Mythical and magical

Heaven and Hellenic ... boats moored at Oia, Santorini.
Heaven and Hellenic ... boats moored at Oia, Santorini. Photo: Getty Images

Daniel Scott takes his under-fives and the grandparents island hopping by ferry in the sunny Cyclades of Greece.

On the third morning of our 10-day Greek island odyssey, I wake early.

Tiptoeing down the stairs of our villa at our Santorini hotel, I pass my sleeping daughters, Mila and Freya, aged 4 and 2, and slip onto the terrace, which overlooks the island's ocean-filled remains of Santorini's once-powerful volcano.

Family playtime in the Greek Islands.
Family playtime in the Greek Islands. Photo: Getty Images

Above me, the moon is still floating like a ping-pong ball in space and the cloudless sky is gradually filling with the deepest of blues. As the sun climbs, a veil of shadow retreats, revealing the volcanic contours of Santorini's satellite island, Therasia.

Soon the Aegean Sea begins to sparkle and on the cliffs the white Cycladic buildings of Santorini's capital, Fira, catch the light. On nearby balconies, clusters of pink and red geraniums begin basking in the sun.

Then a train of donkeys appears following the coastal path, a moustachioed old man riding side-saddle on the first, the peak of his flat blue cap pulled down over his eyes.

Sunset at Oia, Santorini.
Sunset at Oia, Santorini. Photo: Getty Images

If it weren't for the intrusion of a cruise ship sliding into the harbour, it could be a scene from any time in the past few centuries.

While the Greek economy is currently hurtling towards oblivion, on these mythical islands, life goes on. Over the millennia the Cyclades have had civilisations come and go. One thing remains constant: every summer morning the sun rises in a cloudless sky, shining down on these islands for more than 3000 hours a year.

 

Milos boat tour at Kleftiko.
Milos boat tour at Kleftiko. Photo: Daniel Scott

Family-friendly islands

It's five days now since we arrived in Athens, three generations of one Aussie family intent on escaping the winter. After soaking up the historical riches of the Greek capital, we plan on visiting the Cyclades islands using the extensive ferry network.

The Cyclades are the closest group of islands to Athens, 200 of them sprinkled like nuggets of volcanic rock over 8000 square kilometres of blue-green Aegean Sea. We will stay on two contrasting islands, glamorous Santorini and more traditional Milos, and take a day-trip to a third, Ios.

Although it is possible to fly to the islands from Athens in 40 minutes, taking ferries is, we decide, likely to be more relaxing, allowing us to avoid airport hassles and cramped planes and to stretch out and enjoy the scenery on the journey.

Relaxing by the pool in Thira, Santorini.
Relaxing by the pool in Thira, Santorini. Photo: Getty Images

Now, you might think that going island-hopping with your mother-in-law and her second husband is asking for trouble. But for the parents of two under-fives it turns out beautifully, with grandma and granddad always willing to keep the children amused.

So it goes on our bumpy 4½-hour Superjet ferry ride to Santorini, keeping everybody's minds off their queasiness. The slight seasickness is the price we pay for not taking the larger, slower ferry that takes eight hours to reach the island.

Travelling as a team, I'm already noticing another positive - the Greeks we meet show both strong respect for age and a genuine warmth for kids.

On our second morning on Santorini, these qualities are embodied in our young guide, Theo Popovides. As he shows us the island sights, including Minoan ruins and red and black volcanic beaches, he manages to charm three generations of women. So much so that grandma develops a twinkle in her eye, my partner asks him countless unnecessary questions and two-year-old Freya rarely lets go of his hand.

Wherever we go in the Cyclades, even on honeymoon island Santorini, the hospitality is faultless and the children's facilities are excellent.

At our family-friendly Santorini hotel, The Majestic, near Fira, there is a playground, an indoor playroom and three pools.

On Milos, we are warmly welcomed to the family-run Santa Maria Village and spread out in a two-bedroom suite beside the pool.

