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And he used to be such a nice, quiet boy

Welcome to the Greek Islands

with 3 comments

Greek flag

It has been eleven years now since I went backpacking around the Greek islands as a young man, but it is a time that has stayed with me ever since.

I had seen the map of the islands and it seemed rather daunting, the place was endless little brown dots of land in an azure blue sea. Surely I could not see all of them.

Declan McCulloch photography

Declan McCulloch photography

So, starting from Athens, I chose a fairly central route through the Cyclades chain, which were meant to be very scenic. I would terminate my journey in Crete and work in the town of Malia for the summer.

I landed in Athens very early one morning in May 1998, and took a taxi into town. Athens at night did not impress, and by day it was little better. The city was dirty and squalid, full of beggers and street vendors. I looked around a few shops and got hopelessly lost. In the end I found my hotel and resolved to move on with my trip to the islands the very next day.

Piraeus.  I ran counter clockwise half way round in five minutes!

Piraeus. I ran counter clockwise half way round in five minutes!

I bought a ticket for a ferry the next day in a small kiosk in one of the squares. Then I caught the subway to the port of Piraeus, about three miles away. Piraeus harbour is huge, loud, busy, packed, cluttered and impossibly exciting. I looked around for my boat but could not see it anywhere. Eventually one of the officials pointed out this white speck on the very far side of the harbour, and I had three minutes to catch it. I ran like I never have before or since, with a full and heavy pack on my back. I made it with seconds to spare, they were literally closing the door.

Courtesy of Hicker photography

Courtesy of Hicker photography

I stood on deck in the sunshine and the cool breeze and watched the rugged rocks go by. We saw super yachts belonging to the world’s rich, and fishing boats that have worked the sea for generations. A wonderfully relaxing journey.

Naxos island

Naxos island

My first port of call was the island of Naxos, a fairly central island of the chain. Now this was the picture postcard Greece that I had come to see. The houses were all smooth whitewashed buildings, with exotic flowers growing in their gardens.

Naxos by night.

Naxos by night.

Small shops sold everything a tourist would ever want. The harbour side had endless small restaurants, cafes and small shops. It’s alleyways were narrow and rambling, designed to confuse pirates. They had the same affect on me.

Mykonos harbour

Mykonos harbour

After a few days in Naxos, touring by bike I decided to move on. I next chose to go north to the Island where Shirley Valentine was filmed, Mykonos. Mykonos was even more beautiful than Naxos. It had been settled by the Venetians back in the fifteenth century and they had definitely left their mark.

The Venetian quarter.  Canals not included

The Venetian quarter. Canals not included

They built restaurants right on the sea front, with tall overhanging buildings. The place was home to a stork that seemed very used to tourists, it posed very vainly for photographs.

I walked the bottom left hand corner of the island under a hot sun

I walked the bottom left hand corner of the island under a hot sun

I made the mistake of following a sign that said ‘to the beach’, thinking it was right around the corner. So I got my towel and set off for a stroll down the road. Ten minutes I arrived at another sign that said ‘to the beach’ and thought I must be nearly there by now. Ten minutes later I saw another sign, and another ten minutes after that. What was going on? I was hot, sore and knackered, and where was this sodding beach?

Eventually, fifty long, hot minutes later I arrived at the beach and saw on their map board that I had just covered a quarter of the island. I resolved to catch the bus back.

Mykonos, bums!

Paradise beach is a lovely place. Now it comes in four sections. 1, straight with clothes. 2. Straight, nudist.. 3. Gay, with clothes. 4, Gay Nudist. Now I saw the sign too late of course, and not before I had to rapidly backtrack from two naked german lads walking hand in hand into the sunset. Sorry lads, I will read the sign next time.

And on that note I made a sharp exit..

And on that note I made a sharp exit..

I forgot to mention Mykanos was gay. And I mean G-A-Y. Normally things like this don’t bother me too much, but this was all a bit in your face. I knew it was famous for having a gay scene, but the guidebooks tend to exaggerate things. Don’t they? Well the gay scene turned out to be about 99% of the island so I decided it was time to take my leave. And a café owner told me he knew just the place for me.

