On to the islands
We had saved our island stay for last. Of the estimated 6,000 islands scattered about the Aegean and Ionian seas, only 227 are inhabited. Santorini and Mykonos (sister islands in the volcanic, whitewashed Cyclades group) made this year's Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's 20 Best Islands. They're also among the most visited.
Other long-time favorites such as Rhodes, Corfu, Crete (the largest and southernmost), Naxos and Paros also share much of the limelight. Everyone has a favorite, and the choice is highly personal.
"We Greeks live like frogs around a pond," Socrates wrote of the Aegean lined with its coastal cities and dappled with a galaxy of islands.
I turned to Nigel McGilchrist, a British scholar and author whose 20-volume series on the Aegean islands is the definitive guidebook to the region and a 10-year labor of love on a Homeric scale.
"Each island, often no more than a mountain in the sea, is an individual and is utterly different from the next," he said. "There is the stunning, visual beauty of them all: the dramatic profiles, the colors of stone and olive and sea, the sound of the wind in the pines and the intoxicating smell of herbs."
Did he have any favorites?
"Amorgos for its wilderness and grandeur. Car-free Hydra for its simple and elegant architecture. Samos for its wild orchids and butterflies. Paros for its sophistication, good food and stylishness. Tilos because it is quiet and an ecological paradise."
The Cave of the Apocalypse on Patmos, where St. John the Apostle was said to have written his Gospel and the Book of Revelations.
TrueGreece was a little more cautious when asked to name its favorites, and Stergiou explained that he avoided categorizations that might lead to wrong decisions.
"Instead, I aim to match guests' desires and dreams with a destination that is ideal for them," he said.
He didn't need to worry about me. Having visited most of the big-ticket islands -- from my student-budget trip to Crete in 1974 to a recent island-hopping Silversea cruise and many other trips in between -- I already knew what I wanted to see this time: tiny Patmos, the Dodecanese island within sight of the Turkish coast. It was home to an exiled St. John, who wrote his Book of Revelations here, and the Agha Kahn, an honorary citizen whose extended family still visits. It is loved for its intriguing blend of the sacred and the glamorous.
Stergiou couldn't fault my choice. He had grown up spending summers on Patmos, and his parents own and manage Petra Hotel & Suites, commonly considered one of the finest boutique hotels in Greece, and one of the reasons I had long wanted to visit.
The absence of an airport helps keep crowds at bay, and I relied on Aegean Air's extensive network servicing more than 30 destinations in Greece (and, since acquiring Olympic in 2013, 100 destinations in 42 countries) and caught a flight to the neighboring island of Kos. The flight lined up well with the ferry departing Kos for Patmos. But first it gave us an up-close look at the refugee situation at Kos's small harbor, one that is greatly impacting the Greek islands closest to Turkey's western shores.
Until Oct. 20, 537,000 migrants and refuges had been registered by the Greek authorities since the beginning of the year. Most were focused on moving north, aware of Greece's unemployment woes and determined to reach Germany before the winter sets in.
Nearby Lesbos island has seen the greatest number of arrivals, and several cruise lines temporarily stopped calling there until the situation is resolved. Locals on the islands and in Athens are more impacted by of the numbers, but visiting tourists generally remain unaware as Greek officials and international organizations strive to organize each day's arrivals.
Patmos was 2.5 hours away by the Athens-bound ferry heading north. The helpful owners of the Petra Hotel & Suites, who apparently never sleep, were up at midnight to warmly greet us upon our arrival in Patmos.
The Stergiou family and their young smiling can-do staff effortlessly run a very special hotel of just 11 rooms and suites (in a style more pan-Mediterranean than the usual white-washed and blue motif found everywhere) with open views of gorgeous Grikos Bay whose uncrowded beach is a two-minute walk away. They lavished us with care (and delicious home-cooked meals on their open dining patio -- breakfast is not to be missed) and that inimitable Greek hospitality we kept running into at every turn.
Petra Hotel & Suites on Patmos Island.
The 3,000 inhabitants of this 13-square-mile island rightly believe they live on blessed ground. We spent hours visiting the peaceful but eerie Cave of the Apocalypse, where St. John is said to have heard the voice of God, and the fascinating, still-functioning hilltop monastery built in his honor in the late 11th century. Jointly, they comprise one of Greece's 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites and include the perfectly preserved Chora village that surrounds it, a photographer's field day.
Bur there is much to explore and enjoy outside of the island's religious legacy. Its landscape can be both wild and dramatic, but also serene with countless coves and many beaches that invite lazy afternoons. Small unpretentious tavernas dot the island (the simple and honest food at family-run Leonidas would be hard to beat) alongside more upscale restaurants such as the popular American/Greek owned Benetos, which cater to the island's growing number of discerning visitors. A mini-cruise to a handful of nearby, sparsely populated islands confirmed just how delicious a leisurely lunch of simple and fresh food can be, as well as what is meant by the expression Aegean blue. Yes, Patmos is special for the calm and serenity it promises, since time immemorial.
My September adventure had come to an end on a high note. It was a memorable odyssey through a land of timeless history, beauty and filoxenia (hospitality), all enhanced by the Greek people I met along the way. They are masters at the art of carpe diem, living life to the fullest even in the most difficult of times. I wish them a healthy and peaceful 2016.