Vathi (aka Samos town), on the northeast coast, and Karlovasi, to the northwest, are the two principal ports of Samos and the island's largest towns. Neither is particularly exciting, and we recommend both as bases rather than as destinations in themselves.
Vathi becomes a slightly overextended resort town in high season but is beautifully situated in a fine natural harbor. An extensive development project in Pithagora Square and along the paralia (beachfront road) allows visitors to walk on a pedestrian pathway along the water and take in open-air concerts at the bandstand. The old town, Ano Vathi, rises to the hilltops in steep, narrow streets that hide a few tavernas and cafes.
Karlovasi is even less interesting as a town. Although it's adjacent to several of the best beaches on the island, it's spread out and offers fewer amenities than Vathi, although nearby is the recently opened, luxurious Marnei Mare "retreat" (www.marneimare.gr) -- three villas set in a natural and secluded estate. Most tourist facilities are clustered along the water at the west end of town, forming a tiny beach resort with several hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and souvenir shops. The old town hovers above the lower town on the slopes of a near-vertical pillar of rock; the lovely small chapel of Ayia Triada is at the rock's summit.
The north coast of the island is wild and steep, with mountains rising abruptly from the water's edge. One of the most interesting areas to explore is the Platanakia region, known for its rushing streams, lush valleys, and picturesque mountain villages. A sequence of excellent beaches between Kokkari and Karlovasi includes the two finest beaches on the island, Micro Seitani and Megalo Seitani; you can reach them via a short boat ride or a somewhat long hike to the west of Karlovasi.