Oia at Sunset, Santorini

Greek Island Hopping guide

If you like. The new film based on the songs of Abba may have the most risible storyline in Hollywood history, but the underlying proposition is robust enough: Greece's islands – great and small – provide the most romantic, alluring and serene settings in Europe.

This summer hasn't brought the best of news, from forest fires on Rhodes to the death of an Australian visitor to Mykonos, allegedly at the hands of a bouncer. Yet the long love affair between the British and the Greek islands has proved enduring. Many travellers are happy enough to fly out to one and remain there, with a flexible amount of exploring. Others try to tick off as many as they can, relying on the excellent network of ferries that connects even the smallest inhabited fragment of rock.

Arguably, the best course of action lies somewhere between – discovering the highlights of a group of islands.

This guide is highly prescriptive: it recommends three main groups of islands, and picks some of the best locations in each. For a comprehensive survey, read Greek Island Hopping (Thomas Cook, £14.99) by Frewin Poffley – the authority on travel on, and between, these rugged gems.

Where to start?

On the Greek mainland – at least, if you want merely to dip a toe in the water. The capital, Athens, is easy to reach from the UK. Its port, Piraeus, is the hub of much of the ferry system serving the Greek islands. You could easily combine a city break in the capital with a visit to a nearby island in the Saronic Gulf.

Just a handful of euros and a couple of hours by ferry from Piraeus (even less by hydrofoil), Aegina is an ideal first-time island. The local economy is based more on pistachio nuts than tourism, so visitors are not seen purely as a source of income.

You can sail to the diminutive capital, Aegina Town, which is colourful and pretty, with good, cheap restaurants and friendly bars. Cross the rolling hills in the centre of the island to take in one of Greece's greatest antiquities, the 2, 500-year-old Temple of Aphaia, standing magnificently on the summit of a windswept hill (0 32398; 8.30am-7.30pm daily from April to October; €4/£3.40). You can reach it on one of the regular buses from Aegina Town to the resort of Agia Marina, the Saronic Gulf's only attempt at mass-market tourism – and, if you're only staying the day, with ferries back to Piraeus.

More rewarding, though, is to continue down the "marine highway" on the ferries that run from Aegina to Spetses. Along the way, stop at Hydra, a dramatically beautiful island free from motor vehicles. The island that Leonard Cohen made his hideaway is almost too picturesque for its own good. The town is squeezed into a narrow ravine that doubles as a pretty harbour. The main moneyspinner is selling overpriced jewellery to day-trippers. Because it is easily accessible by hydrofoil from Piraeus, Hydra can get maddeningly crowded – with celebrities as well as ordinary people. An energetic walk is required to get away from the hordes and into the hills, though the scars of last summer's wildfires are still painfully visible.

The ideal way to enjoy Hydra is to stay over-night, experiencing the tranquillity when the day-trippers go home. Top choice for accommodation is the Hotel Miranda, set back from the port of Hydra Town. The hotel (0 52230; is almost two centuries old, the former mansion of a sea captain. A double room costs €130 (£106), including breakfast.

"Lonely in the extreme" is how John Fowles described the island at the end of the Saronic chain, Spetses. He taught at a school here in the 1950s and used it as the setting for The Magus. He recounts the excitement on learning that "another Englishmen had landed from the Athens steamer''.

Half a century on, this is not a rare event: the menus and motorbikes are for UK consumption. But despite the ravages of forest fires (in 1990 and 2001), the scent of pine still hangs over the island. The wonderful but hard-to-reach beaches on the south-west coast of the island, where the seduction in The Magus took place, are intact.

Source: www.independent.co.uk
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