Travelling is at its most enjoyable when there is a hint of exploration to it, an element of discovery, of visiting places that preserve their traditional character and approaching them in unusual ways. To some extent all Greek Islands offer this, but none more so than the beautiful and highly diverse Dodecanese islands in the southeast Aegean, which hug the Turkish coast. These islands encompass varied landscapes of immense beauty, unforgettable coastal scenery, picturesque settlements and a multitude of fascinating archaeological sites.
The Dodecanese are easily reached by daily boats and flights from Athens, and the largest islands in the Southern Dodecanese, Rhodes and Kos, are also served by charter flights from Northwest Europe during the summer season.
Pleasant as it is to spend a week or so basking in the sun and sea of a single island, there are more interesting ways to enjoy this part of the world. Strung out between Rhodes and Kos are a series of more rarely visited small islands, each with its own distinctive character, each scattered with historical and archaeological monuments, and each of them uniquely beautiful.
Traditionally, enterprising travellers have explored this intimate marine world through “island-hopping”, literally jumping from one Greek island to the other, sometimes following a fixed itinerary, sometimes being entirely spontaneous. But, for those who want to visit the islands in style, without having to worry about tickets and schedules, and without having to put up with the limited charms of ferry terminals, shoe-box shaped vessels and a mass transit atmosphere, there is a wonderful alternative.
For a number of years, it has been possible to cruise the Dodecanese on Turkish gulets, an Aegean variation of the schooner, a hand-built wooden double-masted sailing boat. These graceful vessels come equipped with all necessary conveniences, and can accommodate anything from 2 to 24 people. There is surely no more enjoyable way to travel the Aegean and visit the Greek Islands: imagine lying back on the cushioned rear deck, listening to the sound of creaking wood and flapping sails; anchoring on a whim in untouched coves for a quick swim or a brief bit of solo-exploration by kayak, before enjoying a delicious meal prepared by the on-board chef from the freshest ingredients.
The best itinerary through the Southern Dodecanese would begin in the ancient harbour town of Kos, overlooked by an imposing medieval castle. Here, you can explore the highly attractive city, which was entirely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1930 by the Italians (who were then in control of the islands). They chose an unusual expressionist style, a mix of Greek and Italian building traditions. The town is interspersed with a whole array of archaeological parks, revealing the large Roman town beneath, more of which can be discovered in a fine museum of ancient sculpture and in the spectacular Casa Romana, a reconstructed Roman town house. One place that shouldn’t be missed is the famous Asklepieion of Kos, one of the most renowned healing sanctuaries of antiquity, located on a tranquil wooded hillside overlooking the town, sea and adjacent Turkish coast.
From Kos it is a short sail to nearby Nisyros, a tiny island that has been left untouched by modern mass tourism. Boats moor near the labyrinthine island town, Mandraki. Coming from busy Kos, Nisyros is a revelation: a forgotten world of trees and rocks and whitewashed houses rising from the intensely blue Aegean. An excursion to the island’s centre reveals its fascinating origins: the ancients thought that Nisyros was formed during a clash between gods and titans, when Poseidon, god of the sea, threw a rock at his assailants, trapping them underneath but not killing them. Their moans and rumbles could be heard ever after. This picturesque story reflects the fact that Nisyros is actually a semi-dormant volcano. At Stefani, visitors can walk inside one of craters, now a bizarre lunar landscape of heat and steam, overlooked by the sleepy but beautiful village of Nikia, perched on the caldera’s rim.
From here, the next Greek island that beckons across the blue sea is Tilos, one of the smallest and least inhabited islands in the group. Tilos is a surprisingly fertile island, surrounded by a string of untouched beaches. Its main village, Megalo Chorio, offers a surprise: a small museum devoted to a breed of pigmy elephant that roamed the island 10,000 years ago.
The next crossing takes you to Halki. Its harbour town, Emborio, is an astonishing sight: a jumble of neat, white 19th-century houses with fine Neoclassical façades, set along a wide bay with incredibly stark limestone mountains towering behind. The nearest peak is crowned with an impressive medieval castle built by the Knights of Rhodes, and its flanks are covered with the stark ruins of a ghost town: the old capital of the island which was abandoned when the inhabitants decided that it was better to live close by the sea.
A long sail with the prevailing wind takes you to the island of Symi. If you thought that Emborio was impressive, Yialos, the harbour of Symi, is an absolute marvel to behold. Row after row of lovely traditional houses, each painted in slightly different pastel tones, rise above and around the narrow fjord-like bay. An excursion to the upper town, Chorio takes you back in time – its winding streets and innumerable houses packed in close together perfectly preserve the character of a 19th century village community.
The final sea crossing marks a return to a busier world: the harbour town of Rhodes. Rhodes was already the major centre of the region in antiquity, famous for its Colossus, now lost, which stood not too far from the harbour where the gulets moor. Rhodes has many attractions, foremost of which is its bustling medieval old-town, dominated by buildings created during the 14th and 15th century by the Knights of Rhodes, who also surrounded it with the impressive fortifications that can still be seen today. Overlooked by its ancient acropolis, crowned with the ruins of a small theatre and several temples, Rhodes is visibly the result of millennia of dynamism.
If you have any time left after you have disembarked from your gulet, you could continue your explorations of these culturally rich Greek islands. There’s always more to see!
If you’d like to find out more see the page about our Dodecanese cruise.