When most people think of the isles of Greece, they're usually thinking of the Cyclades. This rugged, often barren, chain of islands in the Aegean Sea has villages with dazzling white houses that, from a distance, look like so many sugar cubes. The Cyclades got their name from the ancient Greek word meaning "to circle," or "surround," because the islands encircle Delos, the birthplace of the god Apollo.
Today, especially in the summer, it's the visitors who circle these islands, taking advantage of the swift boats and hydrofoils that link them. The visitors come to see the white villages, the blue-domed chapels, and the fiery sunsets over the cobalt blue sea. They also come to relax in chic boutique hotels, eat in varied and inventive restaurants, and to enjoy an ouzo -- or a chocolate martini -- in some of the best bars and cafes in Greece. When you visit the Cyclades, chances are that one island will turn out to be your favorite. Here are some of our favorites for you to shortlist when you set out to explore the islands that lie in what Homer called the "wine dark sea."
Unlike many of the Cyclades, where you can easily hear more English, French, and German spoken in summer than Greek, almost everyone who comes to Tinos is Greek. The island is often nicknamed the "Lourdes of Greece" because its famous church of the Panagia Evangelistria is Greece's most important pilgrimage destination. Don't even think of coming here on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (Aug 15) without a reservation unless you enjoy sleeping alfresco -- with lots of company. Tinos is also famous for its villages ornamented with the ornate marble doors and carved window fanlights. Tinos also has intricate dovecotes that, from afar, can be mistaken for miniature villages perched on hills and hidden in valleys.
The "beautiful people" discovered Mykonos back in the 1950s and 1960s, drawn by its perfect Cycladic architecture -- and, in those days, cheap prices. Today, despite seriously high prices, travelers still come to see the famous windmills and sugar-cube houses. Now, they also come for the boutique hotels, the all-night cafe life, and some serious shopping. In short, Mykonos -- along with Santorini -- is one of the Cyclades that just about everyone wants to see. If you come here in August, you'll think that just about everyone has arrived with you, and finding a hotel, or even a place at one of the chic, nouvelle-Greek-cuisine restaurants, will not be easy.
That's one reason some prefer Paros, which has something of a reputation as the poor man's Mykonos, with excellent windsurfing and restaurants and nightspots less pricey and crowded than those on its neighbor. Paros also has one preposterously picturesque seaside village -- Naoussa -- and the scenic inland village -- Lefkes.
The largest and most fertile of the Cyclades, Naxos somehow has yet to attract hordes of summer visitors. You know what that means: Go there soon! The hills -- sometimes green well into June -- are dotted both with dovecotes and a profusion of endearing Byzantine chapels. The main town is crowned by a splendid kastro (castle) and a number of stately houses that the Venetians built between the 12th and 16th centuries; some of the houses are still lived in by the descendants of those very Venetians. Furthermore, although Naxos is a rich enough island that it does not have to woo tourists, there are some good small hotels and restaurants here.
Santorini (Thira) is famous from 1,000 travel posters, showing its black-lava pebble-and-sand beaches and sheer blood-red cliffs. Only a crescent-shaped sliver remains of the once-sizeable island that was blown apart in antiquity by the volcano that still steams and hisses. The first serious tourist invasion here began in the 1970s, as word got out about Santorini's deep harbor, framed by its sheer cliffs and its odd villages, cut out of the lava. The first travelers were willing to put up with the most modest of accommodations in local homes. (On my first visit, I was installed in a bed from which the owner's grandmother had just been ejected!) Today, Santorini gives Mykonos a serious run for the money as Boutique Hotel Central, with some of the best food in all Greece. Santorini also has one of the most impressive ancient sites: ancient Akrotiri, where you can walk down streets some 3,500 years old.
Folegandros is the perfect counterbalance to Santorini. As yet, this little island is not overwhelmed with visitors, but the helipad suggests that this generation's beautiful people have discovered this still-tranquil spot. Folegandros's capital -- many say it's the most beautiful in the Cyclades -- is largely built into the walls of a medieval kastro. Just outside the kastro is another reason to come here: the elegant cliff-side Anemomilos Apartments Hotel.
Sifnos, long popular with Athenians, is increasingly drawing other summer visitors to its whitewashed villages, which many consider to have the finest architecture in the Cyclades. In the spring, this is one of the greenest and most fertile of the islands. In summer, it's a place for the young at heart: In the capital, Apollonia, it's easier to count the buildings that have not (yet) been converted into shops, restaurants, and discos than those that have been.
Siros, on the other hand, is as "undiscovered" as a large Cycladic island can be. Its distinguished capital, Ermoupolis, has a number of handsome neoclassical 19th-century buildings, including the Cyclades's only opera house, modeled on Milan's La Scala. Ano Siros, the district on the heights above the port, has sugar-cube Cycladic houses and both Catholic and Orthodox monasteries. Like Tinos and Naxos, Siros welcomes, but does not depend on, foreign tourists.
If you wanted to describe the Cyclades in their entirety, you could do worse than to string together well-deserved superlatives: Wonderful! Magical! Spectacular! The sea and sky really are bluer here than elsewhere, the islands on the horizon always tantalizing. In short, the Cyclades are very "more-ish" -- once you've visited one, you'll want to see another, and then another, and then, yes, yet another.
Tip: You can access a useful website for each of the Cyclades by typing www.greeka.com/cyclades into your Web browser, followed by the name of the island -- for example, www.greeka.com/cyclades/santorini; www.openseas.gr is a useful site for ferry schedules as is www.gtp.gr.