Another bonus for a travelling family is the islands' excellent value. Travelling by ferry is cheap for adults - just €56 ($69) for the 4½ hour passage from Piraeus to Santorini - and on some ferries under-fives travel free. Dining out, even on upmarket Santorini, rarely costs more than €70 for six people, for three courses including wine.

 

Eating out

We enjoy memorable food on all the islands, following just one rule for the kids: that they try island specialties before polishing off the simple spaghetti dishes and thick, hand-cut hot chips that are available for children in all eateries. Luckily they both love Greek staples such as olives and hummus, so they never go hungry.

On our first two nights in Santorini, we take grandstand ocean-view seats at Argo restaurant in Fira and feast on small plates of island specialties.

Among the dishes are croquettes made from Santorini's famously sweet baby tomatoes and a creamy mash made from its unique fava beans - so rich and unusually textured they have their own trademark, granted by the European Union. We drink a golden-yellow, full-bodied island wine named Assyrtiko.

During our Santorini tour we visit the Koutsoyannopoulos wine museum in Messaria to learn about the island's winemaking history, begun when French monks imported a press from Languedoc in 1660. The story is told in a series of tableaux, featuring original machinery and quirky mannequins, in underground cellars.

The tasting that follows includes vin santo, a velvety Santorinian sweet wine made from grapes that are sun-dried on the roofs of houses and aged in barrels for 10 years.

Our final lunch on Santorini, at the award-winning Selene restaurant in the hillside town of Pyrgos, is heavenly.

As we sit on the shaded terrace, chef Konstantine Faklari delivers dish after unforgettable dish, such as white-eggplant salad with octopus carpaccio, grilled chloro cheese wrapped in vine leaves, and dorado with wild greens and caper cream.

On Ios, at Magganari Cove, where parts of the movie The Big Blue were set, we have lunch at Antoni's beachside taverna, savouring chickpea balls, stuffed courgette flowers and chargrilled minnows.

On Milos, beside the port at Adamas, we eat grilled fish, hearty moussaka and stuffed aubergines at Flisvos restaurant, run by the same family for decades.

The next day, on a catamaran tour around the island, our captain, Nick Xenakis, dives into the emerald Aegean to spear fish and an octopus for lunch. Minutes after being caught, they are served, grilled to perfection with an accompanying Greek salad.

At night the girls always find room for treats such as Koufeto, a Turkish delight-like concoction made from sweet white pumpkin, honey and almonds.

 

A day trip into ancient history

The history of these islands is almost impossible to fathom.

As a family, we take it in using knowledgeable guides such as Theo, booked through the local tourist office, starting early in the day and travelling around in airconditioned vehicles. We also mix up the sightseeing with time on the beach and by taking regular breaks for food and cold drinks.

On Santorini the modern glitz stands alongside remnants of a thriving Bronze Age civilisation dating back 4000 years.

We are fortunate to visit shortly after the reopening (after recent earthquake damage) of the island's prehistoric Pompeii, the ruins of Akrotiri. This was an entire Minoan city, with well-planned streets and squares and three-storey houses, buried by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 1614BC. Artefacts, furniture and vivid frescoes found at Akrotiri and exhibited in two archaeological museums in Fira hint at an amazingly sophisticated society.

During our day trip to Ios we take in Skarkos, an older Cycladic settlement than Akrotiri, before continuing on to Plakotos. Here, on a rubbly cliff, is the grave of the revered ancient Greek poet Homer, author of The Odyssey.

On another rocky hillside, near Tripiti in Milos, we see the place where, in 1820, a peasant discovered the statue of the Venus de Milo, sculpted about 130BC.

Nearby, carved into volcanic rock overlooking the sea, are the world's second-oldest catacombs. Home to 20,000 people during Roman times, the tombs served as a sanctuary, place of worship and cemetery for persecuted Christians for nearly three centuries.

