advertisement

Ask a Greek what his country's greatest natural wonder is and he often simply replies "Greece itself." What he really means is that what is most unique about Greece is simultaneously what is most common in Greece: the stunning combination of the mountains and the sea.

That said, if I were asked to name some individual sights not to miss, here's my short list: First, the isles of Greece. There are few things more wonderful than sitting on an island boat, slipping between the seemingly endless chain of marble and limestone mountained Greek islands, almost each one with an absurdly picturesque little harbor. You've got lots of islands to chose from, with the best known forming the Cyclades, Saronic Gulf, Sporades, Ionian, Dodekanese and Northeastern Aegean islands. And, of course, there's Crete, so large that the Greeks call it "the Great Island," and the Cretans think of it as a land unto itself.

At the risk of offending many Greek islanders, I'll just mention one "don't miss" island experience: Ask anyone who has sailed at dawn into the deep harbor of Santorini what it was like. Most will be at a loss for words. Go there, and you'll see why, as you bend over nearly backwards to see to the top of the red and black lava cliffs that were created when a volcano blasted the center out of the island about 1500 B.C. Second, leaving the islands for the mainland, try to see the bizarre rock formations of the Meteora in Central Greece, that rise hundreds of feet out of the flat plain of Thessaly. Look up at the strange, twisted rocks and what do you see on top? Monasteries, built centuries ago on what appear to be totally inaccessible perches. Third, go to Olympia, set in its magical pine-clad valley and to Delphi, perched high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. Then try to decide which is the most beautiful ancient site in Greece.

Wherever you go in Greece, you'll be constantly reminded that this is a land of mountains and sea. Over a fifth of the Greek landmass is islands, numbering thousands if you count every floating crag -- and nowhere in Greece will you find yourself more than 96km (60 miles) from the sea. It should come as no surprise, then, that the sea has shaped the Greek imagination, as well as its history.

So, too, have the mountains. The Pindos range stretches from the Balkans deep into Greece, where the Parnon and Taygetus ranges continue south to the tip of the Peloponnese. Greece's highest peak is Mount Olympus, the seat of the gods, nearly 3,000m (10,000 ft.) above sea level. Eighty percent of the Greek mainland is mountainous, as you will discover whether you make your way on foot or on wheels. And because of all those mountains, and all those twisting mountain roads, you will almost certainly make your way much more slowly in Greece than you anticipated. In short, Greece is the perfect place to make haste slowly.

Greece is a southern extension of the Balkan mountain range, albeit one with some 8,500km (5,280 miles) of serrated, irregular mainland coastline, and 7,500km (4,660 miles) of island coastlines. No place in Greece is more than 100km (62 miles) from the sea. In addition to the variety of landscapes within a few miles almost anywhere in Greece, there are some real regional differences. In the north, the mountains of Macedonia and Epirus are close cousins to the Alps, the rivers are broad and deep, and the forests are home to the last brown bears and most of the wild boars in Greece.

With the possible exception of the flat, often dusty, plains of Thrace and Thessaly, there is no part of Greece where you can drive very long without seeing something that takes your breath away. Even Thrace and Thessaly have the cliffs of the Meteora and vast stretches of wetlands that make Greece a birder's paradise. As for Attica, Athens has almost devoured the gentle plain that once produced the grapes for almost all of Greece's pungent retsina wine. The mountains that flank Athens -- Hymettos, Parnes, and Pentelicon -- seldom turn the violet hues that the ancient poets described. In fact, the ring of mountains is now often blamed for trapping Athens's nasty summer nefos (smog) within the city. Many days, the Acropolis of Pindar's "violet-crowned Athens" is barely visible through the beige smog. It's often a relief to leave Athens behind and head, for example, to mountain villages such as Delphi and Arachova, on the Parnassos range. It has to be admitted that the ski industry is busily covering much of Parnassos with chalets, ski lifts, and boutique hotels. Still, the sweeping views down from Parnassos to the Gulf of Corinth and the Peloponnese remain virtually unchanged.

I have to admit to being prejudiced in favor of the beauties of the Peloponnese, which really does have it all: the Parnon and Tayegetus mountain ranges, the lush valleys of Arcadia, crescent sand beaches tucked below seaside cliffs, and a tantalizing sprinkle of off-shore islands.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.