Dispatch, Greece: Island adventure

By Kate Rice
KRAthens200x115Travel Weekly’s Kate Rice was on vacation in Greece with her family. Her fourth dispatch follows. Click to read Kate’s first, second and third dispatches.

As our 6:30 a.m. Swissair flight took off from Athens, we looked down on a mythic landscape. The early morning sun broke through the clouds onto the Aegean; mountains rose out of the mist.

"This might have been our best vacation ever," I whispered to my daughter, Gavriela. Riveted to the view, she said, "Maybe."

Much as I loved Athens and Delphi, it's a good thing that we did them before we did six days on Santorini and Rhodes. We left each stop on this trip reluctantly, with me a little worried that the next stop wouldn't be as great as the last. No worries: Greece has delivered.

To our pleasure, our 18-year-old, fresh from college midterms, joined us just before we left Athens for the Greek islands; our reunited family flied off to Santorini together.

There we stayed at what I consider the best accommodations in Santorini, Anemi House, an yposkafo, a cave home set into the mountainside.

Greece-yposkafoThe yposkafo once housed donkeys (which still rule as the preferred and most practical way to transport everything from construction materials to garbage pickup in these hilly mountainsides) but is now a cozy apartment of pristine whites and soft, mottled blues looking out onto the Aegean.

We stayed in Oia, just below the Oia Fortress, fabled for its sunset views. We watched it from our terrace every night.

It was tough to leave Anemi House to see what Santorini offers, but we managed to tear ourselves away for seaside lunches, a sailboat ride to the volcanic island of Nea Kameni to hike to the rim of the volcanic cone (last eruption, 1956, and we can see — and smell — the volcano's sulfurous vapors) and a swim in hot springs.

Another afternoon, we did the 6-mile hike from Oia to Fira. It's an enchanted cliff walk, mists emanating from the waters below swirling up around our ankles while the sun shines down.

We passed hard-working people preparing hotels and shops for the imminent tourist season.

When we got in a cab in Fira to head back to Oia, our cab driver burst into laughter when she heard of our hike. "You're crazy," she said.

One morning, my oldest daughter, Eliana, and I stayed in Oia, she to study and shop a little, I to walk around Oia. Gavriela and my husband headed to Akrotiri, a Minoan city preserved in 25 feet of volcanic ash after an eruption roughly 3,600 years ago. It was carefully excavated, and now is a sophisticated museum.

Upon her return, Gavriela burst through the door, saying enthusiastically, "The Minoans were the best ever!"

After three days in Santorini, we flew Aegean Air (which I love, from its spacious seats on Airbus A320s and A321s to its friendly staff and well-thought out inflight service for 30-minute interisland flights) to Rhodes.

There, we were entranced by our Arabian Nights-style Nikos Takis Fashion Hotel (so named for its fashion designer owners). It's a confection of gauzy pastel canopies, richly wrought dark wood furniture and filigreed ironwork.

The shutters of the hotel's 19th century windows open out to views of the Old City's medieval ramparts and port views.

Our first night, we wandered the dimly lit warren of streets trying to find the restaurant our hotel manager recommended.

Word somehow spread among the few cafes that were open (it is shoulder season for another few weeks), where locals were lounging, that we were looking for Ianni's, and a trio of older men engaged in a spirited conversation among themselves about the best route. One finally walked us there.

It was closed, but another was open and, as usual, we ordered far too much from our cordial host. But who cares? We were on vacation.

The next day, with our driver George (booked through Shoretrips) we toured Rhodes, visiting the Acropolis of Rhodes and then moving on to the ancient city of Lindos. We had its Acropolis we have all to ourselves, except for a handful of workmen.

Then George took us for lunch at a seaside cafe juGreece-TraditionalOiaHomes-KRst below Lindos, where we laid in the sun and swam in crystalline waters.

On our second day, we boarded a ferry to Symi, a small island northwest of Rhodes. It left late. Why? "It is not known," said one passenger, translating a crew member's response for an impatient passenger (not us, we are mellow). "It will always be a mystery."

It was worth the wait for the views of the colorful 19th century neoclassic mansions rising up from the port of Yialos, an architectural testament to Symi's heyday as a shipbuilding and trading center.

We wandered its cobblestone, sun-filled streets, took a cab to the serene monastery of Panormitis and then, after another lunch in the sun, walked to another beach just to lounge.

There we met the proprietor of the soon-to-open Paradise Beach Cafe. He was engaged in what looked like a Sisyphean task of hauling gravel from one end of the beach to his cafe terrace located on the other end of the beach. but he had time to chat with us and tease some girls swimming in the sparkling Aegean waters near us.

We stopped for a glass of wine at the apartment of some new friends we made in Symi; I was envious of the views and the fact that the woman staying there had two months to work on her novel in this idyllic spot.

That stop, coupled with the seductions of the Takis leather store (one of the shops along the waterfront) meant that we had to race down the dock to catch our ferry — which left five minutes early. It was Saturday night after all … I guessed the crew wanted to get home to enjoy the weekend!

Our last day we spent in Old City Rhodes. Two major highlights: the Palace of the Grand Masters of the Knights of Rhodes and the Archaeological Museum, in what had been the Hospital of the Knights.

The palace is clearly designed to impress, with grand rooms and a huge stairway. ("Welcome to my humble abode," intoned Gavriela from halfway up, arms spread wide.) Intricate details abounded, from carved heads on wooden chairs to detailed mosaics.

Greece-BoatsSymiHarbor-KRThen, we had one more beach interlude (Rhodes has great beaches). The four of us watched Greek teens play beach soccer, then I got up the courage to swim out and leap off a diving platform in the bay. It felt impossibly high and the crystal clear water made the rocks below look dangerously close, but everyone else survived the plunge, and so did I.

Then, it was time for a final cleanup and goodbyes to our attentive and knowledgeable hotel manager, George, and off to the airport.

Upon check-in for our flight from Rhodes to Athens, our bags were the right dimensions for carry-ons but heavier than the 8-kilo limit.

In a hilarious game of luggage musical chairs, we took as much as possible out of our suitcases and either put it on (I felt like Heidi) or stuffed it in our backpacks (which the staff kindly does not weigh) and passed the weight test (saving ourselves 100 euros in baggage fees).

The four of us spent our last night together (Eliana was flying back to school on British Airways while we returned to New York on Swissair) in the Sofitel that is just across the street from the Athens airport. It is the nicest airport hotel I've ever stayed in, but it's probably benefiting from my Greek interlude-influenced outlook on life.

I hope I can keep it.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly. 
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