 

Idyllic sightseeing

Santorini was once known as Kallisti, or "the most beautiful", and remains the picture-perfect Greek island, thanks partly to its spectacular topography. It is the only inhabited caldera on earth, the remnants of a volcano's inner core left behind by violent eruptions, notably in 1614BC and AD1650. It shaped 16 kilometres of coloured cliffs along the island's shores, rising up to 300 metres.

Added to its natural splendour is a man-made wow factor: layers of white Cycladic houses clinging to cliffs, hotel infinity pools suspended above the Aegean, and the blue domes of Santorini's 250 churches, all gleaming under sapphire skies.

One evening we journey to Oia, a lovely village at the island's northernmost point, for a quintessential Santorini sunset. Making our way along cobbled alleyways, through squares where old men sit in animated conversation and past cave dwellings built into the caldera cliffs, we are captivated by the play of light and shadows.

On Milos a few days later, mum and dad are given a romantic leave pass for sunset drinks in the hilltop village of Plaka. We stroll through laneways festooned with bougainvillea to the terrace of the Utopia cafe, where we witness the sun sink fierily into the golden sea.

Like Santorini, Milos was created by seismic volcanic activity, leaving its coastline a jigsaw of striking geological formations.

The landscape at Sarakiniko on its north coast is the most unusual, with swathes of dazzling white magma rock scored by fiord-like inlets, sparkling with blue-green waters.

In places the volcanic tuffs are so rippled and whipped that it seems like walking through a giant vat of hardened meringue.

But our abiding image from the entire trip is from the catamaran tour around Milos. About halfway through, we stop at Kleftiko on the south coast, anchoring beside a huge white rock overhanging a natural arch.

Around the boat, the ocean is deep but diaphanous, with the seabed visible 20 metres below.

We jump in and for the next half-hour swim and snorkel in a sea as incandescent as a turquoise gemstone, exploring grottoes and echoing caves, and feeling thankful to have journeyed to these idyllic cycladic islands.

 

How to island-hop with children

  • Don't try to visit too many islands. Base yourself on just two and do day trips to others.
  • Avoid seasickness by taking larger, slower ferries. Journeys on faster catamarans can be choppy.
  • Some ferry companies, including aegeanspeedlines.gr and hellenicseaways .gr, carry under-fives free (50 per cent discount for fives to 10s). Others charge half price for children aged two to 10.
  • Plan activities for mornings and evenings, leaving the hottest part of the day to relax.
  • Make sure you book family-friendly hotels. On Santorini, some accommodation excludes children.
  • At restaurants, share a selection of small dishes (mezethes); even picky children are sure to like something.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Santorini has flights, including easyjet.com connections from London, from several European cities.

From Athens, olympicair.com flies to both Santorini and Milos, and Aegean Airlines flies to Santorini. Fares start about €102 ($126) in low season.

In summer, regular ferries depart Piraeus for the Cyclades, and inter-island services are frequent. travel.viva.gr/en/ferries/companies.

Most island hotels offer free transfers from ports with accommodation bookings.

Staying there

The luxury Majestic Hotel near Fira, Santorini, has family villas from $251 a night, including breakfast. hotel-majestic.gr/en.

Santa Maria Village, Adamas, Milos, has villas and suites set in extensive gardens. Executive suites start at €100 a night, including breakfast. santamaria-milos.gr/hotel.

Eating there

Argo restaurant, Fira, Santorini. argo-restaurant-santorini.com.
Selene restaurant, Pyrgos, Santorini. selene.gr
Antonis restaurant, Magganari Cove, Ios.
Flisvos restaurant, Adamas, Milos.

Touring there

Catamaran tours around Milos from €50 an adult (€30 child). chrysovalandou.gr.
Akrotiri Ruins, Santorini, open Tuesday-Sunday, 8.30am-3pm.
Milos Catacombs, open Tuesday-Sunday, 8.30am-1pm.

More information

visitgreece.gr, cyclades-tour.gr.

Daniel Scott travelled with assistance from visitgreece.gr; Cyclades Islands; municipalities of Santorini, Milos and Ios; The Majestic Hotel, Santorini; and Santa Maria Village, Milos.

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