly.
After our warm welcome at Hotel Grotta, we headed into Naxos Town to wander around the winding, narrow alleys of the Kastro, or Castle. The walled citadel, built by the Venetians, is packed with homes, shops, galleries, museums, and churches, including a Catholic cathedral dating to medieval times and a Capuchin monastery.
Peeking into an antiques shop, I spotted four ancient stone columns.
"They are more than 2,500 years old," said Chara, a salesperson at Antico Veneziano. "They came from the Acropolis" on the other side of the island. "When the Venetians came 800 years ago, they tore it down and used the stone to build the Kastro.
"Walking through the store, you will understand what life was like in Naxos 800 years ago."
We browsed the antique furniture, woodcarvings, handmade embroideries, glassware, and jewelry in the basement of owner Eleni Dellarocca's Venetian home, and Valerie picked out a uniquely designed bracelet.
"It was made only for my shop by a jeweler in Athens," Eleni assured us.
Back in Old Town, we perused the menus and talked to the hosts and owners of the restaurants lining the main street, scouting that night's dinner spot. They each tried valiantly to seat us at an outdoor table overlooking the marina, but they also wished us a good day as we moved on.
We crossed a narrow causeway – timing the crashing waves to avoid getting doused – to witness and photograph the best sunset of the trip. The Portara provided the perfect prop to frame or accentuate the bright-white orb ringed in yellow. It appeared larger and closer than in our previous encounters.
Famished, we chose Meze2, recommended by our Hotel Grotto hosts, for a seafood dinner. The owner, a bear of a man, somehow pecked our order on his iPhone with his meaty fingers. When I asked about the "fresh fish," he said, "I have some good local fish," mentioning a name I couldn't make out. "Don't worry – I'll take care of you."
For appetizers, we polished off a heaping pot of steamed mussels but finished only half a platter of "small calamari." The owner made good on his pledge – my dish of moist, white fish was bone-free, and the bite-size pieces melted in my mouth.
We all cleaned our plates, but when the owner spotted the uneaten calamari, he apologized profusely, blaming himself for not describing the dish properly – it was small calamari, not a small portion of the breaded squid.
We should have realized how seriously Meze2 takes its calamari, considering the fresh squid draped over a railing each day. In spite of our assurances that we were too full to eat another bite, he promptly produced a plate of four large rings of calamari without the breading, garnished with french fries. We ate most of the squid to repay him for his hospitality.
For hospitality, our hotel got an A+. The staff lavished us with food and drink, from the welcome snack to a carafe of Grandpa's wine and some of Grandma's pie after a day at the beach. The crowning touch was the sumptuous buffet breakfast served each morning. Grandma and her staff must have stayed up all night preparing and baking about two dozen hot and cold dishes, plus fruit, yogurt, cereals, sliced meats and cheeses, fresh bread, coffee, tea, and juices. There were several different Greek specialties each morning — and it all was included in our room rate.
Naxos' western shore is lined with long, sandy, "organized" beaches – meaning they offer sun beds, umbrellas, and food and drink at neighboring restaurants, bars, and hotels. For our only full day on the island, the birthday girl picked Plaka Beach, the longest and one of the most popular stretches of sand, and a short bus ride from Naxos Town.
We were warned that it might be too windy for swimming at Plaka – a favorite for windsurfing – and that we might be better off at a more-protected beach. But the spot we picked, across from the bus stop at Picasso's Mexican restaurant, had plenty of sun beds to choose from, and clear, blue water gently washing ashore.
Plaka's sand was like baby powder under my feet as I entered the water again and again for refreshing swims. And it was like my own personal adult-swim time – the 76-degree, slightly nippy water apparently was too cold for most of the sunbathers.
A beautiful beach; comfortable chaises; a good book; and free WiFi – what else could we ask for? How about a pitcher of Margaritas and a plate of churros with chocolate dipping sauce? No problem – our beach attendant happily brought them from Picasso's, which also provided bathrooms and a shaded patio. The late-afternoon snack was our only non-Greek food and drink of the trip.