Ios town

Ios town

Ios was a small island two islands down famous for it’s young vibrant (and thankfully straight) scene. It was home to backpackers from all over the world, put particularly from Ireland, Sweden and Australia. Naturally if you get those three nationalities involved a party is bound to ensue. And boy, did it. I met some great people, some amazing women and had the time of my life.

Ios is young, lively and likes to party!

Ios is young, lively and likes to party!

The beaches were long and white, the bars lively and even the food was fantastic. I found a little guest house located just behind a pub to stay and very seriously considered staying there a while longer. Eventually I did leave because there was one more place I wanted to go before I started work for the summer.


Santorini is the last Greek island before you get to Crete, and it has a geology and a landscape that is unique among the Greek islands. It was formed from a volcano that erupted underwater, sending tsunami waves that wreaked havoc on the Minoan civilizations on Crete. But the lava eventually cooled to form two islands in a ying-yang shape.

The island is a dormant volcano

The island is a dormant volcano

I caught a taxi from the port at the foot of a cliff to Perissa beach which was a small resort at the tail of the yang end (i.e. the southern tip). The cliffs were sculpted from red rock and the sand was pure black, and blimey, it was hot. It would scold your feet if you stood on it for a second.

Perissa Beach, on the yang 'tail' of Santorini

Perissa Beach, on the yang 'tail' of Santorini

One night I stood up on the high cliffs and watched the sun set over the islands. It was the most beautiful, romantic moment.

Heraklion harbour

Heraklion harbour

Finally I journeyed down to Crete where I hoped to work for the summer. I spent a day in Heraklion, which was another dirty squalid city, and had a look around the ruins of Knossos.

The ancient palace of Knossos.  Home of King Minos and his Minotaur

The ancient palace of Knossos. Home of King Minos and his Minotaur

This was a waste of time, the place looked like a building site. I caught the bus to a town down the coast called Malia, where I was sure I would find work.

Malia, twinned with Benidorm

Malia, twinned with Benedorm

Malia is like Blackpool without the tower, Benidorm for the young. Party H.Q. I worked out there for four months in various jobs, bars, restaurants, clubs, having lots of fun and not caring what tomorrow may bring.

One of my notable jobs was a barman for the Malibu club on the main strip. This place was loud, brash, sexy, stupid, excited, ridiculous and completely insane. I fitted right in.


Anyone got a light?

Anyone got a light?

Anyway that was eleven years ago and we are going back to Malia in a few weeks to see what has changed. It has had a bit of a bad reputation in recent years, usually by the people we go on holiday to get away from. Conservatives, temperates and heath and safety killjoys. If you are young and want a good time, go to Malia, you will not be dissappointed.

To visit Greece fly Olympic

If you visit Athens have a good look around, but be careful, as muggers abound.

For all the info on Naxos check out

If you need the low down on Mykonos go to

For the sauce on Ios have a gander at

To see the gorgeous island of Santorini go to and gaze lovingly.

For hotel details on Heraklion check out

Finally to glimpse into the madness of Malia go to


Written by Nick Gilmartin

June 3, 2009 at 4:42 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Nice blog entry and good choice of pictures. But you don’t have to be young to pack pack. I started in 2006 when I was 51 and this year will be my fourth time. Last year I went to Anti-Paros, Amorgos, Ios, Folegandros, Milos and Sifnos – all wonderful exciting places.


    June 23, 2009 at 5:01 am

  2. Love the pictures and absolutely agree that Malia should twin with Benidorm – not the place for me! This summer I went off to Andros, Mykonos, Syros, Naxos & Santorini. It was faboulous. For the older person travelling around the Greek islands, I recommend


    November 12, 2009 at 12:03 pm

  3. Great Blog! Awaiting your written impressions of Dubrovnik. It’s a dream!!!!


    May 4, 2011 at 8:50 pm

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