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05.10.12

When to visit. How to get there. What to wear. Before you go, read these travel tips for the Greek Islands first.

Stay in a Yposkafo—A Cave to Call Home

Plain dwellings carved into the cliffs used to be a popular method of building in Santorini to protect poorer residents from the elements. These unique cave houses featured curved architecture molded to the volcanic rock, providing excellent insulation. Two separate rooms (living area/kitchen and bedroom—one behind the other) were separated by a wall with openings to let light filter through both rooms. Renowned architects have converted many of these cave houses to hotels that offer an idealized glimpse into a past way life. Dome-like roofs, narrow facades, long indoor spaces and traditional décor and furniture make for an enticing stay to commune with the volcanic caldera and the primal heritage of the island. Do an Internet search for Santorini “cave houses,” “hyposkafa” (also, yposkafo) or “canaves” to find these specialized hotels or rentals.

Tipping

Greek restaurant bills often include a “cover charge” —normally about a euro—for table setting, bread and tap water. This is standard but separate from the service charge. Ask for the bill (usually a necessity since waiters don’t interrupt people from lingering) to determine if a service charge has been added. If so, round up to the higher whole number and add a few euros to leave on the table or in the tray or folder provided. If the bill states service isn’t included, tip between 10 and 20 percent. For taxis, simply round up the fare to the nearest euro. Keep in mind there is an extra official charge for handling heavy luggage and responding to calls or departing to/from airports or rail stations. Toilet room attendants should be tipped about 50 euro cents. Remember, nothing is strictly by the book in Greece, so use discretion.

Inter-Island Ferries

Although ferries are the best way to island hop, the complex Greek ferry system stymies many a traveler. With no definitive schedule or route resource, and schedules that rapidly change, it’s difficult to make concrete plans. Inter-island ferries run within island chains, not necessarily according to geographical proximity and may cancel or run late for a myriad of reasons. Patience and flexibility are key to navigating the system—and always have a back-up plan. The “most reliable” time of year for ferry travel is high summer when ferries step up routes and schedules to meet demand. Buying tickets through a travel agent near the port is often the best bet. The nearer you are to the dock of departure, the more reliable the schedules.

Try these online resources:
Greek Travel Pages
Greek Island Hopping – the accompanying guidebook offers the most comprehensive attempt at Greek ferry schedules, vessels and island information.

Types of Greek Columns

Columns appear almost everywhere in the splendid architecture of Greece. Besides differences in the shaft and base, the design of the capital (the crown or top) marks the most obvious feature that sets Greek columns apart from one another.

Doric – the simplest and oldest of the group (7th-century B.C.), Doric columns have no base and feature capitals with a circle topped by a square.
Ionic – taller in the shaft than Doric and topped with a scroll design that resembles the horns of a ram; columns stand on a rounded base and were introduced to Greece around 500 B.C.
Corinthian – the most elaborate of the three column styles feature an inverted bell shape with decorative flowers and leaves in the capital design; Corinthian columns appeared on the scene around 400 B.C. and are the most slender

Attire

Think casual and comfortable in the Greek islands. Sturdy walking shoes are a must to canvas archaeological sites, monasteries, churches, caves, walking paths and villages with uneven pavement. From May to October, temperatures can range from 21°C to 33°C (70°–91°F) or higher. Pack sunglasses and a hat to ward off the intense sun, plus flip-flops and a sarong or light overwear to cover up if you stray from the seaside on your day at the beach. Respect codes of modesty by covering your shoulders and legs when visiting monasteries, churches and villages. Capris, skirts, T-shirts and casual dresses in light cottons and silks do well for such occasions and as eveningwear, coupled with flats or wedges. Men can wear khaki pants (long or short) and polo shirts, if not T-shirts. Pack a light sweater for summer evenings in case you feel chilled after a hot day. Spring and winter travelers should think in layers.

Currency & Financial Times

The Greek financial crisis has led to uncertain times. Although nothing is sure, travelers may potentially benefit from a stronger exchange rate against the euro. Less visitors may also prompt better prices to entice tourists. That said, strikes, cuts and delays in transportation and services (e.g., business and site opening hours) could interfere with travel plans, particularly if Greece departs from the euro. In a very fluid situation, travelers should keep abreast of unfolding events. Avoid making plans too far ahead, steer clear of Athens where tensions run highest and build in extra time and back-up plans to account for any interruptions. If all fails, order up some ouzu (Greece’s famous aperitif), recline on a terrace overlooking the sea and ponder the thought that being “stranded” in the Greek Islands may not be such a bad thing.

Practical Souvenirs

Greek meli (honey), particularly thyme honey, has delicious distinctive flavors and makes a fabulous souvenir to share at home. The Attki brand (with the blue label) is top notch and worth its price. The Greeks also love their olives. As the largest consumers of olive oil in the world, locals incorporate it heavily in their healthy diet and beauty regimens. Ranking first in the world for top-quality oil productions, about 85% of Greek olive oil is extra-virgin, meaning pure juice from the first pressing of olives without any added chemicals or water for processing. Purchase plain olives fresh from the barrel (not canned) shortly before departure. Local produce stands, roadside stands and markets are the best places to buy these local goodies, if not from the farm itself. Place your edibles in sealable plastic bags—wrapped in a towel if in a glass container—and pack in your checked luggage!

Midday Siesta

The hours from around 2 to 5 pm (mostly after 3 pm) are designated as “hours of popular quiet” in much of Greece. During this period of the day, locals withdraw for a midday meal and a nap, or to spend time with family, and it’s considered bad manners to interrupt. During summer, this siesta period may be later (4 – 6 p.m.) due to the intense midday heat. No hard and fast rules apply to the time the siesta starts and ends; it varies in different parts of Greece. Besides expecting some business closures during these hours, visitors should respect that locals may be napping. Try and keep the noise down, and maybe even try some cultural immersion with a nap of your own.

The Seasons of the Islands

The islands’ peak season from mid-July to end of August feature hot, breezy days and lots of visitors and activity. The strong Aegean Sea Winds, called Meltemi, and the Ionian Sea Winds blow in July and August and vary in intensity by region. Shoulder seasons (April to mid-June, and September to Nov.) bring cheaper prices, milder temperatures and less crowds, but changeable weather and more intermittent ferry service. The low season, from November to April, is virtually dead, and the more remote islands may not even have ferry service. Before mid-May or after early October, don’t expect outdoor dining on the northern Greek islands, which will probably be too cold. Average temperatures in the more southerly Crete and Rhodes:
Dec. – Mar.:  11–13°C  (52–55°F)
Apr. – May: 16–20°C (61–68°F)
July – Aug: 26–27°C (79–81°F)
Sept. – Nov.: 16–24°C (61–75°F)

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