Back at the hotel, it felt like home. We took drinks to the rooftop patio and watched another spectacular sunset. From this viewpoint, Apollo's Temple was but a speck in the seascape.
Dinner matched or surpassed anything we could have gotten in town, and afterward we played our favorite card game – interrupted by a dessert of chocolate mousse. Yia-Yia sure can cook.
Marios, the owner of our hotel in Mykonos, had our two-day stay all planned, with a map, slide show, and drinks awaiting us. Boy, was he surprised when our driver arrived with only our luggage.
Getting off the ferry at the New Port, we called an audible and got dropped off at the scenic, bustling Old Port instead of checking in first. Undaunted, Marios emailed detailed tips for exploring the labyrinth of lanes, plus a bus schedule to get to the hotel, but we never saw them – we were preoccupied photographing the old-fashioned windmills and browsing the shops.
The prices were the highest we'd seen – the same shirt I bought on Santorini cost $7 dollars more here – so we mostly window-shopped and people watched.
Once we made it to the hotel, Marios moved on to Plan B – beach hopping the next day, using the island's water taxis. Foiled again. We wanted to stay in one spot and make the most of our only full day of beach time, but we did take his recommendation of Ornos, one of the closest and most family-oriented beaches.
We also followed his directions to a nearby, remote point to watch the sun set. It was the only unobscured horizon of the trip – no islands in the distance. The golden ball seemed to sink into the sea.
Also for the first time all trip, we traded stories with fellow Americans – Pennsylvanians at that. A Penn State family was on the island for a destination wedding, and a young Philadelphia couple was touring the Mediterranean. The wife, an executive at Comcast, grew up in our Bucks County town of Newtown, 5,000 miles away. Small world.
Unlike the other islands, the organized beaches charge for use of the sunbeds and umbrellas, but they don't require you to buy their food and drinks.
A short, tanned, smiling, old man selling donuts – we named him Pappous – provided a cheap, tasty breakfast. He walked up and down the beach all day with his replenished tray, putting it down to rinse his hands or cool his feet in the water or give two little boys a free treat.
For our final hour on Mykonos, I swam in the crystal-clear waters of Agios Ioannis beach, down the hill from the hotel, while Valerie, Eric, and Rebecca lounged at the hotel pool.
Rejoining them, I slipped into the pool framed by the bright white stucco hotel and marveled at the idyllic setting – the pool's aquamarine-blue water stretching toward the deeper blue, tranquil Aegean, bordered by craggy hills; in the distance, the island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Greek gods Artemis and Apollo.
I had been skeptical about venturing to Greece for a beach vacation, but this scene and dozens like them — coupled with the friendly people, fabulous food, and leisurely island vibe — won me over.
Day 1: Arrive in Athens, stroll around Old City and its two main squares, Syntagma and Monastiraki.
Day 2: Sightseeing in Athens on your own (the Acropolis/Parthenon) and with Athens Free Tour guide, who will provide a relaxed combination of history, culture, and lifestyle of the capital city. Guides are residents but not certified; they work for tips.
Day 3: Fly or take ferry to Santorini (the earlier the better) to get a full day on the island. Lounge on the beach to rebound from a long day of sightseeing in Athens.
Day 4: Explore the island by rental car or bus. Since Fira is both the capital and the transportation hub, it's worth a visit. To see the sunset over the caldera while dining, make reservation a day in advance or early that day.
Day 5: Swim, snorkel, and sail the caldera on a catamaran cruise from Oia, the most-scenic spot on the island. There are daytime and sunset cruises. Either way, leave time to wander the narrow alleys for views and photos of the whitewashed buildings and blue-domed churches perched on the mountainside overlooking the Aegean. For the sunset, head to the western side of the city instead of views of the caldera.
Day 6: Take ferry to Naxos (about 2 1/2 hours). Explore the Old City and take a dip in the sea.
Day 7: Take a bus to one of the many beaches along the west coast; Plaka, Agia Prokopis, and Agia Anna are some of the most popular beaches and are closest to Naxos Town..
Day 8: Take ferry to Mykonos (about two hours), then a taxi or water taxi from the New Port to the Old Port to see the quaint, old windmills. Get lost in the winding lanes of shops and tavernas.
