By William Wolf

RETURN TO THE GREEK ISLES  Send This Review to a Friend

Once smitten by the charm of the Greek islands, a traveler can have an inevitable desire to return to the familiar ones as well as to explore those not yet visited. I 'm luckier than most. I have a daughter who lives in Athens, and she and her husband recently built a house on Tinos, the attractive Cyclades island renowned for its special church and the thousands who make a pilgrimage to it much as people go to Lourdes in France. On my recent trip to Greece, accompanied by Lillian Kramer Wolf, my wife, I headed for Tinos, where I had been many years ago, then revisited nearby Mykonos and Delos and paid my first visit to Syros. This was Lillian's first trip to all four island destinations.

The island combination was irresistible, and although much has changed over the years, nothing has happened to spoil these wondrous places. In fact, it is now easier than ever to get to the islands, thanks to the faster, more frequently available transportation. For those going for the first time, organized cruises may be preferable, but those already familiar with the Greek islands will find they can have more freedom to explore by mapping their own itineraries and booking trips on the scheduled boats that ply the Aegean.

For air travel to Athens, this time my wife and I flew with Virgin Atlantic, which offered the best fare and schedule in accordance with our particular timeframe and needs. We flew to Heathrow airport for our first stop, London, where we wanted to stay for a few weeks, and when continuing on to Greece, we left from Gatwick, which involved a slightly higher cab fare, but facilitated the best departure time for us. On our return from Athens, we went through Gatwick, where we changed directly for New York, via arrival in Newark, N.J., which has an inviting international arrivals set-up and is even more convenient to our West Side of Manhattan apartment than Kennedy airport. We not only found Virgin Atlantic comfortable with congenial flight crews--we've flown Virgin before--but very well organized despite the heavy business it enjoys. In choosing an airline, each situation can be different, depending on which company matches the particular needs of a specific trip.

We were traveling in August, and Athens was enduring a heat wave beyond the usual hot summer weather, so it was a relief to quickly head for Tinos. One can opt for a more leisurely boat trip, but we chose to take an express boat, which makes the trip in about an hour and a half. The catamaran zipped along--one cannot stand on a deck outside--and the large cabin divided into two sections was air-conditioned. The sea was calm that afternoon, although seasoned travelers in Greece know that you can run into high winds during August--the meltemi, as the windstorms are known.

This time there was a new street leading up the hill to the Church of Our Lady, a wider street than the one on which I had walked during my first trip to Tinos. It was lined with souvenir shops and other boutiques, and there was the customary sight of worshippers on their religious pilgrimage struggling up the road on their knees, which were bound in rags in order to make the journey less painful. A throng was gathered on the steps of the church waiting in line, and as it was a hot day, many held open umbrellas to shield them from the sun. Once inside it was possible to see the icon of the Virgin Mary that draws the faithful as well as the curious, especially on August 15, the feast day, when Tinos is invaded by an army of the devout from throughout Greece.

The port of Tinos itself is dotted with shops, travel agents and cafes. There are various beaches to explore on the island, reachable by car or taxi and there are always informal places for lunch at reasonable prices. We visited friends staying at the Tinos Beach Hotel, which has a large swimming pool. In the evening, one can choose from the numerous restaurants along the port or in the back streets nearby and order typical Greek specialties. There is also a choice of hotels along the port for those who want to be in the center of the island activity.

My wife and I next set our sights on Mykonos, not without some trepidation in view of its heightened popularity over the years. True, we found it very built up and busy, but the look of the island has been preserved with all its blue and white charm and no towering buildings to spoil the effect. The island has become a labyrinth of winding side streets dotted with boutiques selling everything from local souvenirs to chic, international brand items. At night the streets become very crowded, with discotheques blaring their dance music, but watching the passing scene is part of the fun.

It is possible to stay right along the port, and for luxury one can choose the expensive, elaborate Hotel Leto. But on a tip, we opted for the Hotel Rochari, which is perched high with a wonderful view of the island, depending on what room one can snare, and at least the great view from the terrace, where food and drink are served. It is a 10-minute stroll down to the port, although walking back is a bit more taxing. The hotel pool is welcome after a day of sightseeing. Mykonos has many beaches reachable by taxi or bus, such as Agios Stefanos. There are, of course, the island's famous windmills.

No visit to the area would be complete without an excursion to the island of Delos, which, according to myth was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The ancient ruins are fascinating, especially the famous sculpted lions of Delos, and it is awesome to stand amidst the remains of a civilization that goes back more than three thousand years. Boats make the run from Mykonos to Delos and return to ferry passengers back. It can be very hot in summer, but there is a snack and souvenir area where one can grab some shade. The most incongruous sight encountered was a tourist in the midst of the ruins walking along and talking on a cell phone.

Back for our continued stay in Mykonos, we sampled various restaurants, and one which we liked particularly after a recommendation from a friend was the Edem, which is tucked away in one of the side streets. For a meal at the port we enjoyed the busy Baboulas, also one of the better eateries on the island.

Next we ventured by boat to Syros, which is very different because of its strong Italian influence resulting from the immigration that had taken place. After arriving at Ermoupoli, the main city and port, we stayed at the charming Vourlis Hotel, with rooms furnished in a style of old-fashioned elegance. Breakfast in the morning was served communally at a large table in a handsome dining room. It was a short walk into the center of town, where we strolled in the expansive Miaouli Square, the town center, and surveyed the buildings that reflected Italian more than Greek architecture.

Wandering about, we discovered the Apollo Municipal Theater, with part of its ceiling containing paintings of prominent persons. The Apollo's architecture is modeled after the La Scala opera house in Milan, but in a mini replica. There was not a play scheduled at the time, but we could nevertheless enter and look around. The churches, the harbor front, the restaurants, and Miaouli Square all contributed to the opportunity for exploration and enjoying the ambience of yet another and very different Greek isle.

My past visits to the Greek isles have included Paros, Antiparos, Santorini, Hydra, Crete and Rhodes, all part of a tantalizing area of the world. For more information contact the Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. Phone: 212-421-5777. Web address: www.gnto.gr . Special web address for the Cyclades: www.cycladesislands.gr .

  

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