"The Dodecanese" -- the very name suggests someplace exotic (in fact it is merely Greek for "Twelve Islands"), and these islands, if not exotic, certainly have been providing visitors for many, many centuries a range of extraordinary attractions and experiences.

Part of their appeal comes from the fact that the Dodecanese mostly hug the coast of Asia Minor, far from the Greek mainland. As frontier or borderline territories, their struggles to remain free and Greek have been intense and prolonged. Although they have been recognizably Greek for millennia, only in 1948 were the Dodecanese formally reunited with the Greek nation.

By the way, "the Twelve Islands" are in fact an archipelago of 32 islands: 14 inhabited and 18 uninhabited. But they have been known as the Dodecanese since 1908, when 12 of them joined forces to resist the revocation of the status they had long enjoyed under the Ottoman sultans.

The four islands selected for this chapter are certainly the most engaging of the Dodecanese. From south to north, they are Rhodes, Simi, Kos, and Patmos. Patmos and Simi are relatively arid in summer, while the interiors of Rhodes and Kos remain fertile and forested. Spectacular historical sights, such as ancient ruins and medieval fortresses, are concentrated on Patmos, Kos, and Rhodes; so are the tourists. Simi is the once-but-no-longer-secret getaway you will not soon forget.

Long accustomed to watching the seas for invaders, these islands now spend their time awaiting the tourists, who show up each spring and stay until October. The beginning of the tourist season sets into motion a pattern of activity largely contrived to attract and entertain outsiders. Such is the reality of island life today. As in the past, however, the islanders proudly retain their own character, even as they accommodate an onslaught of visitors.