Gone Greco

Beyond ouzo and the Acropolis, five islands for waves and wandering in the playground of Zeus

Marc Dubin

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All those marble columns, grizzled fishermen in wool caps lolling about whitewashed quays, and a cobalt sea that acts more as a set backdrop than something you can move in, on, or over, don’t immediately make the Greek Islands seem like sporting central. But Europeans have long been aware of the possibilities–whether for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, boardsailing, yachting, sea kayaking, or scuba diving. The five islands we’ve chosen here are especially suited to packing in full days of sun and sweat, and as a bonus they’re relatively close to one another, all the better to practice the ancient sport of island-hopping.

Though new marinas are sprouting up throughout the islands, Rhodes still reigns as the undisputed yachting center in the southeast Aegean. Sailboats share space with hydrofoils in Mandhr¤ki harbor, the most ancient of the Dodecanesian capital’s three ports. During a week’s charter, you can comfortably take in anchorages on Rhodes, such as the east-coast harbor town of Lindos, and SŒmi, H¤lki, TŒlos, and Nissiros–the four minor islands between Rhodes and Kü-plus make forays over to the Turkish ports of Dat‡a and Bodrum. As long as you avoid the period from late June to late August, when the fearsome meltemi winds make for nauseating sailing with 25-knot gusts, you should never have more than six hours between landfalls. SŒmi and H¤lki, barren limestone specks to the north and west, both have belle epoque port towns, built with proceeds from sponge diving; of the two, SŒmi is livelier and more cosmopolitan, with the best anchorages outside the main harbor. The port of Mandhr¤ki, on Nissiros, manages to cram in an improbable number of tavernas along its narrow, flagstone alleys, some serving the local specialties of pitti¤ (chickpea patties) and pickled caper leaves. Hilly TŒlos has seven medieval castles, gorgeous beaches, and lush orchards. A typical charter is a 38-foot sloop suitable for six (plus a skipper). Reputable charter companies in Rhodes include Vernicos Yachts (phone 011-30-241-30-241, fax 241-30-838) and Yacht Agency Rhodes (phone 241-22-927, fax 241-23-393). Prices, including skipper, start at about $2,500 per week–bearable if split six ways. Before or after your cruise, stay at Cava d’Oro (doubles, $40; phone and fax 241-36-980), a renovated thirteenth-century mansion in the old town. If you want a pool, a better choice is the recently refurbished Plaza Hotel (doubles, $65; phone 241-22-501, fax 241-22-514) in Neohü, just west of Mandhr¤ki harbor. At present, scuba diving is permitted only in the north cove at Kallith‹a, where the highlight is a small cave-and-tunnel system in about 40 feet of water. Two dive operations, both on the Mandhr¤ki quay, are Waterhoppers (241-38-146 or 93-422-617) and Dive Med (phone 241-33-654, fax 241-23-780). A full two-dive day at Kallith‹a with either operator costs about $55; five-day certification courses are also available, as are short courses for beginners. For other water sports, the youth-oriented package resort of Falir¤ki, about nine miles south of the town of Rhodes, is overly commercial for some tastes; the flip side is that everything from parasailing to waterskiing is available along its three-mile-long beach. Despite the island’s considerable size (about 45 by 22 miles), the best hikes are concentrated around the three main peaks on its west side. Bald, 3,986-foot Att¤viros, the highest point in the Dodecanese, seems forbidding, but the trail up from the village of Èyios IsŒdhoros (about five hours round-trip) is clear and easy, and sprawled across the top are foundations of an ancient temple to Zeus. The island’s second-highest peak, 2,600-foot AkramŒtis, is known for its rare endemic flora. Starting from the village of Si¤na, make a 2.5-hour traverse just below the pine-tufted ridgeline and shoot up to the summit or descend to the village of Monüthos. The third peak, heavily forested ProfŒtis IlŒas (2,500 feet), north of Att¤viros, can be climbed from the village of S¤lakos on one of the last cobblestone paths on Rhodes.