GREEK ISLAND DREAMING


The blue colour of the sea, shaded tavernas on the village square, little boats bopping in the harbour, white-washed houses, cats everywhere, the sound of cicadas... Who hasn't dreamt of whiling away a few days in a place where time doesn't rush, where we can just sit and watch the sea and the old ladies dressed in black, enjoy swims in the crystal clear water and seafood dinners on the beach. With 200 inhabited islands to choose from it should be possible for everybody to find a favourite or two. After visiting some of the better known Cycladic islands we spent our last week on Astypalea, in the Dodecanese, and that's now our pick!

On many islands the main town is called Chora (town) and the Chora on Astypalea is one of the prettiest! A magnificent Venetian castle sits atop of the hill from where little white houses trickle down the slopes to a small harbour. As if on a board of snakes and ladders a number of steep and stepped paths link the upper and lower parts of town. It was such a nice setting we took pleasure in the climb each time, even if our legs occasionally grumbled. There are some lovely restaurants down by the harbour and at night the upper town comes alive with more restaurants in a small square overlooked by a row of traditional windmills. We counted a handful of boutiques but definitely no designer stores. You'll have to save your shopping and late-night partying for somewhere else but you'll still find a good cocktail in the cute bar buried in the laneways below the castle or around the square.

The Greek islands offer an enticing mix of history, natural beauty and Mediterranean flavours and we really connected with the tranquil feeling of Astypalea. The majority of tourists are Greek and it's a low key, friendly place. If you want to get to know the locals, we suggest you start with the bus driver who seemed to know everybody and everything. He was a never ending source of news and gossip as he drove us to the beach and back and also doubles up as one of only two taxi drivers on the island. On the side of his bus somebody had written: "The whole island loves you" which says it all!

We stayed on one side of the bay and from our terrace had a 180 degree view of the harbour with the town and castle above and out towards the open sea. It was the perfect spot to relax, read and watch the colours change at dusk. We would see yachts of all sizes arrive each afternoon and it was easy to imagine the adventure of spending all day out on the water and docking at different islands overnight.

Without a yacht of our own we joined the daily boat trip for a tour to 2 nearby islets. It was about an hour to the first one and there truly is something special about the water in Greece which ranges from the bluest of blue to sparkling turquoise. We had a fantastic day swimming - this tour was less about sightseeing as it was about being surrounded by water and sky and enjoying the serene feeling that Greece has to offer. Other days we went swimming at Livadia beach in a pretty bay just south of Chora. The bus route connects Livadia with Chora and then continues to Maltezana another little village further north where apart from the beach there are a couple of good restaurants. We had a delicious dinner here one night at Almyra, modern Greek food in a pretty garden setting.

Getting there: During the summer the island is serviced by a 35-seater plane however we heard the seats tend to be booked months in advance. Most people take the ferry which leaves Piraeus every second day and calls on a few other islands on the way including Naxos. There are a number of small boutique hotels and apartments in Chora and a couple of resorts just outside town. Wherever you stay don't expect top hats and tails - this island is all about taking it easy but beware, it's addictive!