Day 9: Spend a day on one or several of the sandy beaches, which can be reached by water taxi.
Day 10: Take high-speed, 2 1/2-hour ferry ride back to Athens in time for last-minute souvenir shopping and a final Greek dinner before flying home the next morning.
ATHENS: Hotel Attalos
78-room hotel near Monastiraki Square and metro station. Clean, good-sized rooms; reasonable prices; air conditioning; free WiFi. Roof garden/bar provides excellent night view of Acropolis and Parthenon. Night clerk, Panos, very helpful. Breakfast not included. attaloshotel.com.
KAMARI, Santorini: Santellini Boutique Hotel
26-room hotel one block from the black beach and main strip of restaurants and shops. Two-story maisonette comfortable for four adults, economical at $200 per night. Pool; air conditioning; free WiFi. Includes hearty buffet breakfast of eggs, pancakes, meats, cheeses, yogurt, cereal, bread, and owner Marta's homemade preserves and marmalade. Arranged for transfer from airport. www.santellini.gr
OIA, Santorini: Ecoxenia Studios
Double, triple, and quadruple studios at quaint compound outside picturesque Oia, offering gorgeous views of the Aegean Sea and sunsets. A moneysaver for the four of us in one studio at $160. Emails are answered promptly by the owner, Christopher -- but it's really the manager, Marianna, providing valuable tips and help. www.ecoxenia.gr
NAXOS: Hotel Grotta
Boutique-style, family-run hotel is a short walk from the port, where the ferries dock; the historic Castle; and Naxos Town's restaurants, cafes, and shops. Perched on a hill overlooking the Aegean and Apollo's Tomb, its individual balconies and rooftop lounge are perfect for watching the sunsets. Bright, modern, air-conditioned rooms, about $160/night for two guests, including the home-cooked, buffet breakfast of Greek dishes and pastries that will fill you up for a day of sightseeing or beach time. www.hotelgrotta.gr
MYKONOS: Lithos by Spyros & Flora
Marios built this modern hotel in the Cycladic style and named it for his parents. He is available 24 hours a day and will help plan your visit; you can find him at the pool and bar late at night. Taxis are scarce, but buses stop in front of the hotel, and some restaurants offer free pickup and return rides. The largest of all our rooms on the trip, $130/night for two guests. Across the street from Agios Ioannis beach. http://lithos-mykonos.com
Ferries range from huge, car-transporting ships to sleek, fast catamarans, and they offer a range of travel times and fares. Our high-speed Sea Jets ferry made it from Mykonos to Athens (Piraeus) in less than half the time (2½ hours) than the traditional Blue Star ferry, for only $25 more per person.
Reservations can be made in advance, but only Hellenic Seaways provides e-tickets. The other lines require tickets to be picked up at their office at the port or in cities. Several agencies also sell tickets; I used viva.gr.
Ta Karamanlidika and Oinopoleion, both in the Psyrri district near Monastiraki Square, serve authentic Greek dishes at reasonable prices. At Oinopoleion, ask to be seated in the garden and request a complimentary glass of wine from the owners' winery.
Baraiktaris is the Pat's or Geno's for gyros on Souvlaki Row at Monastiraki Square. Portions are huge, prices are low, and our waiter kept providing free dishes that we couldn't do justice to. Outside tables provide great vantage point for life in Athens.
Almira is popular with the locals and tourists. Has tables along the beach and across the street that also have views of the Aegean. Fresh seafood and delicious lamb dishes.
Meze2 is one of the best seafood restaurants in Naxos Town. Steamed mussels melt in your mouth; calamari is as fresh as can be. Servers are constantly hustling, but dining is relaxed and spaced out.
Kostantis overlooks Ornos Beach and serves dishes ranging from fresh fish, souvlaki, and risotto to thin-crust pizza. The taverna provides free pick up and return and serves food and drink to the sun beds available for rent on the beach.
Athens Free Tour. Local residents combine history, culture, and lifestyle of the city in 2½- to three-hour walking tour of neighborhoods around the Acropolis. Guides work for tips. www.athens-free-tour.com