It’s been 20 years since I spent six gloriously free weeks Greek island-hopping the summer before I went to university. Despite saving up for months beforehand, my friends and I were dealing with such a tight budget we always planned our longest ferry journeys overnight so we could sleep on board and avoid paying unnecessary accommodation costs. We’d wake up with the sunrise on the top deck in our sleeping bags, and discover all exposed skin coated in thick black soot from the relentless stream of smoke pumping out the chimney funnels. Irrelevant of how much retsina or metaxa we had knocked back the evening before, our eyes always appeared as invitingly white as the clusters of small low buildings hugging the rugged coastlines at dock after dock. I still want to see these sights, but today I am after a far more stylish and comfortable experience.
Back then, we started our epic, criss-crossing trip from Piraeus, the wildly busy port of Athens since ancient times. Now, most of the better-known islands such as Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, Kos and Kefalonia have their own airports. This makes getting there a piece of cake but means travellers often miss out on the joys of arriving at these mythical places by sea, in the manner of a modern-day Odysseus. Plus, those laid-back paradises that are smaller, less famous or less connected are now often disregarded in favour of a quicker, easier approach.
Tiny Patmos, one of the northernmost islands of the Dodecanese group, is one of these understated gems it would be a real shame to overlook merely because you can’t fly directly in and out. Since there is no airport, the best thing to do is fly to Kos and continue by mid-day catamaran at a duration of about one hour 40 minutes or conventional ferry at about three hours (four evenings weekly on Blue Star. It takes about seven hours from Piraeus, with up to five mid-afternoon ferries weekly, either with Hellenic Seaways or Blue Star, arriving at Skala, the port town of Patmos, between 11pm and midnight. If all this sounds far too slow and inconvenient then charter a helicopter in Kos and hop across the water in approximately 30 minutes for about €5,000 for a four-seater.
Old-fashioned and serene in the extreme, Skala is not the place to come for wild parties, glamorous people-watching or achingly fashionable cuisine in chic modern restaurants – and, as far as I’m concerned, all this forms a massive part of its charm. It is absolutely the place to come if you’re after a sense of having travelled back in time to a more basic, happier and less hectic era. The fresh, seasonal and organic food is incredible, the locals are laid-back and thrilled to welcome tourists and you will enjoy some of the best sleeps of your life.
Kos is very modern and busy in comparison to peaceful Patmos, but is a great place to bookend your journey
Also known as Apocalypse Island, Patmos is where Saint John the Theologian was exiled by the Romans for preaching about Christianity and where he wrote the ‘Book of Revelations’. This famously stars the terrifying four horsemen, foretelling the end of days when humanity would be punished for its sins, with such dramatic intensity that many of Saint John’s words were later transformed into Iron Maiden lyrics. To be frank, I can think of far worse places to be sent as a punishment than this seductively sleepy paean to spirituality and relaxation stuffed full of history and culture.
The holy cave where John did his writing and the stunning monastery in his name overlook windmills, white houses, large tracts of unspoilt Mediterranean landscape, the deep glorious blue of the Aegean and tranquil, lace-like beaches in every direction. Personally, I found every aspect of my visit a veritable treat, my only regret being I had to leave at all.
Now that I’m old and discerning and spoiled I want to experience the chilled, going-back-in-time vibes from a place of extreme comfort, luxury and style with correspondingly amazing service. Thank God, then, for Petra Hotel & Suites, which is part of the Small Luxury Hotel group. You know where you are with an SLH – they’re all different but united by the fact they offer the best locations, high quality service and a truly authentic way to experience the destination, and Petra is a prime example of these qualifying factors.
An 11-bedroom secluded boutique built into the hill above the sleepy fishing village of Grikos, Petra is owned and run by a family of natural hoteliers and a true idyll. Views of dreamy Grikos Bay – a seascape of translucent water and gently bobbing sail boats from everyone’s Greek island fantasies – are a constant presence. It’s visible from every balcony, a mirror to the blue mosaic tiled pool and provides the calming backdrop to every big, beautiful breakfast on the terrace. The mama-cooked food is screamingly authentic, but this mama has taken her cuisine to the next level. I defy you not to want to attach yourself to her apron strings and beg to be adopted after even the tiniest taste of the delights constantly coming out of her kitchen.
Whether you are focused on culture, food, weather or scenery, the Greek islands have it all
Kos is very modern and busy in comparison to peaceful Patmos, but is a great place to bookend your journey and there are tonnes of wonderful things to see and do which root you firmly in its ancient past. This is the home of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and the plane tree under which he sat and dispensed his philosophical wisdom is a must visit. There’s nothing more pleasing than sitting on the ancient stone bench underneath its branches and imagining all those who have sat here before you. The ruins of Paleo Pili and Asklepion are also extremely thought-provoking – let’s face it, post-education it’s always nice to learn some new things.
Aqua Blu on Lambi Beach is another Small Luxury Hotels property and definitely the place to stay on this island. Only three miles from the restaurants and bars of Kos Town, it’s a triumph of modern architecture, all clean lines, glass walls and trendy interiors stuffed full of Fornasetti pieces and splashes of vivid colour against a mostly monochrome background. Most of the spacious, contemporary rooms have sea views, and don’t leave without paying a visit to the sleek Tamaris spa in the basement which uses delicious Cinq Mondes products. The food and beverage offering is outstanding, with perfect service to match.
The hotel doesn’t accept guests under the age of 16, which, in my opinion, only confirms it as a superior relaxation space. If you can bear to tear yourself away from the stylishly zen atmosphere then do check out Broadway Restaurant in Kos. It’s a super casual place with an incredibly high-end and creative team in the kitchen, serving classic Greek dishes with a modern twist. Months later, I am still thinking about the deconstructed pork belly gyro.
Whether you are focused on culture, food, weather or scenery, the Greek islands really do have it all and these different but close islands are crowd-pleasing in the extreme. My advice is to book into both SLH properties and lap up all the different joys in one holiday.
Deluxe doubles at Petra Hotel & Suites start from €155 per night including breakfast. See slh.com/petra; a double sea view suite at Aqua Blu starts from €210 per night including breakfast. See slh.com/aquablu; Find out more about Greece at visitgreece.gr